With Sherlock back on our TV screens, Benedict Cumberbatch waxes lyrical to Tony Marco about worldwide attention, parental concerns and a fondness for his Northwest London bubble
With his hollowed-out cheekbones and rather unusual angular symmetry, Benedict Cumberbatch is far from the atypical blueprint for a matinee idol. His distinct features have even provoked description including ‘a Meerkat in a Magimix’. Not the most complimentary description.
The actor, however, has still managed to accumulate quite a sex symbol following, with a Twitter page dedicated to the ‘Cumberbitches’, which currently houses over 30,000 loyal disciples. That’s pretty impressive for an odd looking meerkat.
‘I’ve said this before but my God, I wish my teen self had known about my magnetism to the opposite sex,’ he jokes. ‘I still think “Cumberbabes” might be better all round. It’s incredibly complimentary, but it’s quite a derogatory phrase – a bit of a blow to feminism. Quite honestly, I’m a little unsettled by attention of that magnitude. Sometimes I’m fine with it, but more often than not I just want to put my head down, let it all slide by. I’m not complaining. It’s all come from good things.’
This unyielding attention is now a part of his daily existence. It became an inevitability for the Northwest London resident once Star Trek: Into Darkness was released. Benedict’s terrorist John Harrison stole every scene in JJ Abram’s spectacular, making a global megastar out of the former Harrow School alumnus.
Want proof? Take a recent promo trip to Japan. ‘You couldn’t believe how many people turned up to see us,’ he tells. ‘Granted, Chris [Pine, who plays Kirk] was also there and I just assumed there were all there for him, but quite a good few were shouting my name, armed with posters emblazoned with my name. It was shocking.’
Growing up in Kensington, the only son of actors Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, young Ben Carlton possessed an affinity for the stage from a young age. ‘One family joke is that when I was playing Joseph in a nativity play, I apparently shoved the girl playing Mary out of the way because I felt she was too slow in saying her lines,’ he laughs. ‘Now I was three at the time, so this kind of behaviour, while questionable it’s in accuracy, is also somewhat worrying.’
His parents, jobbing character actors achieving relative success, were pleased when their son voiced a desire to pursue law. But he turned on his heels and enrolled in a drama degree at Manchester University. ‘They just saw the downsides of acting. They’d both experienced it first-hand and didn’t want the rejection and hurt for me. I don’t think any parent wants that life for their child; they want them to be stable and secure,’ Benedict explains.
‘But things have worked out well, you would say. I’ve not had a bad ride, to be honest. Sure, there have been challenges along the way, but I feel now I’m really at a point where everything is coming home.’
Initially a trusted supporting player in Starter For Ten, The Other Boleyn Girl and Atonement, the Beeb’s gargantuan adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s hero Sherlock Holmes has been a career definer for Benedict, and with the Sherlock series sold in the US, recognition aplenty has followed.
This month we will also see him in the Oscar-tipped film Twelve Years A Slave, about a man kidnapped and sold into slavery, with Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender among the cast. Not forgetting that we can currently see the 36-year-old in his finest incarnation yet, as 400-year-old dragon in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. This is one busy chap. ‘I’m playing a 400-year-old dragon for God’s sake; it’s the stuff of dreams!’ Benedict exclaims. ‘Coursing about in a reptilian guise, twirling my tail around, then heading back to the States to play an intergalactic space terrorist who jeopardises the future of the Enterprise. And to think I ever considered law. How different it all could have been!’
Semblance of normality is maintained by his North London base near Hampstead Heath. The picturesque borough is a haven for the actor. If anything, there seems to be little attention for Benedict when he walks the streets and lanes of Hampstead and Highgate, making an ideal respite from the overwhelming attention, perhaps part of the reason why he sees himself staying here for years to come.
‘I’m too close to my family and friends to even consider that,’ he says about moving to Hollywood, ‘and there’s just a lovely familiarity and friendliness to where I live now. It’s taken me a long time to get to this place in my life and my career where I’m truly happy, so I’m going to stick around for a while and savour it – who wouldn’t?’