New Sherlock Holmes Benedict Cumberbatch on playing a sociopath

Interview by Michelle Kung

Last year, British director Guy Ritchie updated super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes by casting Robert Downey, Jr. as a fast-talking, boxing-adept version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s storied detective in a new film adaptation. For all its whiz-bang special effects and CGI backgrounds, however, Ritchie’s version was still set in the 19th century.

But a truly modernized, 21st century Holmes debuts with “Sherlock,” a three-part television film series that recasts the detective as a self-described “high-functioning sociopath” who now texts instead of types and plasters nicotine patches on his arm instead of smoking a pipe.

“Sherlock,” which premiered to high ratings in the U.K. earlier this summer and will air in three installments on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery beginning this Sunday, was co-created by Steven Moffat (“Doctor Who,” “Coupling”) and Mark Gatiss, who co-stars in the series as Holmes’ brother Mycroft. Martin Freeman, star of the U.K. version of “The Office” and confirmed to play Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit,” was tapped to place Dr. John Watson — now a retired army doctor just returned from Afghanistan and in need of a flatmate, given central London’s soaring rent costs.

Enter Holmes, a brilliant, but blunt and not particularly people-friendly young man who volunteers his services to Scotland Yard to satisfy his boredom. The new Holmes is adroitly played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Though the 34-year-old British actor has made a name for himself in British films and mini-series, he’s largely unknown in the U.S., aside from small roles in period dramas like “Atonement” and “The Other Boleyn Girl” — a status that may soon change. He wrapped a role as Major Stewart in the Steven Spielberg-directed “War Horse” and is currently shooting “Let the Right One In” director Tomas Alfredson’s take on John le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”

The Wall Street Journal: Why has the character of Sherlock Holmes remained so relevant?

Even in Victorian times, the character of Holmes was at the forefront of forensic science, pathology, and psychology — he’s always been modern. Our version has a bit of fun with the old idea, that many purists hold, of Sherlock as a fastidious old detective; ours is done with fun, but also reverence for the original. It’s an exciting idea, and was done for the same reason that James Bond was re-written for the 21st century. There’s also a timelessness to Holmes that if handled by the right people, can continue to entertain for years.

We have to ask — who’s your favorite Holmes portrayer?

Robert Downey, Jr., he’s so great, but he’s not my Holmes. Mine would have to be Jeremy [Brett] or Basil [Rathbone] in black-and-white.

The first episode airing in the U.S., “A Study in Pink,” is a great way to introduce the new Holmes, and features the visual cues — text messages, for one — that distinguish the series.

It’s a really brilliant episode. Steven Moffat is a genius to be able to collate so much information into one episode — he not only establishes Holmes’ personal and work relationships, but also mentions Moriarty and introduces an element of mystery. The middle episode is more of an ‘adventure of the week” but the third episode is a real pressure cooker, because we get to see a side of Holmes that’s anti-heroic. Not just because he’s short-tempered and dismissive of mediocrity, but he’s work-obsessed.

What do you think of the format of having three 90-minute shows, as opposed to a more traditional (for the U.K.) 13-episode season?

As Spielberg has said, the three episodes we did do are very visually arresting, which is fantastic. If the series had been episodic and shorter, it wouldn’t have been quite so classy.

Given how busy you and Martin are, I’m sure it’s going to be challenging to find a time when everyone is free to shoot the next several installments of the series.

It’s great simply knowing that we’re going to do more episodes. I get peeved when people say that the show’s being pushed back because of Martin’s work on “The Hobbit.” We would both happily return to working on “Sherlock,” and Martin actually initially said no to doing “The Hobbit” because he thought it would conflict with shooting “Sherlock.” Now, they’re working around his schedule. I obviously want him to have the experience of being the hairy-footed one.

How was it working with Martin?

He’s extraordinary. During auditions, the minute he stepped into the room I said to the producers, I don’t know if you want my opinion, but I want to work with him, because he makes my game better. I honestly felt myself get better as an actor playing scenes opposite him — he has brilliant level of humanity. We all know how funny he can be from his work of “The Office,” but he can also play so much pathos — it’s an unsung talent of his that’s often clouded by his “Office” fame.