View London – Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston

Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston are both renowned British actors who have featured in a variety of box office busting films and critically acclaimed television shows, including the likes of Steven Moffat’s Sherlock Holmes, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Atonement, and Thor, The Deep Blue Sea, Wallander respectively.

Coming together to play two First World War soldiers fighting on the front line of the Somme, they spoke to View’s Matthew Turner about working for the world famous director Steven Spielberg, the amazing experience of riding in a cavalry charge and the success that playing Sherlock Holmes can bring.

An obvious first question: what was it like working with Spielberg?

Tom Hiddleston

It was just amazing. We’ve been talking all day about how he was the architect of our imaginations as children – in terms of the films that he made, we’re right smack bang in the middle of the target audience for those films, Jaws and E.T. and Indiana Jones –

Benedict Cumberbatch

I was a bit young for Jaws – you must have been way too young for Jaws …

Tom Hiddleston

Yeah, but we saw it on video or whatever.

Benedict Cumberbatch

I don’t want to get into trouble – I listened to my parents …

Tom Hiddleston

I remember I was 12 years old on the opening night of Jurassic Park and 15 when Saving Private Ryan came out. So yeah, I’ve grown up with him and you have all these expectations of who he’s going to be and then you meet him and he’s so excessively kind and generous and humble and passionate, a mixture of impeccable preparation, pre-vis, storyboards and then spontaneity on the day, keeping it loose, keeping it fast, keeping it mobile …

He’s a great combination of all the things you need – there’s no mistake, he’s Steven Spielberg…

Benedict Cumberbatch

And while he’s sort of the ultimate general in charge of this incredible circus with all these facilities at his fingertips, he’s incredibly approachable, avuncular and personal. So you can go into the hut before or afterwards, look at the monitor, frame up the shot, talk to him about dialogue, about character, about something else coming up, have an anecdote about his extraordinary countless experiences and biography, so you feel you’re part, you’re included, you’re not just a cog in a massive machine.

Tom Hiddleston

I was just going to say, if all this sounds pat, he really is really amazing. He’s just the man that he is – I tend to think that Steven Spielberg has become this enormous global brand for a certain kind of cinema. But you forget that there’s a human being that that name is attached to and that he’s a filmmaker with a particular artistic fingerprint. Just like Danny Boyle or Martin Scorsese or younger people like Aronofsky and Andrea Arnold and all these people and this is right from the truth of his heart, this film – it isn’t just some sort of massive Spielberg factory that churns them out; he is on the ground, feeling every beat. And that was the most exciting, moving aspect of working with him, for me.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Yeah, absolutely. You’re not just part of a factory line doing a Spielberg film, there are very heavy epic, beautiful Spielbergian elements because that’s what he is, he’s a craftsman. He’s built up his auteurship and his way of painting a picture, but it feels like it’s a new experience for him, every day that he’s on set. And yet he can hold the whole film in his head at the same time as organise pre-vis, edit at the weekend and the day off to know what shot he’s missing or needs on the Monday.

And still come in smiling and do something completely different because an animal, which is beautifully unpredictable – to drag you into a present moment of concentration, which is obviously the gold you want to capture on film – will change and all circumstances change around them. It’s about being able to do stuff on the run and he’s a great combination of all the things you need, really, to be where he’s at – there’s no mistake, he’s Steven Spielberg.

Tom Hiddleston

With the cavalry charge sequence, the way he directed me and Benedict and Patrick Kennedy – who plays Lieutenant Waverley – in terms of the emotional guidance we got, was particularly extraordinary. We’d practised for weeks, those charging sequences, but there’s a moment when Captain Nicholls sees the machine guns and Richard [Curtis] had written it in the screenplay and also Michael [Morpurgo] depicts the moment so beautifully in the novel, that Joey suddenly feels a lightness on his back, that he doesn’t realise that there’s nobody riding him anymore.

So Steven wanted to show Captain Nicholls’ death without you seeing him die, you don’t see him get shot. But he said, ‘Tom, this is the only piece of slow-motion in the film, because actually I don’t think slow-motion is very effective as a dramatic tool – sometimes it hits but you have to use it sparingly. It’s going to be completely silent and I want to see you see the guns and then I’m going to cut back to the guns and then I’m going to cut back to Joey and you’re not going to be there. And the camera’s going to move across your face but I don’t want you to do shock or surprise or fear or terror. How old are you?’ And I said, ‘I’m 29.’
He said, ‘Okay, so at the top of the shot, give me your War Face, the face that you’ve been doing all day, you’re winning, you’re triumphant, you’re a noble officer and it’s all going well. And then I’m going to say “Guns” and when you hear me say “Guns”, the camera will zoom in and I want you to de-age yourself by twenty years, so you’re 29 and then you’re nine. I just want to strip away the man and see the boy. Can I leave that with you?’

And I thought that was one of the most heartbreaking pieces of direction I’d ever received – it was just so emotionally acute. In the middle of this great, grand, epic action sequence, with 120 horses going 40 miles an hour, he had the space, in his filmmaking head and in his heart for something very intimate and I thought it was amazingly impressive.

Have you got a favourite scene in the film?

Tom Hiddleston

My favourite scene is, without question, the scene with Toby Kebbel. I think it’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, that after that electrifying, horrifying chase through the trenches alongside Joey and then there’s a moment of stillness. And it’s almost like the Christmas Day truce in 1915, when the English front line and the German front line played football and you see, filtered into that moment, a metaphor for the insanity of warfare, two men clubbing together to help out this silent, mute, noble creature that’s been hurt by their efforts to kill each other. And I love that moment.

The bit that makes me cry the most actually, is when the German soldier, Peter, gives Toby Kebbel’s character, Colin, the German wire-cutters and Toby turns back and says, “I’ll use ’em in me garden in South Shields.” And I love it in that it’s so funny and so light. Then Toby says, “Alright, Fritz, you’re on,” and then the German officer says, [does German accent] “My name is not Fritz. It is Peter,” and in that moment the whole thing is humanised and the complete insanity of warfare is shown up in its truest colours but with the lightest of touches.

I presume you watched the theatre version? Was that before or after you got the part?

Benedict Cumberbatch

That was my first engagement with it, yes. It was well before. I have a friend, Luke Treadaway, who was the first ever Albert, on stage, in this country. It was magic for all the reasons that the film is, in an opposite way, because it was about bringing your imagination and having something that was truly naked and non-representational and obvious, still evoke massive emotional responses and engagement, which travels to you from literally a bit of wire and cane being brought to life by a puppeteer in front of your eyes and the minute that foal was on its feet, grandchildren and grandparents were awash. And to transport two generations from a completely different era, near a hundred years on from the First World War, into that story, through that moment of magic, means that’s what holds you in the story anyway.
The first time I galloped, I just burst into tears – it felt as close to flight as I was ever going to get…

It’s about the horse – it’s always about the horse, as it is in our film. And I completely concur with what Tom’s saying – that’s my favourite moment for the same reason. You have everything that symbolises No Man’s Land, this weird bit of dead land between two bodies of men that’s being fought over and this living creature in the middle of it and both of them have a care for it and the human side of either of those things meets to try and save this animal’s life. And it brings you back, well before this story even, to the idea of what horses have meant in our history and in our journey as a species.

We’ve been together for a long, long time, ever since we stopped being herd prey animals and started hunter-gathering, we’ve used them to do our work for us and we owe them a great debt of gratitude apart from anything else and it’s an incredible filter to see not only the inhumanity of war but also the treatment of animals and how that’s a reflection, as I think it is throughout all nations, of human rights abuses and any kind of treatment of man on man. You can see that metered out in a nation’s treatment of animals. And yeah, I’ve gone onto rather a meta-answer there – let’s talk about social evolution!

What about horses? Did either of you have experience of horses before?

Benedict Cumberbatch

Not really, no. I rode a bit when I was 12, just to keep my mum happy when I was a bored schoolboy on holiday, but I wasn’t very good at it. They’re incredible creatures when you communicate properly and I think I was just frightened and they got that and pissed about. But I hadn’t ridden again – I hadn’t ridden before for a job, so Tom, you take over, because you had ridden for a job …

Tom Hiddleston

I’d ridden a bit in Thor, actually. There’s a sequence where the Asgardians ride out across the rainbow bridge and we were really riding on a beach in Southern California and they CG-ed in the rest. But the experience of shooting that, obviously, I had to do a little bit of training and I was taught by some old cowboys in Simi Valley who worked on all these westerns back in the day and they had these amazing horses. So I learned up and down dried up riverbeds, in the company of coyotes and rattlesnakes. And the first time I galloped, I just burst into tears – it felt as close to flight as I was ever going to get, the miracle of human flight. It feels like flying.

t’s a bit different, isn’t it, riding through Asgard and charging across fields in World War I?

Tom Hiddleston

Well, by the time I got to the stunt farm to be trained and the three of us were trained for about five weeks and I looked like a sack of potatoes.

Benedict Cumberbatch

You sat back as if you were on some sort of sofa. I mean, we were no better, but he had this sort of skill, that was then completely lost …

Tom Hiddleston

I always say it was like the beginning of City Slickers, when Billy Crystal just looks kind of shocking up there on this horse. But we were drilled, I mean, English cavalry – we had to look impeccable and immaculate and we had the best teachers in the world.

Benedict Cumberbatch

And the best horses.

Tom Hiddleston

And the best horses – they were Spanish stallions. It was much more complex, because English cavalry saddles are very small and narrow and flat and we were also riding on double reins, so that means four pieces of leather in your hand –

Benedict Cumberbatch

And single-reining those double reins as well, so you were controlling everything from speed, transition, and movement left and right with one hand.

Tom Hiddleston

With the sabre in your other hand. And then keeping formation and just learning how to do that, learning the precision, the physical and psychological precision that you need to ride a horse like that, because those kinds of horses understand – they almost understand some kind of – they can feel – like, as the thought of cantering transfers itself synaptically to your legs, they can feel that happen, somehow, because they’re so sensitive. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.

Benedict Cumberbatch

You sort of get conditioned once they’re on set. You have to be very careful – they key up very quickly, so you can suddenly have a moment where – I was leading the charge, so I shouted the command and by the second time when it was just “Forward to walk, march,” the horse wanted to go, it just wanted to do the final charge, it just heard the voice and sort of associated with that, so it’s difficult to control.

You have to be careful with bullhorns and the usual tools of controlling a big army and a big set of people doing their jobs, so that after a while, Adam – who was our very brilliant and able First [Director] – he had a massive problem with his throat afterwards because he had to do so much shouting. But he had to be told to calm down, because the horses, the minute they heard him, they were like, ‘Right, we’re off …’ So that could be quite interesting.

But what you were talking about, you saw that in the most expert riders that we had, who were tuning the horses to be these Ferraris or stunt horses or less instantaneously responsive to commands, so that they were controllable in a heightened situation, like a film set. You saw the horsemen that were training them, you couldn’t tell the movement between – it was exactly as you just said – the synaptic thought and then the move to the legs and muscles, you couldn’t even see those instructions, you just saw a man sitting very still and then a horse getting down, getting up, rearing, charging, stopping. Incredible.

If you fall off, there’s a whole regiment behind you, which will trample you underfoot…

Tom Hiddleston

They’re amazing, these guys. And the technicality required, as well. I mean, one of the thrilling days for me was doing the practice charge with Ben, when we’re all dressed in our Navy blue military dress –

Benedict Cumberbatch

Sergeant Pepper …

Tom Hiddleston

Yes! And it turns into a race, basically. It’s a big moment for the story, because the rivalry between Topthorn and Joey is converted into a friendship – I think that’s really important – and somehow Topthorn and Joey inherit the rivalry between the two of us. But we had to gallop out of a bank of mist and on the other side of the mist, chase and then keep track with a 4×4 vehicle, out the back of which is hanging the camera on it, on a mechanical crane. We had to gallop up to it and then stay ten foot from the lens, side by side, our legs almost rubbing up against each other, not put our swords through the front of the lens, no further back or forward than ten feet, otherwise you’re out of focus. It was pretty complicated, wasn’t it? But so thrilling when you got it right.

Benedict Cumberbatch

It was. It really was. And just starting it, as well, knowing that you’re leading a charge of about 250 and we couldn’t see the ears of our own horses when we began in this bank of fog.

Tom Hiddleston

And if you fall off, there’s a whole regiment behind you, which will trample you underfoot.

Benedict Cumberbatch

You felt like you were leading the Grand National.

Tom Hiddleston

We were lucky, because on other films they probably wouldn’t let us do it, but Steven was adamant that he wanted to be able to shoot us, on those horses, going at 40 miles an hour. To the extent that even American friends of mine – the film’s already come out over there – they say, [does American accent] ‘So, Tom, like, they CGI-ed your face onto a stunt man right?’

Benedict Cumberbatch

Yeah, I’ve heard this as well. What do you have to do in the modern world to prove that you were actually there doing it? It was all real.

Benedict, what has the success of Sherlock brought to you?

Benedict Cumberbatch

Er … quite a lot. I had a flurry of jobs which actually weren’t anything to do with Sherlock but it was part of a trilogy of things, one of which was War Horse, the other being Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, but neither Steven or Danny had seen Sherlock by the time it came out.

In this country, well, in general, it’s a very strange thing. You feel recognised, you feel people looking at you, there’s that whole aspect of it. Sort of being on display when you’re not professionally being asked to is very odd, although it is part of the job so you kind of have to find a way of doing it. But work-wise, as with all these things, it builds a momentum, which means I’ve got the most fantastic opportunities – or at least, doors open to prove myself at the next level for a job, so it’s not a shoo-in for everything but it’s been a huge help.

I owe a lot to Sherlock…

Tom Hiddleston

You’ve got fantastic opportunities because you’re a fantastic actor though. That’s why.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Oh, bless your heart. We met on this job and Patrick and I, we figured out – he’s the third of the cavalry triumvirate and he should really be here – we ended up realising for the first time, this year, doing our third job together, that we must have known each other when we were three, we were at the same primary school. But I feel like I was at your primary school as well. We’ve had very similar career trajectories and paths, you know, it’s very exciting. I owe a lot to Sherlock but it’s just a joy to do all this stuff.

Tom Hiddleston

Is that where the Cumberbitches come from?

Benedict Cumberbatch

It is where all of that comes from, yes. So I’ve been told.

Have you picked up any tips from Tom about playing a villain in a Hollywood blockbuster, seeing as you’re supposedly playing a villain in the next Star Trek?

Benedict Cumberbatch

I can’t say anything about it. I’m very excited to be working with JJ Abrams and I can’t wait to get over to L.A. to begin. Sorry to go cold on you, but there are lawyers in the cupboards right here with us.