Brit actor on Star Wars, dragons, detectives and more
Sherlock, Frankenstein, War Horse… Benedict Cumberbatch has taken off in every medium. Dave Calhoun wonders if his villainous turn in the latest Star Trek reboot will send him into the Hollywood stratosphere.
Caked in camera-friendly make-up and styled to fulfil the image of the A-list star he’s rapidly becoming, 36-year-old Benedict Cumberbatch is spending the day in London plugging his new film, Star Trek Into Darkness. Afterwards, he’ll return to the set of Sherlock, the TV series that has seared his name and face on the public consciousness more than any of his prodigious TV, film, theatre and radio output over the past decade. He’s been Frankenstein on stage, Stephen Hawking on TV, he’s acted in landmark British films including Atonement and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and now he’s cashing in the chips he earned performing worthier roles by playing Smaug in the ongoing Hobbit films, as well as the villain in the second movie in JJ Abrams’s rebooted Star Trek series.
Were you a fan of the Star Trek universe before making this film? Or were you an agnostic? Very much agnostic, that would be the term. I didn’t reject it. I’m not Richard Dawkins. I’m not a Star Trek atheist! I got a sentimental kick during the reboot, though, so there must have been something there. But as far as escapism went, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark got more under my skin. I respect for Star Trek now.
And of course you play a human in Star Trek rather than a different species in The Hobbit. Yes, I’m actually there. I’ve been asked before to play cerebral or manipulative masterminds, but not ones as brawny as this, so I enjoyed all that too. As a bad guy, you don’t just want to do nasty things and blow [stuff] up. Working on Star Trek, you can marry your role slightly to real-life experiences but, playing Smaug in The Hobbit, it’s impossible to do that – he’s a 400-year-old fire-breathing worm who lives on top of a pile of gold and likes eating doors.
Are you just a voice in The Hobbit? Obviously, I’m personally a biped rather than a serpent, so the motion-capture element is limited. I was mainly on my belly on the floor playing at being a dragon. It was like being a kid: no marks, no make-up, no continuity, no worries about camera positions. It was so much fun.
You’ve played several real people on screen, most recently Julian Assange for The Fifth Estate. That must come with a strong sense of responsibility. I didn’t want to hang him out to dry, I wanted to give a fair account of him. It’s a living story, and the moral responsibility was very much part of the job. I tried to reach out to him, to communicate with him, and he was having none of it as far as a meeting goes. He felt that a meeting would condone a film he felt was too poisonous an account.
Can you reassure your theatre fans that they haven’t lost you to the big screen? I’m aching to get back on the stage. It’s weird in this culture that we have this idea that we own people: ‘Oh, we’re going to lose him to Hollywood.’ No, you’re not. I’ve got a suitcase, and my family, home and life are in London. That is where I come from and where I always go back to. I’m just thrilled that Hollywood appreciates what I’m doing.
Star Trek is surely going to bring even more attention your way… Yes, everyone’s saying that… ‘It’s going to go to another level’, ‘Benedict blasts off’, ‘It’s going to go into warp drive’, and all those terrible puns! But I go: ‘Well, yeah, I know James McAvoy, and he’s okay. Michael Fassbender, I know a little bit, and he’s doing fine.’ It’s possible to remain grounded. It’s all a bit of an adjustment. I can’t be anything but flattered because of the attention towards the work.
The director of Star Trek Into Darkness, JJ Abrams, is directing the next, rebooted Star Wars film. Are you holding out for a call from him? He knows where I live and I’ll always put another audition online for him should he need it. Yeah, that would be dreamy! Star Trek Into Darkness is out now.