Interview by Olly Grant
Early evening at London’s British Film Institute, venue for the Sherlock season two premiere, and I think it’s fair to say the 450-strong crowd is in a state of fevered anticipation. At least the two youngsters behind me are. One of them has just spotted its star, Benedict Cumberbatch. “Imagine if he was sitting right here!” she whispers hoarsely. They imagine. It’s almost overwhelming. “Ooh, I want to tweet!” gasps her friend. “I want to tweet!”
To say that Sherlock has developed a vast and cult following over the past 18 months is an understatement. The series, a modern-day reimagining of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, first launched on BBC One in 2010 and became an instant sensation, trending on Twitter within minutes of going on air. Ratings climbed to over an amazing nine million during its three-episode run – five million is usually something to be proud of. Since then the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, has sold it to 180-plus global territories. Its fanbase stretches from smitten schoolchildren to Hollywood giants.
And it is Cumberbatch’s mesmerising performance as a speed-talking brainiac, so lacking in human empathy he appears to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum, that has been the key focus of all the attention. Steven Spielberg recently called him “the best Sherlock Holmes on screen” – some tribute, given that there have been more than 70 of them. As Cumberbatch himself more phlegmatically puts it, “Holmes’s neurotic, thin, high-pitched personality is something I have to get used to.”
The product justifies the hype. Written by two Conan Doyle “geeks”,Doctor Who collaborators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, Sherlock’s first series fizzed with ingenuity and confidence, making liberal use of 21st-century techno-clutter (mobiles, laptops, GPS and text messages that broke the fourth wall to float across the screen) without compromising the spirit of the original books.
The dazzling success of the whole thing made series two oddly hard to make for Cumberbatch. “When I first went back to playing the part, it felt like a pale impression,” he reflects, when I meet up with him a couple of days after the Sherlock screening, swilling coffee in his local pub in Hampstead. He chatters freely and with rapier speed – one thing he shares with his onscreen alter ego.
The programe has transformed his profile. Pre-Sherlock, the 35 year-old had put himself on the cognoscenti’s radar with a string of lauded screen and stage work: the BBC’s Stuart: A Life Backwards; a scene-stealing turn in the film Atonement; and the lead in the National Theatre’s pitch-perfect Terence Rattigan After the Dance.
Post-Sherlock, he has metamorphosed into something bigger and odder – a pin-up. Odder, that is, because Cumberbatch, with his long face, blanched skin and very pale blue eyes, is not a conventional heart-throb. You can see why he was as much at ease playing the monster as his creator in the National’s recent adaptation of Frankenstein. And yet the swooning web interest in Cumberbatch is legion, from the “Cumberbitches” – a Twitter collective devoted to his daily appreciation – to endless blogs and forums.
The hysteria is likely only to accelerate over the next 12 months, since Cumberbatch has plum roles in three of 2012’s most anticipated projects. January sees the release of the first of them, Spielberg’s film version of the West End hit War Horse – the tale of a Devon teenager who follows his treasured steed into the trenches of First World War France – in which Cumberbatch plays “a professional military nut” called Major Stewart. Working with Spielberg, he says, was a delight. “He was incredibly avuncular and approachable.”
Sitting at the business end of a cavalry charge, with Spielberg hovering excitedly in the background, Cumberbatch says he suddenly understood why people believed the war might be won on horseback. “It sounds foolhardy, but when you’re in a charge of 80 horses, you feel invincible.”
War Horse debuts on January 13, by which time Cumberbatch will be preparing for an even bigger role. He’s off to New Zealand to voice and “physicalise” the dragon in The Hobbit, in which Sherlock’s Martin Freeman stars as Bilbo Baggins, and Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf.
McKellen said Cumberbatch’s Smaug screen-test was amazing, I tell him. Cumberbatch splutters. “Has… has he seen it?” Actually, McKellen’s words were “electrifying – vocally and facially”. He looks ecstatic. “Wow! I’m very flattered.” He seems entirely sincere when he says this. He comes across, in general, as earnest – with a searching intelligence.
So how did Cumberbatch do the audition? “I went a little reptile on it,” he says, enigmatically. With filming approaching, he is now “starting to look at animations, and Komodo dragons at London Zoo. They have some amazing ones. Snakes, too. So I’ve been going there to see how the skeleton moves differently, what the head movements are like.” He says it’s all in the posture, and he crouches forward, swivelling his eyes snakily, to demonstrate.
Cumberbatch’s initial reference point for Smaug, interestingly, was his father, the actor Timothy Carlton. “The Hobbit was the first book I remember reading at bedtime, and he characterised the whole thing,” he explains. “It was the first imaginary landscape I had in my head, so it’s very close to me.”
You wonder if, as so often with British actors who hit the big time, the movie roles will bring an end to the fine TV work – even, whisper it, toSherlock. “God, no-no-no,” he says. “The other thing I’m doing is Parade’s End, which is a massive, five-part drama for HBO and the BBC, with Rebecca Hall and Stephen Graham.” The project, a Tom Stoppard adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Edwardian tetralogy, will be screened later this year. “I’m not loyal to one genre. I want to mix it up,” he says.
He is coy about Sherlock’s future, though; partly because the final episode of the new series is based on The Final Problem, in which Conan Doyle notoriously snuffed out Holmes via a Moriarty showdown at the Reichenbach Falls – a cliffhanger in every sense. “I should maybe say that I’m ready to say goodbye to him, but I would miss him,” says Cumberbatch, choosing his words with Holmesian precision. “It’s much better to leave people wanting more.”
Does he look forward to a time when the Holmes hysteria has abated? “I don’t know how that happens, but yes,” he nods – though he is not unmindful of what hype can do for a career. “It’s a horrible thing to say, but it gives you the power to do the kind of work you want to do. So obviously, some of it’s constructive, and that’s the bit I’m interested in.”
Of course some of it must be enjoyable, too. As we leave, his phone buzzes. It’s a text from Eddie Redmayne, friend and fellow rising star. It ends: “I will always be your Cumberbitch. Eddie.” We laugh. These days even Cumberbatch’s friends are in his fan club. And he walks out into the winter sunshine, moving quickly before anyone spots the famous cheekbones and tweets them.