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Richard Armitage’s character in The Hobbit may lend the trilogy its narrative backbone, but it’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s that provides its biggest villain. Playing Smaug, the slumbering dragon, Cumberbatch embodies not only the intimidating size of the opposition Armitage’s Thorin, Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and their mostly-merry band of dwarves face, but the metaphorical enormity of their journey to reclaim the kingdom which lies fallow beneath The Lonely Mountain.
At the recent Los Angeles press day, Cumberbatch, Armitage and their co-star Luke Evans talked about the challenges of inhabiting these characters, whose bodies, much less motivations, seem positively alien to our own. In addition to Armitage discussing the film’s centerpiece action scene, Cumberbatch told Spinoff Online about what he went through to play a giant, fire-breathing dragon, and they all explained the process of bringing this logistically complicated and thematically complex story to life.
Spinoff Online: Richard, can you talk about what you went through shooting the barrel sequence — and was it all worth it, now that you’ve seen the finished product?
Richard Armitage: I think the most dangerous part of filming the barrel sequence was when we were in these little cut-off Flintstones-style barrels which were powered by our feet. It was like dodge-ems and we were bumping into each other. But yeah, it came together in quite a few different places on the Pelorus River, which was an extremely fast-flowing river with a current. [Laughs] It’s the end of the sequence and it’s, we were racing each other to get to the waterfront…
Peter Jackson: Doesn’t Thorin say we’ve got to get out of these barrels because there isn’t any current, we’ve lost the current? [Laughter]
Armitage: Um… yeah.
Jackson: Yeah, no, it was really dangerous though, yeah.
Armitage: I did end up getting dragged under by that very current.
Jackson: He did, actually, that is true. But you got dragged under after you got out of the barrel, so…
Armitage: That’s true [Laughs]. But we went into a soundstage where Pete had built a kind of water course powered by two V8 engines which — we were there for about two weeks, weren’t we?
Jackson: Yeah, long time.
Armitage: And it was, um, it was like being at a theme park for two weeks and they were dumping tons of water on us and trying to get us to go under the water. But I think Martin had the most difficult role in that, because he wasn’t in a barrel and they, there was an underwater camera and he would swap out with the stunt guy and it got quite hair-raising. But I think it was worth it.
Benedict, can you talk about doing the voice-over as Smaug? Did you go to New Zealand, and did that help you as you played the character?
Benedict Cumberbatch: Yes, I did go to New Zealand. It was hugely, hugely helpful. I started off with Peter and [co-writers] Fran [Walsh] and Philippa [Boyens], just the three of them and me, which was a privilege in itself, because of how large everything else is on this film, to have their sole attention. We were in the mo-cap stage so it began as a physicalization, both voice and body work, the whole thing. So that’s how I discovered him. Via my dad, who read me the book when I was either six or seven — I’ve really got to ring him. I keep saying this. I’ve said this for two days and not found out. But I was young. I was younger than eight when I went to school so it was a bedtime treat at home. So that was my first bit of research. Then, I went to the reptile house at the London Zoo and had a look there.
It’s so beautifully written, the book, and it’s so well illustrated in countless editions of the book. And then, with Peter’s input and our rehearsals and just playing like a kid really in this incredible freeing volume, as they call the mo-cap stage, meant that we could kind of go anywhere with it. So very, very helpful. Sadly, I met hardly any of the cast. Rich and I met once. I crossed over with people as they were coming back to do I think their third stint, I think. And Martin [Freeman], I didn’t spend any sort of live time with Martin which was sad. But no, it was fine. We know each other quite well so we kind of second guessed in a weird way our performances to some degree I guess. I didn’t cross over with anyone. I’ve had scenes with people I haven’t even met yet. So that is bizarre.
How do you even approach doing motion capture for this gigantic creature, which seems so different from what Andy Serkis did with Gollum?
Cumberbatch: It’s obviously more abstract. It’s only going to be an impression of something that’s a serpentine reptile who can breathe fire and fly. And because I’m a limited biped mammal — sorry about that. But Peter knew that when I auditioned. So we worked with my sort of negatives and tried to turn them into positives. But 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 physio who was unlucky enough to try to heal me afterwards — just throwing myself at it with a kind of kid-like imagination and their brilliant, expert guidance. It was a really fun way to work. Andy came down to start on second unit and I said, “God, I’d wish you’d been there,” because he’s the don. He’s the originator and master of that form — art form, I should say, giving it its proper title. We just sort of laughed afterwards because we both realized he’s only done biped mammals. No one’s really tried a serpent before. So I don’t think he would have been much help at all. [Laughs]
For Luke, playing Bard, you got a chance to talk in your own accent. What else about him did you identify with and what was the most fun for you playing him?
Luke Evans: Having my own accent was very special. That was a lovely gift that Peter, Fran and Phil gave to me. It was the first time that I got to use my own accent in a movie, and probably the last. [Laughs] But, it was very nice, it freed up my own heritage and my personality and very much a part of Bard. It did do something very different to the character for myself and my performance because I was speaking with my own accent and it was Welsh. Part of the other people in Lake-town were Welsh as well and there was an affinity with them because we had the same accent. It all paid off. It was very fun.
It’s hard to talk about anything because we have another film that is coming out next year. We all play a big part in the next film as well, and I can’t talk about that. But, it was a lot of fun being Bard. I was either being chased or chasing or someone is trying to lock me up or something is always happening in Bard’s life and he knows the town like the back of his hand. And I knew Lake-town like the back of my hand because he got me running through it all day long, running through those streets. That was a fantastic set to work on, so expansive and real and you could keep walking and turning corners and you could never come to the end of it. It was brilliant.
Benedict, in Sherlock you and Martin Freeman are buddies, but in this you’re enemies. Please talk about working with him in that way.
Cumberbatch: Yeah, it’s a very different dynamic. Very different. One 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. You said it already. You answered your own question so I don’t know what to say really. What to like about Martin Freeman? Oh, it’s too early in the day to do this, is it? It’s tricky. I haven’t got my list for the day ready yet. He’s very smart and he’s one of the funniest men I’ve ever met. He’s a craftsman, he works incredibly hard and creates authentic characters and moments in drama. He’s an inspiration to work with obviously and I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Martin.
So you and Martin Freeman, you’re Sherlock and you’re Watson, you’re now Bilbo and Smaug… what’s the third collaboration that you and Martin will do? A buddy cop comedy? A love story?
Cumberbatch: Romeo & Juliet. We do love our Shakespeare.
Evangeline Lilly: Which one is Romeo and which one is Juliet?
Cumberbatch: Oh, come on! You know Martin would look very pretty in a dress and wig. You know with all that chemistry it was very particular acting by proxy with him. And there is no joke to come out of that. He’s a real inspiration to be around. But 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. I feel like I’m the cheat at the table really.
Lilly: But what an amazing job you did.
Cumberbatch: Well thank you very much. Martin and I will probably have another outing together at some point, but who knows?
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is in theaters now.