By Gina Mcintyre
Settle in and make yourselves comfortable. Benedict Cumberbatch is taking off his tie.
Only a few minutes into an interview about his villainous turn in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” the English actor was all apologies for the distraction. But a painful pinched nerve required some tending to before he walked the red carpet at the New York premiere of J.J. Abrams’ highly anticipated sequel.
A pinched nerve in the left shoulder? Perhaps Cumberbatch has been spending too much time in the company of angry Vulcans of late?
“Ah, I see what you did there,” Cumberbatch said with a laugh. “Those who pay attention to these things will notice that’s the one that Zach grabs in the film.”
Zach, of course, is Zachary Quinto, who, in reprising his role as Mr. Spock for “Into Darkness,” spends considerable time pursuing, punching and, yes, Vulcan nerve-pinching his wily foe.
Set roughly one year after the events depicted in Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” reboot, “Into Darkness” sees Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock and the rest of the USS Enterprise crew reunite in the face of a new enemy who turns out to be one of the most memorable villains in all of “Trek” lore.
The true identity of Cumberbatch’s character, who’s introduced as John Harrison, has been the subject of widespread speculation since the film headed into production. Abrams is famous for guarding the details of his projects, but “Into Darkness” took the cloak-and-dagger mystery to a new level.
As the film beams into theaters this weekend on a course toward a roughly $100-million opening, the secret is out — the twist has been revealed publicly in at least one film review, on Wikipedia and on the Internet Movie Database. Though as recently as late last week, Cumberbatch, speaking by phone from New York, was keeping mum.
“I think [being surprised by what’s in a film is] a rare thing in our day and age where you have a super saturation of media over-publicizing every detail or spoilers in adverts or trailers,” he said. “That’s what it should be about, going to the movies. It shouldn’t be about ticking off a list of, ‘Yeah, I heard that was going to happen.’”
If anyone should understand the ephemeral nature of mysteries, it’s Cumberbatch. His portrayal of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective in the BBC’s “Sherlock” has brought him considerable acclaim and has helped catapult him into a variety of high-profile film roles.
Later this year he’ll appear opposite Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s historical drama “12 Years a Slave”; he’ll take the screen with Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep in “August: Osage County”; and he’ll play Julian Assange in the fact-based drama “The Fifth Estate” from director Bill Condon.
He’ll also take center stage as an ancient, powerful dragon in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” when Peter Jackson’s second installment in his planned trilogy opens in December.
Cumberbatch said he tries to trip up expectations in “the politest ways” when choosing roles. “Into Darkness” certainly sees him wearing the mantle of action antihero more overtly than ever before, though it’s the sequences in which he attempts to manipulate Kirk and Spock with his cool intellect and seductive baritone that perhaps most directly capitalize on the actor’s signature skill set.
“Mr. Cumberbatch, pale and intense, has become the object of a global fan cult, and it’s easy to see why,” the New York Times’ A.O. Scott wrote in his review of the film. “He fuses Byronic charisma with an impatient, imperious intelligence that seems to raise the ambient I.Q. whenever he’s on screen.”
Just a few weeks after landing his part (originally offered to Benicio del Toro), Cumberbatch found himself fighting with Vulcans and Klingons, jumping through exploding glass doors on spaceships and running through the streets of Los Angeles, which stood in for the San Francisco of the future where Starfleet Headquarters is based in the film.
“There was one particular moment where I was being dragged along the floor of Playa Vista, the famous Howard Hughes studio, the birthplace of the Spruce Goose, at 60 miles per hour at 1 o’clock in the morning in a spacesuit. My character’s in control, but as an actor, the minute after I did my thing as a character I stood up and said, ‘Did everyone see that? That was amazing, can we do it again?’”
It was an interesting experience for an actor who doesn’t profess to be overly studied on “Trek” canon, though he does have a healthy respect for the creative legacy of “Star Trek” godfather Gene Roddenberry.
“‘Star Trek’ works in subtle ways,” he said. “There’re such condensed, incredibly beautifully drawn characters that are very now even though it’s a future-scape with loads of rich imaginative detail for fans to obsess over. The actual core content of the story is universal in time and place.”
Cumberbatch certainly could have a future with the franchise, though little is clear about what specific shape a third “Trek” film might take. Paramount has said Abrams will at least produce another “Trek” movie, though he’ll next direct a new “Star Wars” film that Disney intends to release in 2015.
For his part, Cumberbatch simply seems to be enjoying his newfound status as a larger-than-life Hollywood heavy. Apparently, evildoing has its own unique rewards.
“I’ve just driven past a phone booth, with my face, the poster they use of me for the film, it’s amazing,” he said. “To be in the middle of New York, a city I’ve always loved, and going to the premiere and seeing myself on a side of a phone booth, I think you’d have to be made of stone not to feel something.”