On Saturday 6th October Benedict Cumberbatch appeared at the prestigious Cheltenham Literary Festival. Interviewed by the very funny, engaging and delightful Louise Brealey (who plays Molly Hooper in the show) he discussed a variety of topics from Sherlock, The Hobbit, August: Osage County, the perils and delights of fame, how he prepares for roles and his passion for his charity work for The Princes Trust in front of a capacity crowd of over 2000 people who had flown from all over the world to listen to him speak.
Some highlights of the talk are below:
Louise – 2 years ago Benedict Cumberbatch was a 6 syllable well kept secret. Everyone in British telly knew how brilliant an actor he was and in the theatre too and now thanks to Arthur Conan Doyle he’s worked with Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep, JJ Abrams, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg and some bloke called Tom Hiddlestone. Tonight we’re going to talk about the books, about the character, about series 3, about fame and a little bit about you lot so ladies and gentlemen please give it up for the 71st Sherlock Holmes Benedict Cumberbatch.
Louise – Everyone wants me to ask about the beginning of series 3. When do you start growing back your Sherlock hair?
Louise – I know what I know about how you survived you know what you know about how you survived what are we allowed to tell these lovely people?
Benedict – No comment. Nothing. We have strict instructions not to say anything. But what has been extraordinary in the last year is I have met some of the most extraordinary people in this world whether it be politicians, soldiers who have lost limbs fighting for their country in faraway places whether they be people fighting the worst that nature has to throw at them, generous people, fellow actors, producers, directors and they all ask one question and whether you be Spielberg or just some other Steven I have to say…no comment!
I’ve got to. I can’t tell you. It’s a delight to be a part of something which has created this much intrigue. Secrets are a good thing to keep.
On Reichenbach and the “how did he do it” intrigue.
I missed the whole thing. It was in all the newspapers and it just became a national obsession for a couple of weeks. It’s wonderful and it shows great attention and intelligence from our audience and critics alike. It’s a fun thing to be part of.
Louise – Did you read Conan Doyle when you were little?
Benedict – I did but not all of them. One of them was a school duty when I was very young but it’s only since the playing of it that I’ve come to love them and when anyone asks me how I prepare… well it is the most extraordinary source material because you have a specimen in Holmes written by a doctor by a doctor so you have an acute observation of characteristics whether they be physicalities or mentalities or attitudes or moods. It’s a wonderfully close portrait of a human being and an extraordinary one at that.
After the first series I was in a bar and someone came up and said “Hello you’re Sherlock aren’t you?” and I said “yes yes I am” and it was a Friday night so I was thinking “Oh god” and he came back and he said “yeah yeah I like you. It’s good, it’s different” and then he went away and I thought there’s a massive “but” coming here and he came up to me again and he went “But that thing you do with your hands Downey Junior did that, Brett did that” and I said “Yes so did the guy in the book do that!”
But without a doubt it is just such a rich gift for an actor to have a work of fiction which is so thoroughly detailed in its portrayal of a character.
On Sherlock Holme’s enduring appeal
I think it’s because he makes the extraordinary ordinary. Because you go through the world and you see the vaguest details of what would otherwise be a mundane journey which most of us are glued into most of our lives and suddenly this potential pop up book adventure arrives and you don’t know where his extraordinary analysis or temperament is going to take you.
Watson is the audience and you are quite literally grabbed and taken through Victorian London, through 21st century London being dragged helter skelter. And that’s one aspect, the thriller aspect I suppose the “whats going on” aspect of it as I think a lot of the deductions they’re great but some of them don’t actually stand up to an awful lot of analysis and it’s all about relationships at it’s core. I really really think that. It’s been copied so many times as well. He really is the archetype for all great detectives.
I hate the word “sidekick” and I’m sure Martin does as well because Watson is so much more than that. He’s his righthand man, his Boswell, his blogger.
My mother was a good friend of Jeremy Brett so I watched that version when I was growing up I can remember my mother inviting me to watch that on the telly. I’ve seen more of him since we captured our incarnation. But when I was younger I was still struck by this extraordinary hawk like, magisterial cold disconnect, this incredible physique, the wonderful beak of a nose and the swept back hair and the lips and those slightly mad eyes which became sadly a lot madder which became part of the tragedy of Jeremy’s life then which shaped the performance which was extraordinary but at such a cost to the man presenting him. I thought when I first heard about this “ I’m completely wrong. I’ve got this little retrosseau nose. My mother just said “You don’t have the right nose.”
On the audition process
Well I heard about it first and thought why fix something that ain’t broke? I was very dubious about how cute it would be and what the purpose of using him was. Launch a franchise, get viewing figures, make money. I then read the script, I saw who was involved with it and I was blown away by it. The minute I heard it was Mark and Steven I knew it would be something of quality and I knew that they would respect the original as well. And I wanted to see what they had done and it was so funny, and so fast paced and at the heart of it was just this incredible relationship with Watson. A wonderful friendship.
I remember going to Beryl Vertue’s flat (The Queen of television) in Holland Park which is a very grand version of Baker Street and she was serving the tea and biscuits and it was a little bit like Mrs Hudson! And I just went for it and I could see that they had total faith in the idea of it.
On Martin and Benedict being so good at the first script reading – had he done anything with him before?
No nothing. I read in the auditions. We met some amazing actors who would have bought something extraordinary to the part but when Martin walked in I just felt my game raise. I completely did and what he has which is no small talent and has been rightly recognised not just by awards but also by the critics, he can ground this extraordinary extravagant character and can give it a realistic context to something which is otherwise quite fantastical. It’s not like he has super powers but there is something other about him which Martin completely levels.
It’s so rich to play off as an actor as well. Because so often Sherlock is off on his own tangents so it’s not the usual thing of listening and responding so it can often be that I’m speaking for a half page of dialogue and Martin will just go “gives wry look”
On Elementary and whether Jonny Lee Miller’s appearance with Benedict in Frankenstein gave the Americans the idea to cast him and whether he had any advice for him.
A lot has been commented, or miscommented about this and so it’s nice to talk to a few friendly people about it and put the record straight.
Under no circumstances would I want Jonny to have anything other than a rip roaring success because first and foremost he is my friend and we’re both actors and while it’s very gratifying to be told you are such and such a Sherlock Holmes this is one role, this is one incarnation and I know it’s why we’re all here tonight primarily but you can’t be possessive of it. It would be pathetic. I made a joke and I shouldn’t have done. I made a joke which never translates. Humour in general out of context doesn’t translate well which is one of the many lessons I have learned from a summer of lots of talking about Parade’s End. I know now to be very careful about saying anything which could be misinterpreted.
This isn’t to take away from the absolute truth of what I’m saying which is that I’ve seen it (Elementary) and it’s fantastic. It’s really good and you should all watch it. He’s phenomenal. He’s completely different, he’s far more contained and he’s stunning to watch as well. He’s just a beautiful specimen Jonny Lee Miller and he really knows what he’s doing and it’s completely got under his skin and it’s another Sherlock in the 21st century to enjoy. So was I cynical about them going to him and asking? Yes but I’ve yet to talk to the network about where the original thought came from to cast him but I know for a fact that they kept on going back to him so he must have knocked it out of the park in the auditions and I know for a fact that he was dubious about doing it because of myself and because of Jude who he has known since they were kids. He felt really nervous about it, he was unsure about it and he asked if I was alright with it and I said “of course I am! Of course I am” and the thing that always gets quoted now because people who want to sell a program off two friends who are friends having a fight that they’re not having is what I’ve said which I haven’t said. Which is that I didn’t want him to do it which is not true. Just to put a cap on it I do wish him all the best. He’s got a phenomenal job ahead of him because he’s got 12/13 episodes to do. It’s a 5 year series. And Lucy Liu is wonderful. It’s another great relationship.
Louise – What’s your favourite part of filming Sherlock?
The end of a deduction whenever I’ve got that done that’s always nice, whenever I get to run about and have fun and be a bit of an action hero which I just love doing, it’s just fun, boys with toys and where I’ve got that rat a tat tat dialogue with Martin where I’ve got that flying dialogue with him. (Speaking about how pleased he is at being able to humanise Sherlock) It’s very satisfying as an actor to show vulnerability. Not all the time because he is such a front foot forward character and the comedy works so well with that as does his prowess and brilliance but there are moments where he gets things wrong and where he has to be brought up short and I enjoy those moments. I enjoyed the humility he gets to show on the top of the building in the last episode. What else do I enjoy? The coat. The coat is nice. Not in summer. Driving the land rover is fun, shooting guns is always good, talking very fast and getting the words right is one of the most wonderful feelings in the world and…you!
Louise – What’s the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you on set?
The scene where I’m in Buckingham Palace and the sheet. And the moment where Mark steps on it and it unravels and I jerk to a stop and there was one take where he didn’t quite get, I didn’t quite get, we didn’t quite get the length right and I jerked to a stop had no way of stopping and just fell face first. Which was the funniest thing I’ve ever done.
Favourite episode as a viewer?
Oh crumbs no not really. It’s very weird to be your own audience so there are always things that you see as an actor which makes you self conscious (everything makes you self conscious at the beginning it’s horrendous) and you have to get used to the fact that there are hundreds of other creative people involved. I like the Christmas party – I like the music, I like what Martin’s doing there, I like the face Rupert is pulling in the background that’s one of my favourites where he finds out his wife is still having an affair. So that is one of my favourite moments… I liked the slow mo. The kid in me rather liked that – I suppose it’s a bit childish. Louise points out she likes Reichenbach
I couldn’t see Martin’s face. He was just a little blob on the pavement waiting for a bigger blob to land by his feet. That was really wonderful to see what he had done on the other end of that phone conversation. I could hear, we were wired so we could hear each other speak in real time. So I could hear him but to see it was really really moving and seeing him in shock afterwards…it’s ridiculous but it actually made me cry.
Louise then talks about watching Reichenbach with Martin & the Sherlock cast & creatives and trying to cover up a sob and it going a bit wrong.
You should never try and cover that stuff up because the worst sounds come out. I was in Hedda Gabler and I was at the front of the stage comforting Mrs Elvsted which Lisa Dillon played and Hedda’s in the background making mischief and this woman in the audience of about 50 people on a very hot summer matinee, we had quite big crowds but that day was just very very quiet and the sound really echoed in the Duke of Yorks theatre and she tried to stifle a sneeze and it came out as “Apoo” I was crying with laughter it was the funniest thing ever.
Did Sherlock ever open Molly’s present?
I think he got a little bit distracted. (Louise reveals that the present was a Borat mankini – it was from the heart).
Steven and Mark have given us 3 clues abut series 3 – rat, wedding and bow. Can you elaborate?
What would you like Sherlock to do?
I can’t say. I’ve become a very guarded interviewee ladies and gentlemen. I genuinely can’t say. And the reason is I genuinely can’t say. I’m not coming from a place of information which I think is the best way.
Is there any hope for Molly?
There is always hope for Molly. That’s the cruel thing.
Are you more of a Watson or a Sherlock in real life?
Watson. I’m much more of a follower. Martin has much more intuitive brilliance than I have which would make him an asexual sociopath. Not that Martin Freeman is an asexual sociopath but he’s just far quicker at thinking than I am.
Louise discusses his quality of otherness “utterly modern and yet out of time” and how he seems to fit well within period dramas.
I have a slightly strange face. It’s always marked me out as being somewhat period drama orientated I guess. I think the other worldly or at least the other age era thing is to do with something I happened to be marked out for at the beginning of my career and I’m happy to do that. I’m happy to contain old souls from old worlds and they’re wonderfully rich dynamic characters so I think that was part of the attraction to having me play Sherlock in the first place.
Although Steven said it was what I did in Atonement that made them think of me which is slightly disturbing but I do get it. I sort of get it. I mean I do have modern tastes and sensibilities but you do sort of suppress that a little bit when you’re playing Sherlock other than that he is in the 21st century and he is masterful with multi media and can scroll or tweet or use any interface as fast as the fastest but Sherlock is a modern man. He is, so it sort of strays into the territory of how to hold yourself, the voice, what class to give him, what sort of shape should I give to him in my mind, his back story, his parentage and when did it all begin? Was he born like this? And I don’t think he was I think he began and that’s what we touched on in series 2 and will hopefully explore more in series 3. As far as being oldy worldy my English teacher always said when I was very young that I was an old soul.
I know your parents are actors but was there ever a catalyst for you or what is always just what you were going to be?
Oh no. This is another one of those things that has been inflated in the press. I am so insanely grateful for the privilege of not only having incredibly loving parents but two acting parents who worked very very hard because they weren’t necessarily at the commercial zenith of their time when I was growing up in order for them to be able to afford this absurdly expensive education and I was treated royally by that school (introduces his old head master and head mistress). I had a wonderful time there and I got the most incredible amount out of it and I explored all the opportunities there were to explore because I knew how lucky I was because I had parents who had worked hard for me to be there which is what I have tried to explain in the past but it has come across as me I don’t know disowning my past and then perversely this summer I’m suddenly the poster boy for anti posh bashing.
I mean I was away when this all started. I thought who’s taken a bat to poor Victoria Beckham? Whats going on here? And then I realised that they’d twisted something I didn’t even say in to some sort of voice piece for privilege or Toryism or poshness One of the main reasons to get involved in acting is to be free of all that and is to try and experiment with being something other than yourself and your circumstances, however grateful you are for those and truly I am so it remains a complete enigma to me how and why that all came about. Although it was the silly season, and there’s tall poppy syndrome and all that nonsense which is one of the few prices of the very privileged position that I’m now in as an actor who gets wonderful work and really enjoys doing it and has a fantastic following. But it was odd and it was one of the many adjustments I’ve had to make.
I am neither for or against posh bashing. I think posh people are eloquent and well educated and understand themselves. I think there’s an awful lot that we need to stand up for which is not to do with being posh but is to do with social inadequacy and massive massive gaps and disparities in society and we need to work out what that is individually. I think taking sides belittles any of the very complex arguments that should be going on about class and about background and about giving people a second chance and on that note I’m doing a cycle race in a week’s time on the 14th October for The Princes Trust, which is where I stand in all this. It’s a trust set up by the Prince of Wales, one of the most privileged gentlemen in the country, set up in the year of my birth to help give the youth of today, disenfranchised youth whether it’s trouble at home or trouble at school a second chance. To give them a voice and a standing and an ability to be taken count of and to have a life. To have a say in their generation in an era in which there is a massive amount of unemployment and it’s to give them self belief and I really care passionately about it which is why I’m cycling 45 miles.
What’s the best thing about being famous?
Well this is remarkable to be able to have this sort of a conversation with so many people is extraordinary and to ask you to dig into your pockets for a charity that I care about. To have some sort of a voice about things I care about is extraordinary. Basically I’m an actor so if it gives me more opportunities as an actor (which it has done) then that’s brilliant – it’s absolutely wonderful but there’s an element of actors that you’ve idolised all of your life coming up to you and being generous about what you’ve done which is just wonderful.
How weird has life got? Has it changed a lot?
Yeah it has it’s very different. I’ve mentioned one of the potential pitfalls of fame which is misrepresentation. You’re constantly high visibility and your privacy shrinks to something odd but I try to eschew that I do still take the tube, I ride my motorbike, I want to be a part of it. I want to be a normal human being. And so there’s that horrible perverse thing about it which often happens where you have to curtail your accessibility in order to remain safe or sane and that’s upsetting but the bottom line is that the attention has been absolutely wonderful and I thank you all for it very very much. It’s been lovely.
On whether there’s a time you feel you’ve arrived. Louise mentions interviewing Minnie Driver who said When I was in England I was losing roles to Tara Fitzgerald. Now I’m in Hollywood I’m losing out to Gwyneth Paltrow.
Hearing who you’re up against is odd. Meeting people you’re up against who you’ve worshipped all your life is odd but it’s going from being a big fish to being a small fish in a bigger pond but it’s my job and what’s been really thrilling this year is getting jobs off the back of auditions. Steve McQueen has never seen Sherlock, Tomas Alfredson before the second series hadn’t seen any Sherlock before we shot that so that’s good. Because the fame is by and large to do with Sherlock.
On whether he gets star struck...
The whole cast of August Osage County! Meryl Streep, Juliette Lewis, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepherd and then George Clooney appears and I’m like “Really? You had to walk across the room then? Thanks very much. I was just getting used to reading lines opposite Meryl and Ewan McGregor and then you arrive!” They’re the most extraordinarily lovely people. (Benedict confirmed he’d be going back later in October to film the rest of his role).
On whether he was playing the villain in the new Bond film?
I don’t know anything about that.
On playing Smaug. Does it get really hot and sweaty in the motion capture suit?
It does, it does it’s a brilliant thing to do. Motion Capture is the most ridiculously fun thing to do as an actor. You’re utterly utterly free to do what you want as an actor especially as I’m a reptile and not a mammal and so there are things that aren’t quite possible such as a tail and wings. It was such good fun. It was just as good fun as doing the voice.
What is so frustrating is some publicist who wanted to get my business in the US released this thing saying that I was voicing Smaug and it’s followed me around everywhere. I’m doing the movements! I worked for two days solid doing the motion capture for those scenes and I’m voicing it as well. And I did the motion capture for the Necromancer as well.
It really does depend on the challenge so with Frankenstein and the Creature I locked myself in a room and imagined myself not being able to speak or hear or feel or taste and just deprived myself no matter how hard that is to let that saturate and to feel something happening within you which was a heartbeat and a breath and to just understand that and to work gradually around the room in the dark and work with the concept of having no sense memory of the smallest things you take for granted from movement to getting up to walking and that’s just one particular amazing extraordinary ask to be given so that was very different from say Christopher Tietjens. Tietjens was a time compression as I didn’t have time to read a quartet of novels I only had time to read the script and I spoke to Susanna and Tom Stoppard and Rebecca and it was my trust of them and the script and then very rapidly read the books and completely fell in love with this extraordinary character and I think he’s my favourite. He’s the person (I’ve played) I most admire in my life.
Louise - Apart from Sherlock…
Benedict – He’s the person I most admire.
Louise discusses the range of Benedict’s voice mentioning Caitlin Moran’s famous “Jaguar in a Cello” quote. Has he worked on his voice?
I played Stone in City of Angels. I smoked some cigarettes and drunk some whiskey to make my voice gravelly when I was 18. There are tricks like that. I had some fantastic teachers at drama school but I have a good ear and I do impressions and I learnt that from an early age (Delights the crowd by doing an Alan Rickman impression). Do you want to know how weird fame is? Knowing that the people doing the JK Rowling talk made a joke about her being the warm up for me.
Do you want me to tweet? (Chorus of YES!!! from audience) Why do you want me to tweet? Because here’s what I think. I think you want me to tweet because I don’t tweet. I think if I did you would very soon be disappointed as I think it’s a skill which I genuinely don’t have. And no matter who pretends to be me at the moment I do not tweet. I don’t twitter I don’t and so you can search for me but I’m not there. I don’t have anything against it but I really do think that people like Mark are really brilliant at it and this is how much I talk and tweeting is about being pithy and I should learn to be better but I think twitter would take up so many hours of editing that I’d be lost.
Louise – You told Caitlin Moran, which I thought was sacrilege, that Sherlock’s bob was womanly have you revised that opinion?
No because it takes so long to get ready in the morning. (Referring to his hair.)It’s a weird old shock of hair and I don’t really care much about it and with the Sherlock hair in the wind there’s just a lot if it. They do a beautiful job.
Benedict then took questions from the audience:
Q – You’re able to cry real tears when you’re acting. What do you think of and how do you do that?
I think of what I’m supposed to be thinking of as a character and it’s a horrible speed bump in the script read through when you read “he weeps” “He cries”. You have to ground it you have to find emotion in the character otherwise you can get into quite dangerous territory which I have done. On the penultimate night of After the Dance during the scene with Adrian and before I go to the balcony and check out I could not stop crying because the wave of emotion of finishing the job was there and I was tired and it just took over and I just couldn’t do the rest of the scene it must have sounded like horrible over acting for anyone further than 5 rows back and who couldn’t see that I was streaming with tears. I think you should use, with some delicacy your own emotional memories you have to look at the situation the character is in and use your own experience.
Louise – Or failing that tear stick.
Benedict – Tiredness helps a lot but I’ve never used a tear stick.
Q – What sort of backstory do you have in mind for Sherlock?
That’s for me to know and you never to find out because it’s a little chest of things you go to every now and again and I prefer to keep that stuff to myself and I was talking to Steven Moffat about this and he said “ I don’t really believe in backstory.” I do have a back story but whether it comes to fruition with what Steven or Mark want to bring to the screen I don’t know but we’ll see.
Q – What’s it like to work with Andrew Scott?
He’s brilliant. He’s another person that when he was cast it was music to my ears. I was familiar with his stage work and I just knew they’d got someone brilliant for something that was a very big ask and he was just amazing. I knew it was another actor on set who would just raise my game. It would be nothing without that anmity between Homes and Moriarty so its very sad that he put a gun in his mouth and blew his head off! But he’s brilliant and I adore him and he’s just a joy to work with and he’s so supportive. He’s just a wonderful human being.
Audience member shouts out Hamlet.
Yeah possibly I think it would have to be. It’s a very vain project in a way Hamlet because every actor wants to have their go at it and I do want to have my go at it and I will but we’re working out when and how but hopefully that’s not my last play. I said I should do it round about 36 and I am 36 so it may not happen within this year but I definitely want to have a go at that.
Q – Is there any advice you would give to aspiring actors?
Try as watch as much as you can. Go to masterclasses where people are talking about their craft and what they do. Try to practice and prepare speeches, prepare some work, keep reading and just be a really good listener and remember that you’ve got a lot of experimentation and failure and grafting to do and you will get there with a smile on your face. And have fun. It’s an incredible thing to be asked to do. (Benedict also suggests joining the National Youth Theatre).
Q – Is there any character in literature that you wouldn’t play or would be reluctant to play?
No not really (refers to Dominic West playing Fred West) If there is a challenge there as an actor I want to have a go at it and I’m not afraid of playing unlikeable or obtuse or odder or not the usual fit or unheroic or bad. So no I don’t have too much of a view on that. I like a challenge.
Q – Do you find there is anything problematic with how woman are written on Sherlock. Molly as the unrequited love, Mrs Hudson as the archetype mother and Irene Adler as the only person who bested Sherlock, fell in love with him and was beaten by Sherlock.
Louise – Right where do I start? Molly loves him. That doesn’t make her an idiot we’re all fools for love. Mrs Hudson is Una Stubbs and she’s untouchable.
Benedict – If there is sexism then yes Sherlock can be sexist but he can also be a bigot on any front he can be intolerant of anything it’s not so much what your sexual identity is as your behaviour and he’s intolerant to kindness, goodness, he’s intolerant to loyalty where he doesn’t necessarily see it. And as for Irene Adler? Well you say he was beaten by her but do you know what they got up to in Islamabad because I do. There was no beating. It was all very loving.
Q – What would your ideal film role be?
It’s always has to be the next job for me. I don’t have one that I’m looking forward to that I haven’t yet had I’m afraid. It’s the job in hand.
Q – Do you get to keep any of the items of clothing from your projects?
Mark Gatiss gave me the coat after the pilot. He bought it for me and I wore it before you ever saw the pilot or the first series and I don’t think I can ever wear it again. It is one of my favourite things. And I sometimes bring something of my own on set such as my cygnet ring – I’ve used that a lot and I used it for Christopher.
Q - How do you play evil characters?
By not thinking of them as evil. I genuinely don’t look for what’s evil within them I look for what their insecurity is as usually, and this is a massive generalisation but usually there is an insecurity that they need to control which comes from being somehow out of control so you then look for mechanisms for understanding how they act that way. If it’s completely foundless then that’s unfortunately a script I won’t read. It has to be something that is rooted in a reality to humanise it. You have to look for the weaknesses in order to find the strengths.