Interview by Mike Ryan
Ah, yes, the trials and tribulations of interviewing an actor about the role he’s playing when that actor can’t really talk about said role. Or, as Benedict Cumberbatch jokes about his notoriously secretive “Star Trek Into Darkness” director, J.J. Abrams, “He’s right here now with a gun pointed to my head.” (At least I think he’s kidding.)
As you probably know by now, the identity of Cumberbatch’s “Star Trek Into Darkness” character — a character that causes much havoc for the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, while his motivations remain unclear — has been purposely shrouded in mystery. You probably also know that rumors persist that Cumberbatch is reprising a quite popular villain from a prior “Star Trek” film. (And if you don’t know already, a quick check of IMDb will fill you in.)
We caught up with Cumberbatch — the British thespian best known, until now, for his role as the title character in “Sherlock” and for thrillers like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” — by phone from London the day after “Trek” premiered. Luckily, there’s plenty to talk about with the actor — who’s had quite the last couple of years — including the fact that he (not too surprisingly) knows very little about “Star Trek,” though he’s been catching up on certain notorious characters as of late now that his filming is finished.
In our long chat, Cumberbatch discusses his crash course in “Star Trek” (which the more die-hard Trek journalists are quizzing him on), the success of “Sherlock,” his involvement as Smaug in that other franchise, “The Hobbit,” and why “The Sixth Sense” has everything to do with his, let’s say, vague answers about his current role.
Oh, and the added treat of a cameo from Alice Eve.
I get the sense that you’ve had a nice couple of past years. Do you actually stop and think about that?
I have. I have. Even among the maelstrom and wonderful madness of “Star Trek” — even on the red carpet — I step back and have a look, take a breath and just have a moment taking it in. It’s incredible. And that night [last night at the premiere], I had my drama teacher from school, my parents — [Cumberbatch’s phone rings.] Oh, this is Alice Eve ringing. Can I just tell her I’m in a conversation with you and call her back? [Alice Eve asks if Cumberbatch plans on attending a play that evening. Cumberbatch declines, worrying that he might fall asleep during the performance from exhaustion.] Sorry about that.
What play are you declining to attend?
“The Audience,” which I really want to see. But I can’t. We had a late night last night — well, an early morning — of celebration. I would be spotted sleeping. I know that would happen and that would really offend people. And I so really want to see that play wide awake.
The headlines would read, “Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t impressed with this one.”
You know what I mean? Seriously. “He’s running around with this film, then he’s falling asleep in front of his peers and contemporaries” [laughs].
This is probably the point, but I’ve never watched you in anything and thought, There’s a guy who’s going to be a villain in a “Star Trek” movie.
I take that as a massive compliment. I think that’s a good thing. I mean that. You know, if I’m surprising you or exceeding your expectations in any way by being in this film as opposed to something similar to what I’ve done before, we’re kind of getting the game plan right. Which is just for my own selfish enjoyment [to have] as much diversity as possible. And, you know, my kind of “game on” as well — to have different challenges that keep me invigorated and refreshed and enjoying what I do. Which I really do enjoy; I love my job. And it goes back to what you said about the two years. It has been extraordinary, and I do pinch myself. I’ve had loads of “oh my God” moments — whether it’s an awards ceremony, or meeting people being on the “Star Trek” set, or first being Sherlock Holmes and seeing people’s reaction to that.
Did you even know about “Star Trek” before being approached for this?
No. I mean, I really didn’t. There was an interview today that was, I don’t know, interview number 532 — and she literally had a page-long list of questions. And I started by really liking her. And by question number five, I was ready to beg her for mercy. I mean, that was such a cruel thing to do. I have never professed to any expert knowledge of anything much in life, in particular “Star Trek.” I really, really, really enjoyed the first film. The passion that I felt for this origin story with these extraordinarily iconic characters — which, of course, I knew something of. It’s something that I had sown a seed of somewhere back in time, but I had taken note of this series and Gene Roddenberry’s genius at creation — which still resonates now. That’s a remarkable thing.
Did you feel it necessary to go back and watch any of the original series or the movies with the original cast?
No. With all of the respect for that era, no, I didn’t. I really wanted to be on board for the journey that J.J. created with the first rebooting. And I trusted him and his team. There’s a sort of hard-core Trek team within that writing, producing group that, basically, monitors all things canon. In the same way as “Sherlock.” I respected the good taste of the writers and was very happy; it’s kind of put my faith in their judgements. I just know that I wasn’t going to be risking massively upsetting fans if there were choices that I was making that weren’t right for the moment or the beats in the story or the character. I had people around me that would very politely tell me. And it didn’t happen. I mean, it’s been a great choice since, however, to look back to see what I’m a part of. And it’s an honor. It really is an honor.
We’ll get back to “Star Trek,” but you mentioned “Sherlock.” Are you surprised by how popular that show is in the United States?
Yes. Everywhere where it’s been successful I’ve been surprised. I mean, the level of success is what’s surprising. I always knew we were going to get attention because we use such an iconic character and the original story is so loved. And, also, there have been many, many successful incarnations at the moment. You know, I think Johnny [Lee Miller] and Robert Downey Jr. … it’s one of the most portrayed fictional characters. So, I knew there would be a lot of attention focused on it, but I had absolutely no idea that it would take off and become a phenomenon.
Have you ever been on a set that’s been shrouded with as much secrecy as “Star Trek Into Darkness”?
Well, yes, I have [laughs]. I play a little part in “The Hobbit,” and that carries its own secrets. I’m in a film about secrets that at the moment is called — the working title is — “The Fifth Estate,” playing Julian Assange. And then “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” that character had a big secret and reveal. So, I genuinely really do seem to be the go-to guy to kind of involve myself in secretive stories or franchise ideas.
When we talk about high secret levels, all we’re really talking about in this case is the idea that the audience has as much of a fresh experience watching the movie as Kirk does — as our hero and everyman taking us through the narrative. And you don’t want to be ahead of him, you want to be enjoying it because there is a real thrill to having reactions to things unfolding rather than sort of having somewhere in the back of your head, a memory of a checklist from spoilers. So, I do buy into it, and there’s no lawyer hovering over me. It’s not like J.J. is going to slap my wrist.
So he’s not in the room right now listening?
He’s right here now with a gun pointed to my head saying, “If you fucking tell him” [laughs]. Of course he’s not, though, I wish he was because that would have made him laugh. I went to see “Super 8,” and I didn’t know what was in that train. And if you haven’t seen the film, I’m still not going to tell you. It’s a real thrill.
And I know what it’s like to have things spoiled. I was a bit too fast on the draw when I went to see — and this isn’t me blowing my own trumpet; I rarely guess things right. But, I was with a friend in “The Sixth Sense,” the first few scenes, in the first moment after the incident when Bruce Willis is sitting on the bench…
Wait, you guessed it right there?
I said, “He’s a ghost, right?” My friend went, “You motherfucker.”
You ruined the whole point of the movie.
But I didn’t mean to! I thought it was really clear to me for some reason. I just really got it.
I’ll admit, I didn’t see that one coming.
Listen. Trust me. That was a rare fluke. I rarely, rarely do.
Let’s put it this way: Do you worry about your villain being compared to other popular actors who have played other popular “Star Trek” villains?
Well, I’m having someone frown at me from Paramount when that question was said. All I will say is that I’ve got so much respect for anyone — and I’ve got friends who have been villains, not just in “Star Trek,” but other franchises. I’m friends with Tom Hardy [Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”] and I thought he did a fantastic job. And, again, it came from an interesting place like my character, which was based in an emotional truth. He was seeking vengeance for the destruction or the annihilation of his family. All I would say is that I really, richly enjoyed going back and watching other actors in all of the iconic roles in this incredible franchise. It’s just a great, great honor to now be among their number. That’s all I can say on that.
Just like I didn’t expect you to be in a “Star Trek” movie, for “The Hobbit,” you are not the first person I think of when I hear “dragon voice.”
You’re not the only one. I didn’t think I’d be a go-to dragon. Basically, I auditioned for it. And I really wanted the part because I really wanted to do motion-capture. And my father read me the story when I was a child, and it was just a great, full circle, to be able to pay back the compliment. The imagination he fired up at such a young age of having this fantastic, rich, vivid story illuminated by an actor — which he is — and so beautifully characterized as he did with bedtime reads as a kid, it’s something thatreally made me want to be a part of it. I was never really into “The Lord of the Rings,” but “The Hobbit” was really a defining moment for me as a kid growing up. So, I was over the moon when Peter [Jackson] thought — surprisingly, to the world — that I would be right for his dragon.
I didn’t realize that you auditioned.
I went in and auditioned for it and met him in person. And he kept on making me read all of these other characters. I said, “Peter, I’m really flattered, but I would give all of your interest up in any of these other characters and sort of throw the bet all on the one I really want to play, which is the dragon.” He’s like, “Oh, no, no. It’s in the bag, mate. You nailed that audition.” I said, “Really?” He said, “He totally got what we want from you and that’s very exciting, but you could possibly be three or four other parts.” I was like, “What?” That was a secret I kept to myself for a while — and I don’t want to talk about that too much because, again, that’s another franchise and I know they want to keep that all for when it kicks off this winter. But I will say this: Not only is he a delightful man, he’s as delightful to work for as he is a person.
I’ve interviewed him a couple of times. He seems very nice.
He’s lovely, isn’t he? He’s so modest. You think, this guy plodding around barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt is in charge of the most extraordinary film empire — and he’s kind of built his own studio around those projects.
Benicio Del Toro was quite publicly offered your “Star Trek” role first. When it’s that public, can ego enter into the equation? In a “Why wasn’t I approached first” kind of way?
Are you kidding me? I mean, no. I’m kind of bamboozled by the idea that I should be fussed about who might not want to play this part before me or might not have been right for this part. You know, I adored the first film and the idea of being a central focus of the film in the sense that this character really does hit with logic and human emotion. Kirk against Spock, in many ways. There’s just so much to get ahold of as an actor, whether it’s the psychological mind-play, or the sort of kick-ass strength of the one-man weapon of mass destruction — whether it’s weaponry or hand-to-hand combat. Or whether it’s doing incredible stunts and those fight sequences involving those characteristics. Or whether it’s trying to get into the mind of both Kirk and, therefore, the audience — to empathize with his cause with this incredibly and morally certain reasoning behind what he does. To say, “Nah, I’m not interested in that,” because somebody else didn’t want to do it would be bonkers.