“At least 230 people before me have taken him on,” says the British actor, who heads Sherlock, a new series of Holmes adventures on PBS’ Mystery! starting Sunday.
Cumberbatch, 34, often appears in period dramas. He played 18th-century British Prime Minister William Pitt in Amazing Grace(2006), a rapist in the World War II storyAtonement(2007) and Vincent van Gogh in the British TV production Van Gogh: Painted With Words.
But his Holmes lives in 21st-century London and even uses a cellphone to call and text his associate, Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman).
“He is a new breed, being in the post-CSI forensic world of multimedia technology,” Cumberbatch says, sitting in a conference room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in a leather jacket, purple shirt and jeans. “Science and policing have advanced a great deal since (Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the great detective in 1887 in A Study in Scarlet). But a lot of crime remains the same. We live in the age of identity theft and high-tech crimes, but there are still crimes of passion and revenge. All the motivations are the same — identity, loyalty, money and love.
“You wonder how Holmes is going to cope in the modern world in terms of forensic science. But hang on. This is the man who started forensic science. He did footprint casting and fingerprint analysis. He’s the human laboratory.”
Cumberbatch’s favorite Holmes portrayers are Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, but not Robert Downey Jr., who tried his hand as the detective in director Guy Ritchie’s action-packed 2009 version.
“It was great fun,” he says. “But it’s Robert Downey Jr. He brings his star persona, and he’s brilliant. He’s a great maverick and pretender, but…” Cumberbatch pauses, trying to figure out how to be tactful, and then says, “His film is a great Victorian thriller/action/romp, and while they were loyal to certain aspects of the books, it’s not Sherlock Holmes for me.”
But Brett, who played Holmes from 1984 to 1994, has made the most lasting impression on Cumberbatch.
“He casts a towering shadow. He was a friend of my mom’s, and he was around our family a lot. He and the part collided, and he let it take him over. He was a manic depressive, but that was a side issue, but he then played one.”
Cumberbatch is no detective, but he enjoys observing people’s foibles.
“Holmes spent a lifetime obsessing about who, what, why and when,” he says. “For me, it’s something to toy with. People’s hands fascinate me. It’s tempting to look at a businessman’s left hand and see if there’s an indentation from a missing wedding ring. Or maybe there’s a tan line and the skin is pressed down where’s he’s worked a ring off his finger. Your mind’s racing.”
Apparently, Cumberbatch has always been enthusiastic about one thing or another.
“When I was asked as a five-year-old how I was, I was apt to say something like, ‘My little toe is a bit achy. Maybe I stubbed it or I dropped something on it. But I think it’s healing, although the nail looks a little bit dark. Do you want to see it?’
“My dad had the onerous task of looking after me one day when I was at my most terrible. I was scaling walls, giving cactuses handshakes and running around naked causing havoc outside a church.”
Cumberbatch’s parents, Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, are actors, but they wanted their son to pursue a more stable career. So they sent him to Harrow, one of England’s most notable boarding schools for boys.
However, their plan didn’t work. “I got the idea of becoming a lawyer by watching Rumpole of the Bailey,” Cumberbatch says. “But then I started meeting people they throw at you to put you off — these worn, vampiric-looking creatures who hadn’t seen daylight for a long time. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m thinking of becoming a lawyer because it’s more sensible?'”
So he returned to first love — acting.
“I was Titania (Queen of the Fairies) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was 13,” he says. “I did a good enough job to get the part of Rosalind (in As You Like It) the next year. I was a very late developer.”
However, by the time he enrolled at the University of Manchester and then the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, he had shot up to 6 feet tall.
In 2004, Cumberbatch played physicist Stephen Hawking in the BBC’s Hawking and was nominated for the British equivalent of an Emmy, but few people in the USA saw his performance.
“If the BBC had sold it here a little bit harder, that’s what I’d have been known for in America, but my time is coming now, which is very exciting,” he says.
He has already completed Whistle-blower with Rachel Weisz and Vanessa Redgrave, and is set to appear in a movie version of John le Carré’s Cold War thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, with Gary Oldman.
He’s currently shooting the Steven Spielberg-directed War Horse. Cumberbatch will play Major Stewart in the film, which is based on a children’s book set in World War I and is told from the horse’s point of view.
Spielberg cast Cumberbatch without meeting him. “He’d seen my work and knew that class and period were safe things in my hands,” the actor says. “I can give a sternness and authority to Major Stewart that makes him mature beyond his years.”
Cumberbatch’s father dropped the family name, which means “dweller in a valley with a stream,” when he became an actor.
“His middle name, Carlton, was cleaner and sounded less like a fart in the bath,” Cumberbatch says. “My first agent dissuaded me from calling myself ‘Cumberbatch.’ I had six months of not very productive time with her, so I changed agents. The new one said, ‘Why aren’t you using your family name? It’s a real attention-grabber.’ I worried, ‘How much is it going to cost to put my name in lights?’ But then I decided that’s not my problem.”