Interview by Nigel M. Smith
The BBC’s “Sherlock,” the popular and critically acclaimed modern day take on the iconic British sleuth, returns for a second season this Sunday on PBS (9pm ET) in the US. The three new feature-length episodes — which find Holmes butting heads with his female counterpart Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) and going up against criminal mastermind Jim Moriarty — premiered to stellar numbers earlier this year in the UK, where its star, the dashing and extremely eloquent Benedict Cumberbatch (best known here for his supporting turns in “Atonement” and “War Horse”), has gone on to become a bona fide star since the first season caught fire with audiences.
It’s little wonder “Sherlock” has gone over so well with fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation and newcomers alike. Without ever paying mention do any earlier incarnations of Holmes, the series (and Cumberbatch’s Holmes for that matter) is both fresh and familiar. This isn’t the action-star Holmes of the Guy Ritchie films; this Holmes (as envisioned by series co-creator Steven Moffat, who also worked his magic on revamping “Doctor Who”) is closer to what Conan Doyle’s initially envisioned — Holmes as all work and no play. It’s just this time around, Holmes has some nifty gadgets to help him out.
Cumberbatch, currently in the midst of shooting J.J. Abrams’ sequel to his hit “Star Trek” reboot (he’s playing the main baddie, Khan Noonien Sing), spoke with Indiewire about the latest season of “Sherlock,” the character’s non-existent sex drive, and what he has in common with Holmes.
Sherlock’s not exactly a people person; I’m therefore a little intimated to speak to you…
No he’s not [laughs]. He’s pretty judgmental. That’s one quality. He’s got a God complex. I think he thinks he’s not human, so therefore anyone that is is just a letdown to him.
How in your mind does this new take on Holmes differ from the other ones that’ve come before?
“It’s all about the game. The game is on, the hunt is on. He’s an animal on the scent.”
I don’t think he’s that radically different from the Holmes of the books. Let’s talk about his moods first of all — the high and the low. He has this manic ability whereby the highs are when he has a case and when he’s solving it. The lows or the anger (or any other color in between) have to do with the frustrations he has with other people’s thinking or their inadequacies. Ineptitude stretches his patience.
I know a lot of people like that. I don’t think it’s because of me that they painted it that way. I think it’s a very apparent in the book that his glee and his joy comes at the beginning of the case and when he’s solved it. It’s all about the game. The game is on, the hunt is on. He’s an animal on the scent. Where things differ in the second series is that Steven and Mark [Gatiss, co-creator] started to write to my strengths and also to test me as well. I said, “For God’s sake, don’t let me do more of the same.”
At the beginning they thought of me as a good fit, but they had already written the pilot episode by the time I was meeting them. I did a little reading for them in a living room where I was given tea and biscuits. I actually had a biscuit, which is very not Sherlock Holmes. I thought I might lose the job because of that!
So I think they catered to me more in the second series, especially with regard to relationships — such as the relationship between Mrs. Hudson and Holmes. Steven saw how familiar we were. Mrs. Hudson is like my mom on set; I mean that in the best possible sense. My mom’s a wonderful woman, and she mothers me when she doesn’t need to. Mrs. Hudson is of the same generation. Steven saw that closeness and care and added that into the second series, as you’ll see.
No, it’s never going to be romance with him. They play with each other like predators. It’s pretty sick; they’re both damaged people. There’s no sentiment. But what is painfully romantic — like in all the best love stories — is what’s left unspoken. Is there a sexual element to it? Without a doubt there is. But as you’ll see it’s a game of chess, and it’s a very cruel, cruel game of love, if it is love.
Given that she wasn’t around in the first season, how did you wrap your head around Sherlock’s non-existent sex drive?
Well, I see no reason at all why he shouldn’t be sexual. Everyone recruited him to their perspective, their interpretation. I’ve had asexuals come up to me and thank me for representing asexuals. I don’t know how that came about. I mean, the man’s too busy to have sex. That’s really what is it. Not every man has a sex drive that needs to be attended to. Like a lot of things in his life where he’s purposely dehumanized himself, it’s do to with not wanting the stuff that is time wasting, that’s messy. That goes for certain relationships, as well as sexual intimacy.
He’s the ultimate outsider hero. He’s a very difficult, odd entity. To the Victorian eye he’s an eccentric, but I think he has purposely repressed those things. So in my mind the idea (as it is in the original book), it seems born out of how he views women and humanity in general.
As a child, I think he basically really did put all that stuff aside. In this series, it’s about him coming to terms with the fact that he can do a better job if he has a little bit of morality, feeling and emotion; to be able to play with those things without necessarily being taken over by them. I just think that enriches the character.
With any interpretation of this character, everyone has their own goals or starting point. For me, the idea that we’re doing him young at the beginning is terrific, whilst we’re adhering to a lot of the details in the book. I always go back to them as source for decisions on physicality, mood and/or temperament. It’s done with such a forensic eye that you’d be a fool to turn your back on the original books.
And it’s written by true fan boys. Steve and Mark are no doubt the biggest fans of Sherlock Holmes ever. They’re getting to do what any fan would ever want to do — sit in that world. We’re honoring it and we’re also giving it a modern twist by bringing it into the 20th century. That’s our idea, it’s the BBC’s idea. We’re very proud of them for letting us do it. We love doing it. It’s great to be here. Such an extraordinary thing happened with the series: it’s become a national obsession. My stock’s gone up a bit, as has Martin’s.
About that stock…what can you tell me about your role in the upcoming “Star Trek” film?
I’m having great fun on “Star Trek,” but I can’t talk about it. It’s nice to have variety in your work.
That was the only way I could record my audition and send it. It was the middle of Christmas and all of the casting directors in the UK were on holiday, so I had to do it myself. I did in a kitchen. Kind of old fashioned but with new technology — a bit like Sherlock I guess.
Did you don any prosthetics for the on-camera audition?
Prosthetics, did you wear any?
The line’s really bad, I can’t hear what you’re saying. [Maniacal laugh]
I hear what you’re saying. You’re not going to draw me out.
I’m not getting anything from you, am I.
No you’re not [laughs].
Just listening to you speak, I’m reminded of Sherlock. You’re a fast, but very calculated speaker. You seem to operate at warp speed compared to us mere mortals.
I wish I did.
Just before we started, this lady’s hand reached over to dial the numbers on the telephone key pad. I went, “You’ve a cat haven’t you? Have you traveled with it recently?” And she’s like, “Yes I have a cat, and I’ve just been on a plane with it.” I guess I’ve got a tiny smudge of his perception talents.