Interview by Jane Levere
Actor Benedict Cumberbatch is the toast of public television in the United States–starring in Masterpiece’s highly-acclaimed Sherlock, whose second season begins tonight– and of the theater world in London, where last month he won a Laurence Olivier Award for best actor for his portrayal of the title character of Frankenstein (he shared this award with Jonny Lee Miller, with whom he alternated the role). He is currently making the latest Star Trek film, in which he is also the lead, in Los Angeles.
Cumberbatch spoke this past week on a visit to New York, before appearing in front of an audience of 400 Sherlock fans, many shrieking young women. They were selected from a pool of 10,000 people who had applied for tickets to a screening of excerpts from season two’s first episode and panel discussion with Cumberbatch; the series’ co-creator, Steven Moffat; producer, Sue Vertue; and executive producer, Rebecca Eaton.
What is the relevance of the Sherlock Holmes stories in the 21stcentury?
He can carve through bureaucracy, mediocrity and stupidity like a hot scalpel through butter. There’s not a political ax to grind with it, he’s just someone who can very easily be adapted to the 21st century, he’s always been a modern hero, he thinks and talks fast and is funny and has ability that is thrilling to be in the presence of. He survives the test of time, as entertaining as he was in the Victorian era, universally he’s loved because of the rich potential. He’s relevant because he still works as a sort of anti-heroic icon.
How do you make the character work today?
He’s always been a modern man. He’s always at the forefront of forensic science, he was experimenting, trying to use methods of detection, quite at the forefront of that era. His way of analyzing ash and footprints, using casts was very, very fresh. I think the big challenge is to be able to encompass that, on top of being a master of what of the social media and Internet age can help speed his detective work. He’s the original detective. To bring him back into the age of CSI and countless other franchises and see that he still is the best is just very satisfying.
Were you inspired by anything in terms of developing the character?
The books. It’s all there in the books.
Were you a fan growing up?
I didn’t read the books as much as I’ve read them now. I wasn’t a fan fan. I would flit about him. I liked having one condensed experience. It was a little bit like work, I’ve never really liked tying myself down to just one project, one character, I like being able to keep variety. While I was a fan, I was also introduced to The Hobbit by my father when I was six, my first classical novel was Jane Eyre when I was about twelve or something. Things would grow and keep growing rather than be fixations.
Is each episode based on an actual Holmes story?
Pretty much. Some are amalgamations, an awful lot of it is original. They’re a framework.
Can you tell me how the character evolves in the second season?
We sort of meet this rather impressive, God-like man who wants to be anything but human, has a bit of a God complex anyway in his superiority. In the second series he’s someone who gradually becomes more and more humanized. The process starts with his relationship with Watson, in this series we basically see the kind of gradual deconstruction of him.
Do you have any preferences in doing movies, TV, theater?
Not at all. They’re such different requirements, different paces, different levels of intimacy when it comes to a camera, an audience of 1001 people. And yet focus and intent goes across all of them—you can have close-ups on stage, and you can have very epic acting on screen. I love it all.
Are you doing Frankenstein here?
I hope so. We’re trying to make it work. I don’t think there’s any theater that’s right for it. It was designed for the Olivier (Theater, in London), and that is an old-fashioned acting theater with this incredible machinery and a drama in the middle of it. There aren’t many places like it. My idea is to do it in a place that’s site-specific.