He’s played Pitt the Younger and Stephen Hawking. Now Benedict Cumberbatch is starring as wartime codebreaker Alan Turing in Oscar-tipped The Imitation Game. Dave Calhoun catches him off guard.
It’s 7.15 on a Saturday morning and Benedict Cumberbatch is trying but failing to leave his London home and jump into a car to the airport. He keeps forgetting stuff, running back in, grabbing more things. ‘I’m useless at getting into a car. I always think of five things I have to have before I leave. It’s like threshold anxiety!’ This early hour is the only part of the day when the 38-year-old has a decent amount of time to talk, and he’s on the phone with me all the way to the check-in desk, talking fast about everything he’s up to. Most recently, he’s been recording the voice of the tiger Shere Khan for Andy Serkis’ new rendition of
The Jungle Book and rehearsing his role as Richard III in a series of upcoming Shakespeare plays for the BBC. Today he’s catching a flight to Toronto for the film festival where he will introduce The Imitation Game, a film in which he plays Second World War hero Alan Turing, the mathematician who helped break the Nazi Enigma code and then faced postwar persecution over his private life. The film has opened the London Film Festival and is already being mentioned in the same breath as the Oscars. If anyone in cinema is on a high right now, it’s the actor once known as ‘that guy in Sherlock’.
So, here we are, at the crack of dawn on a Saturday, talking shop. Something tells me you’re busy these days. Are you good at juggling so many jobs?
I’m chuckling wryly because me getting out the door this morning was like a child who’s never travelled before – having something like a panic attack about not having the right pacifier or teddy. Honestly, it’s not that I’m being reduced to some spoilt, pampered celebrity; it’s just the anxiety of having a brain full of work. I have about four work heads on while leaving the house.
Can you cope?
Am I able to do it? When I get to Toronto I need to find a dark, lonely corner in the airport and literally just breathe and meditate for ten minutes to clear my head. But I can. That’s the thing. As long as I get enough rest and keep fit and healthy, I seem to be all right at compartmentalising; I’m also getting much better at prioritising – those are the two secrets really.
Last year, you provided the voice and motion capture performance for Smaug in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, you were the villain in the blockbuster Star Trek Into Darkness, and then worked with Steve McQueen on the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. Do you feel an urge to work as much as you can now, in case it
No, I think that’s a big mistake, as you drive yourself into the ground if you do that. My diary may be full until 2016, but I’m doing things that I choose carefully. And the most important thing is being able to make sure it continues. I’m not an overnight success, I’ve been doing this for 12 years. It’s been lovely and varied so far, but not all at this level. It’s odd, isn’t it? This business we’re in is all about the moment. But there is stuff that continues, like Sherlock, and my production company, which I’m building. Then I’ll be doing Hamlet at the Barbican for three months straight next year.
Are you already thinking about your Hamlet?
The great secret is to think about it a lot before. I approached Lyndsey Turner to direct me about a year ago. We took three months to decide on a venue. It’s been a gorgeous, long runway and we already spend days looking at the play and talking about it. We’re treating it like a new play at the Royal Court. It helps push any anxiety about other Hamlets I’ve known far from my mind.
You play Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. What is it about him that resonated with you?
I’d keep hearing: “Oh, Alan Turing? Wasn’t he something to do with Bletchley Park? Didn’t he create the Apple logo? Didn’t he bite an apple?” But not many people know the whole story, that he invented the computer, broke the Enigma code and was prosecuted for [his relationships] before dying in 1954. The irony and sickness of it was extraordinary! He wasn’t shouting from the rooftops or trying to start a cause. He’s such a quiet hero.’
There’s humour in the film too – in how your Alan Turing takes everyone so literally.
He’s so endearing as he has a zero-filter policy with language. He sees it as an utter logical construction. Sometimes it looks like he’s being a provocative eejit, but he’s just being true to who he is. The danger is that we’re putting someone who’s slightly on the spectrum in social situations and finding him funny. It’s not that. He doesn’t have the sociopathic thing that Sherlock Holmes has, where it’s just a complete disregard for anyone’s importance or intelligence but his own.
You compare him to Sherlock…
Because people do, and will. If I’m playing someone who’s smart, suddenly every character I’ve played is smart. If I’m playing a bad guy, every character is a bad guy. I suppose it’s that thing where people want to see a through-line to understand you. I mean, you know, I have played pretty ordinary people too.
Your character in 12 Years a Slave was very different. What was it like at the Oscars last year when the film won Best Picture?
I had a ridiculously good time. I was a little nervous, but then I got there and, like everything on screen, it was smaller than you expect it to be. I felt like I crashed the party a bit.
You were snapped jumping up behind U2 on the red carpet.
Yes, I photobombed U2! But that was all Ellen DeGeneres’ fault because she plied everyone with drinks on the red carpet. Her team was handing out these miniatures. A friend really wanted me to get a photo with U2. So I just saw the opportunity and I’ve never felt an impulse like it. I spotted them all standing around and I thought: Perfect! It wasn’t preordained or anything. I just did it.
How was the ceremony?
I sat next to Brad and Angelina, and they were treating me like anybody [else]. They said, “You know, Benedict, this can be pretty tiresome.” Then after the second award we were up on our feet and dancing to Pharrell. We had a lot of fun. I think Ellen DeGeneres cracked it. And then to win… To be there for that was just amazing.
The Imitation Game is already being talked about in Oscar terms, and Harvey Weinstein, who loves Oscar campaigns, is putting it into cinemas in the US. Are you ready for the work that goes into that?
I’m not even sure I’m available for the work that has to go into that.
Have you told Harvey Weinstein?
Oh yeah, we’ve had a few conversations, but it doesn’t seem to have registered. I still get calls about flying to America to do half an hour on a talk show. Harvey and I are friends because we want the same thing. He’s so smart, he’s brilliant. But the most important thing is that people see the film. The minute there’s a buzz about any film, the word “hype” arises and it pours water all over the flame. I just want people to see it and judge for themselves.
View Character study: Other roles we’d like to see Cumberbatch play
Character study: Other roles we’d like to see Cumberbatch play
Self-satisfied smart-brain meets shortstack sidekick. Bromantic, universe-saving fun and frolics ensue. Looked at from a particular angle, Star Wars is basically Sherlock in space. And who better to play gleaming dictionary-on-legs Threepio than our Benedict? Slap on a bit of gold paint and Chewbacca’s your uncle.
A six-foot-seven-inch stick insect with a wonky grin becomes a sporting icon thanks to his footballing prowess and robot dance. Romance scandal in the tabloids inevitably ensues. While Cumbers may have to put in some practise to tackle the on-pitch action, he has the lanky-national-hero angle sewn up.
When it comes to taking on Britpop’s artiest misfit, Cumberbatch has plenty going for him: pipe-cleaner legs, wobbly bonce, passing resemblance to a geography teacher. Class is where it might get a bit sticky for the well-bred star. He’s very vocal about not being a posh boy, but can he do kitchen sink?
To our knowledge, Cumberbatch hasn’t tried his hand at rapping. However, Sherlock viewers will be well aware of his way with snappy rejoinders. And Ice is precisely the kind of tragic hero he excels at: practically his entire career is a scathing indictment of ‘build ’em up, knock ’em down’ celebrity culture.