By Kam Williams
Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch was born in London on July 19, 1976 to a couple of accomplished actors in their own right, Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton. A chip off the old block, Benedict followed in his parents’ footsteps after studying theater at the University of Manchester and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
The versatile thespian’s impressive list of credits includes outings as Stephen Hawking in Hawking, as William Pitt in Amazing Grace, and as Vincent Van Gogh in Van Gogh: Painted with Words. He also appeared in Atonement, The Other Boleyn Girl, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the Hobbit and War Horse.
This year alone, he’s starred in The Fifth Estate, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County,Star Trek into Darkness and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. And on television, he reprised his title role in the PBS Masterpiece series Sherlock Holmes.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that busy Benedict was just named Artist of the Year by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. In addition, he was on the cover of Time Magazine in October and was ranked #1 by Empire Magazine on its 2013 list of the 100 Sexiest Movie Stars.
Here, he talks about life, career and his latest film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, where he does double-duty as the voice of both Smaug and the Necromancer.
Kam Williams: Hi Benedict, I’m honored to have this opportunity to speak with you.
Benedict Cumberbatch: That’s alright, Kam. I appreciate your taking the time.
KW: I loved both of your performances in this film.
BC: Thank you.
KW: I told my readers I’d be interviewing you, so I’ll be mixing their questions in with my own.
KW: Documentary filmmaker Kevin Williams says: Congratulations on being the “It” actor of 2013. How does it feel to be one of the hottest actors out there?
BC: It’s fantastic! I’m very wary though, wanting to build a career based on longevity. My eyes on the prize is doing this for the next forty-odd years, I guess, judging by McKellen’s [Hobbit co-star Sir Ian McKellen] standards. He’s a man in his early seventies still giving extraordinary, sensational, entertaining, inventive and energized performances. So, I’m thrilled that it’s been such a great couple of years for me, but I’ve been working professionally for over a decade now. Yes, I’m trying to enjoy this moment, but at the same time, I’m sort of focused on my long-term goal of carving out a career that’s for life, rather than being a flash in the pan. And I think the projects I’ve been picking have given me a good grounding for that.
KW: No doubt!
BC: I know Kevin’s question is very benign. Honestly, it’s very satisfying, and I’m very, very happy about how successful the last few years have been. It‘s a lovely reward for the hard work and faith put into me very early in my career. It’s great for the people who supported me early on to see the success I’m enjoying now. It feels like there’s a lot of goodwill behind the support from them. This is an odd profession, and sometimes people get jealous, but I haven’t really experienced any of that. Everyone’s been really happy for me, which is really, really great.
KW: Kate Newell says: I feel a lot of pressure to be freakishly astute, since you’re so brilliant, especially as Sherlock Holmes. Your characters are always the smartest person in the room. Would you ever take a part that’s all about brawn?
BC: Hell yeah! I absolutely would, Kate. Over the summer, I did a short film called Little Favour which I think you can still find on iTunes. In it, I play a character called Wallace who’s smart but he’s not the smartest. He gets taken over by circumstances and there’s quite a bit of brawn going on in that. And there was both brawn and brain in Khan. [The character he played in Star Trek into Darkness] But, yeah, I love the idea of playing something stupid or romantic. I’m not the smartest man in the room. I listen, and I learn, and I observe, but I’m always playing characters with intellects profoundly superior to mine. That’s great fun, even though it’s as much a fantasy for me as for the people watching me. [Chuckles] Sherlock’s extraordinarily intelligent; I’m lazy and ignorant by comparison. I like mixing it up, and I’d love to do some more brawn, so I’m all up for that, Kate.
KW: Children’s book author Irene Smalls was wondering whether you like the “motion capture” style of acting you employed in The Hobbit? Does playing Smaug and the Necromancer give you more freedom and artistic license, or less?
BC: It’s really thrilling! We started both characterizations with motion capture physical work in the theater space they call the volume, where all your motions are picked up on these sensors from the reflectors on this weird, rather embarrassing gray jumpsuit you wear. I loved it! The first time I stepped off the volume I felt like a complete knob. Everyone fussed over me, offering me coffee or juice. They treated me like a colleague who’d just arrived at the office, ignoring the fact that I was wearing a gray onesy with dots on it, had my face painted like an aborigine, and had a headset on with a camera in front of my eyes. Once I got over feeling so self-conscious, thanks to their treating me normally, I had so much fun. I felt like a kid. It’s really freeing. You have no marks to worry about, and very few technical restrictions, especially for something that’s so bound in technology. You don’t have to worry about your hair, makeup, continuity, or even other actors. There’s no one you’re affecting other than your own performance. If you get a line wrong, you go straight back and start again. So, you really can use your imagination and do whatever you want. It’s really kind of like playing, and being a kid again. It’s wonderful! And they gave me this great tool in the final session, a device which lowers your voice by a couple of octaves, which means you can color it, tone it, and pitch it with more detail. That was great fun to play with.
KW: How familiar were you with The Hobbit before signing on to do the trilogy?
BC: My dad read it to me originally when I was young. So, it was the first imaginary landscape I ever had in my head from the written word. It gave me a passion for reading, thanks to my dad’s performance of the book. My memory of his performance was a jumping off point for my portrayals. Even the cerebral characters I play seem to have physical quirks. They’re all “physically inhabited,” for lack off a better expression. For instance, Sherlock Holmes has very particular physical gestures which are drawn out in such detail. Conan Doyle [Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle] is amazing in the way he has Watson describe Sherlock’s posture, mood swings, his hand gestures, and so forth in the novels.
KW: Who would have ever guessed that someone was going to come along and eclipse Basil Rathbone in the role?
BC: Oh, thanks, but I wouldn’t go that far. I don’t think anyone’s going to eclipse Basil or Jeremy Brett, for that matter. I get away with it because it’s a modern era version. I think the criticism might be harder, if we were set in the Victorian era. What I think is beautiful about ours is that it’s done with such love and reverence for the original stories. So, it’s new, but like an old friend at the same time.
KW: True. I was very impressed with how richly you developed your role as Stephen Hawking, despite his being confined to a wheelchair and having very limited mobility.
BC: Thanks. That was a very physical performance, about a man besieged by neuromuscular disease in his early twenties. Even in cerebral roles that are seemingly intelligent and nothing else, I think it’s so important to wrap your characterization in a physical form as well.
KW: Kevin also says: You were outstanding playing Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate and really brought him to life for the audience.
BC: I really appreciate the compliment, Kevin.
KW: How did you prepare to play a person who is very much alive and in the public eye?
BC: It was tricky. There’s a huge amount of footage of Julian online, but he’s usually in presentation or defending mode, talking about his cause, or the revelations which Wikileaks have brought about. There’s none of Assange relaxing or in private mode. There’s none of the personality I tried to give him behind closed doors. That made it very hard. And obviously he didn’t want me to have access to him in preparing for the role, because he felt the film was going to be damaging to his cause. I think it’s been anything but, but there you go. So, I had to imagine myself into certain aspects of his character for our version of events. That involved extrapolating based on clues in his biography, his public persona, photographs, and other accounts of him by people who encountered him during that extraordinary period from 2007 to 2010 that we charted in the film. So, it involved a lot of research but, sadly, no contact with the man himself.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier says: I thought you were great in The Fifth Estate. What is your assessment of Julian Assange?
BC: That would be difficult for me, because I genuinely don’t know him well. To authenticate an opinion, I really would have to meet him. I know that might sound perverse because I played him but, honestly, I don’t think it would be fair for me to judge the man. I realize that makes me a bit of a hypocrite because I was portraying him a certain way, but we were always open to the fact that this was an interpretation, not any kind of exact evidence of who the man was. So, my assessment of him is a professional one, really, of what he’s managed to achieve, and the idea that he came up with, which set the world alight and continues to inspire others like Snowden [NSA leaker Edward Snowden], about the secret goings-on that are done in our name with our tax dollars on behalf of big business or politics. He launched the revolutionary idea that citizens can start to claim back a paradigm for questioning power structures and those in authority through an anonymous, whistle-blowing website. That’s a very powerful social tool. He came up with the idea. He came up with the algorithms to protect sources. It’s begun a fascinating revolution in how we deal with data and revelations and structures. From that point of view, he has my utmost admiration, even though I’m yet to meet the guy. I understand from those who adore him, he has a great sense of humor which rarely gets an airing because he’s dealing with such serious issues. I know he’s a man of fierce determination, and now living under the strain of house arrest in the Ecuadorean embassy as a “political exile,” as he calls himself. I’d love to meet Julian, and time permitting, and his will permitting, I’m sure it will happen at some point. Even though he’s been very critical of the film, he’s been very polite about me and my work, and I feel the same way about him. I am also full of admiration for Chelsea Manning [formerly PFC Bradley Manning]. Regardless of which side of the argument you’re on, he stood up for something he felt wasn’t right. That was an extraordinarily brave thing to do, and I think he was unfairly punished for it. It’s a really big deal what he did, and he did it for the betterment of all us, including the soldiers on the ground, as well as the civilians caught up in those conflicts.
KW: Patricia also says: I enjoyed your work in 12 Years a Slave. What does Solomon Northup’s story mean to you?
BC: It means a great deal to me, because even though it’s from an earlier time, let’s face it; it’s not about a very distant past. There are still huge inequalities. There’s still nearly the same amount of slavery, if not more, in the world today, as there was at the height of the slave trade. As for Solomon, a free man with a family who was dragged away from his domestic environment and had his freedom taken away from him, that terrifying story of his barbaric treatment is a universal one which is a warning to all of us. The story serves as a metaphor for the fear of having your family taken away, and for being abused in such a horrific way. I lost it a lot of times watching that film, particularly when seeing the grace of the man when he finally makes it back home aged, changed, forever brutalized, and yet he apologizes to his family for his long absence. That was such a profoundly moving moment capturing the triumph of dignity over the disgraceful behavior of those involved in the slave trade.
KW: Patricia would like to know what movie projects your company, SunnyMarch, has in the works.
BC: Well, Patricia, we’re very busy at the moment, but we’re working on it. We’re sort of amalgamating material and options right now. I’m very excited about all the offers and interest and support pouring in through crowd-funding, and about having a lovely gap coming up when I’ll finally be able to sit down with books and scripts and talk to my partners about how we take the company forward. That’s a long winded way of saying, we don’t know yet, but we’re working on it. You’ll know about it, when it happens. We’d like to go in a lot of different directions.
KW: The Harriet Pakula-Teweles question: With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you’d like to star in?
BC: That’s a good question, Harriet. Boy, something with Bogie in it! I’d love to do a noir. The Big Sleep. Or Casblanca! Why not? You can’t remake Casablanca. Maybe The Great Escape. I think Steve McQueen is so cool. But a classic film is a classic film, and perhaps the fantasy of being those characters should be left alone. You’re treading on very thin ice.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
BC: The middle of the series of five Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
BC: A really lovely, super fruit and chicken salad.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
BC: The same person I saw the last time I looked, only a lit bit older, and a little bit wiser, too, hopefully.
KW: The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?
BC: I have to say Spencer Hart, because they’ve been so supportive of me. They’ve got a Rat Pack, Old World, sort of Hollywood glamour about them but with an English twist. You just can’t get smarter than a Spencer Hart suit in London. Having said that, I’ve very much enjoyed the Alexander MacQueen which I’ve worn in the past, and Dolce & Gabbana which I wore last night. They’re better known. I think if I’m going to give a shout out to anyone, I think it should be to Spencer Hart.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
BC: Falling off a swing and cracking my head at about 4 or 5 in my grands’ [grandparents’] garden in Brighton. I can recall seeing the horizon tip, and then feeling this thudding pain in the back of my head. Wait, I have even earlier memories of clouds whisking by while sitting in the pushchair on the roof of my parents’ flat. I loved it! I just loved staring at the clouds and dreaming away.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Benedict, and best of luck with all your endeavors.
BC: Bless you, Kam. Bye now.