Role to Role:From Sherlock to Star Trek – New York Times – Dave Itzkoff – 26 April 2012
How skilled a secret keeper is Benedict Cumberbatch if he readily confesses the easiest method for extracting secrets from him?
Asked somewhat frivolously for information about one of the many coming projects he cannot talk about, Mr. Cumberbatch, the 35-year-old British actor, offered an equally facetious response.
“You could stick a knife in my thigh, and I wouldn’t tell you,” he said a few weeks ago, relaxing on the deck of the Venice, Calif., home where he was staying. But he added: “Pull the hair on my head the wrong way, and I would be on my knees begging for mercy. I have very sensitive follicles.”
Deeper still within his head were numerous vital details that Mr. Cumberbatch’s work required him to keep locked away. There was not much he could say about his dual roles as a necromancer and a talking dragon in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of “The Hobbit,” and even less about the part he was shooting in J. J. Abrams’s sequel to “Star Trek.” (“I’ve got to be a complete and utter tease,” he said, more gleeful than apologetic.)
What Mr. Cumberbatch can confirm is that these high-profile opportunities were made possible by the success of “Sherlock,” the television series that casts him as a cool and contemporary — if brutally rational — upgrade of Sherlock Holmes. It returns on May 6 for a second season on PBS’s “Masterpiece Mystery!”
In Britain, where “Sherlock” is shown on BBC One, the series has left millions of fans frantic to know the resolution of a season-ending cliffhanger, which American viewers have not yet seen, and transformed Mr. Cumberbatch (who already knows the outcome) from a well-regarded journeyman actor into a superstar.
And he makes no secret of his desire to see “Sherlock” enjoy similar acclaim in the land of “Mad Men” and “Modern Family.”
“I’m desperate for America to really take to this,” he said. “It has taken it into its heart as a cult thing, but I’d love it to hit the mainstream this time. Because I just think it’s of that quality, and it belongs there.”
In person the thin and muscular Mr. Cumberbatch shares the piercing gaze and sonorous, sinister voice of his Holmes but is warmer and more irreverent. He is a self-confessed motormouth and a relentless mimic who, over the course of an hour, adopted the shrieking voice of an admiring Valley girl; the Scottish burr of his friend and colleague James McAvoy; the synthesized speech of Stephen Hawking, whom he portrayed in a British TV movie; and the rapid, adenoidal clip of both Mr. Abrams and Steven Spielberg, who directed him in “War Horse.”
In similarly haphazard fashion Mr. Cumberbatch has spent the past 18 months ricocheting from role to role, in British stage productions like “After the Dance” and “Frankenstein” (for which he shared the Olivier Award this month with his co-star Jonny Lee Miller); a coming television version of “Parade’s End,” adapted by Tom Stoppard from the Ford Madox Ford novels; and films like “The Hobbit,” “War Horse” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
Last December, on vacation in Gloucestershire, England, he got the call that Mr. Abrams wanted him to submit a videotaped audition for “the not-so-good guy” (in Mr. Cumberbatch’s words) in the “Star Trek” sequel — and could not find anyone to film it for him.
“We observe this little Judeo-Christian cult holiday called Christmas,” Mr. Cumberbatch said sarcastically. “Whereas, you know, some kids in this part of town” — he circled his hands in the Los Angeles air — “with their Crackberrys, don’t.”
In a friend’s kitchen late at night, an agitated and weary Mr. Cumberbatch recorded his audition on an iPhone — “I was pretty strung out,” he said, “so that went into the performance” — and sent it to Mr. Abrams, only to be told the director was also on vacation.
Mr. Abrams, who saw the recording a few days later and hired Mr. Cumberbatch, wrote in an e-mail that it was “one of the most compelling audition readings I’d ever seen.”
But Mr. Abrams already knew this from Mr. Cumberbatch’s work on “Sherlock,” whose second season drew around 10 million viewers in Britain for each of three 90-minute episodes shown in January, according to the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board. (By contrast, in the United States, the first season averaged 4.6 million viewers per episode, PBS said.) On Tuesday, Mr. Cumberbatch’s work on the show earned him a Bafta award nomination for best actor.
Steven Moffat, the television producer who created “Sherlock” with Mark Gatiss, recognized similar qualities in Mr. Cumberbatch after seeing him play a quietly frightening character in “Atonement.”
“His look is quirky,” said Mr. Moffat, who also produces the BBC’s hit revival of “Doctor Who.” “His appeal is quite intellectual. He’s not conventionally handsome — handsome by any normal human standard. But the screen is very demanding.” Mr. Cumberbatch, he added, is “not ever going to play an ordinary man.”
Mr. Moffat — who met with no other actors for the role — said he saw in Mr. Cumberbatch an actor ideally suited to play Holmes, but also one who was ready for an assignment that would significantly raise his profile.
“Little boys like to be heroes,” Mr. Moffat said. “You get to wear the coat and swagger about, and girls think he’s sexy. There’s a lot of things that playing Stephen Hawking can do, but that’s probably not one of them.”
Mr. Cumberbatch realized too that “Sherlock” would shine a spotlight on him in a way he hadn’t previously experienced. “I knew it would accelerate wherever I was at,” he said. “And I thought, I’m ready for this.”
But the increased scrutiny that arrived as abruptly as his fame made him think otherwise. The address of his London home became public knowledge when he applied to expand his apartment into the one beneath it, and his breakup with a girlfriend he’d known since college was much discussed in the tabloids.
Since coming to California to work on “Star Trek,” Mr. Cumberbatch said, there had been “a huge blogging response to me selling out to Hollywood and dating a model and become a walking cliché. That was nice.” He also discovered a Web site that juxtaposes his facial expressions from “Sherlock” with images of otters in similar poses. He said it was “brilliant” and “fantastic.”
Mr. McAvoy, who appeared with Mr. Cumberbatch in “Atonement” and “Starter for 10,” said the toughest challenge he faced was not the glaring eye of fans or the news media but a self-imposed demand to live up to the expectations of his fellow actors.
“Your peers look at you and go, ‘All right, you’ve got this opportunity and this ability — step up and be good every time,’ ” Mr. McAvoy said.
Even so, he said that for as long as he had known Mr. Cumberbatch he has worked steadily in many enviable roles and “has occupied a position within the industry that people would chop his legs off to get, so I imagine he’s used to dealing with that sort of pressure.”
Season 2 of “Sherlock,” which presents 21st-century takes on the classic Holmes adventures “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Final Problem,” offers Mr. Cumberbatch further opportunity to build on his portrait of the consulting detective as a cocky but not fully formed young man.
Paired once again with Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman), Holmes is drawn further into his rivalry with the archfiend Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott) and meets the mysterious Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), who stirs some decidedly warm feelings beneath the character’s coldblooded facade.
“The most prominent attraction is of the mind,” Ms. Pulver said. “Otherwise it would have literally been an episode of two people wanting to rip each other’s clothes off, and we’ve all seen that.”
Though his Holmes is meant to be lacking in social graces, Mr. Cumberbatch rejected a popular interpretation that the character has Asperger syndrome.
“He’s a high-functioning sociopath,” he said. “He has a general disregard for standard codes of conduct, pleasantries, niceties. He wants to cut to the chase. He wants everything to be faster and better and purer.”
Mr. Cumberbatch could at least relate to this aspect of the character. He recalled an encounter he’d had in January at the Golden Globe Awards, where the PBS “Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton taunted him affectionately with a trophy that had just been won by “Downton Abbey.”
He said: “I just looked at it and went: ‘Begone, woman. Bring it back when it says “Sherlock Holmes” or Steven Moffat or myself — someone else who’s more deserving than the second series of “Downton Abbey.” ’ ”
Exhibiting a diplomacy that his Holmes is not known for, Mr. Cumberbatch stopped himself from saying anything more about the rival television series.
“I know too many people who are in it,” he said. “I thought the first series was good. That’s what I’ll say.”