A few short years ago he was playing support. Now Benedict Cumberbatch is about to go interstellar courtesy of a sci-fi supervillain. He spoke to Tony Earnshaw.
Late-night sleuthing appears to suit Benedict Cumberbatch.
“I was playing Sherlock ‘til midnight last night so my powers of deduction are a bit sleepy this morning.”
It doesn’t show; he’s bright as a button. Good job, too, as the majority of questions at the spick and spanky junket for Star Trek Into Darkness are aimed at the 36-year-old TV heartthrob with the clunky monicker.
As it really only six years ago that Cumberbatch was propping up the cast lists of the likes of Starter for 10 (with James McAvoy) and Atonement (McAvoy again, and Keira Knightley)?
Then came Sherlock, the surprisingly smart update of the Conan Doyle stories with Cumberbatch as the volatile ‘tec whose machine-gun dialogue and lightning-fast brain pushed him to the forefront of the new generation of thinking woman’s totty.
Star Trek is about to take him to a whole new dimension. Like so many Brits before him Cumberbatch has taken Hollywood by storm by turning in a smoking performance as a bad guy. It worked for James Mason. It worked for Basil Rathbone (actually he was South African, but who cares?), it worked for Laurence Olivier, it worked for Alan Rickman. Now Cumberbatch steps up.
He laughs when he recalls the invitation from director JJ Abrams to join the established Star Trek company. It almost passed him by.
“I got an email and I didn’t pick up on the signals,” he smiles.
“It said ‘Do you wanna come and play?’ and I thought ‘What? Squash or tennis or some kind of racquet-based activity?’ Then the penny slowly dropped and then I fell asleep. It was about two in the morning or something.”
By his own admission he had frenziedly auditioned for the role of intergalactic terrorist John Harrison via his iPhone. Having thesped his heart out he compressed the file and sent it. Then… nothing.
“I breathlessly sat back and went ‘And…?’ I got a note back saying ‘JJ’s on holiday’. I didn’t get the tape in before the holidays. So I tried to forget about it. [When I heard] it was the most thrilling news. I knew it would be a riot so I was over the moon.”
Given the amount of attention Cumberbatch receives it’s clear that both he and his Star Trek character are phenomenally popular. I ask what appealed to him about Harrison, and what he thought he could bring to the role of a man who exists on the grey periphery between good and evil.
“I could have fallen into a stereotype,” he reasons. “There is a grey area. There is a lot of motivation and reasoning behind what he does. He has a moral core. He just has a method, which is pretty brutal and abhorrent in our democratic world.
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and I think there’s an ability to sympathise and empathise with his cause [though] maybe not his means of going about getting his ends. I think it was there in the script, though, and it was a beautiful thing to be asked to play this sliding scale of someone who could be trustworthy and understandable and also somebody who could be out-and-out on a mission of revenge.”
Co-starring in a $195 million blockbuster would test anybody. For Cumberbatch it meant delivering the goods as a viable and intimidating figure. Abrams lauded him as the kind of actor who provided a pep-up to the other cast members: “everyone stood a little bit taller when he was around.”
“If you know you’re in the expert hands that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with and be employed by, a lot of trust goes to those people.
“So whether it’s Mark [Gatiss] and Stephen [Moffat] rebooting Sherlock and giving him a modern-day twist to a much-loved Victorian hero… it sounds like a cheesy spin-off idea and yet in those fanboys’ hands it’s done with such authenticity and respect for the canon in the same way that Star Trek has been done.
“That takes a lot of the heavy lifting for you. When auditioning I try to imagine I’m the only person they’re seeing that day. That’s kind of it. I try to trick myself into believing that no-one has ever gone there before.”
So what was the biggest challenge?
“Which way to do my hair, really – straight or curly or long with bangs, or a ponytail?” says Cumberbatch without missing a beat. “It was such a sort of whirlwind for me. It was one ball of excitement from beginning to end. And in all seriousness it was about the journey and establishing the look of him.”
Ah, the look. At 6ft Cumberbatch cuts an imposing figure. He’s also somewhat bulkier than he appears as Sherlock Holmes. The secret of his success, he reveals, is a diet of chicken, salmon, potatoes and broccoli.
“It meant an awful lot of eating in a very short space of time and a lot of working out. It was very integral to the character to have a strong physical shape and presence and be able to move at the same time.
“So I couldn’t just be a stiff lump of muscle. I had to be able to stretch and fling my arms and legs about a bit. I loved all that – I really, really enjoyed it. There was one stage where I ate about 4,000 calories a day and was carb depleted. You turn into an absolute creature from hell because all the fuel you’ve been relying on to get you through the workout disappears. It’s just horrible. Now I know how girls feel; diets are shite.”
Cumberbatch has been acting since he was a ten-year-old playing female roles in school plays. What would that ten-year-old think about his success? He laughs out loud.
“I genuinely don’t know. Pretty chuffed, I think. What was happening when I was ten? I was probably playing Anne in Half a Sixpence at school at that time so the idea of being in a Star Trek film was very far from Anne’s mind.
“I think he was just very worried… she/he… it gets confusing when you’re constantly playing girls. I think he would have been really, really surprised and wouldn’t have quite believed it. He still doesn’t.”