Even Benedict Cumberbatch gets road rage.
Midway through our phone interview to talk about his highly buzzed performance in The Imitation Game, the actor begins raising his voice.
“Look at that sign!” he exclaims, temporarily making me wonder if I’ve missed something – a metaphor, maybe? – in our thus far polite, if static-filled, conversation. Then he apologizes.
“Idiot driver,” he mutters, probably from the back of a London cab. “There’s a sign about who has the right of way, of course telling him to wait.”
Oh, what I’d give to be a passerby seeing Cumberbatch’s pale, inquisitive, highly recognizable noggin pop out of a car window to chew someone out. Look, it’s Sherlock!
You don’t achieve his level of fame without a good idea of where you’re heading. The hit BBC TV series based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, which earned him an Emmy two weeks ago, has made him a household name.
And he’s demonstrated his range playing everyone from Frankenstein and the creature (alternating in roles with that other Sherlock, Jonny Lee Miller, in Danny Boyle’s stage version of Mary Shelley’s book) to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (in TIFF 2013’s disappointing opener The Fifth Estate) and evil genius Khan in the sci-fi blockbuster Star Trek Into Darkness.
Next year the man with the most unlikely movie star name is set to play the Mount Everest of acting challenges, Hamlet, onstage in London. But good luck getting a ticket. After they were announced, 100,000 seats sold out in minutes.
And along with his voice work for the granddaddy of all dragons, Smaug, in The Hobbit films, Cumberbatch is playing another non-human villain, Shere Khan, in his Hobbit co-star Andy Serkis’s new version of The Jungle Book. In fact, as we speak he’s on a lunch break from filming it.
Which might explain why he was eager to play Alan Turing in The Imitation Game after Leonardo DiCaprio bowed out of the project. Turing was the brilliant mathematician who helped break the Nazis’ Enigma code during the Second World War, essentially building the foundations of the modern computer.
Turing was also gay, and in the 1950s was arrested for it. Rather than go to prison, he agreed to experimental hormone therapy – essentially chemical castration. He killed himself in 1954.
“He was one of hundreds of thousands of men who were persecuted,” says the actor. “The 50s here were an era of McCarthyist repression and intolerance.”
In fact, it was Turing’s personal story, and not his intellectual feats, that made Cumberbatch want the role, which brings out shades of vulnerability, shame and fear that his fiercely loyal Sherlock fans haven’t seen before.
“At the end, he was at his physical and wits’ end,” says Cumberbatch. “Everything he had was going: his intellect, his stature as a human being, his health. He became a shell of what he was. And that upset me, to strip him down to that level.”
No method techniques were required to get into character.
“Often, as an actor, you draw on your own experience or memories, but I really didn’t have to here,” he says. “He got under my skin. It was just so pitiful. Imagining the physical weakness, the vulnerability, the exhaustion, how the hormones affected his emotional state…. It was all ungovernable.”
After meeting with director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters), the actor agreed that it was very important to humanize one of the world’s greatest thinkers and pioneers.
“If you open up books by Turing, they’re impossible to make sense of unless you’re a maths PhD,” he says, adding with a chuckle that he’s always been terrible at the subject.
“Naturally, the way in was to look for the human story. And his is so heartbreaking. The story isn’t just a human tragedy but also a tense thriller, and the emotional line between the characters is strong.”
Loosely based on The Enigma, mathematician Andrew Hodges’s book about Turing, Graham Moore’s screenplay shuttles back and forth between Turing’s wartime work at Bletchley Park, surrounded by other brilliant minds trying to crack the Enigma code; his childhood, where he shares a gift for solving puzzles with a friend and begins recognizing his burgeoning sexuality; and post-war life in Manchester, where he’s interrogated by a cop after clues to a burglary suggest the suspect might be one of Turing’s lovers.
The script also includes a chaste relationship between Turing and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley, reuniting with her Atonement co-star), another Bletchley Park code breaker. The two were briefly engaged, although Turing knew he was gay.
The Sunday Times reported that Hodges has criticized the film for its “alarming inaccuracies,” including making much more of the Turing-Clarke relationship.
“It’s artistic licence – that’s what drama does,” says Cumberbatch. “You do at some point have to speculate. I imagine it was pretty clear that [Turing] knew what his sexuality was. I don’t think Joan was that naive. She was young.
“This same man [Hodges] was up in arms about the fact that there was a ‘heterosexual romance.’ There’s absolutely no implication or suggestion that there’s anything physical going on between them. By that rationale we should never make films about anyone who’s ever lived. It’s a stupid argument.”
Speaking of romance, Cumberbatch laughs when I ask if he’s getting used to his status as a sex symbol.
“I don’t see it…” he begins, modestly. Then he chooses another tack.
“I’m very flattered. And it makes my mom proud. I suppose it’s a nice reflection on the work. That people feel something for me after 15 years of working as an actor.”