Mention Smaug, the classic storybook dragon of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” and a ray of delight flickers across Benedict Cumberbatch’s pale eyes.
Smaug, “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm” of Tolkien lore, is for many children their first encounter with fire-breathing, scaly dragons. “First one for me,” Cumberbatch is quick to add. “My dad read the book to me and it was a bedtime treat if I had done well. If I had been a good boy, I’d get two chapters as opposed to maybe one or none if I had been really bad.”
As his father, actor Timothy Carlton, brought the colorful characters of “The Hobbit” to life, a film played out in young Cumberbatch’s mind – decades before he would be cast as Smaug in Peter Jackson’s own film “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”
“It became the first literary experience that played out as a visual fantasy or film in my head and really drew me into reading,” says the 36-year-old actor. “That particular world, it was so clear in my mind what that film was to me as a kid.”
Cumberbatch, star of “Sherlock” and “Star Trek Into Darkness,” singles out his father’s interpretation of Smeagol (“I’m convinced that Andy Serkis must have visited when I was being read bedtime stories”), but it was the dragon Smaug lording over the pile of gold that held the most allure.
“This incredibly vainglorious, beautiful, fantastical creature of myth with such power and human frailty, his vanity and self-promotion and ego being his own self-destruction really, and not realizing his weakness and his strength, and having a literal Achilles heel — it fascinated me,” he says.
To inhabit the character for “The Desolation of Smaug,” which is scheduled for a Dec. 13 release, Cumberbatch used Smaug-like powers of persuasion to convince director Jackson that he should do motion capture in addition to voiceover work. As he tells it, the conversation went like this:
“He wasn’t that in need of it but he said, ‘do you want to do it?’
I said, ‘Absolutely, I do. That’s the great appeal, trying to bring this –’
He said, ‘But–’
I went, ‘I know what you’re going to say: I’m a biped mammal, I’m not a serpent with tiny claws or legs. I don’t have a tail, I can’t breathe fire or fly, and the rest of the things that aren’t dragonlike about me. But I do think in my imagination I’ve got something which might at least push the WETA animation into a direction.’
He went, ‘Come down and play.’
So that was an amazing thing, I’d never been so free. You feel like a tit when you walk onto the stage and there are dots all over your face and your body, but the motion-capture volumes pick up every motion and turn it into an avatar.”
Cumberbatch says he’s inspired by, and indebted to, his father in coming to play Smaug, calling it “a beautiful full circle.”
In fact, Cumberbatch also performs as the Necromancer, doing both the voice and movement, but he won’t go into as much detail. “It was a huge challenge, but I’ll tell you more about that next time we speak,” he says. “I can’t say too much about it otherwise the forces in New Zealand will be on my back.”