The titular dragon (aka Benedict Cumberbatch) looks pretty sharp at the premiere of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." Credit: Getty
Most actors involved in the "Hobbit" film series talk about the joys of becoming de facto residents of New Zealand, moving to the lower hemisphere to film three movies back-to-back-to-back. But for Benedict Cumberbatch, who performs as the greedy dragon Smaug (including voice and motion capture — he also pulled double duty as the Necromancer) in "The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug" was there for barely more than a week. "That was the biggest con of doing this. Hearing all these stories of the live action harrowing-ness, and all the amazing work these people put in, I did my work in about eight days," Cumberbatch says. "I feel like I’m the cheat at the table really."
On top of that, while the bulk of his screen time is spent sparring with his "Sherlock" co-star, Martin Freeman, as titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins, he and Freeman weren't actually present for any of each other's performances. "I didn’t spend any sort of live time with Martin, which was sad," he says. "We know each other quite well so we kind of second-guessed our performances in a weird way to some degree, I guess. It’s a very different dynamic, very different. [On 'Sherlock'] I’m in the room with him and I’m not the flying, psychotic napalm machine. I could be dismissive of him as Dr. Watson as my Sherlock, but they’re friends. Very different."
While he and Freeman are old pals, there was a whole cast of co-stars he missed out on befriending. "Sadly, I met hardly any of the cast," he says. "Richard [Armitage] and I met once. I crossed over with people as they were coming back to do, I think, their third stint. I’ve had scenes with people I haven’t even met yet. So that is bizarre."
Also bizarre? Embodying a dragon for his motion-capture performance, something a bit more abstract and reptilian than Andy Serkis as Gollum. "It’s only going to be an impression of something that’s a serpentine reptile who can breathe fire and fly because I’m a limited biped mammal, sorry about that," he jokes. "But Peter [Jackson] knew that when I auditioned. So we worked with my sort of negatives and tried to turn them into positives."
That work involved quite a bit of contortion and discomfort. "One of the ways I did it was trying to squeeze my legs together, just forgetting the fact that they were legs, just trying to feel that as an elongated body crawling on the floor with my elbows and using my hands as claws and over-articulating my neck and shoulder, to the delight of any [physiotherapist] who was unlucky enough to try to heal me afterwards."