On Sunday 9th February Benedict Cumberbatch appeared at the UK’s first convention for fans of Sherlock run by Starfury Events. The event saw over 850 fans attend from all around the world – keen to meet Sherlock cast and crew members including Louise Brealey (Molly Hooper), Jonathan Aris (Anderson), Lars Mikkelsen (Magnussen), Arwel Wyn Jones (set designer) and floor runner Patrick Waggett.
On the Sunday Benedict did an interview with the organiser some of which featured questions submitted by fans. Here’s some highlights of what Benedict said:
On 12 Years a Slave
I am incredibly proud to be part of that film. I do think it’s an important piece of work not only as a historical document of a true story but as a truly brilliant piece of cinema from Steve McQueen and it was just wonderful to be a part of it to be honest.
Everything that Steve McQueen tackles as subject matter has profundity in it. It’s a historical drama but of course what it teaches us about humanity whether it’s as you say a good man doing nothing when he could have done something or whether its about sex addiction (Shame) or any kind of addiction or whether its about the IRA and what that political situation made that man do as a form of protest (Hunger) is sort of extraordinary so I knew that joining that body of work it was going to be a very serious very important film as all of his films are.
Slavery as a subject matter is hugely important and universally still very much so whether it’s the garment industry, whether it’s bond slavery where people are born into slavery and have to work their entire lives paying off impossible debts and never have any means of their own or whether it’s the sex industry and sex trafficking and countless other methods that aren’t as visible, aren’t as transparent, aren’t as colluded in as slavery was in that time.
Now that leads me into discussing Ford. It’s very easy in the 21st century to view him as a very bad man. He’s a conflicted man in the sense that he understands what he’s doing is wrong and yet he doesn’t act on that understanding. From our perspective that’s completely wrong but for his time that was the normal way of going about things. I can’t be free of judging that. I think it is wrong to not do anything when you definitely have a conscience that it is the wrong thing to be doing. He’s a man of religion. His Christianity teaches him that all men are equal in the eyes of God and yet he has human beings that he treats as and buys as cattle and also as a way of solving his debt. He’s a bad business man and when push comes to shove it’s about money so he sells Solomon in order to solve his debt and he sells him into the worst hands possible in the shape of Michael Fassbender’s character so is he a bad man?
Well there’s no such thing as a good slave owner but he certainly isn’t a good man. He’s flawed and I don’t think that’s just a 21st century sensibility but it’s a complex thing. Within the book, which I think it’s important to remember was edited by a white man and theres a foreword at the beginning of the book which says “Forgive Solomon’s ill phrasing” and it’s almost intellectual racism. It sets up Solomon’s story as something that’s going to be inferior to a white man’s version and I was really conscious of that when I first read it. It was the first thing that leapt of the page before this extraordinary, incredible true story from the man in his own words and yeah I just found it really really palpable that within that there was a very strong bond between Ford and Solomon. He talks about it and I’m paraphrasing something extraordinary like “Were it not for the fact of the separation from my family I would gladly work for Mr Ford all my life so good a Christian man is he.”
I’m not saying that’s the editors impression I believe that there was an understanding but the minute that understanding got broke was when push came to shove. He knows that what he’s got it’s worth more than a slave. He knows that by selling this man he’s going to solve his debt. He knows that he’s selling a free man that has been illegally obtained in the North and brought back to the South. Yeah not a good man on any front. Not in any way. Conflicted? Yes. Does he feel the pain of that? I leave it to the audience to judge these things but I certainly don’t feel any sympathy towards him. Your sympathies belong with Solomon as they should do.
I think what Michael (Fassbender) does extraordinarily well is to bring what is essentially a barbaric, violent, unfeeling human being into a three dimensional capacity where you understand that there is a process and he’s not just a brute and when he is he’s just so conflicted. He’s a stupid man. He’s in love with the thing that he’s supposed to hate and that’s his conflict. That’s his understanding and why he acts out in such a barbaric way and the torturous relationship with his wife which provokes that as well. They’re all complex characters.
Chiwetel (Ejiofor) and I were friends before and it was such a joy to work with him. I obviously only saw him for my part of the film which is small. I was on that part of his journey and saw that it was going to be one of the most truly remarkable performances of this year – of I think this decade. It has such subtlety, it has such grace and every inch of him is involved in every aspect of that character’s story and just to go on that experience with him as an audience was phenomenal. To work opposite him was really inspiring but at the end of the film you see a man with such grace and hope being treated with such total brutality, inhuman, unfeeling and disgusting barbaric ways that you get that close to seeing a man break.
There’s an extraordinary shot where his eyes just kind of glaze over and it’s after he’s trying to escape and he’s seen the lynching in the woods and his eyes just pass over the camera and it’s a moment of conclusion for the audience- you feel that he’s looking at you. It’s a man that has no hope and it’s right for everyone that they’re looking at him and I think they shot that in a carpark at some ridiculous hour right at the very end when they realised they wanted that moment and it’s a very deliberate beat in the film. He contains such a profound soul that man Chiwetel. He’s a perfect conduit for Solomon’s story and I just think he did such a wonderful job.
When you first started working on Sherlock did you know it was going to hit like this or was it a surprise when it took off in the way that it did?
I never quite knew I’d end up getting to a convention like this but I knew we’d be in danger of it because he’s a very iconic character and I knew we’d have some success but the true level of success that we’ve had around the world is beyond anything that we’d ever expected and it’s sort of extraordinary and we’re very grateful.
On how he got the role of Sherlock and whether he and Martin Freeman auditioned together.
I’ve got the feeling that everyone in this room knows the answer to these questions. We auditioned a lot of people. Martin walked in the room and he instantly upped my game and I turned to Steven and I said thats’ it I think we’ve found our Watson. I was the only one that was considered for Holmes and I went to read for them and it worked out nicely and I made them laugh a bit and then we started looking for our Watson. And yeah it’s absolutely critical that relationship between them as it is in the books. Every ounce of joy is a man observing his extraordinary friend. That’s what we’re reading a first person account of this overworldly creature. This incredible but difficult and wise and brilliant and extraordinary anti-hero in the shape of Holmes so yeah that relationship was always going to be central to it.
On Star Trek Into Darkness and playing Khan
It’s weird because so much of it was subterfuge having to keep quiet and not telling anybody who I was playing. I tried to distance myself from the mythology of it a little bit, like Sherlock a little bit, like other iconic characters I’ve played to try and find some personal truth in it and build something that was separate from what’s come before as not only is it a legendary character but from a legendary performance. I really relished it though. They gave me a complex enough and interesting enough character arch to draw something out that was very… well super human I guess. Everyone said – he’s so cold he’s such a machine. Well not really. He has super emotions as well. He’s super angry, he gets super upset he can’t get super happy but maybe that might be reserved for the musical version – Khan the musical! But it was an absolute joy playing him because even though it was from a stable of iconic characters of that franchise we felt we were building something new from the ground up with utter reverence for what went before but also we can be different. We Khan be different. It was a weird thing. Because I was in such tight, secret collusion with the creatives on that but a lot of the heavy lifting was done by them as well. Because it was all so secret it sort of helped in the creative process as well as to build up something of our own.
What’s the acting process behind playing a biographical or iconic character?
Playing someone who’s real comes with a very peculiar challenge especially if they’re still alive and their story is still current and there’s a sort of very complex morality involved there and that was the hardest part of playing a lot of the characters in The Fifth Estate. In terms of other characters because of what people expect of you as them whether its Stephen Hawking or even Van Gogh.Oh I’m forgetting all the others now but I’m sure they can tell you. It’s a very different charge, it’s a very different responsibility, it’s a very different joy as well, but I suppose there is a parallel in the sense that people think they know characters whether they are iconic fictional characters or whether they are real people with a fame or an iconic status. And so yeah you have to tread a little more carefully but it’s all about trying to do something that’s three dimensional, that has some sort of dynamic and universality which connects with everyone however extraordinary they are, that they are flesh and blood. That they experience the lives that we experience and it is that EM Forster thing of “Only Connect.” And I think that as much as I get a kick and in a way it’s a vainglorious kick out of trying to assemble and become something other than myself it’s really important to bring yourself into your work and to therefore relate it to what it is about you that is the same as your character. And therefore for an audience to read what is similar to them and you can’t just work in isolation from what we are all part of as the human experience which is a very waffly way of saying “yeah it’s quite hard.”
The process when it’s somebody who has a lot of history for want of a better word is difficult. Already you’re coming to the work when it’s been edited into this form. Which is a script which is a 2 & a half hour at most story of this life or part of a life and noone really deserves that much reduction. So its all about how you can shape that or bring some life or flesh to the bone which means it’s honouring the complexities of their life at the same time as storytelling. So it’s a real balance between the art of making a cinematic narrative and trying to honour the actual life of that person and it is complex and god knows whatever we’re doing it’s imperfectable and particularly thats the case when you’re playing real people. Only they can be themselves it’s that simple.
Its a very different challenge from creating a character from the ground up but then with that as well I do think its about routing stuff in the same kind of integrity, trying to give three dimensionality and at the same time something that’s relatable to the characters. So obviously lots of research when it comes to people whose truth you are trying to honour. Lots of sometimes simulacrum work in terms of voice, hair, make up, whatever that might be to try and change into that person, that shape, that voice, that look, that colouring, that hair whatever it may be.
I like the other side of work I like the Jimmy Stewart…someone paid me a huge compliment today and likened me to Jimmy Stewart which I thought was lovely and very far from what I usually get described as. As a character actor Jimmy was a version of himself in many ways as Carey Grant was and I think that is equally as profound a skill. I had the fortune to work with George Clooney last year and I think what he does is extraordinary as he’s managed to be…no he does change he’s a character actor but in some roles where he is a version of himself whether its Michael Clayton or Syriana or Oh Brother Where Art Thou? or Gravity he is very recognisable as being himself and yet at the same time different people every time and I think that’s as profound an art as it is to put on the putty nose and the sort of world of Olivier acting or the well known method actors like Hardy (Tom) or Daniel Day Lewis and Christian Bale. And you have to preserve something of yourself in order to have a connection as well and sometimes work can leave you bowled over with its brilliance but you can feel a disconnect from the characters because you’re marvelling at the acting rather than feeling the story so it’s always a difficult balance that and that’s very much the case for both modes of approaching a role and working both types of character whether they’re real or fictional.
Whats your favourite medium – tv, theatre, film?
Tell him the answer. Which is my favourite medium? (Audience shouts “All of them”) I’m rubbish at favourites. I’m rubbish at favourite books, colours, clothes, journeys, friends. I introduce a lot of people, well a few, well more than one person as my best friend so I don’t do that. I don’t do that. I feel that genuinely they feed off one another, well not my best friends but the mediums that I work in. I couldn’t do one without the other. I love radio, I love voice work, I love narration, I love animation, I love film work, television or theatre so I can’t really distinguish between them. They all manifest in one shape or another.
And more recently you’ve done motion capture?
That was a lot of fun. Because you’re free. You’re in a room not as palatial as this but you’ve got carpet and walls. It’s not a set, it’s not a location, you’re not in costume, you’re not even working with other actors, you’re completely and utterly selfishly free to do whatever the hell you want and you’re a kid in a bedroom imagining an entire world again and so that was brilliant. I hadn’t done that for a long long time and what an extraordinary character to try and pull off so I had an absolute blast doing that. It was really good fun.
I really genuinely enjoyed playing both roles. I think Jonny found the doctor harder but he enjoyed both as well but I found both roles really enjoyable but obviously for both of us the challenge of playing the Creature was something else, as was swapping the roles.
Have you and Jonny Lee Miller compared notes on playing Sherlock?
No! No. I mean Robert and I talked about it. I met up with Robert Downey Jr in LA purely by chance (the photos were all over the place). Were they? I was half expecting Jonny to go “Woo” (mimes an epic photobomb) but he was probably in New York making Elementary. I haven’t compared notes with Jonny. He was so respectful of the fact… I mean he talked a lot to me about “Should I do this maybe? What do you feel about it?” He wanted to know what my feelings were. We had a long conversation about it but that was more about two actors doing the same character rather than how to do the same character and as with us on stage he saw very different things in both parts which is why I think both evenings worked in Frankenstein. We weren’t copying one another. We were inspired by one another but we weren’t copying one another and I think the same goes with this and also I think as I’ve said before there are three of us in the modern day playing this role and we’re in the high 70’s of what came before us and so it’s the most adapted fictional character of all time so you can’t be possessive about it. You just have to be generous and with the success that we’ve had with our version what have I got to worry about? I’m loving it.
(Mod asks audience members where they’ve flown from to the convention which includes France, Germany, Japan and Shanghai to name a few)
It’s amazing. I think without being mock humble, I think it’s the most extraordinary character, it’s the most extraordinary body of work that has already been a global phenomenon for years now. All the heavy lifting was done by Conan Doyle in the original novels and we’re just embellishing it with our imaginations. Thank god the brilliant imagination of Moffat and Gatiss and Thompson as well. But it still blows us away. The viewing figures we got in China, the requests we got to our Prime Minister to make more Sherlock “Trade deals, human rights? No lets just have more episodes of Sherlock.” It’s just translated around the world and it’s interesting now because I meet up with friends all over the place around the globe and they say “it must be nice not being recognised” and literally within the same breath and two people have said this to me and someone’s gone “Oh my god its Sherlock”. Its phenomenal and I do think it did grow exponentially. It was word of mouth. We love PBS, we love Masterpiece but it’s not a “huge billboard everywhere in America” kind of platform for it. It doesn’t get as much advertising or presence but it grew and grew and grew because of its following from fans on the internet in America first and then who got it on the television and then within the industry and then word of mouth and then it became the cult thing that it is I guess but it’s extraordinary. It’s very rare. There are other things which are culty but it’s quite rare for it to keep growing as it has done and it’s really exciting.
How much did you feel that come the third series the city of London had almost become a character?
I think it always has been. I think very much more that it became a sort of corporal entity with veins and the kind of flow of vice through it, through the underground network like a kind of capillary network like a lung or a tree it became more organic and more part of the show. It became its body. We went underground with it and we’ve been high and on buildings and falling off buildings and out on the streets and shooting at night a lot. The night belongs to Sherlock as well. That’s the other thing. I really do get that sense when I’m running around in a taxi or on my motorbike or getting on the tube at night. It’s a very nocturnal city in our show and with this character so it’s great. It’s been my home for all my life and it always will be so the fact that it’s at the core of a drama that was set in Victorian London and every bit of fog, every Hansom cab, every Bobby, every bit of spooky silhouette in a gaslight, every iconic location as well as dump or garage or hideaway or horrible dank sweaty cellar and the sort of underbelly of it as well as the iconic and I think we have reinvigorated that in a modern sense and I think it works. It just works because it’s still that marriage the city, the city scape itself is that perfect marriage between old and new. That’s what’s so extraordinary about it. You’re surrounded by thousands of years worth of history as well as something that was shoved up in no time last week. Like the Shard. No I’m joking.
Do you stick with Moffat and Gatiss’ text or do you go back to the Arthur Conan Doyle books?
The books. I always begin with the books. Always. They are like many of the adaptations that I’ve done and been blessed to be serviced by, the most blindingly brilliant authors. And especially in the case of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as it’s a first person narrative and it’s my character under observation from the point of view of a doctor and you couldn’t ask for a better companion to lead you through the various eccentricities and witnesses and wonderfulness of Holmes. So I’m always picking up things I hadn’t seen on a first read. I’m always trying to incorporate new things and I’ve got a long way to go and I’ve got a lot more to bring of what Doyle has written and this character and at the same time you know Mark and Steven are the ultimate fanboys so there isn’t really any stone that they haven’t turned over and plumbed for its riches and very successfully I think.
But even within that even within our world there are other elements such as us improvising or having another beer or suggesting a certain type of deduction or changing a certain moment in a scene or it can be really simple stuff or it can be putting out fires. You can ride on set and it’s all about detecting someone’s left handed and you look around and everything’s set out for the right handed and you think well surely if I was left handed I would have left my mug there on the side by the sofa, surely that’s where the table should be and whether the switches on the left or the right would be left on… And it’s just little things like that you know as well as making things up like “Blud.” That was mine. And I can’t remember what else, I can’t remember Oh yes “Sorry about my…thing” when I was drunk. We improvised a lot in those drunk scenes and it was great fun. It was really good fun.
Have you or Martin ever requested any stories be adapted?
The Great Sausage Dog Story. No no no. We’ve talked about the trajectory. We’ve talked about how we want the characters to grow within our world but no. No we don’t really mess with that but I think Mark and Steven have a long game so it’s up to them.
Will we be seeing many more seasons of the show?
Nah. That’s it. You’ve had your lot sorry. (He was definitely joking)
Do you ever look back at the first series and think how you’d like to have done it differently?
I haven’t watched the first series since it was on telly actually. No I haven’t seen it since I cant remember maybe before I did a Q&A at an event 0r something. I really haven’t seen it for a long long time. Two I watched bits of again before we started doing three. I am always conscious that things should evolve and I think that’s really important if there is a next season. It’s something I’m wary of, sort of scientifically, forensically looking at what you’ve done before. I do it a little bit. It’s weird this season was much easier to get back into and I felt much more comfortable. Hopefully not too comfortable. The second season was odd. We were sort of looking at each other across this table in…(looks to Arwel for confirmation as to where they were filming) Cowbridge. We were filming in Cowbridge and it was a year maybe a year and a half later and I was looking across at Martin and going “oh yeah you were rather good in that thing I watched last summer. That thing I’m in! Fuck what am I doing?” and obviously I didn’t really know what our place was and it was very strange. It felt odd. It felt like the muscle memory wasn’t there but this time it did weirdly enough. It was very familiar and it was a good place to start as it felt we could push it a little bit further again. It was fun.
Has playing Sherlock with his memory palace affected your own memory?
Er….what was the question? Joke. When I’m doing it yes when I’m not doing it no. I mean I’m constantly having to memorise things although not quite at the same volume and pace as I do with Sherlock so yeah it’s a little bit like doing a cross word or watching a really good bit of film or television or any sort of art you just feel a bit of a stretch and that’s great and you feel that your capacity to do that improves. It’s like any kind of practice. You get your game on basically. It’s fun. It doesn’t always work. There are night shoots sometimes where I haven’t had any sleep and I have to do a massive deduction and my brain just flatlines which is very unpleasant for all around. But it does get slightly easier. I did have to take myself off and put myself in a quiet corner and I don’t mean I was sort of rocking quietly but I really had to pull myself away from everybody else when we were doing the wedding stuff because that was really hard. And we did that over 5 days that whole thing where they cut to and from I was doing the whole thing as a monologue in front of everyone. So I was running around on the border of madness at one point as I’m having an imaginary conversation with Mycroft in my head, I’m trying to deduce which of the women it could be and what the connection is with those women and I’m smashing myself around the face which doesn’t really help anyone’s memory and then trying to play to all the elements of the room as well as taking in the technical requirements of the shot and everything else. So that was a real marathon and that was an especially hard, removed piece of work from everything else that is hard work on that show. But I loved it. I really did relish it and I was so well supported. It was a great group of extras, the supporting artists and regulars as well as the newcomers who were in the wedding episode. It was a lovely thing and by the end of the week I had a lovely drink with all of them. But I really really did feel very supported.
But it’s a good question. I definitely do benefit from it I think anyone would and it’s like any memory exercise. I don’t have a mind palace but I have an associative memory. I have things that are used to just tie in like mnemonics or any sort of association. Sometimes that grows on the day obviously with the physicality of where I am, what I’m doing and why I’m doing what I’m doing makes it much clearer when you’re actually fleshing out the body of a scene so that helps. The hardest thing about television is learning stuff cold. You don’t have the context until you’re on set with the other actors and doing stuff for the camera and the set up so that’s what’s really hard about it I think. It’s not like a play where you run it in within a very specific context and that’s always fluid, it changes but there are certain parameters that can’t because there are lighting cues, there are entrances and exits, there are stage movements and you rehearse the hell out of that. So your association, your understanding of it is very tied in with all sorts of other things that become almost..you don’t really realise they’re going in they’re subliminal. I’m standing here looking at the left hand corner and that means I’m about to say “God damn you go to hell” and I turn around here and that means “Oh hi how are you I didn’t see you coming” and with television you have to fix that on the day. So mind palace? Yes to a degree. You do need something as an intellectual process to harness and hook things in but I just read it again and again. I write it out again and again and I try to print it on different coloured scripts. White and black is not particularly good for memory apparently as it’s too polarizing for the eye and mind. Wish I’d known that for the first two series. And what other tricks have I tried? Yeah just associations with words and I can’t remember what other tricks I’ve tried…
Do you think Sherlock is at his most dangerous when he’s at his most vulnerable?
Very good question. I think yeah like any of us I completely agree that he is. He’s beaten at the end of three, Magnussen has trumped him that’s why he has to resort to violence. That’s a weakness. That’s not a skill. It’s the bullied becoming a bully it’s the ultimate. Removing all threat with death is brutal. It’s nothing else it’s brutal. So yes I would agree absolutely that’s a good point. He’s at his most dangerous when he’s vulnerable and that can be to do with his addictions or predelictions or any kind of obsession that he has.
Mod tries to bring the talk to a close & Benedict insists on a rapid fire question round.
Whats been your best and your worst audition?
Worst Trevor Nunn – called him Adrian Noble and left. Best probably Danny Boyle. I nearly passed out and came to and they were going (mimes shock)
How did your approach to playing Sherlock change after Martin was cast?
I got better. Next.
Was it difficult to bring a personal stamp to a character like Sherlock that has been played so many times before?
It’s vital and therefore difficult but absolutely necessary.
Do you believe that the never work with animals adage is true….?
No love it. I love horses. I like children too. That boy that was in episode three was adorable (I think he means The Sign of Three unless he was referring to Louis Moffat)
Who was your inspiration as an actor when you were growing up?
Oh god many many many. The whole of Equity. My father in particular and my mother. Many, many actors. Stephen Dillane, Mark Rylance, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Gambon, Jonny Lee Miller and I’m not just saying that he was in a play called Four Nights in Knaresborough which was rather amazing. Ken Stott. I’m still growing up. Everyone of them.
What was it like working with your parents?
Amazing, wonderful, I want to do it again.
What would you say characterises an effective screen adaptation of a literary text?
Effective literary adaptation is something that manages to condense the beauty of the novel…(Benedict then started speaking at the speed of sound to the roaring approval of the crowd) and the ability of the actors to dig and research and have the ability to show thought processes and subtext and not say what they’re feeling and not do what they’re feeling but actually do something else and tell the audience that they’re feeling something else – Sir Tom Stoppard Parades End.
Why was Anderson in his mind palace?
It’s just a figurative representation. I don’t think it says much about his respect for the man. It’s just part of what he does. Its associative memory. As is the fear. As is Moriarty. It’s the fear. It’s not that Moriarty constantly plays in his head. Or is it?
Do the characters you play change you?
Good and bad things happen. I get impatient when I play Sherlock as my mother constantly points out to me. I fell in love with Christopher Tietjens. I’d like to be a better man because of him. I am constantly inspired by characters and I am also changed physically. I loved working out and being big for Khan. Oh crumpets where was I? Yeah you learn a lot you learn a hell of a lot. Van Gogh, Joseph Hooker, Stephen Hawking, Sherlock Holmes, pretty smart, pretty extraordinary, talented and very sort of extreme human beings and characters so yeah you do, you learn a hell of a lot. It’s one of the best things about being an actor this idea that it’s further education it is an excuse for continued learning. And we only scratch the surface. It’s only a representation of the depth of these characters or people’s brilliance. I mean I can’t play the piano very well, I cannot play the violin at all, I can’t computer programme, I can’t paint like Van Gogh can paint, I can’t conceive of the cosmos in my head in the way Stephen Hawking can but attempting to and trying to get close to it and honour something of their talent is a real gift every time I get the opportunity to play these extraordinary people.
Have you started preparing for Hamlet and what other dream theatre roles would you like to play?
I started preparing for Hamlet when I was 17. Probably before that. When I was 17 I was asked at school to play him and I went no. I’m not ready and I want to get A Levels and I didn’t want to get obsessed and let it take over my life as I have been with Lindsey (Turner – who is directing Hamlet) over the past three months talking, talking, talking and it’s very deep routed. What was the other question?
Dream theatre roles?
John Proctor (The Crucible). I’d like to play him. Richard III. That’s enough for you to be going on with. Hamlet’s the main one in my sights at the moment. Oh as well as my character in Blood Mountain, as well as my character in The Lost City of Z and something else that might come between that and Hamlet which I can’t talk about now… It’s not Star Wars no.
Thank you all very very much for coming! Thank you.