Interview by Amber M Ray
PBS held a contest for the fans of “Sherlock” — the modern update on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s eccentric detective — to attend a screening and Q&A with star Benedict Cumberbatch and creator Steven Moffat in honor of the series’ second season, premiering tonight. A whopping 10,000 people entered to win tickets to the event at the 400-seat Florence Gould Hall Theater in Midtown. By all accounts, it sounded like every single one of the hopefuls were in attendance when Cumberbatch entered the room to exuberant screams and applause.
But the smart, self-deprecating actor I met before fans were seated belies the rock star reception he received on stage. The 35-year-old Brit with a wry sense of humor was candid about how he’s managing to stay grounded as his profile rises. He was careful and thoughtful as we discussed his commanding performance as the world’s most famous detective. Most of all, he was gracious — counting his blessings for the opportunities he has been given and thanking, many times over, those fans so enthusiastic to make him a star.
Have you seen the fans outside? I’ve heard some have come as far as South Korea and that some have been standing in line for 10 hours for tonight’s event.
No, I haven’t. I want to go and see them at some point. And if I can, I will, because it’s all about them and bringing a wide audience to something — if they are outside, they probably already watched [Season 1] and really enjoyed it, and I want to be here to promote the series and make them feel included in something bigger, because it was such an event in the U.K. this year. Eleven million [viewers] for most — I think for all the episodes. It became a national obsession for a month. The week after [the finale aired in the U.K.] people were still trying to figure out what the hell happened at the end of Episode 3 and how it happened. So, it’s just great. It’s nice to be in a watercooler moment, and I’d love for America to experience a bit of that as well.
You’re definitely having a moment yourself, having starred in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “War Horse” last year and now filming “The Hobbit” and the next “Star Trek” movie — though I’ve heard you can’t say much about the last two. …
I can’t say s— about them, other than they’re both amazing fun to do. I’m just finishing “Star Trek” — I’ve got one more day on in San Francisco in two day’s time. It’s been amazing. It’s just been amazing. Just had the best time. [SPOILER ALERT: It has been confirmed that he will play villain Khan in the second “Star Trek” movie.]
And “The Hobbit” was wonderful and might be ongoing, but I’ve just done my first bit on it. It’s brilliant. It’s really fun. But I can’t unfortunately say [anything more].
I think that’s enough to get people excited. Of course, people are very excited about Sherlock Holmes right now — from your series to the films starring Robert Downey Jr. to the new TV series coming to CBS called “Elementary,” starring your one-time co-star, Jonny Lee Miller.
There’s room for all of us. It’s like “Hamlet” — there can be more than one going on in the world at any one time. It’s a classic role. I think all of us on that list are fortunate enough to have a varied enough career so that we’re not all just being defined by that one role. So bring it. Bring it. [Laughs.] Just bring it.
It will be fun to see what Jonny does with it, and I love what Downey Jr. does with it. I think he’s reinvented it for a younger generation in the cinema and created a fantastic sort of action-thriller franchise out of the original stories in a way very true to the original, even as they’re updating it. There are kind of polarities but I genuinely really enjoyed — I haven’t seen the second one, actually, I was very busy when it came out, but I’m dying to. I’m friends with Jared Harris, we’ve worked together, and he played Moriarty [in the Sherlock films], so there’s a lot of cross-fertilization going on — Jude [Law, who also starred in the Sherlock films] is best friends with Johnny, and all that crap. So we’re all fine.
I want it as an excuse to just knock on Downey Jr.’s door because I’m staying quite near his office in Venice [California, while Cumberbatch is filming “Star Trek”] and I just want to knock on the door and go, “I think we should have a cup of tea. We should maybe have a cup of tea and talk about this. It’s quite an odd moment in pop culture. Actually, it’s an excuse to talk to you, really, on my part, because I’m a huge fan. Hello!” [Laughs.] Just do that.
Any thoughts on why Sherlock is capturing imaginations at this particular time?
Not really, no. I mean, maybe it’s got something to do with the estate or something, I genuinely don’t know. They do sort of come in threes, don’t they? It is the way. But there are eras in theater where it just becomes about “Hamlet,” then it will become about “Richard III,” you know, or “Richard II.” It’s just one of those cultural zeitgeist.
I hate to blow our own trumpet, but we did actually start it. We did the pilot waaay before they wanted to do the film. And in fact, it’s rumored that the Weinsteins and other people that had to do with Warner had already heard about the property, the idea that we were doing a modern adaptation of it, and thought, “Ah, we haven’t had Sherlock Holmes in a long time as a movie franchise,” and it popped up. You know, we were a bit sour about it at the beginning, we were kind of, “Oh. Really. REALLY? We’re just getting off the ground with this idea.” And then we saw it and went “Aw, it’s great. We can both exist at the same time.”
And, obviously, millions of viewers every episode has proven that.
Yeah, we’re doing all right. There’s nothing to complain about.
So are you prepared to be a breakout star here?
Um. Uhhh … yeah. [Laughs.]
It’s weird. I really have enjoyed, over the last few days, the anonymity I’ve got in this city. I think a lot of people do. There’s this famous story about Marilyn Monroe just walking with a friend down Fifth [Avenue] and no one’s stopping and her friend going, “Why isn’t anyone recognizing you?” And [Marilyn says], “Oh, I’m just not turning it on.” And then she just threw her head back a bit, popped her chest out [makes the same motion], threw her bum back a bit and just — did the walk.
And everyone just — [makes a crash sound] traffic stops. “Marilyn!” You know, the whole thing came to a halt. Not saying that I can do that. [Laughs.] I can’t stop traffic on Fifth Avenue, not unless I walk in front of an oncoming cab.
No, I think I’m definitely ready for it. I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I’m just very excited about the opportunities that that level, a bigger audience, gives you.That’s all it is, really. It’s another source of work and another level of work. It’s not — people look at being in big films as sort of the zenith of it, and it’s not, it’s really not. For me, every single job is a new beginning, a new starting point where you can learn again and begin again. It’s never, “I’ve made it.” I mean, I’ve had the most extraordinary year, don’t get me wrong. I count my blessings every day — it’s been wonderful. But I try to treat each job as a job, no matter what scale it is. And I think otherwise, it can get quite overwhelming if you start really believing in your own press, good or bad, and you could go a little bit insane. As long as you’ve got those around you who are traveling with you spiritually or physically, whether it’s your other half or your friends and family, you’ve just got that base that’s making sure you’re checking in with who you are and that they know you’re all right. Then yeah — it’s just a great adventure.
As your profile rises, which is more fearsome: The British tabloids, the American press or —
Definitely. No, come on, it was so bad. No, I’m sorry, what were you going to say?
I was going to give you a third option: The Tolkien and “Star Trek” fans.
I don’t know — it’s interesting. The New York Times thing I did, James McAvoy had a quote in it, and he said, “Oh, Benedict doesn’t need to fear the media or his fans or his new profile, he just needs to fear actors who will be looking at him with envy and want to cut his legs off.” Maybe that’s the case, but most of my friends who are actors are just really, really thrilled with what I’ve got. It’s kind of humbling, actually, just to be that supported by people. People say, “It’s really nice it’s happened to somebody we’ve watched be good over the years.” And at least, you know, I’ve started at the same level with everybody. And it’s nice because I’m not as good-looking as James and there’s an awful lot I can’t do that they can do. And it’s great that just by craft you can get where I’ve gone. That’s really thrilling. I’m very grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been given.
And I think, going back to what I fear most, I kind of watched [other actors] go through [a rise in fame] and it’s … there are just ways to engage with it and not engage with it. I think that’s the trick; I think choosing your fights or your battles, as is always the case — whether it’s your day at work or parenting or being in the public, I think you just have to be very careful.
It’s come at a time as well when I’m very fortunate: I’m working at a time of mass unemployment and economic contraction, I want to say depression, not depression. …
Yes, recession, thank you. Not quite that bad yet, I hope, God, it won’t get that bad. Very grateful for that. Yeah, so I’m grateful for a time where there’s very sparse work that I’m employed. And there always is in our profession as well, which I guess is James’ point — 90 odd percent of us if not more are unemployed. [The acting pool is] a massive, massive population, and eight percent of us are working at any given time.
What was the other thing I was really happy about? [Laughs.] You were talking about the fears, weren’t you? And I was talking about … Oh, yes, so yes, so to be in the public glare. To be the focus of media and also the s—ty, schlocky media in Britain at a time when that is really coming under the microscope, when the inquiry has thrown a good media focus on the bad media focus and bad practices. I just think it’s great that someone is morally, finally, making a judgment on everything that’s happened with Murdoch and the Sun and all. But it’s not going to stop that from happening again in some other form, I’m sure of it. Journalism’s always been intrusive. And I think people have always wanted more of people in the public eye when they’re performers than they get with their characters, and you can understand why the obsession, the appetite builds.
I read profile pieces — or I used to, before now. [Pretending to read a tabloid.] “Oh, I learned something about that actor, oh he sounds a bit pompous, he sounds a bit petty, he sounds funny, he sounds lovely, she sounds great, she’s gorgeous, she’s not so pretty, she’s not who I thought she was.” Awful, judgmental s— — which, now that I’m going through it, I wish I could eat it all back.
But you know, my dear ex-girlfriend Olivia, we’re both very good friends still, but I used to berate her for reading Hello and Heat and all those rags, Grazia. I mean, I know why girls read them, of course they f—ing do. She’s a smart one, and she knew to look at it and go, “This is nonsense.” But it was entertaining, you know, hairdressing reading. I quite get why in the handbags of smart, as well as kind of pop culturally hungry girls, they’re great entertainment. But they can be really damaging because people do take them too seriously.
And it also then starts to affect people’s behavior so that this thing of image — even with men now. The pressure is always more on for girls in every sense. You have a really rough ride of it — in every single sense you have a rough ride of it. Seriously, like, actors can’t complain compared to actresses — it’s horrific. I mean, in Hollywood as well, the sanest, smartest people I know are beholden to the body image, to the f—ing aging shit. Of course we’re visual vessels to portray characters and tell stories, so of course people are going to want to see their better reflection or someone who’s dazzling or stunning or attractive. But it’s great when people like Charlize Theron can have “an ugly moment.” Then when people say, “it was just ‘unbeautifying’ her — that’s why she got the Oscar,” I just want to get up and punch them. Not only was it an incredible performance in “Monster” and a really unattractive character in “Young Adult,” where she was extraordinary, but she’s proven that actresses can have more than a shelf life, that they can have careers dependent on where they are and who they are at any given time in their life, not trying to maintain the idealized youth thing.
Not that I came in here expecting a huge ego, but you’re super grounded at a time in your career when a lot of people would take advantage of such a heightening profile.
Good, thank you. [Laughs.] Good. Good. Well, if you see me again in a year’s time, let me know if that’s changed, ’cause that’s good to know.
Well in a year’s time, Season 3 of “Sherlock” should be off the ground. In the meantime, we have these three episodes of Season 2 that each play like their own 90-minute movie.
Well, that’s what we say when people say, “Oh God, we want more.” And that’s obviously a great thing, that’s a sign that there’s an appetite for something that they really like. But there’s also the complaint of not having more volume or capacity. HBO wanted [to air “Sherlock”], but was like, “Three [episodes]? Come on — we do series.” Although now they’re kicking themselves [for not picking up the show], but there you go. But the thing is, we do one-and-a- half hour films, and if you really want to be pedantic, that’s nine half-hour episodes, so it’s not far off from a 12-episode series. But anyway. I think it’s much better [to air three “movie” episodes] because as a viewer, I can, you know, the ones I obsess over, like “Mad Men” and then all the box sets and things, I catch up with and watch on demand. I could never — I don’t know anyone who can program their life around TV shows.
I don’t know if many people do anymore. I mean once upon a time …
Yeah, well, maybe a TV date with the family on a Sunday night. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed doing anything shown on Sunday, because that’s when I would always sit down with my mum and dad and watch something that was a little bit risky or something that would have a continuing thing every weekend. But that was when you were a kid. It’s always slightly different being an adult, much more thrown up in the vagaries of social lives and work. And I think what’s great about this is it always creates a watercooler moment so people can have that. I mean, what I was saying about the fans, bringing them into something that’s slightly a bigger picture than the cult they’ve created by word of mouth, God bless them here. The amazing but very focused group of people that are involved in enjoying “Sherlock” here, it should expand, because that’s what happened in England and it just created this extraordinary three or four weeks [when “Sherlock” aired in the U.K. in January] — really, really extraordinary. It was the new year and there were taxes to be paid and terrible weather to deal with and sort of the comedown from Christmas, so it’s always a good time for anything good on telly then. But I mean people really went f—ing berzerk for this here, which is just fantastic. … Fantastic.
I was in a press conference for “Sherlock” when you were promoting the show back in January, and I remember …
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. … God, I think I was wearing the same jacket, I just realized that.
Was I wearing the same jacket?
It’s a very nice jacket.
Yeah, stuff it. It’s a nice jacket.
But during that Q&A, which happened around the same time the first episode of Season 2 aired in England, there was so much talk about one particular risque scene. And I was pleasantly surprised that even beyond that, the show had just sparked so much conversation over there. Do you think the same thing will happen here?
Yeah, I’m sure it will. Well, that will probably happen. [Laughs.] I’m sure there will be conversation over the controversy. But the thing is, if it is getting that much focus, it would be wonderful. I mean I’m so aware of the fact that we’re going out on the same night as “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men,” “The Killing” — I mean the hugest, best that America has to offer. And very nice, very brilliant people have said, “Well, what you do with ‘Sherlock,’ we just, we don’t do that here. We don’t have TV like that here.’” Yes, you f—ng do. You really do, and you have it in large volumes. It’s nice to be on the TV at the same time as all those programs, but you just hope people will seek it out amongst all of that.
Of course, those channels and cable networks, they can afford posters on every freeway in L.A. It’s such a presence. It’s been fascinating living there for the past three months — seeing the presence that a product has in the market before it’s actually out, you know. In a way it’s a bad thing because I’ve come across posters and go, “Oh that’s going to be outrageous!” because it’s been there for two months before the air date. And then you kind of get blase about it like, [muttering] “Oh, ‘Game of Thrones’ again. Oh f—, I’ve missed the first episode!”
So it works both ways, I suppose. You can get blase with too much exposure, but it’s just — I’m so aware of the quality and sort of incredible, what’s the word … I guess saturation of the market. So I hope we float up and people [find “Sherlock”], because those who did last year have become obsessed with it in a really healthy unhealthy way. [Laughs.] And it’s sweet and it’s great.
And this [guerrilla marketing] thing that’s happened all across Europe where [“Sherlock” Season 2 has already been] shown, it’s like, “We believe in Sherlock. We believe in the real Sherlock.” And these silhouettes of him on stickers that people have put across the walls and then on the metro — if you look, they’re apparently here, too. Somebody the other day from CBS, I think, was wearing a pendant with it on, and I was like, “What the? What’s this?” “I believe in Sherlock.” I mean, it’s crazy.
And that’s why I can’t quite get scared as far as fans believing you are as potent or capable as your hero. I think they’ve heard enough of me now in interviews and stuff to realize I’m ever so slightly different — in good ways, some ways, but a lot of ways just nowhere near as capable [as Sherlock]. It’s just, it’s wonderful.
I had this moment in Venice when we all got up at the end of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” — I say we, it was almost all of the cast — it was a wonderful group. And we all got up and we’re bowing and it felt a little bit like bowing in character because the film’s such a complete arc for all of us, do you know what I mean?
It was very, what’s the word. It was just well proportioned as a film. You got a flavor of everyone’s kind of angst or journey in their character arc in that story. It wasn’t just like, “Oh, they’re applauding us,” they’re applauding the film, obviously. But all of us standing in line like that felt like taking a bow at the end of the theater and shaking off, watching myself in my character and sort of going back a little bit to what I felt when I was doing it.
Oh it’s just wonderful. It was wonderful. I feel a little bit like that with Sherlock, without associating myself with him too strongly. Because of how fond I am of playing him and what we’ve done with him, what I’ve done with him, and how the audience responds, it’s such an affirmation of that. You feel great. It’s good.
What would be your pitch to American audiences to make sure they catch this show? DVR “Game of Thrones” and watch “Sherlock” instead?
I think so. You’re in the middle of the season of “Game of Thrones” now. Take three weeks for a watercooler moment, give yourselves a break from slaving through 12 episodes of quality, and just look at three films of quality. Then you can get back to watching your recordings. And you’ll need something to look forward to after the three [episodes of “Sherlock”] because you’ll be craving for more. How pompous does that sound? [Laughs.]
But that’s the thing with DVR now. There really is room for everything.
Yeah. Viewing habits have changed so, so dramatically. You kind of — yeah, completely, I think it’s fine to encourage people to record the other ones. [Laughs.]
Well when viewers do that, they’re going to meet a very smart, confident, but socially inept Sherlock. What caused him to be so damaged? Or are his issues more so that he never fully developed, particularly when it comes to the ability to interact with people?
I don’t think he’s damaged at all. I think it’s all self-inflicted. I think what this [season] is about is humanizing him, making you realize there’s actually an adolescent that is being repressed from childhood purposely in order try and become the ultimate, calculating deduction machine. And he can’t actually do that. These three challenges [in Season 2, one in each episode] humanize him through love, horror and the ultimate thriller, I suppose, through his faceoff with Moriarty. I think what we try to do anyway is remind the audience that somebody that they have fallen in love with for being heroic is somebody who had to let vulnerability into his life, as he sees it, which is emotion, a moral compass of some sort, honor, defending your friends and what you hold dear, and actually being on the side of the good guys. As he says, “I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second I’m one of them.” He’s still going to use demonic means and it shouldn’t for a second make him less terrifying. There should be moments where you should be very uncertain of this person that you sort of found a little bit eccentric and rude and for some reason attractive, because God knows he’d be a difficult person to go out with — or try to at least. It is that thing of what you can’t have makes you want it more.
But he’s violent and he’s incredibly dark and it’s because of what he deals with and … it’s about control. He just wants control. And I think what he realizes and what John [Watson, played by Martin Freeman] teaches him is that it’s all very well to understand human behavior, but you have to actually be human sometimes to really get the benefit of it.
It’s a thin — it’s a very small difference, though, because he knows how to turn it on. He knows how to be charming, he knows how to play all the games we play in every social interaction, and yet he withdrawals from them. Purely, it’s an athlete thing. He’s reserving what he needs for when he needs it. That’s a huge difference between him and me. I kind of spend myself too easily I’m far more [makes a “putting it all out there” motion] “bleh,” and there it all is, heart and sleeve. But he’s incredibly controlled and that’s sort of what’s remarkable about him.
And I think, you know, the other thing I really enjoy is he is achievable. He is somebody that we could all be — not that we necessarily want to follow the personal traits, but these abilities. He doesn’t fly through space or have a sonic screwdriver, he’s somebody who has actually … [Contemplates.] Who has sonic screwdrivers? He’s somebody who by hard work and self-imposed discipline has achieved what he has achieved. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Quite hard, but not beyond it.
One of my favorite hallmarks of this series is the way in which Sherlock strips down someone simply through his observations. But it seems like maybe he focuses on their faults, or even when he finds a positive, the way he describes it comes across as a fault.
I think … hmmm … [Quiet, thinking.]
I don’t. Sorry, I’m just rewinding. [Goes quiet again, thinking, then claps before answering.] No. He gets joy out of detail and what he doesn’t think about is the consequence. So he may be chronicling people’s faults but actually to him it’s just a thrill to point things out that other people might not notice. So for example, when he’s belittling Molly about the size of her breasts and her f—ing card and the presents and it’s just mortifying — he doesn’t know that he’s steering a ship into an iceberg or — wow, I need a better metaphor than that. Charging a train into, I don’t know, something faster … into something more, sort of even. [Laughs.] A bullet into a titanium wall, there we go. He doesn’t realize he’s doing that. He just really gets off on the game. He just really gets off on the idea of being able to do it and exercising that muscle. He’s not looking for fault, really. Well, that’s not always true, but the accidental moments when he does that, he’s not looking for it. And that’s again where John has to right him. I think what often happens is, yeah, he does use it as a power play, obviously, in certain situations to bring the bureaucracy of the police round to heel so [detective] Lestrade is the lap dog he is. And it’s not that — you know, he has a great deal of time and affection for Lestrade; Lestrade is a very good policeman. It’s just that Sherlock is s—loads better. Also, he adores him — well, adores is a strong word for him, but you know, he has a respect and understanding of him because he brings Sherlock along. Sherlock doesn’t work in isolation; he needs the Metropolitan Police. So I don’t think he genuinely looks for faults. I think it has much more to do with the joy of finding details and then threading together a story or narrative out of that detail.
It’s human nature looking for happiness, whatever happiness might be in someone’s life. What would happiness be for Sherlock, and is it something that he even bothers himself with?
[Sits up, contemplates.] I think happiness for Sherlock is knowing that he’s right. It’s really that simple. [Another pause.]
He gets solace out of the violin, he gets solace out of intellect and talent. I don’t think he finds happiness in that. I think the only time he’s truly joyful is when the game is on, the hunt’s afoot and there’s something to be solved — and then when he’s solved it. And during the in-between he gets very frustrated with things, with the process. Not his inadequacies, because he doesn’t see himself as having many. But it’s the beginning and the end of things he loves. That’s what makes him happy. Having a problem and solving it.