Sherlock, his crippling insecurities and the mystery of why Benedict Cumberbatch can’t find a wife despite being Britain’s latest superstar
**This is a much older article, but interesting…
He’s a mass of insecurities — defensive about his schooling, constantly seeking approval, afraid to turn work down and filled with self-reproach over his failure to find a wife and have children.
Yet at 37, Benedict Cumberbatch is Britain’s newest global star, a sex symbol who can command multi-million dollar fees from the world’s top film-makers.
So why, with the world at his feet, is the Sherlock actor so desperately unsure of himself? And is his debilitating self-doubt in danger of derailing his progress to career superstardom — and his own personal happiness? Could it be that, in the past, his emotional intensity and his urgent yearning to become a father have scuppered relationships?
Women — especially the independent, career-minded women he finds attractive — seem to be scared off by him.
His see-sawing temperament is enough to deter any woman from marriage. To make matters worse, he’s highly cautious, even paranoid, about money.
For years he couldn’t bear to spend anything on clothes, and he never misses a chance to earn a penny — even working for minimum rates on the BBC radio drama Neverwhere recently, rather than be ‘between jobs’ for a moment.
And yet, just about every man in the country would eagerly swap places with the star whose devoted female fans call themselves his ‘Cumberbitches’.
As the ultimate detective, Sherlock Holmes, in the BBC’s worldwide hit or the leather-clad villain John Harrison in this summer’s blockbuster Star Trek: Into Darkness, he is unlike any other actor working in film or television today.
Now he is hotly tipped for an Oscar in a movie no one has even seen yet, playing Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.
In recent weeks he has sent the gossip columns into overdrive, after being photographed with two glamorous and very different women, leaving nightclubs in the small hours, officiating at a gay wedding and camping it up wildly as he revealed his crush on Hollywood A-lister Matt Damon. ‘Do you have Matt’s number?’ he demanded to a baffled interviewer for a web fansite. ‘My biggest wish is to hang out with him .
‘Cut to a hot night where we’re all getting drunk and dancing and having a good time. Wouldn’t that be cool?’
This homoerotic tease, and his role as minister at a gay wedding in Ibiza between two male friends, seem alarmingly out of character.
Though his publicist says he has a ‘wicked, wicked sense of humour’, Cumberbatch is usually reticent to the point of mystery about his love life, which he guards as closely as his financial affairs.
For 12 years, he was in an on-off relationship with actress Olivia Poulet, best known for her role as Tory spin doctor Emma Messinger in BBC sitcom The Thick Of It.
They split up in 2010, though he admits: ‘I still love Olivia to bits.’
Since the break-up, Cumberbatch has been linked with several high-profile women, including Star Trek co-star Alice Eve and Lord Of The Rings actress Liv Tyler.
He is a high-intensity boyfriend. He once cited his father’s tradition of presenting his mother with a red rose every Monday morning as the epitome of romance. But what might be endearing for a long-married couple is apt to come across as needy, even creepy, in a new relationship.
He is also ferociously chivalrous, old-fashioned even. After BBC radio’s film reviewer Mark Kermode poked fun at Keira Knightley, Cumberbatch — her co-star in Atonement — punched the critic when they appeared together on air. Kermode was amazed, though he later insisted it was ‘a light tap on the arm’ and ‘playful’.
More recently, Cumberbatch has dated furniture designer Anna Jones, before apparently rekindling an old friendship with Russian model and actress Katia Elizarova.
Last month, the pair were photographed snuggling on a sun-lounger beside a pool at Ibiza’s Hotel Hacienda. She is wearing next to nothing, and he strokes her arm as she nuzzles his face with her blonde hair.
But Katia was apparently as surprised as anyone when Cumberbatch was snapped days later leaving his birthday party at the saucy London nightclub Cirque du Soir, which features fire-eaters and topless dancers, with red-haired actress Charlotte Asprey on his arm. She is another friend from theatre school days.
Startled gossip writers started to ask whether stardom had turned Cumberbatch into a womaniser, a public-school version of the louche comedian Russell Brand.
At first glance that claim seems improbable, even ridiculous. Cumberbatch has always been painfully awkward around women.
He has admitted that his first unspoken childhood crush was on a friend of his parents, the actress Emma Vansittart, who appeared in the Eighties TV soap Angels.
Cumberbatch was born in London in 1976. His parents were both jobbing actors. His father Tim Carlton (he dropped the family name Cumberbatch for career purposes) had appeared in Minder, Bergerac and The Professionals, while his mother Wanda Ventham was best known as Rodney’s mother-in-law in Only Fools And Horses.
They socialised with flamboyant theatre friends, including Julian Fellowes, who would go on to create Downton Abbey.
Young Benedict’s behaviour caused anxiety from the start. He was ungovernable, noisy, inexhaustible and constantly on the brink of raging boredom — still rampaging like a toddler when he was eight years old.
Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison in Star Trek: Into Darkness
He says now he was ‘a hyperactive nightmare’ and ‘a tearaway’.
He revelled in ‘inappropriate behaviour’. For a dare, he once dropped his trousers and flashed outside a church.
Though his parents were not rich, they managed to raise the cash to send him to a private prep school in West Sussex that took boarders from the age of eight.
But the boy remained a problem. During the school nativity play, where he was Joseph, he pushed Mary off the stage for hogging the limelight.
The headmaster recommended Harrow school, where strict discipline was combined with an emphasis on creativity. But the fees were far beyond anything the family could afford — more than £30,000 a year at today’s prices.
Benedict’s parents adored him. He was their only child, though Wanda had a daughter called Tracy, 15 years older, from a previous marriage. But even they didn’t expect what happened next. The boy not only passed Harrow’s entrance exam but won a scholarship.
He excelled in drama at school, starring in several productions of Shakespeare — including a role as Rosalind in As You Like It. Since Harrow was single-sex, Cumberbatch became adept at playing girl’s roles.
But when Oscar-nominated director Andrew Birkin came to the school to film Ian McEwan’s sex-fuelled novel The Cement Garden, a young Cumberbatch refused to audition.
‘I was really prudish at that age and I didn’t want to take my clothes off,’ he said. ‘I was terrified and I didn’t want anyone seeing what I looked like.’
He claims that when his hormones kicked in during his teens, his schoolwork suffered. Unable to concentrate in lessons, he says, his grades fell and his ambitions to study at Oxbridge were dashed.
Old Harrovian classmates are sceptical. ‘He wasn’t stupid, but, quite frankly, the girls excuse is weak,’ said one. ‘We all discovered girls at the same time — or boys in some cases — but that didn’t stop plenty of us from going to Oxford and Cambridge.
‘It’s pretty obvious why he didn’t do the same: he wasn’t quite clever enough. One suspects he might have a chip on his shoulder, actually, the way he goes on about it in interviews.’
Cumberbatch has a different take on that. He says he opted to study drama at Manchester University because he didn’t want to become the kind of ‘luvvie’ who swanned around with a cashmere sweater knotted round his neck.
Success didn’t come quickly. Though casting directors praised him, they warned he was a natural ‘character actor’, not a star, due to his unconventional rather than leading-man looks. He couldn’t even break into video games.
He once auditioned for a PlayStation version of James Bond, in a bow tie and tuxedo, but was rejected.
The stress made him ill. He tried to stay fit with Bikram yoga and a daily spoonful of organic honey, but succumbed first to glandular fever, then pneumonia.
It didn’t help that he was smoking heavily. On a bad day, it took half a dozen cigarettes and a drink before he could even face talking to an interviewer.
Then, at 33 he scooped a part in a National Theatre production, playing ‘a rich, alcoholic monster’ in Terence Rattigan’s After The Dance. His performance won sparkling reviews, but it was his parents’ approval that he craved.
After the first night, his father was in tears. Irrationally anxious that Tim was weeping because he had been a disappointment, Benedict simply held onto him like a child.
At last, his father said through his tears: ‘You stupid boy. I’m crying because you were so wonderful.’ This uncertainty about the emotions of the people closest to him is at the heart of all Cumberbatch’s insecurities. He doesn’t trust himself to read the people around him, or to say the right thing.
And if he doesn’t trust himself, he can’t trust anyone at all.
In 2010, his career took off when Sherlock caused a national TV sensation. But his mood was bitter.
He dismissed praise with sour soundbites: ‘I’ve been the next big thing for ten years,’ he said.
He turned on friends and colleagues in a series of vicious interviews. He accused Bond actor Daniel Craig of spouting ‘bull****’ for claiming that he did his own stunts. And he lashed out at family friend Lord Fellowes, calling Downton Abbey ‘sentimental’, ‘cliched’ and ‘f***ing atrocious’.
Later, he apologised profusely. He had no filter, no ‘off’ switch, he said. ‘I am a PR disaster because I talk too much.’
His angered outpourings may have had their root in his tortured private life. After a dozen years, during which they had made a nest together in a flat in Hampstead, North London, he and actress Olivia Poulet had parted. In an instant, all his hopes for a family had vanished.
He felt wretched. When journalists asked about his greatest achievement, he would moan: ‘I wish I could say it was having children, but I can’t.’
He claimed the biggest regret of his life was that he hadn’t been a father by his early 30s — when he had still been with Olivia.
A public statement was issued, saying the couple’s split was amicable. But the heartbreak behind that anodyne lie was unmistakable.
Today, Cumberbatch still lives in the house he shared with Poulet, a £2 million property divided into three flats. He has angered neighbours with his plans to convert the attic and build a decked roof terrace, surrounded by railings.
One disgruntled neighbour hit back by spying on him from a window and Tweeting every move he made inside his flat. Cumberbatch admitted that this eerie incident was one of the scariest things he had ever experienced.
By converting this roof space, it seems he is trying to recreate the happiest memories of his youth, when he stood on the skyline terrace of his parents’ West London flat and watched the city.
His greatest thrill was to see a helicopter take off from nearby Kensington Palace, home to the Prince and Princess of Wales.
Apart from this relatively modest Hampstead property, Cumberbatch has no portfolio of houses, no flashy cars, no expensive hobbies. He is director of a firm called Red Brick Marketing Unlimited — a tacit dig at the Oxbridge set, perhaps? — set up last year, but it has yet to file accounts with Companies House.
Friends regard him as kind and quietly generous. He’ll cheerfully turn up on set with a round of coffees, handing them out as if he’s one of the catering team. But he doesn’t lavish gifts on friends or throw showy parties.
In fact, he is so unused to splashing the cash that when he did recently treat himself to a new wardrobe of clothes, after bulking up in the gym for Star Trek, he accidentally went over the limit on his credit card and had to borrow money from friends to pay for dinner.
Most movie stars, of course, have credit limits so high that they couldn’t overspend in a Porsche showroom, never mind a men’s outfitters.
It seems he has never forgotten his parents’ privations, when they emptied their savings accounts to meet his school fees. Still intent on becoming a father, he may already be investing to cover the cost of his future children’s education.
On the eve of the Star Trek launch, as builders finished work on the apartment in Hampstead, the actor made his clearest statement ever on his private life. ‘I’m building a home at the moment,’ he said, ‘and it would be nice to fill that home with love and children.’
One enterprising fan tried to act on that. She elbowed her way to the edge of the red carpet at the film premiere, brandishing a placard that read: ‘Benedict, I’m pregnant! And it’s yours.’
Real love, commitment and family won’t be so simple. However much he yearns for stability, Benedict Cumberbatch has a habit of sabotaging his own happiness.