“You can’t get too nostalgic. You can look back and go, ‘That was a great year, a great moment,’ but I want 2014 to be better for different reasons. I’ve got personal goals and all sorts of things that I want to evolve. I always have been about building a career of longevity,” he says during an interview to discuss PBS’ Sherlock.
Cumberbatch’s contemporary take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic character became more personal this year, as Holmes’ parents were portrayed by his mother and father — actors Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton. In one scene, Sherlock unceremoniously shoos them from the room when Watson arrives.
Working with his parents was “terrific. Sort of like home, really. Alarmingly so, for those who know our relationship off screen,” he jokes. “It was a beautiful thing. … It was the first day of shooting and I was nervous for them. And then I realized, now I really have to take control of this, and I just started to kind of make sure that they felt all right. And they ended up having a really good day.”
He credits his parents and actors they introduced him to for his desire to pursue the same career, but there “wasn’t one Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment of inspiration. It was just an accumulation, really.”
That has led to an accumulation of significant roles, too, for the London-born actor.
Cumberbatch, 37, finished work in December on The Imitation Game, an upcoming film in which he plays real-life British mathematician and World War II code breakerAlan Turing.
He plans to take on another real Brit, the explorer Percy Fawcett, in The Lost City of Z, a film about ” this rather brilliant, rather lovely Victorian man who just became obsessed with this discovery he made in the Amazon jungle” in the 1920s. The melancholy Dane, Hamlet, is on the actor’s schedule for fall on the London stage.
And Sunny March, the production company he started with friends that just produced a short film that he appears in, Little Favour.
All of this comes on the heels of a remarkable year. Since May, he has appeared on the big screen in five major films, including an Oscar best-picture nominee,12 Years a Slave; an ensemble piece earning praise for its cast, August: Osage County; a lead role as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate; and two blockbuster sequels, Star Trek Into Darkness and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. It can be difficult, even for a man of Cumberbatch’s quick intelligence, to remember every detail.
“Five films come out and they’re so different. From Khan (Trek) to Smaug to Julian Assange to Ford (Slave) to …,” he says, pausing. “You see, this is the problem. I actually then start forgetting what the other role was. (Another pause.) To Little Charles in August: Osage County. And that’s when it is literally an embarrassment of riches.”
He credits Sherlock, which premiered in 2010, with providing a big career boost, but says he was landing roles for 2011 productions — War Horse and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on film and Frankenstein at the Royal National Theater in England — at about the same time with major directors who hadn’t seen him play Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic sleuth.
Sherlock has “done a lot. I won’t say it’s changed my life, because I had a huge break at the same time as this role first came to fruition,” says Cumberbatch, substituting a sleek blue suit for Sherlock’s layered look on this warm winter day. “It was a sort of perfect storm of all mediums coming together at the same time, television, film and theater, even some radio.”
Cumberbatch has a rare star quality that makes viewers root for the often difficult Holmes, Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat says.
“I think he’s capable of being aloof and dangerous and (being able to) do, with complete honesty, every beat of unlikable behavior, and yet you still like him,” he says. “The other thing you have to say is he’s one of the best actors alive. He’s absolutely supreme.”
During an interview earlier in the day with a gathering of TV critics, Cumberbatch expresses appreciation for the accompanying fame, as exhibited by a group of fans outside the hotel who had waited for hours to see him. Asked an open-ended question about his reaction to the rise in public interest in the later interview, he responds, “Detached amusement,” and focuses on press criticism. Stories have focused on matters as varied as his blue-chip schooling to a photograph in which he held a sign directing paparazzi to cover more important events in Egypt.
“Sometimes, they go after you and they really try to make you hurt, and that’s when you’ve got to have a thick skin and just let it brush off you. I’ve spoken to people in more exalted positions than mine and they’re like, ‘Dude, it’s just Champagne problems,’ ” he says.
He talks expansively and thoughtfully about his career and fame, but draws the line on certain topics. He declines to answer a question about rumors he will reunite withTrek director J.J. Abrams for the next Star Wars film, which is scheduled to begin shooting in May, and he won’t elaborate on the “personal goals” he mentions for 2014. “They’re personal. Not for publication.”
The actor, who is single, also brushes off a question about whether he’s dating anyone in particular, but politely cushions his response. “I know you have to ask.”
He responds to questions with equanimity, although he thinks a query about whether he’s excited to play Hamlet, the central character in what is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest play is a bit obvious. (“Very excited. I don’t know what other answer there would be to that question,” he says, then feigns a lack of interest. “No, I’m really not that bothered.”)
He expresses displeasure only when an interviewer mentions that the late Turing received a royal pardon recently for 1950s criminal charges of gross indecency related to homosexuality. “The only person that should be pardoning anybody is him. Hopefully, the film will bring to the fore what an extraordinary human being he was and how appalling (his treatment by the government was). It’s a really shameful, disgraceful part of our history,” he says of his Imitation Game character.
Although a fourth season of the contemporary drama has not been officially approved, Cumberbatch has verbally committed to it and says he sees room for character growth. “I’ll keep doing it as long as that’s the case, as long as I feel he’s developing and there’s stuff we’re all being challenged by and that it’s being loyal to the original stories as well.”
When the third season opens, Cumberbatch says Sherlock has regressed socially and emotionally after having been off neutralizing archnemesis Moriarty’s network of evildoers in the two years since his staged suicide at the end of Season 2. His return draws the ire of sidekick John Watson (Martin Freeman), who had thought his friend was dead. (The Season 3 opener drew 4 million viewers, up 25% from the second-season premiere, and Sunday’s second episode attracted 2.9 million viewers.)
Freeman “raised my game. That’s all important when you’re doing a piece that’s about a relationship as well as this particularly brilliant mind,” he says, before going off on a humorous detour. “He’s got good taste in clothes and music, which helps. He’s got good hygiene. That always helps. He can be quite grumpy, which doesn’t always help. I can be quite grumpy, which always helps.”
Sherlock evolves this season, Cumberbatch says, serving as best man at John’s wedding to Mary (Amanda Abbington) in last week’s episode and facing off Sunday against malicious, data-hoarding publisher Charles Augustus Magnussen. “He’s this media mogul who wields his leverage by using information — as people do, as newspapers do, as all media does — to control a message, to control a perception of the world.”
The series explores the effects of childhood on the adult Sherlock, partly through his competition with his brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss).
“He wasn’t born to be an antisocial, difficult boy,” he says. “I think he’s trying to keep up with Mycroft’s intelligence and it skewed the normal trajectory of childhood play and friendships in order to try and perfect this brain, this ability to retain information.”
Cumberbatch says he wanted a Sherlock backstory so he could understand and convey how this man came to be.
“It will just be hollow gestures and running around speaking very fast — which, while some of our harshest critics have said that’s what I do, I beg to differ, especially after … this season. They can see there’s some acting going on, some craft going on. That’s important to me,” says Cumberbatch, veering off before returning to his main point. “You can’t just be brilliant in a vacuum. … It would be like, ‘Wow! This guy is really on it,’ but then you’d want to know something about him.”
With so many film, TV and stage roles done in such a short time, Cumberbatch has had to do more than just speak quickly.
“I found it difficult to get the sort of hyperarticulacy of Sherlock back having played Assange, and I found it sort of weirdly difficult to let go of Sherlock before starting Alan Turing,” he says. “I practice very hard to sort of cleanse myself of every role after I’ve done it.”
For all the recent high-profile film roles, an earlier miniseries character, 1920s Englishman Christopher Tietjens of Parade’s End, inspires him the most.
“He’s just sort of unfathomably generous and patient and yet really quietly courageous. He doesn’t suffer hypocrisy or fools gladly. He doesn’t betray himself or his ideals for any quick fixes. He’s just a good human being,” he says. “I”ve got a very big affection for that man. If I can live a life half as good as his, I will know I have done alright.”