Interview by Louisa Mellor
In April, we were lucky enough to enjoy a round-table chat with the cast and creators of Sherlock, starting its third series on BBC One on Wednesday the 1st of January. First up is Benedict Cumberbatch, at that time the star of billboard ads around the world for Star Trek Into Darkness, fresh from playing Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, and limbering up to step back into his role as TV’s most brilliant detective..
Did you manage to get through the hordes outside the hotel?
They’d gone by the time I got here. I ducked it a little bit and ran in. I was cutting it a bit fine this morning.
You’ve had to get used to that wherever you go now, presumably?
Yeah, it’s something you have to get used to. It’s one of those things that’s, what’s the word… it’s an adjustment. It is an adjustment. Loads of people have said it, to a boring extent, but there’s just no… they don’t teach you how to deal with any of that.
Is it ever difficult for you?
Abnormal or strange, yeah. Difficult? Not yet, no. It’s not difficult-difficult. There are days when you feel a bit self-conscious and you’d prefer to be just a little more anonymous, but it comes with a lot of good stuff as well so you can’t really complain about the bad, and especially not to journalists!
Is there a sense that Sherlock’s fandom might love the show a bit too much? Like, they’re Lennie squeezing that puppy in Of Mice And Men?
What a great analogy. Wow. I never would have thought about it as something as dramatic as that. I had a friend who once squeezed her rabbit too much – that’s not a euphemism – [laughter] until it started to squeal, she thought it was saying (in the voice of a rabbit, somehow) ‘I love you’, but it was really saying ‘You’re crushing my ribs and I’m dying’ [laughter].
I would never want to accuse the fans of being anything other than intelligent, thoroughly full-throttle enthusiastic and into it, but what I love about our show is that we have a really broad audience and there were lots of people who weren’t outside the hotel today who will be equally excited to see it, who will just wait for it as a quality bit of television, which is what we like to view it as.
A problem is of course, that Sherlock uses social media, so it gives a platform for this kind of fan-fiction, the slash fiction, which is really creative but it’s not what we’re doing and we’re not doing it for that, so there are some insistences about John and I’s relationship [makes a face, everyone laughs], it’s sort of ‘come on, just drop it now’ you know. But it’s part of the love that people have for the show and even people who are fanatical about it do it for the right reasons.
How easy was it to get back into character for series three?
Easier than the second season, the second season was a little harder I think partly because I’d just been rolling around and losing my voice naked at the Olivier for too long [the theatre where Cumberbatch played, alternately, the creature and Frankenstein alongside Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s production]. It feels comfortable, and I mean that in the best sense. It’s still a challenge, it’s still hard work – as it should be because we’re trying to better ourselves of course, but there’s enough familiarity, the writers have just given us such a treat to play, and when we hit the sweet spots in the scene, when I’m doing, and everyone’s doing their best, it’s such a wonderful thing to be part of.
There’s a two-year time gap between the last episode of Sherlock series two and the first episode of series three.
There is, and it’s nice to be able to play that.
Do we see what Sherlock’s been up to on his own?
You might do. You might do. There are going to be a lot of answers like that!
Did you know what happened at the end of the last series?
I was as curious as the nation was to figure it out. I mean, I had my own idea and it wasn’t far off, but of course I wanted to know, so yes, I knew.
Do you now fully understand how Sherlock survived the fall?
Yeah, that’s what I was saying. I wanted to understand that.
Because the last time we spoke to Martin he said he still didn’t understand fully.
Oh yeah, it’s complicated I guess. It was explained to me at least, I think, quite clearly but then I took a special interest since I was the one jumping off it, doing my stunts off the roof, which was quite fun.
Yes. I knew roughly at the time that we were doing it. I think probably like Martin, there were probably details I forgot, two years of water under the bridge and a few more characters to play and get under so you know, it was as surprising and delightful as it will be for the audience when I read it in the script.
Is there anything you think your incarnation of Sherlock definitely wouldn’t do? Looking back over some of the past on-screen versions, you have Basil Rathbone doing a song and dance routine in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, for instance, is that something you can see yourself doing ever in the role?
I think that’s one genre I haven’t covered yet, so yeah, a tap dance routine would be lovely, would be a delight. I mean, he’s a mean fiddler so maybe he knows how to use his pipes as well, why not?
What I love about him is that he has almost a superhuman calibre, there’s this endless treasure trove of unused talents and it gets sometimes a little bit ridiculous in the books but I think we can play with that and he doesn’t necessarily have to be good at all of them, which could add some value to it, but if the occasion fits, I don’t see why not.
What is he not good at, your Sherlock?
Well, at any particular time, there’s a huge span of knowledge which he cannot compute because it forces other stuff out of the hard-drive. It’s very famous that list in, I think, is it The Sign of Four… [prompted: A Study in Scarlet] Yes, A Study in Scarlet, where basically he lists what he isn’t capable of, but then he kind of disproves himself within even the course of that story like we did in our story with astronomy, you know, “the earth goes run around the sun, what need have I of that pish posh” and then he remembers the Van Buren supernova and the detail in the painting which means it’s a fake so he saves that child’s life.
It’s tricky with him, it’s all about intent and focus and when he fixes his beam on something, he’s pretty devastatingly good at it because of how he can concentrate and eschew peripheral detail that’s not important, or just any kind of other distraction, including sex.
Speaking of which… [more laughter] We hear Irene Adler’s unlikely to return for series three, but she’s a big fan favourite, people love that relationship and so I wondered if there were likely to be any points at which we’ll see Sherlock missing her – I don’t know if he’s capable of that – or referring to her.
There’s a drawer in Baker Street, with her phone in it, the Vertu phone, it’s there isn’t it? I mean, he has a token, he’s kept something of hers. But if you look at the way I play that after the moment of fond reminiscing of one night in Islamabad or whatever may or may not have happened after I rescued her from death, I stop smiling and put it away and it’s in a drawer, it’s gone from my immediate environment, it’s something that’s compartmentalised.
So that two years wasn’t spent in a wild fling…
I don’t think we were off having a holiday, no.
Why do you think the show has struck such a chord with people?
As I said in the first series, I think it’s because it really pays homage to the original. The original stories are so rich and generous and they have a beautiful humanity about them, the sweep and range of characters and life and texture of London.
I think London’s a huge part of why people love it and I think the relationship as well at the core of it, you have these two people that need each other and while in the books it’s far more clearly defined as hero worship, in our version hopefully, there’s far more engagement and pragmatism and there’s a more apparent need for Watson than there is just to witness and report as there often is in the books ‘How do you do that? I hadn’t seen that, My God’ and so on. Our Watson graduates, he gets smarter with his friend. But that relationship’s absolutely key.
The fact that we’ve got three of the most talented writers in the country who are huge, huge fanboys, so they’re writing from a position of real reverence but at the same time, in the same way that Conan Doyle was, they’re being cheeky with the formula, and they’re writing for Conan Doyle and Sherlock and Watson, they’re not writing for other motivations I think. You know, there are three episodes, so we can pack quite a punch. We still turn over quite fast because it’s an hour and a half’s telly, not an hour, it’s not like we’re lounging about with cigars whilst people swing a lens, we really get a pace on during the working day, there’s a lot to do. I think we maintain our quality because it’s boutique, as opposed to, you know…
You mentioned London being key, would you like to film Sherlock outside of the UK? With The Hounds of Baskerville episode you got out of the capital…
Yeah, that was fun. I mean, logistically it’s a nightmare. That’s one of the reasons Cardiff is such a joy because it’s easier to control, you can do a lot of like for like and transporting everyone and having everyone in the same place, it’s just easy. London is a bit of a pickle to film in as anyone knows, but it’s wonderful when we have the moments when we do bring it home, like this afternoon. It’s great, it’s great. But there’s no reason you can’t get on a plane and travel as far as I’m concerned.
Is there anywhere particular you’d like to see Sherlock and Watson elsewhere in the world?
Lots of places, yeah.
New York perhaps?
There are a lot of destinations. I don’t think we’re limited by that. Nowhere’s ruled out really, there’s no reason it couldn’t travel.
Have you taken any interest in Elementary?
Very much, well as far as I’ve been around to watch it and record it. Yeah, I think what Jonny’s [Lee Miller] done is remarkable, because he’s created an entirely different vein to what we’re plumbing and using and he’s really, really brilliant at it. To think of the volume of work he has to do, it’s a remarkable performance, as is Lucy Liu’s, I think she’s terrific and it’s nice to see him in New York. I like the qualities that they’ve played with in him, he’s sort of nearer a sort of Houdini version I think than.., well no, actually no, maybe a Bell version, the voice is slightly lighter and not so deep but, I like it, I like it, I think it’s different enough from ours to have an audience that can love it as well as ours.
You touched on the John/Sherlock relationship which is obviously a big thing, but another relationship fans are looking to see more from is Mycroft/Sherlock. Are we going to get any more glimpses of that?
Interesting. Is that true?
Oh yeah. Well, not in the way that they’re interested in John and Sherlock…
Not in that way! Incestuous brothers…
Not in the underpants way…
The underpants way, I love it! Oh that’s great, like censoring a classroom of twelve year olds! [Laughter].
The Holmes brothers’ childhood must be fascinating though.
Yeah it is, it is, it’s really fascinating.
Do you know how they grew up?
It’s interesting, in the first series I said to Steven [Moffat, co-creator], ‘So what’s his back story?’ and he went ‘You don’t want back story’. He didn’t like to really do it because a lot of what we try and do in art is to sort of deepen the mystery rather than expose cod reasoning or post-Freudian parameters to define, that is why someone is like that because they were damaged by someone breaking their pencil in front of their face in the school room.
I think as an actor you have to have a framework to hang certain things on, so I had a discussion very early on with Steven and Mark [Gatiss, co-creator] about what they thought, because I was intrigued, because I’m a young Sherlock and because we’re starting his story, I wanted to know. It’s very easy to bandy terms like autism, sociopath, psychopath incorrectly, and OCD and all sorts of qualities of modern psychology or tropes or psychological behaviours or disorders and just go ‘That’s who he is’, and I think it kind of limits it.
But at the same time there’s a joyous fount of characterisation to explore there and yeah, definitely there’ll be some stuff revealed. You’ll find out more about their relationship definitely, as brothers. Somebody said something which I really liked, they said it to Mark and it was intriguing, he said ‘Does Sherlock worry about Mycroft?’ which I think is a wonderful idea, because they are very… they play cold with each other to maintain superiority but well, you’ll see.
How does the relationship between John and Sherlock develop over this series? Are there great progressions in it?
Yeah. There are lots of new elements in play and the dynamic shifts, which is really exciting and obviously, there’s a bit of explanation. It’s not like the stories where Watson kind of goes ‘Oh good! What’s the next case?’ [on Holmes’ return] it’s a little bit more questioning.
He’s presumably livid or very upset when Sherlock returns, not that you can spoil that reaction?
You’ll see, you’ll see. That’s been great fun to explore. Martin’s such a phenomenal talent that to work opposite that and be triggering that has been great, great fun, really good fun.
Does Sherlock allow himself to express any regrets when he finally comes face to face with John again?
Oh, you’ll have to wait and see. You’ll have to wait and see. You’re asking me to describe colourings of characters and scenes and moments and stuff and I know it’s frustrating, this game of Grandmother’s Footsteps or whatever it is, but you won’t be disappointed. It’s a beautiful dynamic, it’s good fun.
There’s no Moriarty presumably?
Who knows? Who knows? I know. [Laughter].
How do you top the super villain?
I don’t know. I mean, Andrew’s performance was just extraordinary. I knew him as a theatre actor and a friend before he was cast and I didn’t suggest anything, but when I heard I was like, ‘Brilliant’. Because I knew he’d just run with it, he was amazing. I did watch The Reichenbach Fall again before we started shooting and I was just going ‘Fucking hell’, all that stuff set to Rossini at the beginning, was just effortless, beautiful performance and rightfully deserving of an award. He’s a dear friend, so yeah, it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be hard, for the writers as well as whoever steps into the antagonist role.
Who’s the most intense character to play? Sherlock or Star Trek Into Darkness’ John Harrison? Or indeed, Julian Assange?
Well they all come with their own complications, and utterly different challenges which is why I love my day job. It’s a really hard question. It’s like theatre, film, radio, or television, it’s really hard to distinguish, the characters are so different, so different. To start to describe them would be to wander into those territories again and a treasure trove of closely guarded secrets about reveals and so on. Just on scale, one’s [The Fifth Estate] an incredible, extraordinary story of our time involving real people and the morality of being a storyteller, and with that in mind is pretty heady stuff. It’ll be, I hope, a fantastic film and exploration of that relationship within that organisation and the achievements of that organisation and Julian [Assange] in particular and how they fell out and why they fell out and that whole three year span.
Harrison [Star Trek Into Darkness] is in another time in the future and it was fantasy but also live action. It was a huge film as opposed to a prestige project that’s based on political reality. It was great fun to play with all of those toys and to have JJ [Abrams] at the helm saying ‘Have a go at that, have a go at this’ and you know, being dragged across the floor at Playa Vista Studio at something like fifty to sixty kilometres an hour at one point at about one in the morning. That was fun, that was a lot of fun. There’s a lot of live action stuff, and you know, learning your choreography for action sequences, beefing up, I went up four suit sizes in the space of a month, ate four thousand calories for about three weeks which I wouldn’t advise anybody to do unless they’re really hungry. It was an exploration of changing shape and it was a different form of what I do and I loved it. I’d never done it before. They were just a great bunch of peers to be working with, another really strong family of people who they just hooked me in and I went along with the ride, it was fantastic. Three utterly different projects.
Having seen the latest poster for Star Trek Into Darkness, in your contracts, do you now stipulate a fantastic coat must be worn at all points?
[Laughing]. I was a bit worried about the length of that one, but [costume designer] Michael Kaplan… I love that man. I made my first boo-boo on set in Star Trek. I’d just got off the plane – this is all a defence for what I did, because it’s kind of unforgiveable – I’d just got off the plane, it was all a very fast casting as probably you guys know from any blurb about it out there.
Anyway so, there I was, on the lot at Sony, I’d just met JJ [Abrams, Star Trek director] in the flesh for the first time, and all of the heads of department. I was walking across with Michael Kaplan, extraordinary costume designer that he is, walking back to wardrobe which is this huge sound stage entirely devoted to costume, it was massive and full of the most amazing, amazing stuff that you will ever see.
But anyway, we’re talking and I’m trying to keep my jetlag brain awake and engage him and find out who he was and – I should have just IMDb’d him I guess but anyway. I’m slightly embarrassed about this so I’m just procrastinating – so I said, “You worked with JJ before on the first Star Trek film didn’t you?”, and he went – Michael’s so laid back he’s horizontal – [Cumberbatch slides into an impersonation of a gently spoken, mellow American, leaning back and stroking his hair] he looks like sort of Willem Defoe, he’s a very handsome man, always tanned, beautiful hair, very cool, lovely calm guy, “I love Sherlock” he and his sister are big fans… So we talked about that and I said, “So before that, had you done any sci-fi before?” and he went [still in the calm, relaxed Kaplan voice] “Umm, yeah”. So I said, “Really, what had you done before that?”
[Pause] “Blade Runner”.
[Shaking his head] I was spoilt, I was spoilt.