The Gospel According to Benedict
Photography by Samuel Bradley | Shot on location at the Barbican Conservatory, London.
The hottest ticket in London next summer is not One Direction, Miley Cyrus, or Beyoncé. It is Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet at the Barbican theater. Some 100,000 tickets for the 12-week run went on sale a few days before I was due to meet Cumberbatch — coincidentally at the Barbican — and sold out in minutes. Even by the robust standards of London theater (more than 22 million people attended shows in the 2012–2013 season), that’s some record.
For Cumberbatch, taking on theater’s most ambitious role — “a hoop through which every eminent actor must jump,” as the essayist Max Beerbohm once put it — may be a rite of passage, but it’s also a test of whether popular culture can open the gates to high culture. Can the pop idol Sherlock attract his screaming fans to the Bard? “I hope it sort of goes into the places that television sometimes can,” Cumberbatch says, “to draw people to see me live who haven’t seen Shakespeare before. We want the people who’ve never been in a theater, but we’re not into social engineering, so we can’t say to another cross-section of society, ‘Oh, sorry — you’ve got a library card. Fuck off.’ ”
Of course, the kind of fame that can sell out a three-month run in minutes also has its drawbacks. We’ve barely sat down at our banquette at Gin Joint — a fancy-pants brasserie at the Barbican Centre — when Cumberbatch curses gently under his breath: “Oh lord, here we go, here we go.” He indicates two middle-aged women in flowery dresses sitting at a table across the room. “The florals over there,” he says, eyes averted. “They’re giving a bit of a head-turning — it’s begun.”
But surely Cumberbatch, 38, must be accustomed to such attention at this point? He nods. “I’ve spent a lot of time getting to where I’ve gotten by observing human behavior, so I’m really sensitive to it anyway,” he says. “And you can’t help but feel that you’re on show, which on good days is fine — you breeze through it, and do whatever you do as a performer and a human being to just feel relaxed and comfortable in your own skin. But we all have days when we’d rather not show our face for whatever reason — because we’re hungover, withdrawn, whatever it may be, physical or emotional. And then it’s really hard. It’s really, really hard, because you just don’t want to engage with it.”
It is an odd thing about fame that it puts celebrities at a distinct disadvantage — we know so much more about them than they can know about us. A cursory Google search turns up more trivia on Cumberbatch than can possibly be useful. From an appearance on Katie Couric’s talk show, we learn that he prefers dogs over cats (but owns neither), that if he could be a pop star it would be Jónsi from Sigur Rós, and that he thinks his name sounds like “a fart in a bath.” Elsewhere, you will discover that he is very good at accents (he played Professor Snape in an episode of The Simpsons); that he once taught in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India; and that one of the more inventive nicknames for him at school was “Bendy Dick Cum on My Baps.” His name, for some reason, is a source of constant hilarity. When Jimmy Kimmel invited random people on the street to define Cumberbatch, the answers came back as various as “a batch of cucumbers” and “a wart on your foot.”
Five years ago, Cumberbatch was appearing in well-made but decidedly unshowy TV fare: Sunday-evening whodunits and period dramas like Small Island, based on Andrea Levy’s prizewinning novel about Jamaican immigrants in 1940s Britain. Then, in the fall of 2010, came the BBC’s contemporary reboot of Sherlock Holmes, starring Cumberbatch as the eponymous detective — a role that has come to define him as surely as James Bond defined Sean Connery. The show was a sensation from its launch (there are only three episodes per season), and it is now watched in 180 countries. As a reward, Cumberbatch and his co-star, Martin Freeman, each took home an Emmy at this year’s awards ceremony (upsetting expectations for the cast of the Ryan Murphy–directed HBO movie The Normal Heart).
Sherlock is currently in preproduction for season 4, a complex undertaking given Cumberbatch’s many commitments. He has three movies scheduled for release between Thanksgiving and Christmas alone, including the seasonal behemoths Penguins of Madagascar (in which he plays a wolf agent called Declassified) and Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. But the movie that might earn him an Oscar nomination is The Imitation Game, a biopic about the gay mathematician Alan Turing and his role in breaking the Enigma code used by Germany during the Second World War. Save, perhaps, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, Turing, with this act, did more than almost anyone else to ensure an Allied victory.
The Imitation Game turns out to be an unexceptional movie with an exceptional performance at its heart. Like The King’s Speech, it is elegantly made, beautifully filmed, and loyal to its source material (in this case, Andrew Hodges’s excellent 1983 biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma). But what brings the film to life is Cumberbatch’s immensely engaging performance as Turing, a misfit at ease with his homosexuality (he named his computer Christopher after an unrequited schoolboy crush), but utterly at odds with the world around him. To use David Leavitt’s apt comparison, Turing was a kind of real-life Mr. Spock, insensible to human discourse, and wholly unable to “read between the lines.”
Turing was 41 years old when he was found dead by his housekeeper, a half-eaten apple by his bedside. The apple — which urban legend suggests was the inspiration for the logo for Apple computers — is commonly believed to have been laced with cyanide, though this theory has been challenged by some biographers who claim his death was an accident. What is unequivocal is that he was hounded in his last years by the authorities after being arrested for “gross indecency” with another man. Faced with imprisonment or a regimen of estrogen injections to “cure” him of his tendencies, he chose the latter. Last December, almost 60 years after his death, Turing received a posthumous royal pardon for his conviction. The gesture, following years of campaigning, left Cumberbatch distinctly underwhelmed.
“It’s an insult,” the actor says, “for anybody of authority or standing to sign off on him with their approval and say, ‘Oh, he’s forgiven.’ The only person who should be [doing the] forgiving is Turing, and he can’t because we killed him. And it makes me really angry. It makes me very angry.”
Cumberbatch, who has clearly done his research, thinks the persecution of homosexuals in the U.K. has its roots in the Cambridge Five, a group of men, some of them gay, at the highest echelons of society, who had been recruited to spy for Moscow. “It was our form of McCarthyism,” he says. “If you were intellectual, if you were gay, if you had any kind of liberal ideas, you were immediately a threat to national security.” The irony is that Turing, who had the temerity to be gay and intellectual, was the last person to see himself as any kind of martyr. “He wasn’t someone who purposefully put himself in the way of things as a protest — he was just a great role model for anyone who’s different or feels different,” says Cumberbatch. “And it’s tragic because you look at every single trajectory in his life and understand completely why he was different, why he stuttered, why he was isolated in his work. [You also see] why he was useless with men in any form of relationship — because he’d never experienced the love he deserved. And yet, within that, this man invented the idea of mechanizing mathematics — of a computer. He conquered, through cryptography, the Enigma code, which means he saved millions of lives, and, even as his body was morphing, was doing work on how the environment causes cellular structures to change. I mean, God knows, he probably would be celebrated as someone like Bill Gates. Without the shadow of a doubt, he would be held as a totem of the modern world.”
For all that The Imitation Game is a period drama, Cumberbatch is anxious that Turing’s story be kept alive as a parable on the price of intolerance. “It’s not a history lesson — it’s a warning that this could very easily happen again,” he says. “People are being beheaded in countries right now because of their beliefs or sexual orientations. It’s terrifying. It’s medieval — a beheading! I’d take up arms against someone who was telling me I had to believe in what they believed or they would kill me. I would fight them. I would fight them to the death. And, I believe, the older you get, you have to have an idea of what’s right or wrong. You can’t have unilateral tolerance. You have to have a point where you go, ‘Well, religious fundamentalism is wrong.’ ”
It is around this stage in our conversation that one of the floral ladies seizes her moment to approach the table. “Excuse me, could you make my daughter’s day and take a photo with me?” she asks. Politely, but firmly, Cumberbatch rejects the offer.
“No, no I can’t, but it’s very nice to meet you. What’s your name?” Defeated, the lady retreats, and a manager approaches, offering to intercede should it happen again. Cumberbatch declines. “The worst thing is when you have guard dogs, because then it just becomes an extension of you,” he explains. Recently at Comic-Con in San Diego, to publicize both Penguins and The Hobbit, he was caught in just such a moment, after bodyguards blocked the crowd as he exited to a waiting car. “People were literally dragged off the streets [crying], ‘I just wanted an autograph.’ It’s horrible. And then I get into the back of an SUV, going, ‘Sorry,’ and this one girl goes, ‘Yeah, whatever,’ with tears in her eyes. It’s not fucking me. I can’t control an ex-military security man who’s just had a whole day of it, and just thinks he’ll lose his job if he doesn’t punch some poor teenage girl in the face to give me an inch more room to breathe.”
At this point in his career, the observation that Cumberbatch has made a specialty of playing complicated geniuses — not just Turing, but also Sherlock Holmes, Vincent van Gogh, Julian Assange, Stephen Hawking, and his upcoming Hamlet — is something of a cliché that he shakes off with only the barest hint of irritation.
“It’s not as simplistic as, ‘Oh, you kind of go for geniuses,’ ” he says. “They’re all very, very different people. There’s a singularity about them sometimes, a drive and an obsession, but they are completely unique, thank God. Van Gogh was troubled in very different ways to Stephen Hawking and to Sherlock and to Turing.”
What is clear is that what motivates Cumberbatch is the tangled roots of psychology, biology, and biography. What makes a character act the way he does? It’s why he says he doesn’t just want to play Hamlet — he needs to play him. He’s the ultimate psychological study. Likewise, his Turing is fascinating not because he’s easy to understand, but because he isn’t. As with Sherlock, we come to appreciate him in spite of himself, and because Cumberbatch makes his emotional constipation explicable.
All of which makes the roar of Cumberbatch’s rabid fan base — the popular collective noun is “Cumberbitches” — somewhat perplexing. Nothing about Cumberbatch screams Hollywood heartthrob, and nothing about Sherlock corresponds to a typical ladies’ man. “People keep coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh, he’s so sexy, do you think [Sherlock would be] interested in me?’ ” says Cumberbatch. “Do you not think he’d just look at you twice and tell you everything you hate about yourself and crumple you up like a little bit of paper and flick you away? He’s a machine and brutal and ruthless and has no time for the distractions of your fawning. Because, you know, they either want to make John [Watson] into a sort of cute little toy, or me into a cute toy, or we’re fucking in space on a bed, chained together.”
Cumberbatch is referring to the rapacious slash fiction community that has turned his chilly, acerbic, and distinctly asexual Sherlock into a lustful cock monster. “It’s always, like, one of them is tired, one comes back from work, the other is horny, a lump appears in his trousers, and then they’re at it,” he says. “It’s usually me getting it — I’m biting Watson’s dog tags.” Perhaps, I suggest, making Holmes and Watson gay is a way to remove other women from the picture. “Yes, yes,” he replies enthusiastically. “I think it’s about burgeoning sexuality in adolescence, because you don’t necessarily know how to operate that. And I think it’s a way of neutralizing the threat, so this person is sort of removed from them as somebody who could break their heart.”
Adolescent sexuality seems like an appropriate segue into an obvious subject. As a young boy, Cumberbatch was sent to an all-boys prep school, Brambletye in West Sussex, followed by five years at Harrow, an all-boys boarding school and an incubator for eight British prime ministers. In the U.K., this detail immediately fixes him in the public mind as a “posh boy,” a characterization he’s too polite to unpick as the lazy reduction it is, while acknowledging, nevertheless, that Harrow School was blessed with a theater superior to many in London.
For Cumberbatch, boarding school was a wonderful place to grow up “because you have that complete experience of being a child,” he says. “You are not going to and from a place all the time, and I was very, very hungry for company. My mom and dad, poor them — I used to ask every Christmas and birthday for a brother or sister. That’s all I really wanted when I was growing up, because I was an only child.”
In the time-honored tradition of all-male schools he found himself playing female leads (like Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Rosalind in As You Like It) but claims to have been oblivious to the kind of sexual antics for which English boarding schools are supposedly notorious. “While there was experimentation [at Brambletye], it had never occurred to me as Oh, this is that. It was just boys and their penises, the same way with girls and vaginas and boobs. It wasn’t out of a desire.”
He is less charitable about the culture at Harrow, which he characterizes as having, at the time, “a really low tolerance for homosexuality,” a fact starkly illuminated when two boys were publicly outed at the dining hall one morning during breakfast. “They had been discovered in their house,” Cumberbatch says, “and in those days, if you were discovered with a girl you were expelled — there was no shame in that. But if you were discovered with another boy, you weren’t [expelled]. You had to survive all the horrendous prejudice you faced.”
He describes hearing a ruckus in the street one afternoon. “These kids were chasing this poor kid, and they came into my house, breathless — a Sikh, a Jordanian prince, an Indian, and a Nigerian. I said, ‘Stop, stop, stop, stop,’ because they all just came charging down the corridor, and I said, ‘What just happened?’ and they told me, ‘It’s disgusting, isn’t it?’ And I went, ‘No, your behavior is fucking disgusting. How would you feel if you were chased because you have a turban, or you were chased because of the color of your skin, or you were chased because of your religion? It’s about being an individual. You can’t tolerate that? Are you sick in the head?’ And they were like, ‘What? No. Why, are you gay?’ And I said, ‘No, but I can clearly see that you’re bullies. You’re just nasty human beings.’ ”
Cumberbatch sees some of that same prejudice today in Hollywood, a subject he’s discussed at length with his friend Zachary Quinto (the two met on the set of Star Trek Into Darkness). “I think if you’re going to sell yourself as a leading man in Hollywood,” he says, “to say ‘I’m gay,’ sadly, is still a huge obstacle. We all know actors who are [gay] who don’t want to talk about it or bring it up, or who deny it. I don’t really know what they do to deal with it.” Sixty years after Turing’s death, he is amazed that it should still be an issue. “Human rights movements and sexual and gay rights movements have made huge social progress in the last 40 years, without a doubt, but there’s a lot more work to be done,” he says. “I think it’s extraordinary that every time we get to a point where there’s any kind of trouble in society, people are scapegoated very, very, very quickly.”
Cumberbatch can talk like this — passionately, thoughtfully — for a long time. Although he always enjoyed acting, he says he toyed for a while with being a barrister — “just standing up in a court of law, holding an argument” — and you can see why. It’s that same quality of interrogation and inquiry that makes him a compelling actor, and which should bring depth and substance to his Hamlet. As he says himself, Hamlet is all about direct address — “telling the audience what he’s going to do, why he’s having difficulty doing what he’s doing, what he’s feeling about what he’s doing or not doing, what he feels about life.” That Cumberbatch’s audience will be drawn to see his performance primarily because they know him as Sherlock merely whets his appetite more. “The work motivates me most, not the byproducts,” he says. “By and large, I ignore them.”