Nasty. Satanic. Creepy... Not really the sort of words usually associated with man of the moment Benedict Cumberbatch, but these are the adjectives the actor’s chosen to describe his latest character, the monstrous dragon Smaug in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug.
“Smaug is the ultimate symbol of the corruption of power,” says the 37-year-old star. “He’s a sleepy serpent on top of his pile of gold. It brings him nothing but a damp, dank retirement, no joy or humour. He’s vainglorious and proud of his own power and wealth, but it has essentially ruined him.”
In the second part of the blockbuster trilogy, which is set in Middle-earth 60 years before the time of The Lord Of The Rings, a younger Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman (he was older and played by Ian Holm in the 2001 film), journeys with the wizard Gandalf and thirteen Dwarves on an epic quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor - oh, and slay Smaug while they’re at it.
Of course, Cumberbatch and Freeman are old pals, having starred together as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in BBC One’s Sherlock since 2010. But this time, while Freeman, albeit in rather distinct costume, is recognisable on screen, Smaug is CGI-animated, so Cumberbatch did his acting in a recording studio.
Getting the dragon’s voice just right was very important.
“I was trying to articulate certain things which are impossible, because I’m a mammal trying to be a reptile,” he recalls, laughing. Since his breakthrough role as the eponymous detective, the London-raised actor can barely put a foot wrong.
He’s had leading roles in The Fifth Estate, as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Star Trek: Into The Darkness as Khan, plus War Horse, and then there’s the upcoming drama August: Osage County, with Meryl Streep.
Needless to say, he’s been a hit with female fans too, and even has a 70,000-strong Twitter group following who call themselves the ‘Cumberbitches’ in his honour. Though when the actor found out about them, he asked them to refer to themselves as ‘Cumberpeople’ or a ‘Cumber collective’.
He has memories of The Hobbit as a child. “My father reading me The Hobbit was the first time I’d ever heard the written word, and I had an explosion of imaginary landscapes in my head and thought, ‘Wow, that can come off the page of black and white, that’s insane’.”
*The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is released in cinemas on Friday.