By Peter Howell
Benedict Cumberbatch arrives nearly an hour late for our scheduled interview during TIFF, but then we should have expected this, shouldn’t we?
He was, after all, extremely busy as the “It Boy” of TIFF2013, appearing in three of the most talked-about films at the fest: gala opener The Fifth Estate, and Oscar hopefuls 12 Years a Slave and August: Osage County.
Cumberbatch, 37, shared TIFF “It Boy” status with fellow British actor Daniel Radcliffe, who also had three films at the fest. The Star christened the pair “Brit Boys” in a headline.
“I’m very flattered by that,” Cumberbatch says. “Just because I’ve got 10 years on Daniel. I’d be a Brit Boy any time you’d like.”
Being an It Boy or Brit Boy comes with important duties big and small, it seems. Cumberbatch had barely seated himself at the chair and side table he was using for his Toronto interviews (which, oddly, resembled a home rec-room version of the Enterprise bridge on Star Trek) when a man came out of nowhere carrying a plain white dinner plate.
He wanted Cumberbatch to autograph it with black marker, which the actor cheerfully did.
But to get back to why it should come as no surprise that Cumberbatch was so late for his interview, we need to recall something he told The Independent newspaper in 2008.
Asked to finish the sentence, “A phrase I use far too often is . . . ” he replied: “‘Sorry I’m late!’ I’m a terrible timekeeper.”
He said this back when he was getting good notices for having portrayed physicist Stephen Hawking in the BBC drama Hawking. It was still some time before his current superstardom playing Sherlock Holmes in the BBC-TV seriesSherlock, launched in 2010, and his more recent acclaim as the super villain in Star Trek Into Darkness and the scorching dragon Smaug in the coming The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
And that’s only a fraction of his current projects, with rumours of a Star Warsprequel/sequel in the mix.
So we shouldn’t be surprised about the lateness, should we? And Cumberbatch is indeed apologetic. It seems he nipped outside the interview room in the Ritz Carlton Hotel for a quick ciggie and respite from the mayhem.
“Sorry, it’s my first TIFF and I am so busy I can’t even see one of the films I’m in,” he says.
I remark at how relaxed he looks, considers how in-demand he is.
“I just got some fresh air; it does wonders for you getting out of a hotel room. But yeah, I look all right. I’m doing OK.”
With Holmesian acuity I observe that he’s wearing brown slacks, a blue denim shirt, a white striped summer sport coat and striped canvas sneakers, sans socks.
I further note with alarm that his hair is a dark reddish-brown, not at all like the “naturally blond” hue I had described in an earlier Star article. I had committed the journalistic sin of assuming it was his natural colour, because I’d seen it that way onscreen many times, including The Fifth Estate, due in theatres Oct. 18, in which he plays notorious WikiLeaks whistle blower Julian Assange.
Describing Cumberbatch as a “natural blond” brought me under sniper fire from his many fans on Twitter. Several of them indignantly scolded me, telling me that the lanky actor’s real hair colour is red, or “ginger” as the Brits call it.
“Well, you can sling s— back at them,” Cumberbatch says with a wry smile, rising to my defence. “I’m not ginger.”
Cumberbatch begins to elaborate, while the four publicists/assistants seated behind him look up from their iPhones and iPads with amused interest.
“I’m auburn and there is a difference,” he says firmly.
“I’ve got very good friends and relatives who are ginger and trust me, there’s a difference. And they ain’t ever gonna see the proof! They might say, ‘We saw it when you were the Creature in Frankenstein!’ (a stage play in which Cumberbatch appeared nude), but they didn’t, they didn’t! The Creature in Frankenstein had darker hair than me.
“That was one of the oddest moments of my life, applying makeup to that particular part of my body, but I have hair that is auburn. It’s got streaks of red in it, definitely. It’s also got streaks of bronze and lighter colours and darker brown colours. When I was a kid I was as blond as the young Julian in our film.”
Such precision is what you’d expect of the man who plays Sherlock Holmes, who can deduce a man’s entire life story from the ashes of his cigar. It could also describe, conveniently enough, the nitpicky ways of Assange, the Aussie computer boffin and muckraker who stunned the world (and terrified many world leaders) in 2010 when WikiLeaks, in cahoots with several major newspapers, dumped thousands of secret U.S. military and government documents into the public domain.
Cumberbatch reached out to Assange before portraying him in The Fifth Estate (which he does very well), but Mr. WikiLeaks was having none of it. Assange was also not inclined to broach any discussion about the subject, perhaps because he’s still living under diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, still potentially facing legal charges in the U.S. and Sweden.
“I wanted to meet him, but he didn’t want to meet me,” Cumberbatch sighs, adding that he was turned down in writing, not verbally.
“I haven’t spoken to him. He didn’t want to condone a film that he felt was based on two poisonous accounts of events that might be detrimental to him and his institution and people, including some who are awaiting trial and possible extradition.
“I respected that, but at the same time as politely as he wrote to me, I returned to him and said, ‘I thoroughly disagree. This is a good thing; we want to portray you in all your glories. It’s not about vilifying you. It’s not about demonizing you. It’s not about making you into a hero, but it’s about trying to explore the complexities of it and it’s a film, not a documentary.’”
Cumberbatch’s normally perfect diction suddenly seems muffled. He sheepishly removes the maple sugar hard candy he’s been sucking on.
“Sorry, this is a really good sweet! Sorry if it’s making my diction s—!”
Despite behind turned down by Assange, Cumberbatch still felt he needed to do right by the man, by showing him as more than just a humourless Internet troublemaker.
“I really profoundly wanted to show someone in private who had an emotional context, a sense of humour and the three-dimensionality which he can’t allow himself to show. I think that’s not because of being self-serving and protective, but because he doesn’t want to get in the way of the message.”
I point out to Cumberbatch that he’s not unlike Assange in his current state of notoriety. Everything the two of them say and do is under constant scrutiny, and they’re both caught in a whirlwind of media attention.
Cumberbatch keeps up a work schedule that would wear out three actors, perhaps making up for lost time over those years when he was a struggling unknown — such as when his film Starter for 10 played TIFF in 2006 and he wasn’t deemed important enough by the filmmakers to warrant an air ticket to Toronto for the fest.
How does he keep it up?
“Good diet and sleeping every now and again helps,” Cumberbatch says, grinning.
“I’ve got friends who keep me really grounded and for me — I guess in a way like Julian, although in a more flippant context — it’s about the work. So if the work is being celebrated, then all the other hoopla around it is nice, but it’s peripheral to the work.
“I’m in a really lucky position as well. I’m aware that not only is it an embarrassment of riches to have this many films at this festival, and ones with quality roles, but also that I’m actually employed at all. It’s a blessing in my industry. We’re oversubscribed and there are too many talented people who aren’t employed.”
I ask him if there any other real persons, alive or dead, whom he aspires to play in a film one day.
“Many, yes, but I’ve had quite a run on real figures, so it’s tricky to say no when they are as difficult and complex and rich and varied as the ones I’ve been asked to play, because I think that’s what draws all of us to their stories. They’re the extremes of humanity and that’s very interesting to watch and try and do.”
What he really longs to do, perhaps not surprisingly after the run of dark characters he’s been essaying, is to sing and dance.
“I’d like to play someone who can sing and dance. I’d like to do that. I’ve not done a musical. I’d also like to play a romantic comedy . . . there’s lots more stuff I’d like to do.”
Hmmm, perhaps he could combine the two, and do a biopic on Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire?
With Benedict Cumberbatch, as with Sherlock Holmes, no deduction is too wild to consider.