His work to date has received high praise – as well as a fanatical fanbase – but is Benedict Cumberbatch set to receive the highest recognition reserved for his profession thanks to The Imitation Game? As his engagement to theatre director Sophie Hunter is announced, Benedict Cumberbatch talks to us about playing a hero, being a sex symbol and why he’s nothing like Sherlock
Is Benedict Cumberbatch Oscar-bound? After many distinguished roles in recent years in films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and 12 Years a Slave, the North London-based heartthrob is now poised for awards season glory with his riveting work in The Imitation Game, (not to mention what could be the biggest starring role of his life when he marries theatre director Sophie Hunter).
The film sees him play Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and computer scientist who led the elite British team that cracked the German Enigma code during WWII and helped turn the tide of the war. Co-starring Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, the fellow mathematician who developed a close friendship with Turing, The Imitation Game premiered to rave reviews at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where Benedict was equally lauded for what many critics have cited as one of the finest performances in years.
Bur rather than talk about the recognition falling his way when he does the interview rounds at the aforementioned festival, the 38-year-old Sherlock star was much more interested in urging audiences to appreciate the extraordinary life and work of Turing, who committed suicide at the age of 41 after being forced to submit to chemical castration (as an alternative to prison) in Britain due to his homosexuality…
Benedict, you have a tremendous public following and people seem to be in the habit of screaming your name wherever you turn?
(Smiles) Actors long to be in this position and it gives me a kick to be able to connect with the public… I enjoy having conversations with the people who attend film festivals. Spending time with them is a way of saying thank you and honouring their interest. You spend most of your time cooped up in your hotel doing press, which is fine because you’re here to promote your film, but ultimately it’s a great pleasure to be able to meet the people who appreciate your work.
Is it odd to find yourself in the position of being a sex symbol?
I pay no attention to that whatsoever although of course it’s flattering and amusing at times. I’m certainly not that kind of actor whom people will think of as conventionally handsome, and I regard that talk as a sign of recognition for my work as an actor. My mum feels quite proud, I suppose, but you won’t catch me staring in mirrors or reading my press clippings.
Your work in The Imitation Game may well be your finest achievement yet as an actor. What do you take away from this film?
Thank you for your kind words… Turing was a tragic figure when he deserved to have been hailed as a hero. I hope this film will bring much greater public awareness to not just the man, but also to the incredible contribution he made to the war effort and to mathematics and computer science. The broad themes of Turing’s life are very relevant to all of us and understanding what it is to be human even while working in the field of artificial intelligence. People should read about Turing’s work and theories. His achievements are amazing.
What is your impression of Turing the man?
There was something very subtle, uncompromising and unusual about him, but also very quiet and stoic. He didn’t knowingly martyr himself, he was just true to himself. He didn’t see himself as a victim or as a hero. He just did his work and behaved true to his nature. He would be the last person to describe himself as a hero, so that made it easier to portray him.
How do you react to the way Turing was treated by his country when he was prosecuted for his homosexuality?
He was prosecuted and persecuted the way homosexuality is still being attacked, particularly by the Christian far right in North America and in many other countries including Russia and Greece as well as in parts of Africa. Turing was one of hundreds of thousands of men who were persecuted in his time especially during the McCarthy era. It’s shocking that in times of political or economic crisis there are often nationalistic groups that pop up and start attacking various minority groups, including homosexuals. I think many people who watch this film will share the collective outrage that everyone who worked on the film felt.
Many of Britain’s finest actors form the cast of The Imitation Game…
We all wanted to help tell this story about Turing and the Enigma Team. It was also very rewarding for me personally to be able to work with so many good friends like Keira in the cast. When you work with people whom you’ve worked with in the past it helps set aside the kind of awkwardness you often feel at the beginning of a film.
How hard was it for you emotionally to portray Turing towards the end of his life where he was undergoing hormonal castration treatment?
At the end, he was a shell of himself. It was about as difficult a process as I’ve ever experienced as an actor. Those moments hit me very hard because it was so devastating to portray him when he was in such a terrible physical and psychological state at the end of his life. He was unravelling. For such a brilliant man to suffer such a terrifying series of humiliations is almost impossible to describe. It was deeply affecting for me to portray him at such a low point.
Is a film like this very inspiring in terms of how you see your own career evolving of late?
It’s all exceeded my wildest expectations. When I entered university (Cambridge), I was initially intent on becoming a barrister, which is certainly what my parents had been hoping for. My parents [the actors Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham] worked very hard to send me to the best schools and it was difficult for me to tell them that I was going to follow their path instead of choosing something more sensible. They knew how difficult their profession could be and like most parents they wanted a better life for their son.
Even after I had decided to pursue acting a lot of my friends tried to persuade me to go back and study law while I still had the opportunity. But my dad gave me his blessing after he saw me in a university production of Amadeus where I played Salieri. He said, “You’re better at this than I ever was. I think you’re going to be very good at this.” It was so important for me to have their blessing and those words from my father meant so much to me. Ever since then I’ve tried to do the best work possible and make my parents proud of me.
Your performance as Sherlock Holmes has made you the object of cultish reverence in the UK. Did that surprise you?
(Laughs) It still surprises me! It’s astonishing that people are so obsessed with a man as difficult and forbidding at times as he can be. I only hope that people don’t identify me too closely with Sherlock Holmes because I don’t have that much in common with him. That’s why I’m glad some of the other work I’m doing does reinforce the notion that I’m an actor capable of many different kinds of roles. Of course it’s always a compliment when people feel so strongly about a particular role, it’s just that I should remind people that Sherlock is a rather perverse fellow who wouldn’t feel very grateful or gracious in return. It’s not in his nature.
How do you stay grounded in the face of fame and fortune?
Thankfully, I have many dear friends whom I have known for many, many years before all this attention came my way. It helps me through all the madness and I try to remain humble in the face of it all.
The Imitation Game is out nationwide on 14 November, and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is in cinemas from 12 December