BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH hesitated before accepting his latest role, in Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance at London’s National Theatre. The play’s depiction of bright young things in the interwar 1920s, whirling towards doom in a haze of cocktail parties, seemed too brittle, too clipped. And the part of David Scott-Fowler, the rich alcoholic monster of charm at its centre was, he says, “too easy, in terms of class” for the actor who has fought against typecasting throughout his career.
Cumberbatch, 34, has played Stephen Hawking and van Gogh on television and been in Ibsen and Ionescu on stage. He’s about to give his first take on an iconic role, playing Sherlock Holmes opposite Martin Freeman’s Dr Watson in a trio of 90-minute BBC films that transpose Conan Doyle’s stories to modern London. He also stars in the closing movie at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, Third Star, a buddy movie about a group of friends taking one last road trip together. Yet a whiff of the drawing room has clung ever since his parents, stalwart TV actors Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton (who changed his name from Cumberbatch), sent Benedict to public school in a bid to steer him into a “proper job”.
“I went to (Rattigan’s old school] Harrow. I was in his house there. I was even in the Ratt Soc’ (drama group],” says the fine-featured, blue-eyed Cumberbatch, ticking off the synchronicities on his fingers. “My first, big, silly role at school was as Arthur Crocker-Harris in Rattigan’s The Browning Version, where my job was to make schoolmasters’ wives weep with recognition. Everything that made me right for David also made me think, hmm, perhaps I’d like more of a challenge.”
But there was also the lure of making his National Theatre debut “which I came to as a kid with my parents, and on school trips with the Ratt Soc, and always went away from buzzing and inspired”. So he read After the Dance again, “and it got under my skin. There is an instant music to it but lots going on underneath. It was a time of repression, and the emotional impact of Rattigan’s plays lies in what he reserves and eventually lets go. All the nuances, that you sometimes mine hard for in vain with other writers, are there.”
He also realised the part was both a gift and a challenge. David Scott-Fowler is a witty Lord of Misrule, fatally attractive to women, who destroys everything around him. “The childish purity of his selfishness is hard to take but I have to like the character because people seem to fall in love with him,” he says. “I have to make him likeable in order for him not to be hateable.”
He is wary of making too strong a case for the play’s contemporary relevance, although he concedes that the imminence of the Second World War for the bright young things may accord with the prevalent sense of uncertainty in our own time. And he points out that a mixed elite of the privileged, the moneyed and the brilliant is still with us, including the self-destructive elements – “your Amy Winehouses or Pete Dohertys”.
He’s appearing in a class-bound play at a time when class and privilege, as manifested by the leaders of our coalition government, are back on the agenda. Is it easier to come out as a private school-educated posh boy now?
“Christ, no, I think you have to hide it more with Cameron in charge. But class has always been with us, it just moves into different areas. In Rattigan’s day it was incredibly stratified. What’s interesting now is how far class will be defined by money – what the tax rises and the income thresholds and the VAT increases will be.” Personally, he hopes the current instability at home and abroad will result in a more egalitarian society. Professionally, he’s a bit narked that, in the UK, he’s allowed to play above his social class but not below it, “whereas in America I could play everything from trailer-trash to Harvard-educated”.
He has a healthy attitude to his own upbringing. As an only child, born in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, he was “spoiled with love and affection, and very gregarious”, and sent to boarding school aged eight. “On Holmes, Martin (Freeman] kept saying, Oh yeah, you went to f***ing Hogwarts, didn’t you?’. And that’s what my schooldays were like: Swallows and Amazons and Hogwarts. Martin is spot-on that these schools are magical places if you know how to use them right.”
He appreciated the huge resources of Harrow, the abseiling and paragliding lessons, having a squash court-sized studio of his own to paint in, the chance to play Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at 14. But he was contemptuous of the caste of rich thickos who didn’t realise how lucky they were. On leaving, he set off for Manchester University, “where I’d meet a proper cross-section of people, whose parents both worked for a living”.
For a while, and probably much to his parents’ delight, he toyed with being a barrister. But the acting bug had bitten. “I did Glengarry Glen Ross when I was 19,” he says, “and afterwards my dad did this extraordinary thing. He said, ‘You are better than I ever was or will be and you can make a living at this.’ It knocked me sideways.”
Cumberbatch went on to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda), and says that his extended training possibly led him to miss out on the kind of lead roles in his early twenties that his friend James McAvoy has enjoyed. But they are coming to him now – David Scott-Fowler marks a distinct step up from juvenile leads to mature leading men. And then there’s the Sherlock Holmes tales.
The three prestige BBC films, shot in London and Wales and scripted by the dream team of Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat and the League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss, air later this year. “They honour the original spirit of the stories, and the updating works surprisingly well: it’s not naff, like doing Julius Caesar with laptops and mobile phones,” says Cumberbatch. “And Martin is great to work with. He can be funny at the drop of a hat but he’s also a very detailed, nuanced actor and a great sounding board. I can ask him, ‘Am I being a bit Brett, a bit Rathbone?'”
His Holmes will be in competition with Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander and the new TV dramas based on Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen mysteries, starring Rufus Sewell. “Rufus, who’s a mate of mine, gets Italy in spring, Ken Branagh gets Sweden in summer, and I get Cardiff and Newport in January and February,” Cumberbatch says mock-grumpily. Some days it was so cold he had to clasp hot water bottles to his cheeks in order to articulate Holmes’s quickfire deductions. A mark of his professionalism is that he soldiered on, believing he had a touch of flu, when in fact he’d caught pneumonia and had a temperature of 39.4C. Seeing the producers blench at the thought of shutting down production made him realise what a big deal the show was.
I wonder if graduating to more mature roles has changed him in his private life. He and his girlfriend, actress, writer and comedian Olivia Poulet, met at Manchester. They’ve been together 12 years, live together in Hampstead, and he’s talked recently about being broody.
He says now that he’s learned to stop blurting things like that out to journalists at parties: “But I’m at the age now where I can play dads, so it’s a new thing to put myself into that headspace.” They would like to have kids but are currently focused on work. “Then again, I think it’s something that always takes you by surprise,” he says. “When are you ever settled enough to have kids?”