Benedict Cumberbatch may have lit up the starry lights of Tinseltown, but west London is where the prolific actor’s heart is. Here he talks Sherlock, superheroes and why acting was something he just had to pursue
Words: Violet Wilder
Lead image: Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock
Precise, passionate and to-the-point are three accurate descriptions of Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor who has assumed a reputation for being ‘the thinking woman’s crumpet’.
It’s a title he owes mainly to his excellent, award winning portrayal of that renowned London detective, Sherlock Holmes, in Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ huge hit Sherlock.
Fittingly, when quizzed on whether he will ever don that infamous deerstalker hat again following the rumours (by a British newspaper) that series four, which aired last January, would be his last, the 41-year-old Londoner becomes suddenly obstinate and a tad Sherlockian.
I never said never. You NEVER say never with Sherlock
‘I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about that and, I must say, it’s the irresponsible wing of your profession picking up on something I said out of context in an article, so it’s for you to untangle the mess,’ says Cumberbatch, adding firmly, and with a smirk, ‘I never said never. You NEVER say never with Sherlock.’
Be that as it may, fans of the show will still have to wait at least another year for the fifth series, so it is fortunate that Cumberbatch has his perfectly manicured fingers in plenty of other pies, most gargantuan of which is his recurring role as Doctor Strange in The Avengers universe, a journey that will include sequels, threequels, cameos and appearances in a litany of connected spin-offs – including a spot in Marvel’s most recent romp, Thor: Ragnarok.
Playing a superhero is new ground for the star, but he insists the decision to take on the arrogant neurosurgeon-turned-Avenger was less about the inevitable profile boost, and more about job satisfaction.
Doctor Strange is about me giving myself a surprise; it’s about doing something I haven’t done
‘It’s about me giving myself a surprise; it’s about doing something I haven’t done… or at least different in some degree if it’s not a complete U-turn,’ he says emphatically. ‘And the older I get, it’s about the people I want to work with, especially directors I want to work with – that’s a leading criteria.
‘And because I have my own production company [Sunny March], I’m interested in making cinema that I’d like to see, so it’s not just about being in film, because to see projects from their inception to their completion is a new journey as well.’
Were another Hollywood actor to make these kinds of omissions, one might put it down to lip service, but Cumberbatch is a thoroughbred thespian and unlikely to talk frivolously about his craft.
His parents, Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, were well-known television actors who raised Cumberbatch and his half-sister Tracy in their top-floor flat in Kensington.
The place was bought in the 1970s for something like three grand,’ he laughs. ‘But for somewhere so cheap, the memories and experiences are rich. My first word, supposedly, was “helicopter”, as I used to be transfixed by these strange machines flying overhead on their way to Kensington Palace.
My parents worked very hard to send me to a public school, but I’d have been just as happy in and around Kensington, and it’s reassuring that going back there now doesn’t really feel any different
‘Kensington is always a neighbourhood that feels relaxed, open, yet fiercely private,’ he continues. ‘My parents worked very hard to maintain what they had and to send me to a public school, but I’d have been just as happy in and around Kensington, and it’s reassuring that going back there now doesn’t really feel any different.’
With teenage ambition seeing him stray towards the legal profession, the stage lights were never moved far from Cumberbatch’s mind, and time at Harrow cemented a belief that his creative strands were better suited to traditional entertainment, and certainly not the form seen in courtrooms.
‘I had the privilege of being able to choose, or at least have the opportunity to work at, being anything but an actor,’ he says. ‘But in the end acting was something I knew I just had to pursue.’
Cumberbatch may have fulfilled his starry destiny, but he has never made the move fully to Hollywood, preferring to raise his family in his home city. And while he, wife Sophie and young sons, Christopher and Hal, currently reside in north London, that stolid loyalty to his home turf was proved unequivocally when he was part of the campaign to save the historic Kensington Odeon building from being turned into flats, making him a hero both on and off the screen.
‘There are some things you just have to throw your weight behind,’ he says. ‘And there are some things so engrained in the culture of local life, they really shouldn’t be lost, and still are… but we have to try.’