By John Hiscock
It’s been a long night but Benedict Cumberbatch is up early and looking fresh and alert. This is thanks in part to a make-up man who is in attendance to make sure his hair is combed and slicked down and he looks his best for a day of interviews, photographs and greeting the fans who follow him everywhere.
The previous evening, shortly after his arrival from London, he walked the red carpet on the opening night of the Toronto Film Festival and faced a phalanx of photographers for the premiere of The Fifth Estate, in which he plays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. It was the first of many such public parades awaiting him during the next few days. Although he is an old hand at red carpets by now he still manages to sound boyishly enthusiastic.
“The red carpet was incredible,” he says. “It was a very long press line after I’d had no sleep and was feeling jet-lagged so it was quite extreme. But I’m thrilled and it’s an embarrassment of riches. I’ve never been here before as a punter let alone to be participating in three films, so I’m very thrilled.”
Because of the three films having their premieres at the festival the 37-year-old actor is among the most in-demand stars in the city. The Fifth Estate, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, in which he plays a guilt-stricken slave owner, and August: Osage County, in which he co-stars with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts as a family black sheep, are all being talked about as possible Oscar contenders. But it is The Fifth Estate, a film that reignites the public debate over secrecy, security and whistle-blowing in the Internet era, which is currently commanding most of the attention and festival buzz.
Based on a book by Assange’s former partner, Daniel Domscheit-Berg and directed by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls), The Fifth Estate was made in the face of strident opposition from Assange himself who, in a brief exchange of emails, pleaded with Cumberbatch not to associate himself with it. “He reached out to me and said he didn’t want me to do it and couldn’t condone it because he said the book and source materials we’ve based the movie on were poisonous and hazardous to his situation,” says Cumberbatch when we talk in a Toronto hotel room the morning after the premiere. “I wrote back trying to justify why I thought it was important to bring this version of events to the world and how it wasn’t as negative as he feared it would be.”
The Fifth Estate tells Assange’s story from 2007-2010 and ends with Bradley Manning’s leaking of the classified US military files.
“At first I panicked about how on earth I was going to do this because there was so much to take on – vocally, physically and just confronting the full import of the story,” says Cumberbatch. “I did a lot of soul-searching. Reading the source material books was exciting but because Julian despised the people who wrote them I went to other material, including interviews he had given.
“It was important to me to try and humanise him and paint as three dimensional a portrait as possible. I didn’t want to portray him either as a villain or a hero. He is incredibly well informed and has great integrity. Whatever you think of him, for him to devote his life to a cause he believes in is pretty phenomenal.”
Cumberbatch talks quickly, quietly and eloquently, and has appealing, self-deprecating sense of humour. He is smartly dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie with a white handkerchief tucked into the top pocket of his jacket. “The suit’s a bit long in the arms and legs,” he says half-apologetically. “I feel like I’m wearing a train.”
He was Condon’s first and only choice for the Assange role because, says Condon, “Benedict is an actor we still want to know more about and that’s so appropriate for Julian Assange.”
An ever-growing army of female fans, who call themselves “Cumberbitches”, would like to know more about him, too.
He is amused at the attention his looks are attracting, particularly in America, where he is rapidly becoming a heartthrob thanks to the Sherlock Holmes television series and his attention-getting role as the villainous Khan in JJ Abrams’s Stark Trek Into Darkness. “It’s interesting and it’s something I’m processing,” he says of the attention. “It’s new to me and I’m sure I’ll get used to it and find a way of dealing with it. I’m not uncomfortable with the way I look and I find it kind of amusing. I’m very flattered by it but it’s, you know… amusing.
“But I was a little disturbed when I heard about the Cumberbitches because I think they set feminism back a few years.”
Unattached after splitting with girlfriend Anna Jones following a 12-year relationship with Olivia Poulet, he likes to keep his private life closed to outsiders and avoids talking about girlfriends. “I draw the line about answering questions like that,” he says with a polite smile. “I’m not a commitment-phobe and I was in a relationship for 12 years. But am I in a relationship now? Not right at the moment.”
The man with the unlikely marquee name, Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch, was born in north London to British actors Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, both of whom had long and successful careers in movies and television.
“They worked incredibly hard and I was very spoilt,” he says matter-of-factly. “I had a good education and they sent me to Harrow, although they weren’t particularly moneyed. Mum did a lot of commercial theatre and farces in the Eighties and Nineties to make sure the school bills were paid.”
Initially Cumberbatch thought he wanted to become a lawyer, a choice his parents strongly supported. But they were not so happy when he decided instead that he wanted to follow in their footsteps and become an actor. “They wanted me to do a grown-up job and be a barrister, but they understood my decision and I was at university playing Salieri in Amadeus when my dad said to me, ‘You’re better than I ever was or ever will be. You’ll have a good time doing this and I’m going to support you.’
“It was a huge thing for a man to say to his son and it was very humbling and moving and one of the reasons I get out of bed in the morning and try to do the best I can is to make them proud.”
After taking a year off to teach English in a Tibetan monastery he attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and began appearing in stage productions and also landing guest starring roles in TV dramas such as Silent Witness and Cambridge Spies.
He starred in the TV biopic Hawking about the early days of physicist Stephen Hawking and appeared in the movies Atonement and The Other Boleyn Girl. Then, after a string of British films and TV projects, he became internationally known as Sherlock.
He continued to make waves with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and after he appeared in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, the filmmaker recommended him to Star Trek director JJ Abrams, who hired him on the strength of an audition video he did in a friend’s kitchen that was shot and sent with an iPhone.
For Cumberbatch it was his entry into the world of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, although he is determined never to abandon smaller, independent projects. After filming his dual roles as the Necromancer and Smaug the dragon in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Hobbit and with the three films premiering in Toronto behind him, he is about to begin filming The Imitation Game in which he plays World War 11 Enigma code cracker Alan Turing. Then he will play the 1920s Amazon explorer Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z, a role originally intended for Brad Pitt.
“It’s a brilliant script and Percy Fawcett was an incredible man – a pioneer and adventurer. The idea of portraying him excites and intrigues me,” he says.
There are persistent rumours that he is also in line for a starring role in Abrams’s new Star Wars film, but he insists that nothing has been offered to him – yet.
“Of course I’d love to do Star Wars and work with JJ Abrams again because we had such a good time on Star Trek,” he says. “But nobody has been cast and there are no offers out to anyone apart from the regulars who are returning. So that’s that rumour quashed.” Then he adds with a grin: “We’ll have to wait and see.”
As we talk, there are hordes of fans waiting for him outside the hotel, held back behind barriers. Actors less famous than Benedict Cumberbatch have had their heads turned by the trappings of celebrity but, he Cumberbatch is keen to keep it in perspective: “My family, my close friends and people I have known for a long time keep me grounded. They see me as I was then as well as what’s happening to me now. Because they knew me before all this -” he gestures around him – “they can see the insanity of it all. And I try to keep it balanced.”
The Fifth Estate is released on October 11