Benedict Cumberbatch on the Spirituality of Doctor Strange, the Beauty of Alan Turing and the Bile of Richard III
by Barbara Chai
Benedict Cumberbatch, just back from his winter holiday in the Caribbean, was pumped Saturday afternoon on his way to the Palm Springs Festival awards gala, where he and the cast of “The Imitation Game” accepted the ensemble award.
“I’ve just had a first coffee since my holiday,” he told Speakeasy by phone during the drive from L.A. “I don’t know if you ever decaffed for awhile, because when you have it again, it’s pretty strong. It’s a very, very strong drug we drink in the morning.”
Cumberbatch probably deserved a holiday, and that coffee, more than most of us. He recently wrapped filming on “The Hollow Crown,” a three-part BBC series featuring Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III plays, in which Cumberbatch plays the bitter, ruthless Richard III.
“They’re [still] filming in Northumberland, freezing their asses off, going at it medieval style with broad swords and chainmail [armor] and horses, smoke and mud,” Cumberbatch said. “I’m in an SUV moving my way down to Palm Springs! But I paid my dues.”
By that he means he filmed “The Hollow Crown” last fall while simultaneously traveling back and forth to the U.S. to promote “The Imitation Game,” for which he has so far received Best Actor nominations for a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award, for his performance as Alan Turing.
Though deep in awards season now, the work isn’t over. On Tuesday, Cumberbatch begins filming the 2015 Christmas special of “Sherlock” — the BBC series for which he is best known. “That’s a little burst of adrenaline in my tummy,” he said. He’s also playing Hamlet on stage this summer in a 12-week run at London’s Barbican Theater that sold out in minutes.
And after much speculation, Cumberbatch recently confirmed he’ll play the lead in the Marvel superhero film “Doctor Strange,” slated for fall of 2016.
Speakeasy talked with Cumberbatch about “The Imitation Game,” his various future projects, and the tools he uses to stay calm and “get away from the crazy circus of it all.” Below, an edited transcript.
Are Alan Turing’s accomplishments remembered more than the cruelty he was subjected to?
I do know that there is an imbalance, and one of the positives of this film gathering momentum is that more people know his story. I think a very common reaction is, why the hell didn’t I know about this before? That was one of the reactions emotionally I had reading the script, and by the end of it I was obviously distraught but also very angered about not just the treatment by the government, treating him in such a totalitarian and sadistic way, but also by how in proportion to his achievements he’s relatively unknown. Why isn’t he held with Darwin as being one of the greatest scientists that we’ve ever produced as a country, that the world has ever known?
Has he stayed with you after all the research and filming? Do you see Alan Turing in unexpected places?
I really do. I see it whenever I hear of sexual minorities being discriminated against. Any discrimination, wherever it exists, reminds me a lot of this man who really is a hero to people who feel that they are different. We’ve progressed in the West, I say the West meaning democracy, but there’s a hell of a lot further to go with equal rights. Also if you Google search my name, using an algorithm that’s the same as one bit of programming he used to break the Enigma code, it connects me with his name, or you Google his name it connects him to me. Even the tech we hold in our hands – every time I see an Apple logo, every time I send someone an email or think about what computers are doing, these universal machines people across the world are using because the coding is universal – that was his concept and his design.
At the height of his genius, Alan Turing worked in secrecy. As an actor who is very much in the public eye, how do you negotiate that creative need for privacy with being scrutinized all the time?
I think it’s very important to do that, to remain true to your nature. Just to be able to have some space that is your own. The more you work, you’re in the public focus, but that’s obviously what our work’s about in a generalized way. We need an audience as actors, doing this kind of art. It sometimes negates the very means by which you can then do your art. When we film on the street for “Sherlock,” there are groups of hundreds, thousands of people standing and watching us. It’s surreal. It’s like my day at the office is actually being overtaken by a lot of people watching me send memos and make calls, and I surf the Internet and suddenly every move is being videotaped or analyzed or giggled over. It’s mostly benign but the amount of focus is sort of strange. So I guess then you just have to make sure you preserve yourself.
Also, I’ve got things that are more important for me going on now in my life. I’m sitting next to one of them right now, my fiancée [Sophie Hunter] – she’s a helpful tool [laughs]. I said that to make her laugh. She’s a helpful asset! She’s a lot more than that. But it’s brilliant to have something that I think is more important than myself in my life to focus away from myself, you know what I mean? That brings me into a good space.
The film makes you realize that Alan Turing could have failed to crack the code, but for a few moments of brilliant insight. How often does a creative breakthrough come along for you, and how often are you on the brink of not finding it and fearing failure?
All the time. I think the fear of failure is a really powerful motivator. That really is a tool [laughs], because there are moments when you can get completely and utterly blocked. Then you have to step away from the problem. But by and large, no one has an end game when they start a rehearsal process, or when they first read a script or when they say yes to a job. The best moments are when somebody offers you the job, you have that call and everything’s coming up Milhouse. You’re jumping in the air and you kind of leave the ground. By the time you’ve landed you go “Oh, f—k, I’ve got to do this. I’ve actually got to make this work.” I’ve got to bring a really iconic, well-known character to the screen. I’ve got to work on one of the most famous Shakespearean texts of all time. I’ve got to learn this telephone directory of lines for “Sherlock.” I’ve got to create Doctor Strange from what we know into something cinematic. Immediately, you’re burdened with the fear of what the work is actually going to entail. But you’re not alone, and that is the best way to treat all fear. You have directors and writers and producers and artists in costume and makeup, and every other department. Everybody is trying to make the best days work.
Also, it’s important sometimes to step back and not take it too seriously, in order to be free and light and remember the childish innocence. You should be alive to the moment, you should be able to play. While a hell of a lot of work goes into the most seemingly off-the-cuff stuff in our industries, I think it’s really important in those moments when you’re delivering that lightness to be free of all of that. You play the scene. You really look into people’s eyes, what they’re saying, and everything else sort of falls back. You get those wonderful moments of clarity – they’re not Eureka! moments but they’re as close to it as acting gets, where you are lost in the moment. I challenge any actor, whatever methodology, to say that that’s a permanent state.
You’re right, that fear is always there. I stepped towards it a lot last year in particular with all sorts of things. I mean, little things. I presented at an awards ceremony, I had never done that before. I did quite a few things where I was like, “Christ, I’ve never done this before, and you’re 38, what the hell are you doing?” I got a real kick out of taking risks.
Is taking on Doctor Strange a risk? What is alluring to you about playing him?
I don’t think it’s a risk because of Marvel. Marvel is a stable of bringing out ordinary comic characters and turning them into screen-like gods. It’s very different, it’s an Astral Plane. There’s a huge new element to this Marvel universe that’s going to be employed in building this story and this character. But you know, I’m really excited about it, about working with Scott [Derrickson] whose imagination is endless, and all the boys and girls at Marvel who know what they’re doing. I’ve got a few things to get under my belt first. I’ve got to do that little stage production of “Hamlet” in the summer and the Christmas special of “Sherlock,” which we start shooting in about three days’ time – Whoops! Yeah, that’s there.
You once taught English to Tibetan Buddhist monks in India. Given Doctor Strange’s story line – he meets the Ancient One, who teaches him the mystic arts – will filming take you back to the Himalayas?
Ahh … you’ll have to wait and see. I’m not going to be eked out on any spoilers or reveals now. It’s quite a way off but I’m very excited about that spiritual dimension, obviously. It’s something that’s been a huge part of my life.
Would you take on some of those mystic arts yourself if you could?
I meditate a lot. That’s a huge tool in trying to calm myself, get away from the crazy circus of it all, have a focused mind as well as be a kinder, considerate person in the world. I took a lot of stuff away from my experience in Darjeeling, West Bengal, right at the Nepali border. It was Tibetan Buddhist monks in a converted Nepali house in India, with a view of Bhutan. It was a profoundly formative experience at a very young age. It’s something I’ve tried to keep in my life. It features already.
Did you read the Doctor Strange comics growing up?
Growing up, no. I didn’t read many comics at all. Asterix a bit. I think that was it. There weren’t many comics in my household — [in a self-mocking voice] “I’m so deprived.” We didn’t have Marvel so much. But you can bet your bottom dollar I’m reading them now, avidly.
How was filming “The Hollow Crown” and playing Richard III?
That was a pretty hard stint to film last year while I was flying to and from America to promote “The Imitation Game,” and it’s one of the huge roles as well. That was the first time in my life I sort of felt, “Oh God, I really hope I’m not compromising the work because of the amount I’m doing in my life.” It was uncontrollable, I couldn’t change it because I’m incredibly proud of the film as well. To play that character through all those films with [director Dominic Cooke] was an absolute joy. Hugely challenging, fun, terrifying. You kind of scoop your soul out and replace it with that black and bitter bile of a wronged, injured, disabled, angry man who becomes psychotic, or a sociopath. Pretty scary stuff to inhabit, but the most extraordinary language to do it with. Stuff like:
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word ‘love,’ which graybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me: I am myself alone.
To say that into the pitch black of the camera, covered in the blood of Henry VI – I spoiled it a bit, there you go. It’s in the history books – you don’t get those opportunities more than once in a life.
There was once so much mystery surrounding Richard III’s death.
Less now. We know he didn’t have a limp, he didn’t have a withered arm, he was spiked, he was bludgeoned to death, he definitely fell from his horse. He was a good jouster — that was his main skill on horseback. The armor was an exoskeleton to protect his spine, he had a very acute scoliosis. He was in more pain near the end of his life. He consumed a lot more alcohol during his two-year reign. Someone’s been telling me from Leicester University that I am actually closer in genealogy – I haven’t given them DNA – but I am more closely related to him than any royal line. They know lots of people that claim to have a link to the Plantagenet line but apparently mine’s quite strong and suddenly during the filming of a scene, I got this email from them. So we’re going to investigate that one when the holidays are over. It’s a kind of a weird synchronicity.
Right. You may be third cousins, 16 times removed.
Yeah, but that’s enough for me! That’s enough for me. [laughs]
Is it true you may also have a genetic link to Alan Turing?
These have been cropping up with so much frequency I’m getting a bit freaked out. It’s speculation really, but that would be a beautiful thing. I certainly feel very close to him, and I adored meeting his family. They have been so supportive of the film, which is the only review you need really.