Catching up with Benedict Cumberbatch at the Toronto International Film Festival is a bit of a sprint.
He’s here with a cluster bomb of rich performances in three prestige films: an Internet rebel in “The Fifth Estate,” a plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave” and an emotionally unsettled grown son in “August: Osage County.” Besides making room in a packed schedule to chat about the quintessential Cumberbatch characters, he’s also being followed by rabid fans, which he’s charming enough to acknowledge is still “a bit thrilling,” and rampant rumors.
It was his brilliantly deft handling of a modernist Holmes in the BBC series “Sherlock” that brought Cumberbatch the first wave of serious attention. It’s a vocal, radical, international group of fans and the actor finds himself amused that anyone is all that interested in “how I behave, who I’m behaving with.”
Only a day into the fest, word surfaced that he’d traded the high-end horror of “Crimson Peak” to step into the lead in the Amazon intrigue of “Lost City of Z” for Brad Pitt. Meanwhile, the will-he-or-won’t-he Sith Lord question continues to circle. A “Star Wars” studio source I bumped into Friday said, “definitely not.” But then “definitely not” was the party line on Khan, so I hold on to the hope that we might see a lightsaber in his hands.
I say that because Cumberbatch is so very, very good at being bad. “Maybe it’s that I bring good to the bad,” he laughs, settling in for a conversation about Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder at the center of “The Fifth Estate” — a role that’s tossed Cumberbatch’s name into the Oscar race.
For a time this year, the actor’s re-engineering of the genetically amped-up Khan in “Star Trek Into Darkness” stood as possibly his best use of extreme measures. A man unhinged by his own unique abilities, as Cumberbatch put it.
Constructing the flaws in specific terms, the actor believes, is some of the most important prep work he does. He’s always searching for the humanity in even the worst of the lot.
“I try to find why the actions may have a point, so people can at least see or empathize with the intentions or motivations,” the 37-year-old British actor explains. “With Khan, he’s a terrorist. But one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
Which is, in a sense, exactly how one might think of Assange. Cumberbatch absorbs the essence of the WikiLeaks founder so completely in “The Fifth Estate” you half expect him to show up with that startling shock of white hair, that haunted, hunted look.
He doesn’t, of course. He’s back to a rich auburn that is natural and the close-cropped style he favors. On this day, in fact, Cumberbatch is a study of warmth. A wardrobe of caramel and chocolate colors put together with a casual precision that suits him.
There’s a warm smile, easy laugh, and literally a glow when he talks of mum, dad, his childhood, his friends, all the things that keep him grounded while he’s moving at dizzying speeds on the professional front. The son of actors, Cumberbatch began his own tour of duty on stage around 8, a creative outlet for his excessive energy.
In the “Fifth Estate,” Cumberbatch’s task is to do to Assange what Assange did to corporations, governments and institutions: expose what’s behind the public face. Though the movie has its issues, Cumberbatch has never been as artful in revealing the calculations of an uncommon mind.
The actor sees Assange as more antihero than villain — a serial interrupter of the status quo, opening one can of worms after another, WikiLeaks his bully pulpit.
“What we see is a very strong front man for a very powerful, complex cause,” Cumberbatch says. “There’s reams of footage of him arguing, defending, debating his position and then, did you see the John Farnham video?”
He’s referring to Assange’s parody of the Aussie pop singer — a YouTube sensation the moment it landed in late August. It features Assange in a mullet belting out the Farnham hit “You’re the Voice.” “There I was struggling to give the man integrity and there he was — and I was thinking ‘Oh my God.'”
The actor portrays a much different man, at a different time in his life, “this revolutionary warrior. Inside is the element of having to trust certain people and then being betrayed — that’s just seismic.”
The betrayer is Daniel Domscheit-Berg, once Assange’s right-hand man. He’s played by Daniel Brühl, one of Cumberbatch’s close friends (who has a breakout role of his own this fall in “Rush”). That friendship worked to create a great on-screen chemistry as they weathered WikiLeaks storms. It also helped on Cumberbatch’s difficult days.
One of those days was a scene at a press conference when Assange is under attack. There were nearly 400 extras. “It was terrifying, having rehearsed it for weeks, still with stops and stumbling, having to do it again and again.”
It’s not always like that. “There are days when you find the sweet spot, you might be hanging upside down and stark naked, but everything’s placed right, you’re in the zone. It’s very empowering, but fleeting. The minute you think of it, it’s gone.”
Whether or not Cumberbatch feels it, the performances look as if he’s mostly in the zone. The BBC’s acclaimed “Hawking” made for remarkable watching as the actor captured both the vibrant mind and the failing body of the theoretical physicist. Or Christopher Tietjens in “Parade’s End.” Written by Tom Stoppard and currently up for five Emmys, including lead actor in a miniseries or movie for Cumberbatch, he plays a man in a class war of a very personal nature, torn between his nasty socialite wife and his sweet suffragette lover.
Of all his characters, Tietjens is the one Cumberbatch says he wishes he were more like. “He’s a very good man. I’ve thought a lot about his goodness, I really got under his skin.”
Though “12 Years a Slave” truly belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, the freeman sold into slavery, Cumberbatch has a meaty role as slave owner William Ford. By Northup’s own account, Ford was a decent man. His slaves were better cared for, beaten less and he could be compassionate. Though not enough to keep a mother and her children together. That’s a fine line to walk, but Cumberbatch does it by shouldering Ford’s shame. We see it, feel it.
In “August: Osage County,” he’s playing rather a mess; tears and self-recrimination come easily to “Little” Charles Aiken. But on set on “Osage” he found a model for the kind of career he hopes to have: Meryl Streep.
“I love what I do, and as long as the variations in characters are there and I’m still learning and progressing. It’s great to have the freedom to play the entire orchestra. I saw that working with Meryl Streep …,” his voice trails off, then a quick smile. “I think I’ve got lots of learning to do.”