This interview originally ran in issue 305, November 2014 of Empire magazine.
Trying to pin down Benedict Cumberbatch is like trying to nail wind to a tree. He is constantly moving, constantly changing, never in the place you thought he was going to be, because he is more in demand than any other actor you might get to name right now. Just in the two weeks that Empire has been trying to speak to him he has been on location playing Richard III, in a green studio playing The Hobbit’s Necromancer, crawling round a fake jungle as Shere Khan and in his head contemplating Hamlet. Empire finally manages to still him for two seconds at Heathrow Airport, about to jump onto a flight bound for the Toronto Film Festival, where he will present to the assembled masses his latest transformation, as World War II codebreaker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Such is the constant rush of being Cumberbatch that our conversation nearly makes him miss his flight.
Turing is just the kind of role Cumberbatch revels in. He likes it when the surface completely belies what’s underneath. He’s more interested in the foundations than what’s built on top. Turing is a man who appears to be an awkward, emotionless loner, a genius whose preference for puzzles over people gave him the focus to crack the Nazi Enigma code and help the Allies win the war. Yet beneath that is a man who’s known how to love but locked that ability away, because his homosexuality could put him in jail, no matter how many lives he’s saved. He’s a man who’s found solace in that which he can control because the alternative is too dangerous. It’s a tough role that Cumberbatch inhabits completely, and there’s already talk of awards nominations.
It’s this ability to crack the inscrutable that has made Cumberbatch a star. From the second he appeared on screen as the brilliant, unfiltered Sherlock, thrashing a dead body with a riding crop, he was a made man. In the four years since, he’s been asked to play an MI6 agent; the most dangerous villain in the universe; Julian Assange; Meryl Streep’s nephew; a slaver in a Best Picture winner; and a dragon, to name a few. We have a lot to discuss and not much time to do it in. Final call is imminent.
There’s a really tough balance to strike in The Imitation Game. On the one hand, it’s an uplifting story about a genius who cracked the code that won the war; on the other, it’s a tragedy about a man who has to keep his own nature hidden and is punished for it anyway. That’s one hell of a balancing act.
It really is, but that’s what’s extraordinary about the film. Everything was there in the script. Turing’s like Churchill described Russia: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But it’s all about what it is to communicate, what secrets are, how they affect our lives through love, war, sex.
How much did you know about him?
Relatively little. I knew the headlines. I knew he was a codebreaker and that he was prosecuted for being a homosexual – actually, this isn’t true. I knew all of it because I’d seen Breaking The Code – with the inimitable Derek Jacobi, who was spellbinding – which I remembered watching with my mum and dad. So I was quite aware of him, but the script brought out a lot that I didn’t know. I wasn’t quite aware of the level of secrecy the [codebreakers had to maintain] and things that came to light through the Official Secrets Act… The [script’s] conjunction of secrets, of a man who has to keep his homosexuality a secret, and the breaking of secrets in World War II, and the strands of his life it shed light on, I thought was masterful. I really knew who he was by reading that script. I could see why people in authority would find him infuriating, but I don’t think he was acting in any sort of sociopathic way or through thinking he was better; he just was better. He just had another way of being and I found that incredibly endearing.
|Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game
There’s a description of Turing in the movie as “an odd duck”. You seem to be generally quite drawn to characters that could be described like that. What’s your affinity with odd ducks?
Well, I think I like showing that they’re not really that odd. “Odd duck” was Turing’s mother’s phrase about him and I don’t want to be an amateur psychiatrist about it, but it seems inevitable that this child being put into foster care until the age of four, and the developmental stagnation that comes through not having normal parental love in a formative part of their life, [would make him the way he was]… He takes language on as being literal. He’s a man who, when he was at school, had bursting feelings for [a boy in his class] and wasn’t able to express them because he didn’t understand, because they weren’t taught as being natural or understandable. That subterfuge and repression of them was also partly fuelled by the excitement of discovering code and cryptography as a boy… I think it turned him into the person he was. He’s not an odd duck. He’s like any one of us would be in his situation, is my point. Certain moments of isolation in his life that were forced upon him shaped his mind in a way that, actually, helped save our world. When it comes to other roles, there are very easy, lazy crossovers in the Venn diagram of characters that I’ve played.
But there are nice guys; there are stupid comic foils and bad lovers; there are heroes and heroic lovers; there are men who are incredibly passionate and incredibly bright but not known for their intellect, like Van Gogh; there are smart villains; there are stupid villains. Oddballs. I just play things that interest me. I try to keep myself interested and keep other people interested, so I don’t think you can cut them all the same. It’s like Michael Fassbender being told he always plays a sexual deviant. He’s done a lot of other roles. You know what I mean?
Sorry, I wasn’t meaning to suggest you play the same thing over and over. Far from it, in fact.
|The moment is, I think, here to stay. It sounds arrogant, but it feels that way.
No, no, no! I know, and I wasn’t meaning to sound defensive about it. It’s just interesting to review it. I think I’m probably going to get a lot of this – not this, because I don’t think that’s what you were saying – but I think I’ll get a lot of those comparisons. It’s interesting, the oddball thing. I do love playing men who are very close to my experience as well and I think people who are seemingly very different from us aren’t necessarily.You seem to have been working a lot over the past few years. I read that as a child you were constantly active, running everywhere. Are you most happy when frantically busy?
(Laughs) Noooo. I like a holiday. I like a quiet corner of a room to sit and contemplate. I like sitting and looking at beautiful landscapes. I like looking at other people’s work. I like being with the people I love. I like being at home. I like all the things that are the complete opposite of working at the pace that I’m currently working. But the thing that gets me out of bed every morning is that I love it. I just have to occasionally remind myself not to love it as much as I do and leave time for the rest of my life… I want to do as much as I can, but I also want to vary it, maybe as a producer, director or writer, but I also want to be a person of the world and live a life… It’s got to be more than working non-stop. My diary’s pretty full until the middle of 2016 and that’s actually kind of a relief, because it means I can plan my life around that. Before it was much more about making the most of the moment. The moment is, I think, here to stay. I know that sounds really arrogant, but it feels that way.
Looking at the people you’ve been working with, is there an element of not being able to say no?
Yeah. That is it. That is it. It’s very exciting to be invited into these collaborations by people I idolise and have been inspired by and get to spend time working with them. So you’re absolutely right.
From your past few years, what’s been the standout, “I cannot believe this is happening” moment?
Walking up on stage at the Oscars for a movie that had just been named Best Picture. Watching Meryl Streep and Rebecca Hall on their respective sets on August: Osage County and Parade’s End. The first proper day of fighting scenes on Star Trek. Peter Jackson saying, “Well, you’ve done it,” when I was doing the voice work for Smaug and me asking to do it again. He said, “You want to do that last bit again? Sure.” And I said, “No, I’d really like to do the whole lot again.” And then running that two or three times. Finishing After The Dance on stage and getting in a car to go to a pub, having four hours of sleep, then going out onto a field and getting on a horse and seeing Spielberg shouting through a bullhorn, “ACTION!” and leading a charge of 80-plus horses and men in World War I cavalry gear. Meeting Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. Asking Judi Dench at Hay-on-Wye to play my mum. Bumping into Buzz Aldrin, Billy Crystal and Mickey Rooney – just absolute royalty – at the Vanity Fair after-party at the Oscars.
Not been a bad few years, has it?
It’s been amazing.
Can we talk about…
Oh! I’m so sorry to interrupt you, but learning that David Bowie is a fan of Sherlock. That was pretty big. And then the Prime Minister of China asked for more episodes, which was highly amusing. But Bowie. That was really a, “Well, I may as well retire” moment.
|With Martin Freeman in Sherlock
We have to talk about Sherlock. From the moment that first episode was broadcast it made you instantly famous, from an outside perspective. What did that feel like from inside it?
It did feel like an overnight change. I’d never been that tuned into the internet, in the sense of TV shows and their fandom. I didn’t know there could be an immediate live response to television programmes. I thought television was to do with ratings and reviews. I didn’t realise there was this forum, through Twitter and Facebook and all kinds of social media, that created huge attention around a television programme to the point that it can get to a cult level. I knew we would get attention because we were entwined with an icon. I knew that it would be stepping into the limelight because of that. I had no idea that we’d got it as right as we seemingly got it. I had no idea that it would be so immediately taken to hearts and culted over – culted over? – by so many people. It was thrilling and continues to be thrilling. It drives us in our ambitions to exceed expectations, which is no mean feat because of how much hype there is around us. I knew how good the scripts were. I knew that the fanboys we had writing it were tapping into the originals, so we were using the right kind of energy to do our thing with it, but the immediate response on Twitter… this thing of my name trending worldwide… I didn’t understand. I thought people were going to abseil out of helicopters with cameras stuck to their heads and run after me brandishing notepads and pens! I thought they were going to leap over Steven Moffat’s hedge and run at us with flashbulbs! It was amazing. The noise coming off the country was deafening and I just thought, “Fuck. That’s changed. That’s crazy.”
What lessons have you learned about dealing with fame?
|Being on set is quite difficult, because it’s so big and you’ve got to try and relax, which isn’t easy when you know you’re in a massive film. I was terrified for quite a long time.
Just don’t look at it. Get on with your life and don’t look at it. I’ve only ever asked people to remember that I am myself and will continue to be that. I’ve had enough people around me, from my parents onwards, to measure whether I’m going off the rails or to keep me in check… I think if I engaged with it I’d either be controlled by it or it would become something I was trying to placate. You’re never going to please everyone anyway. That way lies madness… There are some odd incidents, but I don’t want to talk about those because talking about them gives them an existence they don’t deserve. This wave of benign love is something I’m very grateful for.We know you’re coming back to Sherlock and I know it would be pointless to ask you about plot details…
I would be completely unable to give you any, so ask as much as you like.
What I do want to ask is: after three series, what is there still to explore within Sherlock?
Oh, a lot. So much. We’ve never seen him being really pressed yet, so that will be interesting.
That’s the shortest answer you’ve given so far…
Given your mad schedule, as well as Martin Freeman’s and Steven Moffat’s, how much longer do you think you can feasibly do Sherlock?
Well, until it’s no longer any good. Actually, hopefully before that. I’d like us to finish on a high. But we’ll do it until we don’t want to do it anymore. As long as the ideas are still there and the audience still wants it and as long as [Martin and I are] not so infirm we can no longer remember the lines and shuffle round the set. I’d love to do it into old age, I really would.
Is it to any extent the safe, steady touchstone of your career? Something you can return to and know where you are?
No. If it was that, I’d be bored. I want it to be shaken up every time we come back. As we said, I can’t give any plot away, so I can’t tell you how that’s going to happen, but their pitch for the Christmas Special and the series beyond that is just phenomenal. I’m so excited. I cannot wait… So I suppose it’s a touchstone in that there are familiar things about it, but it’s hard every time because it’s always different and there’s always more work to do… Professionally, it’s a touchstone, because it’s a thing I know is much loved and I enjoy doing it, but it’s still always a big challenge. As it should be.
You got your first taste of Hollywood blockbusters with Star Trek Into Darkness. How was that leap?
Being on set is quite difficult, because it’s so big and you’ve got to try and relax, which isn’t easy when you know you’re in a massive film. I was terrified for quite a long time. It took me ages to be able to say, “Actually, do you mind if we do this here? Can I have a look at this shot?” You have to find your place. Thankfully, I started on that quite near the beginning, so I could find ways to be known early on. But it was such a fun experience. It’s a joy being with someone like J. J. Abrams. You’d be nervous in the morning and then he’d come on like this amazing stand-up comic and do a little routine, or some magic. Or he’d introduce us all to one of the extras who just happened to be one of the top brain surgeons in the world. Incredible. He wants a party atmosphere on set and for everyone to be included and that’s really infectious. The hours are ridiculous on those films, so you need that.
And then you were the dragon for The Hobbit. How different was the final screen Smaug from how you imagined it?
Massively different, but really, it’s the world they create around you that’s the weird thing. That was the same on Star Trek. On Star Trek, I knew that I was on a spaceship in space because I was walking on a set that looked like a spaceship. But then you see it and there’s all this… space that wasn’t there. That’s the thing that gets you. But back to Smaug, I’ve never been able to watch myself on screen, because you have that horrible self-conscious feeling of seeing all the wrong choices you made. But this was utter joy. I sat watching it at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in LA and I was with a friend of mine who I’ve known for years. We were both obsessed with the book as kids. We were sat there like schoolboys giggling and going, “Holy shit! That’s so cooool.” I remember just turning to him and shouting, “I’m a dragon!”
And you’ve been back to performance capture playing Shere Khan for Jungle Book: Origins?
Yeah. That was something that Andy Serkis and I talked about before Comic-Con. When we were paired up for interviews [for The Hobbit] we were giggling away, like, “Oh, I wish we could tell them!”
So that one’s not just a voice-work job, then?
It’s more facial recognition than motion capture. It’s recording our faces but they’re also filming our body movements so what we do geographically within the sets that we are working on can be grafted on by the motion-capture artists and SFX guys when they shoot the sets in the real locations. It took ages to convince people that I didn’t just do the voice of Smaug or the Necromancer, that I actually physically acted them. The Necromancer’s a big part of the next film. I know the dragon steals the second one, but the Necromancer is Sauron, basically. So I was doing a bit of that yesterday (September 5). Probably my last session.
We’ve only seen hints of the Necromancer so far, so…
What can you expect? I don’t know that I should say, because it’s a big, big scene in the film. But he’s a key player. You get to see what Gandalf’s been up to and what ensues with that interaction. That comes to a pretty devastating conclusion. I’m not going to say anything more. Smaug gets out of this one in the first few chapters of the film. Don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but there is a book out there.
Almost every film you’ve been in recently has been a hit. The only one that hasn’t is The Fifth Estate, the Julian Assange movie. What was it like to have a flop after all this success?
I don’t know. So many people I speak to say, “Oh, I really wanted to see that.” So maybe people weren’t aware of it?… I don’t know. I’m not in publicity or marketing. That’s them; I just do what I do. I was very pleased with that film and I think over time it will be seen… But I don’t offer any understanding for why that happened… I don’t regret it. You can’t wish you hadn’t done something after doing it. (There’s a lot of kerfuffle on Cumberbatch’s end as he realises he’s lost on the way to his gate and in danger of missing his flight.)
It sounds like you might have to go, but let’s quickly talk about Hamlet. You’re not doing that until the end of 2015, but it’s already a blockbuster production, so what kind of pressure…
(Laughs) Knowing that it’s already sold out? Yeah. Well, it’s fine because I’ve been talking to (director) Lyndsey Turner about it for a long while and now we have the dream venue. It’s a long way away, but it needs to be. We want to take time to pull apart the play. It needs to be investigated with the same rigour as if it were a brand-new play at The Royal Court. That’s what we’re trying to do together. (To someone running with him: “Eric Fellner’s on the flight? Oh, he’ll have the best seat. I’ll have to try and make Eric Fellner swap with me.”) Sorry! Hamlet. It doesn’t make me anything other than happy. We’ve got a long time to work on it and that’s great.
And Hamlet is a big role for any actor to tick off the list. What will be next on that list?
Next? God, I don’t know. Can I do Hamlet first and get back to you? Actually, before that I’d better get this flight.
Interview by Olly Richards
This interview originally ran in issue 305, November 2014 of Empire magazine. Subscribe to Empire magazine today.