NPR – Sherlock, Smaug and Spying

Information that could ruin the British monarchy locked in a smartphone. A crime scene surveyed through the video camera of a laptop. A blogging Dr. Watson.

This is the world Sherlock Holmes inhabits in the BBC series Sherlock, a modern spin on the classic tales by Arthur Conan Doyle that reached American audiences in the fall of 2010. That’s also when a lot of us were introduced to Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor who plays Sherlock — and the purveyor of many an intense stare and quick calculation in that role.

Now he’s back: Sherlock’s second season begins Sunday on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS. Cumberbatch, who has since made appearances in the Oscar-nominated films War Horse andTinker Tailor Soldier Spy, says that for a time, acting wasn’t his intended career path.

“My mum and dad had worked incredibly hard to afford me an education,” Cumberbatch tells NPR’s David Greene. “I had the privilege of being able to choose, or at least have the opportunity to work at, being anything but an actor.”

Cumberbatch says his parents, actors themselves, were living proof of the vagaries of the profession, and while they made a living, that’s not the case for many. Cumberbatch initially was on a path to be a lawyer.

“As I was learning to be a barrister,” Cumberbatch says, “and choosing my levels around potentially doing Oxbridge and … all the rest of it, I just encountered loads of other people on the same course who said it’s so much down to chance and luck. And I thought, ‘Well, why am I giving up on my primary dream to work doubly hard to do something as an alternative to what I really still want to do?’ ”

One emotional turning point in Cumberbatch’s journey to acting came when he played the role of Antonio Salieri in a university production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.

In the Oscar-nominated Cold War thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Cumberbatch played Peter Guillam, one of several British secret agents suspected of being a Russian double agent.

“My father … turned to me,” Cumberbatch recalls, “and he said, ‘You’re better than I ever was or could be. You should do this for a profession — I think you’d have a good time.’ And that’s a huge thing for a man to say to his son, and — not necessarily true, I might add, he’s a wonderful actor himself — but it was so encouraging and supportive.”

Cumberbatch says it was “a moment of extraordinary humility and pride” — and that from then on, the knowledge of his parents’ confidence gave him the nerve to pursue acting professionally.

“It was always important to have their blessing,” Cumberbatch says, “and one of the reasons I get up in the morning is to make them proud.”

On Playing Villains And Sociopaths

On his similarities to Sherlock, Cumberbatch says he’s not nearly as smart — or quite as sociopathic — as his character, but he can understand where the investigator is coming from.

“I can be bit irate or impatient at times,” Cumberbatch says, “and my mum worries sometimes I might be turning into him. [Sometimes] I can sort of see the picture of what’s in front of me and expect everyone else to get it as fast as I do.”

Other times, he confesses, he can be incredibly slow when it comes to assimilating information.

Cumberbatch’s next major roles may stretch some decidedly more malevolent muscles. He plays Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit, and a villain in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek sequel — a role for which he auditioned via iPhone.

“My best friend, Adam Ackland, and his wife, Alice, basically helped me out,” Cumberbatch says. It was Christmas, and Cumberbatch couldn’t find a casting director to record an audition reel for him. “I was in a bit of a corner. … They recorded me in their kitchen at about 11 o’clock.”

As he makes the transition to doing more Hollywood roles, Cumberbatch says, he has had to endure his fair share of media gossip.

“It’s just like most press narratives,” Cumberbatch says. “It’s much more interesting to read that somebody’s sold his soul to the devil and has taken the golden handshake and gone off to Hollywood and has abandoned his homeland.”

In the wake of the inquiries into the News of the World scandal, Cumberbatch says, the British media especially are in for some soul-searching.

“[Rupert Murdoch] is being fingered, but the blame can be spread a lot wider,” Cumberbatch says. “But people will always knock you when you’re up. It’s fine — I can take the rough of this move, but it’s kind of disappointingly predictable.”