Article in The Times Magazine on 11 May 2013
By Caitlin Moran
I don’t know if you remember, but some time last summer – between the end of the Olympics and the return of The X Factor – it briefly became the thing to have a go at Benedict Cumberbatch for being “a posho”.
However many times Cumberbatch tried to explain that he was “just middle class, really”, a sum kept being done, over and over: “Harrow education” + “called ‘Benedict Cumberbatch’ ” = “A man who wipes his bum on castles”. There was a series of catty columns about it, with headlines like “Posh off to America” and “Poor posh boy”.
The underlying presumption seemed to be that Cumberbatch was some dilettante princeling – stealing roles such as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock, and the painfully repressed landowner Christopher Tietjens in Tom Stoppard’s Parade’s End, that would otherwise have gone to working-class actors such as Danny Dyer, or Shane Richie from EastEnders, and that this was all a great pity.
Of course, as with all these things, it blew over quite quickly – not least because it was superseded by the news that Cumberbatch had been cast in the new Star Trek movie, and was, therefore, about to become one of the most successful British actors of the past ten years. But I am reminded of it all today, in the back of a cab, leafing through a pile of cuttings on Cumberbatch.
“What a load of balls that was,” I muse. “The whole posh thing. What a load of old balls. What a funny old world.”
It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and I have been invited to lunch with Cumberbatch at his parents’ house in Gloucestershire. Star Trek Into Darkness is now about to open and this is the only day he has free to talk. I have made the great sacrifice and taken a train to Swindon.
The cab driver drops me outside the house.
“Here you go,” he says.
I climb out of the car, and stare at a gigantic, honey-coloured mansion, with immaculately tended lawns. Parked in the driveway are a black London taxi and a vintage silver Rolls-Royce.
Last night, Benedict had offered to pick me up from the station, saying he has a “loooooooooovely car”.
“Yes – you have, haven’t you, Benedict?” I think to myself, staring. “You’ve got a lovely pair.”
I crunch up the drive, carrying a massive bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine, and shout through the letter box.
“Hello! I’m from London! I’ve come on holiday, to the countryside, by accident!”
Silence. I circle the house. The place is so big, I can’t work out where the front door is.
I decide to go to ask a neighbour for advice on how to penetrate the Cumberbatch estate.
I head towards a nearby crofter’s cottage.
Benedict Cumberbatch is standing in the doorway of the tiny cottage, in a pair of knackered navy corduroy slippers, watching my progress across the lawn – lavishly strewn with hyacinths – with some curiosity.
“What were you doing at Kate Moss’s house?” he asks, mildly.
Ah. Kate Moss. The working-class girl from Croydon made good. That mansion is her house.
The “posh” Cumberbatches, by way of contrast, live next door: three small rooms downstairs, three small rooms upstairs. Every available surface is covered in books, family photographs or owls.
“Come in, come in,” Benedict says – tilting his head slightly to get through the low door. Even in slippers, he’s 6ft, and not built for a 17th-century cottage. “Thank you for coming.”
The Guinness Book of World Records does not yet carry this category, but Benedict Cumberbatch is in the running for the “Fastest Ascent to Fame Ever Recorded”.
At 8.59pm on July 25, 2010, Cumberbatch was merely a well-regarded actor who had played – to enthusiastic reviews, but little public notice – Stephen Hawking in Hawking, and Van Gogh in Van Gogh: Painted With Words. If you were a casting director, or a writer, you would be delighted to take his call; but otherwise, Cumberbatch lived a life unburdened by excess attention.
Sherlock began broadcasting at 9pm. By 9.20pm, his name was trending worldwide on Twitter. A trending fuelled by a mass outbreak of spontaneous hysteria – the fandom was instant and visceral.
His Holmes was one of those once-in-a-generation big entrances – written by Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat and The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss, this Sherlock was fast, dark and insanely charismatic – he kicked the door in, off its hinges, and didn’t stop for the next 90 minutes. His first scene had him thrashing a corpse with a whip. The second had him making illative leaps in much the same way Superman flies. Looping, and high.
We’ve got ourselves a serial killer, he cried at one point, at full gallop. “Love those – there’s always something to look forward to.”
On top of this, with his blond hair newly dyed black, and lolling across his forehead, Cumberbatch’s appearance took on an otherworldly hotness. Pale enough to have never seen sunlight, when he launched into his bullet-train monologues, he did it with the intensity of Paganini; or Nick Cave, with one black boot up on the monitor. There was a definite rock-star element to this Holmes.
And, so, by transference, to Cumberbatch. By the end of the week, his private life was tabloid fodder. The coat he wore – a £1,000 Belstaff – a waiting-list bestseller. When the second series of Sherlockpremiered at the British Film Institute in London a year later, fans queued outside from 6am, in the bitter cold. When he arrived, they screamed. By then, he’d been on the cover of pretty much every major magazine in Britain, Spielberg had signed him up for War Horse, and he was shooting Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Looking down his subsequent list of nominations – Bafta, Olivier, Emmy, Golden Globe – he’s won more than half of the awards he’s been up for: 18 vs 16, an astonishing strike rate for someone who is still only 36. And now, The Hobbit and Star Trek. And now, Hollywood.
And now: lunch.
The Ventham-Carlton-Cumberbatches are an incredibly hospitable crew.
Benedict’s father Timothy’s first words, on coming in from the garden – earth still on his knees – are, “Would you like a large drink?” He pours a cripplingly strong gin, which is exactly the right thing to do.
Benedict’s mother, Wanda, meanwhile, manages to combine “cooking a Sunday roast” with “emitting the background radiation of someone scorchingly hot in the Sixties, and who could still clearly reduce a room to rubble now, if she flashed her eyes”.
Benedict is second-generation pretendy: Google reveals Wanda Ventham or Timothy Carlton (birth name Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch) in Doctor Who, Carry On up the Khyber, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Saint.
Just as there are, now, websites dedicated to young, swooning fan love for Benedict – written by the self-proclaimed “Cumberbitches” – so there are for Wanda and Timothy, written by the generation before.
“Is Wanda Ventham a beautiful, remarkably sensual woman? You bet!” one writes. Another describes Timothy, in The Scarlet Pimpernel, as “wearing the green coat of sex”.
As Timothy and Wanda move around each other in the kitchen, preparing lunch – Wanda still spars with her husband as if he were a young suitor, even as he sits down with an involuntary, “Ooof!” It’s rather touching to watch – Benedict takes me on a tour of the house. If we weren’t dallying, it would take less than a minute – it’s so small.
Benedict, however, is an inveterate dallier, and so it takes a good 20.
“They bought this house when I was 12,” he says. “Look. There’s me, off for my first day at Harrow.”
He points at a junk-shop painting of a young Fauntleroy type, skipping off to school in a huge sailor’s hat.
“So posh,” I say.
“So posh,” he laughs.
All up the stairs are pictures of him as a child. Benedict running, Benedict as a toddler. Benedict aged 10 – white-blond, skinny, in tiny swimming trunks, on a rocky beach in Greece. One of the pictures shows Wanda pulling his trunks down and kissing his bottom.
“That is a picture of my mother kissing my arse,” he confirms.
This was around the age he was learning to play the trumpet – the event he credits with shaping his much commented upon mouth.
“Playing a trumpet wounds you,” he explains, gleefully. “That’s how this happened.” He presses his finger into his generous lower lip. “I have trumpet mouth.”
We look around his bedroom, which is small and floral. On the chintzy dressing table is a small china pot, with “I Feel Pretty & Witty” painted on the lid, in curlicue script.
I’m just asking him if this is his morning affirmation – “Well, I do feel quite pretty,” he’s saying, thoughtfully – when his mother comes upstairs, and interrupts in the way that is the birthright of all mothers. She addresses me with some urgency: “Can you just… find him a bird?” she asks. “You must be able to find him a bird. There must be someone in London who’s suitable. I want grandchildren. Please – find my son a bird.”
It is interesting – watching Sherlock Holmes being berated by his mother for still being single. Especially as, where we are standing, we are surrounded by Wanda’s collection of stuffed barn owls (“Mum’s obsessed with owls”) who are all staring at him with pretty much the same gimlet expression as his mother.
“I’m doing all right,” he pleads – body language now that of an awkward teenager.
“I can’t wait much longer,” she rejoins, firmly. “Get a bird. Anyway, it’s time for lunch. Come and have another drink.”
Wanda is, much like her owl collection, a hoot. Over a long lunch, she tells a series of anecdotes – including about the day Benedict took her and Timothy onto the set of Star Trek Into Darkness.
“…and they did take after take,” Wanda says, in her cut-glass finishing-school accent, serving up the pudding, “reset after reset. It went on all day. Just to get Ben in this bloody spaceship. At one point, I said to them, ‘You know, when I was doing UFO [the Seventies Gerry Anderson sci-fi series] it only took me three takes to get to the Moon!’ ”
The Ventham-Carltons never really wanted their son to be an actor – they knew how precarious it is as a lifestyle. It’s why they scraped together the money to send him to Harrow, for a “proper education”. He certainly needed something to fill his days – even as a baby, Wanda describes Benedict as, “A whirlwind – he never stopped.”
“I had a very fast metabolism,” he says.
“He was skeletal!” Wanda continues. “And we did feed him, we really did.”
“They worried that I had a thyroid problem. I would arrive on the school steps drenched in sweat, because I would run there. I never stopped.”
However, it became obvious, early on, that only one thing provided enough distraction for him.
“I was a pain in the arse. Show-off,” he says, pouring more wine. “Not malevolent – just disruptive. They tried to see if I could put all my energy to good, rather than just disrupting yet another lesson doing a silly voice.”
He was given his first role, in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“And we all remember Benedict’s Bottom,” Timothy says, with perfectly timed lugubriousness.
“And I got Half A Sixpence!” Benedict cries. “I played Ann, long-suffering wife of Arthur Kipps.”
He launches into I Don’t Believe a Word of It – a 36-year-old man doing an impression of his 10-year-old self, playing a role popularised by Julia Foster when she was 24. It’s actually brilliant: funny, indignant. He dances from one side of the room to another.
Still, the Ventham-Carltons could kid themselves acting might just be a hobby for him, until Wanda took him to see Timothy, who was in the West End at the time.
As they stood in the wings, watching, Benedict suddenly started saying, loudly, almost wildly: “I want to go on. I want to go on!”
“We had to stop him from running on stage,” Wanda says, clearing the plates.
“But why wouldn’t you?” he asks, appealing to me now. “What kid wouldn’t? Have you ever been backstage? All the sets, with the name of the production on the back, with weights on the bottom of them, to hold them steady. And in the wings, you see all that. But then you walk on stage – and you walk into a real world, for the people who are watching it. It’s amazing.”
There is more wine, and seconds of the roast, and pudding, and seconds of pudding. Benedict picks at leftover roast parsnips – “I’m not supposed to. I’m on the 5:2 diet. You have to, for Sherlock.”
And then, finally, an hour after I was supposed to leave, and woozy with red wine, we go into the other room, to do the interview.
Here’s what it’s like interviewing Benedict Cumberbatch: a bit like interviewing a waterfall. It won’t really answer any of your questions, but it’s fabulous to watch. It’s not that it’s trying to ignore or avoid your questions – God, no. It is endlessly, eagerly forthcoming, and shows a touching courtesy towards the whole notion of being interviewed. It will tell you a story about being stung on the penis by a sea anemone in the same breath as discussing the panic of entering the library at Harrow for the first time: “Because I thought, I probably won’t have a lifetime long enough to read the first shelf – let alone the first room, let alone the whole f***ing library. I’ve always been after the idea of betterment – to know exactly everything about that wine, and tell you about the birdsong I can hear, and to understand the world around me.”
But as you can already see, and as his mother has lamented, he is just an energy – he never stops. This is the force he plays into these huge, notably unusual characters: Van Gogh and Hawking and Holmes; Tietjens in Parade’s End with his genius; a dragon – Smaug – in The Hobbit; in the West End, in turn Frankenstein, then his monster. And, soon, Hamlet, and Julian Assange, and Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles.
As we’re already late, Benedict tries to map out a schedule. He’s due on set in Bristol at 7.30am tomorrow, for the third series of Sherlock. At pains not to give away any plot, but keen to show what his workload is like, he picks up the script and flicks through it.
“This scene is 40 pages long. It’s a 40-page-long deduction,” he says. “Basically a monologue. And I have to learn it before I go to bed.”
Pointing at the clock on the wall, which has birds instead of numbers, he says, “So we have to stop at” – he stares – “half-past chaffinch. OK?”
As we’re already in the past – surrounded by photos – we stay there.
The conversation at lunch got us as far as Harrow, where Benedict boarded – leaving his parents’ top-floor flat in Kensington, “when Kensington was run-down; smalls hanging out in the smog, riots in Notting Hill. A two-bedroom flat for £2,000 – the wallpaper the same now as it was then.”
When he got to Harrow, did he find out he was clever?
“Not that clever. Not ridiculously clever. Sharpish – I was a quick learn. A good impersonator.” Was he bullied? “No. Because…” he chooses his words carefully, “my parents loved the f***ing life out of me. So I felt confident about the world. Not… entitled. Just like… I could step into the world. Investigate it.”
He loved his school days – “I really did. Sports and outings… I made lifelong friends.
In my letters home, I wrote, ‘I am blissfully happy,’ and I really meant it.”
The first and only time someone tried to bully him, it felt so alien – “He made me feel insecure and shy, and all I wanted was to be confident and happy” – that Cumberbatch pinned him against the wall, in utter fury, and his assailant stuttered an apology.
He continued being the class clown – not, as it is with almost all future performers, to prevent bullying, but, oddly and sweetly, to get the respect and attention of younger children, instead. “You could make younger kids go to bed and brush their teeth on time if you made them laugh,” he recalls, fondly.
The only fly in Cumberbatch’s ointment was physical: “I was a very late developer,” he says. “Very late. 15, 16 – maybe even 17.” The worry was so great, he even went to the doctor. “I was a kid until I was 18, really. But the one grace of an all-boys boarding school is that you could lie about what you’d done on your holidays. Not like a mixed school, where you had to parade your girlfriend around the playground. I was a bit Hugh Grant around women. ‘Good gosh, er, do you mind if I, erm, touch, ah, it? Gosh, I feel funny now.’ I don’t hold it against my parents at all, but that’s why I would never send my kids to a single-sex school. I would have killed for experience. F*** the grades. I was all, ‘I understand what girls are now – where are they?’ ”
He’d already had his first kiss: “Underwater. Mary. I was 11. The wettest lips you could possibly kiss. I think that was definitely my first kiss. Unless I’d kissed a boy at school in a f***ing play – which would ruin that very erotic Humbert Humbert-like memory I have of my first female obsession.”
In his last year at Harrow he discovered “pot and girls and music”, “got a bit lazy” and forfeited his chance of Oxbridge. He took a year out – working for six months in a perfumier’s to earn the money to allow him to teach English in Tibet. At the perfumier’s, he learnt to prefer “bright citruses – bergamot, vetiver”.
Once, with a severe cold, he served Richard E. Grant and watched, with horror, as a drip from his nose “landed right on his Blenheim Bouquet as I giftwrapped it” – the most gently dandy thespian anecdote of 2013. A month later, he was in India, watching a parade of keening mourners take the dead down to the river, to be burnt.
“You taste it in the air. It’s not a charming ancient tradition. You are inhaling the smoke of a burning body. Palpable – in your mouth.”
He nearly died in India: “I got mountain sickness. Lost on a mountain. It was a pathetic expedition – Mallory-like. We were woefully under-prepared. I had simply… an extra scarf my mother had knitted me and a… piece of cheese.”
With water on his lungs, and his doctor friend warning him he was at risk of an aneurism, Cumberbatch hallucinated wildly on his way back down the mountain: “I dreamt the stars turned to lightning.”
He looks excited as he remembers this. Suddenly, violent birdsong fills the room.
Cumberbatch looks across, to the clock on the wall.
“S***. S***. It’s already half-past chaffinch. If we get to barn owl, I am never getting to Bristol tonight.”
“So you didn’t die,” I remind him, briskly, “because you are here. And here is pretty odd. Tell me a story about how unreal the past three years have been. How everything has changed since July 2010.”
He thinks – for nearly a minute. The longest he’s been silent all day.
“The Golden Globes,” he says, eventually. “Meryl Streep coming up, going, ‘Oh my God, we’re such big fans. We love you as Sherlock. How do you f***ing do that s***?’ And then Ted Danson – going, ‘Oh my God, it’s f***ing Sherlock.’ ”
Benedict mimes being trapped between Sam Malone from Cheersand Mrs Kramer from Kramer vs. Kramer, both of them freaking out, with him in the middle, mind blown. “Getting advice from George Clooney, on how to handle all of… this.” He stretches his hands out, to represent the past three years.As luck and Hollywood would have it, he then spent autumn 2012 shooting the forthcoming August: Osage County with Streep – plus Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Sam Shepard.
He describes acting opposite Streep. “Her character is suffering from oesophageal cancer, smoking like a chimney, high on downers, behaving like the most monstrous matriarchal pterodactyl you can ever imagine. And none of us could act opposite her. None of us. We all, one at a time, went up to her and said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t act around you because… I can’t stop watching you. We all want to watch you.’ ”
The American elections occurred while they were shooting. He gets his iPhone out, and shows shots of Roberts and Streep posing for their own “Yes We Can”-style election posters. As results came in and Obama pulled ahead, they were all screaming at the television.
Eventually, he and Streep were the last ones up, in a Marriott hotel in Oklahoma, “bumping fists when he won”.
He boggles for a minute.
When the fan polarity is reversed, Cumberbatch is graceful with his fanbase.
He refuses to call them “Cumberbitches” – mentioning, with aching courtesy, the “Cumberwomen” or “Cumbergirls” instead.
“It’s not even politeness. I won’t allow you to be my bitches. I think it sets feminism back so many notches. You are… Cumberpeople.”
Recently, Cumberbatch websites have been alight with discussion over the next series of Sherlock – particularly since Cumberbatch was photographed, on set, making a mysterious, triangular hand signal. The speculation over the meaning of this gesture has been intense. Here, Cumberbatch looks slightly guilty for a minute – then starts laughing.
“You know what? I was just being silly. That sign is just something the lead singer of Alt-J does when he plays Tessellate. I love that band. But,” he says, springing to his own defence, “I remember Brett Anderson [from Suede] saying, back in the day, ‘Isn’t the point of art to deepen the mystery a bit?’ You know? If you start to unweave the jumper, it’s boring to look at a… ball of wool.”
It’s time to go. I have one question left to ask. I have a brilliant idea. I want to look at the jumper.
“Do some now,” I say.
“What?” he asks, confused.
“Some acting,” I say. “Do some acting now.”
Sportingly willing to be a big Cumberbatch jukebox, he springs to his feet.
“What do you want me to do?” he asks, with pleasing, if baffling, eagerness. It is, after all, his one day off from work.
“Do the… baddie… in Star Trek,” I say, with unprofessional vagueness. “Whatever his incredibly normal and unintergalactic name is. Simon.”
“John Harrison,” he says, vaguely chidingly.
And it really is the most amazing thing. We’re in a tiny, peach-coloured room – the beams so low Benedict’s hair almost touches them. Through the window, you can see his dad, on his knees, in the garden, as the wind moves the narcissi. This is the safest and most normal room in the world. The house still smells of Sunday lunch.
But when Benedict starts his monologue, you see, again, what Spielberg and Streep and Stoppard see in him. You see what he does in Sherlock, and in Parade’s End, where he tore up the screen with only two days’ preparation. This big, scattershot, slightly space-cadet kid suddenly comes into focus – painful, super-bright focus – and becomes absolutely other.
In jeans and slippers and a knackered T-shirt, he now looks like someone who has been to the loneliest, outermost reaches of the galaxy, and become demented. The softness disappears from his face – the skin becomes tight. He is a terrorist who wants to destroy the Earth. Even when he giggles, for a minute, in the middle of the monologue, he pulls it back immediately, comes in even harder – ending the speech full of cold, still hate.
There is a pause, during which I probably should have applauded.
“Do another,” I say, waving my wine glass at him. “Do… the dragon.”
Smaug, from The Hobbit. He doesn’t say anything. Just starts breathing. Breathing like a dragon. The sound of a dragon, breathing in its cave – his neck lengthens, his hands reach out for invisible things, palpable talons. I have it all on tape. I will play it you. It is amazing.
It is the thing. It is the thing every actor hopes they will be, and almost never is. It is someone becoming utterly, brightly gone.
Thursday, May 2. Leicester Square: the premiere of Star Trek Into Darkness
On a perfect sunny evening, Leicester Square has essentially turned into a Star Trek Glastonbury. Music booms from the PA as the crowds mill. People have camped out overnight for a good view of the red carpet. Prosthetic Spock ears abound. One man has turned up in his own USS Enterprise – a fibreglass shell bolted to an adult-sized tricycle. It is one of the most admirably demented items I have ever seen.
The cast turn up, one by one, to roars from the crowd. Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock. There is the usual rhythm of name-howling, carefully rotated smiles, and flashbulbs.
But when Cumberbatch arrives – last – the audience reaction is something other. The screams are another level entirely – the wild seagull ululation of One Direction gigs, and fainting. There is a surge that has security shouting, “All right, ladies, calm down,” in a slightly panicked manner.
I am next to a woman from Bootle who has camped out all night with her beautifully painted portrait of the Star Trek crew, which she wishes to present to director J. J. Abrams. She is becoming increasingly crushed, and disillusioned. In the end, she turns and tries to fight her way out of the crowd.
“These people aren’t here for Star Trek,” she says, casting a hateful eye over the gleefully calling fans. “They don’t even know what Star Trek is. They’re just here for him.” She jerks a disgusted thumb at Cumberbatch.
On the red carpet, Cumberbatch is slightly flustered – in the hotel, there was an incident with cuff links, and then a tie – but is dealing with the crowds ebulliently. One girl is waving a poster that reads, “BENEDICT – I’M PREGNANT AND IT’S YOURS” – a bold new conversation-opening technique. His stylist keeps catching his eye, saying, “Benedict – your hair,” and urging him to smooth it out of his eyes. He doesn’t. The 20 x 30ft hoarding above us that says Star Trek Into Darkness shows him, and no one else. And everyone is calling his name. Properly, too – and not “Bendybum Cumbycatch” for the lols.
“Well, this is insane,” he says, quite reasonably, as he signs an autograph for a crying girl dressed as Captain Kirk.
3am, Chelsea: aftershow party at Aqua
It has been a long night. Sean Penn is apparently in here somewhere. Benedict has been at the centre of a constant circle of people telling him, in varied and increasingly slurry ways, that his life is about to change for ever. He has taken all this lightly, joyfully, and with a series of vodkas. At 3am, however, he switches into Disco Tactics: “I’m going to become… non-verbal now,” he says, owlishly. He oils onto the dancefloor, and busts a move to a series of Eighties gay anthems, right under the glitterball.
After our interview last week, I received a text from Benedict before the train had even pulled out of the station.
“All the things we didn’t talk about!” he lamented. “The Simpsons, New York at new year, Iceland… I’ve seen and swam and climbed and lived and driven and filmed. Should it all end tomorrow, I can definitely say there would be no regrets. I am very lucky, and I know it. I really have lived 5,000 times over.”