By Amy Raphael
The noise is ear-splitting. He passes me the phone.
‘I’ve just been to Tokyo for the first time and there were 600 fans to welcome me at the airport.’
He looks bemused, as if he’s watching someone else’s life unfold on the tiny screen.
‘A friend said they were excited about me coming over to promote Star Trek Into Darkness and suggested I wear something nice, so I slung on my best jacket and a jazzy shirt. I’m very glad I did. It was like the Beatles arriving in America for the first time.’
Cumberbatch is fresh off the plane from Tokyo and a little disorientated when we first talk last December but still high on the experience of being treated as a star in a galaxy so far, far away from home.
During the course of three long conversations over the following months this fiercely private actor, the star of Sherlock and War Horse and now one of the biggest names in British film, gives Event his most revealing interview yet.
He talks candidly about his ongoing struggles adjusting to fame – ‘I find the level of scrutiny dulling as well as in your face and aggressive – some days I wear it lightly and other days I’m very aware of it.’
He also reveals the level of haranguing he still gets in this country for having ‘posh kid’ credentials (Cumberbatch was privately educated at Harrow).
‘Someone will always hate what I say. There’s always going to be somebody spitting blood about my wooden-faced, toffee-named, crappy acting.
‘I’ve never denied my upbringing. Talking about class terrifies me. There is no way of winning. You either come across as being arrogant and ungrateful if you complain about it, or being snooty and over-privileged if you bathe in it.
‘They say I should move to America if I don’t like the hassle. But I love London. Culturally it’s where my heart and soul are, as well as my roots. I get the variety of work here that any actor in America would die for.’
Cumberbatch has a strong emotional connection to the capital. When the London 7/7 bombings happened, he was travelling to west London on a bus.
‘Everyone on my bus was in a state of panic.
‘They had heard about the bomb on the other bus across London in Tavistock Square and started running over each other. There were kids, there were women, it was a real fight to get them down the stairs.
‘I staggered out into the street. I was on my way to help a friend with a workshop at the Young Vic theatre and I couldn’t get through to him. The phones were jammed. Everyone around me was also talking about massive explosions on the Underground.’
He came much closer to death five years before the 7/7 bombings. He was filming a TV series called To The Ends Of The Earth in South Africa when he and two fellow actors were carjacked.
A group of six men tied them up, frisked them for weapons and valuables and drove them into the bush.
They were ordered to kneel down and remove their shoes. They were put in the execution position and a duvet was placed over their heads, to silence any shots.
Cumberbatch thought he was about to die.
‘I had this realisation that it doesn’t matter how loved you are in your life, you die on your own.’
Eventually they were released in the middle of the night and ran to a small truck stop shop to get help.
‘I’ve still got a scar’ – he points to a tiny white mark on his inner wrist, next to his watch – ‘where I was tied up. It was terrifying. The next morning I woke up as a free man with the sun on my face and I cried. I thought I’d never feel its warmth again.’
Born in London in 1976 to British television actors Timothy Carlton (originally Cumberbatch, which he dropped) and Wanda Ventham, Cumberbatch was educated at a prep school in Sussex, then at Harrow School before heading to the University of Manchester, where he studied drama. He returned to London to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
In March, on the day of the South Bank Awards, where Cumberbatch will pick up TV drama prize for Parade’s End, we talk on the phone. I ask him if he gets bothered by the class thing in the States.
‘No one minds so much over there. It’s rather about how good you are at your job.
‘I was desperately proud of my parents for sending me to Harrow. It was a huge stretch for them. They were working actors who never knew when the next pay day might come.’
He calls me back after the awards as he is travelling home in a taxi.
I can hear him paying the driver (he tips and says ‘thank you’ several times), fumbling with his keys while letting himself into his parents’ place, laughing at himself for not being able to multi-task, and then shouting to his mum that he’s doing an interview and will come and say hello when he’s finished.
‘My parents wanted the best for me. I wasn’t sent to the school my dad went to. I’m not a hereditary peer. One of the best things about being an actor is that it’s a meritocracy.
‘People have tried to pull together a pattern because Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne and Damian Lewis and I were all privately educated.
‘But James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Tom Hardy weren’t and they’re equally talented. It’s just lazy to try and create a private-school elite.
‘I’m definitely middle class, I think. I know others would argue, but I’m not upper class. Upper class to me means you are either born into wealth or you’re Royalty.’
A pause. ‘OK, maybe I’m upper-middle class.’
An only child, Cumberbatch loved being sent off to school. ‘My prep school was heaven. It was like being in an extended holiday camp full of baby brothers.
Suddenly I had this family of boys. It was a riot. I had so much fun. My parents saw I was happy, so I went off to board at Harrow.’
His parents were supportive. And quite bohemian. Was home life a bit of a luvvie-fest?
He laughs. ‘There were bean bags, but it wasn’t like, “Hey guys, let’s hang out and talk about sexuality” when I was five.’
Cumberbatch is a contradictory figure. He has grown wary of interviewers and yet often seems eager to please. He is smart and funny but also remote.
He is tall, willowy, pale, with high cheekbones and glowing green eyes. He is, as his CV attests, capable of looking suspicious, creepy and, according to the acres of internet space dedicated to this particular attribute, sexy as hell.
He has the same strange, mesmerising kind of beauty as Tilda Swinton.
Since his first major TV role, in Hawking, a 2004 BBC drama about the early years of the world’s most famous living scientist Professor Stephen Hawking, Cumberbatch’s rise has been swift and relentless, every subsequent performance offering something new and unexpected.
There were supporting roles in Starter For 10 and Atonement before he co-starred alongside Tom Hardy in Stuart: A Life Backwards, in which he played a writer documenting the life of a mentally unstable homeless man.
But it was only after Sherlock first appeared on BBC1 in 2010 that he became a proper star.
Cumberbatch is a magnetic presence on TV. He excels as a quipping, twitchy, modern Sherlock Holmes alongside Martin Freeman’s Dr Watson (series three will be shown in the autumn) and gave a master class in suppressed upper-class emotion as Christopher Tietjens in last summer’s sumptuous five-part television drama Parade’s End.
On the big screen, he is getting better and bigger (and badder) with every movie. He played Major Stewart, a dedicated cavalry officer, in War Horse, Steven Spielberg’s First World War epic, and will appear next as the baddie in JJ Abrams’ sci-fi blockbuster Star Trek Into Darkness.
Abrams’ 2009 reboot of Star Trek was a critical and commercial hit, grossing $385.7m worldwide. Into Darkness, with its budget of $185m, is one of the most eagerly awaited films of the year.
It boasts three British actors: Cumberbatch as the villainous John Harrison, Alice Eve as the sexy molecular biologist Dr Carol Marcus and Shaun Of The Dead star Simon Pegg reprising his role as quirky Scottish engineer Scotty.
Was he a Trekkie as a boy? ‘I remember watching Star Trek, but I wasn’t obsessive about it. There were other programmes I’d always tell my mum I wanted to watch. Mainly Knight Rider, The A-Team, occasionally Buck Rogers and, funnily enough for a child, Baywatch.’
Pamela Anderson was a first crush? He arches an eyebrow. ‘Good old Pammy!’
Cumberbatch looks unrecognisable in the film, with dyed black hair and a space-age onesie. He calls his character a ‘home-grown terrorist’ and a ‘one-man weapon of mass destruction’.
‘JJ wanted Into Darkness to reflect real-world threats of terrorism. The Star Trek universe is totally relatable to our modern world. There is plenty of Earth-bound jeopardy.’
The 7/7 and South African car-jacking traumas gave Cumberbatch his own experiences of ‘Earth-bound jeopardies’ to draw on for the film, as did another dramatic episode that took place in his gap year from Manchester University.
He was teaching English in a Tibetan monastery and, during a week’s break, went trekking in Nepal with four friends. They weren’t dressed in proper trekking gear and didn’t have enough money for a guide.
‘We got altitude sickness and then amoebic dysentery. We were lost for a day and a half, trekking at night and squeezing moss to get water. We slept in an animal hut that stank of dung and had hallucinogenic dreams because of the altitude sickness.’
They followed yak droppings till they found civilisation again. These experiences, he says, gave him a renewed appreciation of home.
‘I flew back from Tokyo, via Los Angeles, yesterday and I got a huge kick from flying underneath the clouds and seeing my England. I felt so happy. It was the most beautiful wintery landscape, dusted with frost.
‘Within the same field of vision as a giant retail park was a Norman church and some huge pile surrounded by woods and a driveway. The mundane and the majestic, the old with the new.
‘I’m lucky; I can live here and work in the States. I can just pack a bag and go.’
I ask him what kind of child he was. I can’t imagine him getting up to much mischief. He seems far too sensible.
‘Of course I was naughty! Every kid is naughty. I got into all sorts of trouble as a kid by pushing boundaries. Not illegal trouble, but mucking about. No more than anyone else, though. I wasn’t a bully, nor was I desperate for attention.’
Was he academically bright? ‘I had a problem focusing. I probably had Attention Deficit Disorder, or something on the border of it. I was always performing, doing silly voices. The teachers realised I could go one of two ways: be creative or destructive.
‘I was made a prefect and it calmed me down. I realised I was being respected and I needed to return that respect.’
There’s a slightly awkward pause. ‘God, I don’t know. This feels like I’m on the psychiatrist’s couch!’
Does being an only child affect how he pictures his future family life?
‘I was happy as an only child, but I’ve always wanted to be part of a bigger family.
‘I would love to have children,’ he booms. ‘Everyone wants to know when I’m going to settle down and who is going to be Mrs Cumberbatch. I can’t wait to do an interview like this and just talk about my child.’
‘My stepsister – my mother’s daughter from her first marriage – had a kid when I was about 11. I thought, “Wow, this is incredible, they come in much smaller sizes!” I was only used to my band of brothers at prep school.
‘I was always the one at parties who looked after the younger children. I really enjoyed it. I became a godfather to a family friend, Emma Vansittart, when I was about 14 or 15. Emma in turn had been a sort of godmother figure to me. In fact, she was my first crush.’
Cumberbatch’s current love life is shrouded in more mist than Holmes’s Dartmoor and he won’t entertain questions on the subject. He has been linked with various fashion designers and actresses, but no names stick.
He is clearly still very close to his family, and moved back in with his parents recently while his flat in north-west London was being renovated.
He doesn’t get bothered there. At his own flat there have been ‘incidents’ – including a reported episode with a ‘Twitter stalker’ when one of his neighbours went on to the social media website to post comments after she saw him through his sheer curtains.
What was he doing? ‘Apparently I took off a shirt and then I put on a shirt.’
His friends asked, politely, if she’d stop tweeting his every move. To apologise she baked him a cake.
‘I’m trying to look after my Sherlock jawline, otherwise I’d have loved the cake.’
Cumberbatch doesn’t do social media.
‘As you’ve heard over these interviews, I ramble. Tweeting wouldn’t come naturally to me and I want to expend my energy on work.’
He has more than enough work to be getting on with. For a start there’s The Fifth Estate, in which he plays Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks.
Does he ever get the characters muddled up?
‘I don’t think I’m suddenly going to start talking with an Australian twang when I play Sherlock Holmes just because Assange is Australian!’
Star Trek Into Darkness will move Cumberbatch’s career up another notch, but it’s series three of Sherlock that his British fans are really in a lather about. It’s also the role that is closest to Cumberbatch, according to his mum.
‘She sees a lot of me in Sherlock, which both makes her laugh and is slightly embarrassing. I suppose it’s my rushing around, my impatience.’
It’s also probably his toughest role – in terms of learning lines at least.
‘When I was younger I had to spend double the amount of time learning French vocabulary. I struggle to learn by rote. I’ve had meltdowns on set. Which is embarrassing and shameful.’
Series two of Sherlock ended with the apparent death of the detective: yet he was glimpsed in the final frame.
‘Sherlock is alive – that’s not an apparition. It’d be very odd if we saw inside Watson’s head and it was a picture of himself walking away from Sherlock’s grave in order to cut back to an image of Sherlock.’
Series three picks up the thread. ‘It’s a cracking first episode. I can’t wait for people to see it. Really exciting. There’s a lot to answer.’
He isn’t sure about a fourth series of Sherlock – and the latest rumours are of him taking over from his friend Matt Smith as Doctor Who – but he likes the idea of an ongoing relationship with the detective.
‘I’d like to see him age with me. I wouldn’t mind Sherlock going on for a long time. Maybe we could revisit it as a one-off or a two-parter. Assuming Martin Freeman and I are free at the same time.’
His mother is shouting his name in the background. He apologises for ‘yabbering on’. Then he remembers one last anecdote.
‘I went to LA properly for the first time for the Oscars last year and ended up at Madonna’s party. I met David Beckham at the bar and said, “Hello David, nice to meet you, I play Sherlock on television back home.”
‘He said, “Oh yeah, nice, I think I’ve seen it.” People now look at me with the look I probably gave David Beckham at the bar. This is all new and bizarre for me, but I’m adjusting to it.’
And, finally, he is gone, laughing at the absurdity of his new life.