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**Older, but funny article…
Benedict Cumberbatch talks TIFF ‘It Boy’ status, playing Julian Assange and his real hair color.
Benedict Cumberbatch arrives nearly an hour late for our scheduled interview during TIFF, but then we should have expected this, shouldn’t we?
He was, after all, extremely busy as the “It Boy” of TIFF 2013, appearing in three of the most talked-about films at the fest: gala opener The Fifth Estate, and Oscar hopefuls 12 Years a Slave and August: Osage County.
Cumberbatch, 37, shared TIFF “It Boy” status with fellow British actor Daniel Radcliffe, who also had three films at the fest. The Star christened the pair “Brit Boys” in a headline.
“I’m very flattered by that,” Cumberbatch says. “Just because I’ve got 10 years on Daniel. I’d be a Brit Boy any time you’d like.”
Being an It Boy or Brit Boy comes with important duties big and small, it seems. Cumberbatch had barely seated himself at the chair and side table he was using for his Toronto interviews (which, oddly, resembled a home rec-room version of the Enterprise bridge on Star Trek) when a man came out of nowhere carrying a plain white dinner plate.
He wanted Cumberbatch to autograph it with black marker, which the actor cheerfully did.
But to get back to why it should come as no surprise that Cumberbatch was so late for his interview, we need to recall something he told The Independent newspaper in 2008.
Asked to finish the sentence, “A phrase I use far too often is . . . ” he replied: “‘Sorry I’m late!’ I’m a terrible timekeeper.”
He said this back when he was getting good notices for having portrayed physicist Stephen Hawking in the BBC drama Hawking. It was still some time before his current superstardom playing Sherlock Holmes in the BBC-TV series Sherlock, launched in 2010, and his more recent acclaim as the super villain in Star Trek Into Darkness and the scorching dragon Smaug in the coming The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
And that’s only a fraction of his current projects, with rumors of a Star Wars prequel/sequel in the mix.
So we shouldn’t be surprised about the lateness, should we? And Cumberbatch is indeed apologetic. It seems he nipped outside the interview room in the Ritz Carlton Hotel for a quick ciggie and respite from the mayhem.
“Sorry, it’s my first TIFF and I am so busy I can’t even see one of the films I’m in,” he says.
I remark at how relaxed he looks, considering how in-demand he is.
“I just got some fresh air; it does wonders for you getting out of a hotel room. But yeah, I look all right. I’m doing OK.”
With Holmesian acuity I observe that he’s wearing brown slacks, a blue denim shirt, a white striped summer sport coat and striped canvas sneakers, sans socks.
I further note with alarm that his hair is a dark reddish-brown, not at all like the “naturally blond” hue I had described in an earlier Star article. I had committed the journalistic sin of assuming it was his natural colour, because I’d seen it that way onscreen many times, including The Fifth Estate, due in theatres Oct. 18, in which he plays notorious WikiLeaks whistle blower Julian Assange.
Describing Cumberbatch as a “natural blond” brought me under sniper fire from his many fans on Twitter. Several of them indignantly scolded me, telling me that the lanky actor’s real hair colour is red, or “ginger” as the Brits call it.
“Well, you can sling s— back at them,” Cumberbatch says with a wry smile, rising to my defence. “I’m not ginger.”
Cumberbatch begins to elaborate, while the four publicists/assistants seated behind him look up from their iPhones and iPads with amused interest.
“I’m auburn and there is a difference,” he says firmly.
“I’ve got very good friends and relatives who are ginger and trust me, there’s a difference. And they ain’t ever gonna see the proof! They might say, ‘We saw it when you were the Creature in Frankenstein!’ (a stage play in which Cumberbatch appeared nude), but they didn’t, they didn’t! The Creature in Frankenstein had darker hair than me.
“That was one of the oddest moments of my life, applying makeup to that particular part of my body, but I have hair that is auburn. It’s got streaks of red in it, definitely. It’s also got streaks of bronze and lighter colours and darker brown colours. When I was a kid I was as blond as the young Julian in our film.”
Such precision is what you’d expect of the man who plays Sherlock Holmes, who can deduce a man’s entire life story from the ashes of his cigar. It could also describe, conveniently enough, the nitpicky ways of Assange, the Aussie computer boffin and muckraker who stunned the world (and terrified many world leaders) in 2010 when WikiLeaks, in cahoots with several major newspapers, dumped thousands of secret U.S. military and government documents into the public domain.
Cumberbatch reached out to Assange before portraying him in The Fifth Estate (which he does very well), but Mr. WikiLeaks was having none of it. Assange was also not inclined to broach any discussion about the subject, perhaps because he’s still living under diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, still potentially facing legal charges in the U.S. and Sweden.
“I wanted to meet him, but he didn’t want to meet me,” Cumberbatch sighs, adding that he was turned down in writing, not verbally.
“I haven’t spoken to him. He didn’t want to condone a film that he felt was based on two poisonous accounts of events that might be detrimental to him and his institution and people, including some who are awaiting trial and possible extradition.
“I respected that, but at the same time as politely as he wrote to me, I returned to him and said, ‘I thoroughly disagree. This is a good thing; we want to portray you in all your glories. It’s not about vilifying you. It’s not about demonizing you. It’s not about making you into a hero, but it’s about trying to explore the complexities of it and it’s a film, not a documentary.’”
Cumberbatch’s normally perfect diction suddenly seems muffled. He sheepishly removes the maple sugar hard candy he’s been sucking on.
“Sorry, this is a really good sweet! Sorry if it’s making my diction s—!”
Despite being turned down by Assange, Cumberbatch still felt he needed to do right by the man, by showing him as more than just a humourless Internet troublemaker.
“I really profoundly wanted to show someone in private who had an emotional context, a sense of humour and the three-dimensionality which he can’t allow himself to show. I think that’s not because of being self-serving and protective, but because he doesn’t want to get in the way of the message.”
I point out to Cumberbatch that he’s not unlike Assange in his current state of notoriety. Everything the two of them say and do is under constant scrutiny, and they’re both caught in a whirlwind of media attention.
Cumberbatch keeps up a work schedule that would wear out three actors, perhaps making up for lost time over those years when he was a struggling unknown — such as when his film Starter for 10 played TIFF in 2006 and he wasn’t deemed important enough by the filmmakers to warrant an air ticket to Toronto for the fest.
How does he keep it up?
“Good diet and sleeping every now and again helps,” Cumberbatch says, grinning.
“I’ve got friends who keep me really grounded and for me — I guess in a way like Julian, although in a more flippant context — it’s about the work. So if the work is being celebrated, then all the other hoopla around it is nice, but it’s peripheral to the work.
“I’m in a really lucky position as well. I’m aware that not only is it an embarrassment of riches to have this many films at this festival, and ones with quality roles, but also that I’m actually employed at all. It’s a blessing in my industry. We’re oversubscribed and there are too many talented people who aren’t employed.”
I ask him if there any other real persons, alive or dead, whom he aspires to play in a film one day.
“Many, yes, but I’ve had quite a run on real figures, so it’s tricky to say no when they are as difficult and complex and rich and varied as the ones I’ve been asked to play, because I think that’s what draws all of us to their stories. They’re the extremes of humanity and that’s very interesting to watch and try and do.”
What he really longs to do, perhaps not surprisingly after the run of dark characters he’s been essaying, is to sing and dance.
“I’d like to play someone who can sing and dance. I’d like to do that. I’ve not done a musical. I’d also like to play a romantic comedy . . . there’s lots more stuff I’d like to do.”
Hmmm, perhaps he could combine the two, and do a biopic on Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire?
With Benedict Cumberbatch, as with Sherlock Holmes, no deduction is too wild to consider.
An older article, but fun…
31 December 13
A third series of Sherlock, three new films and the world on his shoulders. The man who’s cheated death more often than his famous alter ego is just getting started…
Depending on your point of view, Benedict Cumberbatch has almost died on five separate occasions. The first (hypothermia) occurred when he was a baby. The second (bomb explosion), when he was a student. The third (dehydration and starvation), when he was on his gap year. The fourth saw him taken hostage, tied up, bundled into the boot of a car, driven to an unknown location, forced to the ground on his knees and the cold muzzle of a gun trained on the back of his head. He never heard the shot of a bullet, but then, of course, he never would have.
By that point, he was an actor. But none of the above is fiction.
And yet, when people think of Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s likely the only near-death experience that comes to mind is the fifth one, the one that didn’t actually happen – at least, not to Cumberbatch. It’s the one at the end of the second series of Sherlock, where the 37-year-old, who will be seen in no less than three Hollywood films in the next two months, leapt from the top of St Bartholomew’s hospital, trademark Belstaff greatcoat flapping in the wind, and seemingly plummeted to his death – only, of course, to be seen to have cheated it.
But talk to Cumberbatch himself and he will also tell you there is a deeper reason for it all – for the career that, despite mainstream success coming in his thirties, has not for one moment seen a lull, a break or slowdown of any kind; a kind of non-stop career sprint that has included 14 theatre productions, 17 TV roles, 30 films and, really, he’s just getting started.
The three films he’s in this winter – as a kindly slave-owner in the red-hot Oscar favorite 12 Years A Slave; as fearsome dragon Smaug in tent-pole blockbuster The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug; as an unemployed screw-up opposite Meryl Streep in August: Osage County – come after a summer in which he outshone the Enterprise crew as super-villain Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, and gave an uncanny performance as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. Then there’s the new series of Sherlock starting next month, the biopic of code-breaker Alan Turing (The Imitation Game), which he’s currently filming, Hamlet on stage and, after that, the lingering hope of the rebooted JJ Abrams-directed Star Wars (“There’s a possibility, of course there is – JJ knows how much I’d love to be part of it”).
As his good friend Matthew Goode, a co-star in The Imitation Game, says: “I remember him coming to our house after he’d just finished something at the National Theater and yet another film, and my wife said, ‘How are you Ben?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, um, I’m all right, I mean, I’m unemployed at the moment…’ He’d been unemployed for two days!”
After recalling the fourth time, he will put it more plainly: “The afterburn, the follow-on stuff from that experience, is impatience. And I think that might still be ongoing. About me trying to cram a lot into my life.”
To put it another way: Benedict Cumberbatch might be one of the few people whose post-traumatic stress has made him a superstar. The truth – as always with life, as often with Cumberbatch – is a bit more complicated.
His first memory is of staring at the sky. His parents – both actors – lived in a top-floor flat in Kensington, London (“bought in the Seventies for something like three grand”), and when Benedict would cry, they would carry his pram up to the roof and point him skywards. Then, he would become still. He would smile. And often, he would sleep. He remembers, still, the wonder he felt at this: “A vision of sky.”
His first word was helicopter. “They were the biggest things in the sky.”
It was around this time that he first cheated death. His half-sister, Tracy, from his mother’s first marriage, was babysitting him in the middle of winter. She put a crying Benedict on the roof to calm him for a moment or two.
When she ran upstairs, she found Benedict serene – teeth chattering, but still smiling, still in awe. He had to be thawed out on a radiator before his parents returned home (“I had turned blue”).
Still, he remembers his childhood as idyllic. Even when, at eight, he was packed off to boarding school.
“I was an only child, but I was very gregarious. I thrived; an amazing five years. But yes, eight seems a bit of a wrench. I don’t know if I could do it with a kid of eight.”
He started acting early. At the school nativity, he remembers, he played Joseph – and shoved Mary off the stage because she had forgotten her lines. “It was very unchivalrous.”
Confidence was never a problem. Nor was a belief in his ability. By the time he went to Harrow he was cast in most of the lead roles – including, as it was an all-boys school, Rosalind in As You Like It – and from there didn’t much doubt acting was for him.
“I think, going into it, I always had self-belief in my talent. You have to.”
It was at the end of his time at Harrow that Cumberbatch had a run-in with mortality for the second time. He was at home, studying for his A levels in his bedroom, when all of a sudden the whole flat shook from a huge explosion. The windows shattered, a dust cloud enveloped him, his ears rang. “I just thought, ‘F***!’ I ran through the flat. My mum and dad were saying, ‘Are you all right? Are you all right?’ I said no – I couldn’t hear out of one ear.”
When he went to Manchester University to study drama, he had a blast – girls, drinking, clubbing. Pills? “I was a student in Manchester,” he says with a laugh, by way of an answer. “But, uh, I’ll take the Fifth.” Yet he soon overdid it: “I got very ill in my first year. I got glandular fever. I had to calm down a bit. It was my body going, ‘What the f***?'”
After he graduated, he decided to take a gap year, teaching English in Tibet. And that’s when he had his third near-death experience. He got lost while hiking with friends. Armed only with a biscuit and a piece of cheese between four of them, he remembers walking across outcrops lined with ice and down semi-frozen rivers, “nearly breaking our necks”, poking yak droppings in the hope they were warm – “to see how far we could be from some kind of civilisation”.
He remembers, finally, breaking through the tree line, falling on his knees near the home of a Sherpa shepherd and “making the universal hand-to-mouth gesture of food”. He remembers getting a meal of spinach and meat, and the dysentery he got straight after eating it. He remembers it as the best meal he’s ever had.
But it was the fourth of his near-misses when he really thought he was going to die.
Interviewing Benedict Cumberbatch is a bit like being a matador, but one trying to influence the direction of a train.
We meet in a pub at the end of Cumberbatch’s road in Hampstead, north London, just below the Heath, where he owns the top two floors of a Victorian house. He is wearing dark-blue jeans, white T-shirt, purple pea coat and a smart grey flat cap, which, when removed, reveals a short back and sides propping up a neat quiffed wave of hair, breaking left to right.
It’s not that he’s rude, you understand – he’s unfailingly polite, funny, generous with his time and wonderful company. It’s simply that, when he begins a sentence, you’re locked in for the paragraph, and if you try to interject, often he’ll just keep talking while you talk.
As Goode, who has known Cumberbatch for more than a decade, will tell me a few days before the interview, “He gives his time and his thoughts, but he likes to follow a point through to the end. But I love that. And it probably stands his acting in good stead – he’s able to get from point A to point B and finish it with extreme clarity.”
It is also, I think, down to a feeling he has of being misrepresented by the press, and it’s only by giving the exact line, his exact position, without distraction, that he can hope not to be misquoted.
Partly, perhaps, this stems from the confected “row” that erupted in the tabloids last August when he told the Radio Times that he felt “castigated” for his privileged background.
“All the posh-baiting that goes on,” he said. “It’s just so predictable, so domestic, so dumb.” Cue more castigation.
For the record, Cumberbatch has this to say about his social standing: “I’m an upper middle-class kid. I know that’s counted as posh, but then I know people who I would call posh, and I don’t talk like them.”
And, no, he’s not leaving for the United States any time soon.
This was not the only run-in Cumberbatch has had with the press. In fact, his cuttings file is littered with occasionally tetchy exchanges with interviewers. Even a recent cover story in The Hollywood Reporter – which proclaimed him the key player of “The New A-List” – was awkward, beginning with the sentence: “I am 45 minutes into an interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, and frankly, it’s not going well.”
“It was very irresponsible of them to do that,” he says. “It’s like, what are you going to gain from my opinions? Oh, I see, you’re going to turn it into a piece that makes me sound like a big schoolboy who thinks that people who break the rules should be punished.”
It’s also probably no coincidence that this, too, circled back to a veiled dig at his social class.
We speak, on and off, about his true thoughts on politics, whistleblowers and terrorism in greater detail than could be included even in a profile of this length, but suffice to say his position is, like most people’s, not black and white: he understands the reality of whistleblowers, and why the relevant governments seek to punish them. But at heart he’s a liberal, and wouldn’t want Manning punished. He’s not a security- expert, but understands the complex balancing act between civil liberties and protecting the population. I tell him it’s an utterly reasonable, balanced position to take, and one I share.
“And yet, the minute you do that, you’re accused of sitting on the fence,” he says.
While filming the third series of Sherlock, meanwhile, Cumberbatch held up a piece of paper to the paparazzi hovering nearby that read: “Go photograph Egypt and show the world something important”. Then, later, a four-page treatise he’d written about civil liberties regarding the Guardian and the government’s attempt to muffle the paper. Yet it was the Guardian once again – this time via Marina Hyde – that stuck the boot in, referencing his class with a piece headlined, “Benedict Cumberbatch’s vital mission to educate the hoi polloi”.
“I was really shocked with what was going on,” he says, “so I just thought, if this culture is so fixated on me, I may as well use it to ask questions. I wasn’t trying to trash popular culture. I don’t belittle the appetites of people who just want to see shots of Sherlock.”
He sighs. “I guess that’s my nearest flirtation with social media, and if I get misinterpreted in print, or if the perception of me is edited in print, then this is clear: I’m holding up the words.”
As for the article: “The Guardian really does have its cake and eat it. Their offices are being raided for these hard disks, and I find it extraordinary they [ran] that [piece] as well.”
Benedict Cumberbatch worries a lot. I suggest, in fact, he might worry too much.
“I know. And I am getting better at that. I remember something happening during the filming of Sherlockand someone said, ‘You’ve got a thin skin.’ And it was like, ‘I’ve done it again. I’ve f***ing done it again.’ I mean, I do [have a thin skin] when something is said at my expense. But I’m learning. Regret is too big a word, but I’m learning.”
And yet there is a clear and wonderful flip side to all this concern of his, which is unbelievable enthusiasm. As much as he seemingly worries about everything, he’s excited and thrilled about everything else.
He’s excited about the coffee we order (the barman gets a lengthy grilling on what exactly is a flat white); by how this magazine works; by wild swimming in Hampstead Heath; by the burgers we order; even, as we leave the pub – him to stroll home, me to unlock my single-speed racer – by my bike (he recognises the make of frame, the bike nerd in me is impressed).
Seeing all these enthusiasms – and these are just the minor, slightly unexpected ones – I can’t help but think two things.
First, the follow-through of rampant enthusiasm is often naivety, and I understand why his Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman says he’s easy to “screw over” (“He’s sweet and generous in an almost childlike way. I could take advantage of him playing cards”), or how Simon Pegg convinced Cumberbatch while they were filming Star Trek Into Darkness in a nuclear facility that he needed to wear a special face cream to protect him from radiation; he obliged, and even became convinced it was why he kept screwing up his lines (“Guys, I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve got a real headache. I think the ions were getting to me”).
But mostly, I feel, compared with Cumberbatch, like someone going through existence with the contrast dial turned down. To him, it seems, everything is neon bright. The barbs may sting more sharply, but his sun must shine that much brighter.
It’s not hard to imagine how this sensitivity – both bad and good – feeds into his acting. He feels more, notices more, hears more. It’s in his nature – he’s a human tuning fork. When he was a child, he says, he used to carry around a Dictaphone wherever he went, recording anything he found of interest, trying out voices, practising sounds. It didn’t last too long, but only because he became the Dictaphone. For every person he quotes during the three hours we spend together, he can’t help but drop into a pitch-perfect impersonation of them, body, voice and all. It’s uncanny, not least because this cast list includes Madonna (“She said, ‘You’re the one with the strange name.’ I said, ‘Yes, I am – Madonna‘”), Meryl Streep (“She just said, ‘Well, I love what you do'”) and Ted Danson (“It was a pre-Oscar party and he just screamed across a crowded room, ‘Oh my God! F***! It’s Sherlock! You’re Sherlock! Oh God!'”). It occasionally feels like I’m getting the best one-man show in the world.
On the Graham Norton show he did Chewbacca fromStar Wars. Harrison Ford, sitting next to him, almost jumped out of his seat. “He’s got a remarkable ear,” says Steven Moffat, the co-creator of Sherlock. “He can pick up people seriously fast. He could do me. He could do you. When he got into trouble a short while ago for saying he was pigeon-holed as posh – he can do it all, that’s all he meant. And yet he gets pigeon-holed for parts because he is, let’s be honest, the son of Timothy Carlton – a posh boy.”
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