The Confessions of Benedict Cumberbatch
This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I am 45 minutes into an interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, and frankly, it's not going well.
The English actor, 37, sits hunched within a tiny trailer, his gaunt frame swathed in modern-day Sherlock Holmes regalia, his preternaturally blue eyes alert to danger. He scorns media encounters of this ilk, especially when they wrench him from the set of his BBC series Sherlock, today being filmed at a Ministry of Defense base near Cardiff, Wales.
The rat-tat of guns peppers the air as real British soldiers prepare for possible war; turmoil in the Middle East days earlier prompted Cumberbatch to scrawl a note for his posse of paparazzi, bidding them, "Go photograph Egypt and show the world something important." But now his mind is reluctantly on something else: this interview.
We've hopped from one subject to another -- from his new movie, The Fifth Estate (in which he plays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange); to his schooling at Harrow, one of Britain's leading private schools; to his teenage love affair with the theater. The questions have been all over the place, and so have the answers. The actor rightly has accused this reporter of "zigzagging." I, in turn, have suggested he obfuscates in his answers.
"You're saying that I'm using hollow symbols, which I'm not," he says.
Me: "I didn't say, 'hollow symbols.' "
Cumberbatch: "Well, 'obfuscate' is a distraction from truth."
Me: "It doesn't go that deep into truth."
There's an uncomfortable silence.
We agree to go back to the beginning, and curiously, everything changes. Suddenly, Cumberbatch is present and alert, as if Holmes' prickliness has peeled away, revealing a far more tender and emotional person as he relives the greatest trauma of his life, when he was abducted nearly a decade ago and held at gunpoint.
"We were in South Africa, in KwaZulu-Natal, this amazing district north of Durban," he recalls of the night when he and two friends drove back to the set of the 2005 miniseries To the Ends of the Earth after a weekend spent diving. "It was cold, and it was dark. I felt rotten. We were wary because that's a notoriously dangerous place to drive. Then, poof, the front-right tire blows. So we got the spare, but that meant getting all of our luggage out. We were like sitting ducks, adverts for -- not prosperity necessarily but materialism."
As the friends removed the tire, six armed figures emerged from the dark. "They were like: 'Look down! Look down! Put your hands on your heads! Look at the floor!' And they started frisking us and said: 'Where's your money? Where's your drugs?' -- we had smoked a bit of weed -- 'Where are your weapons?' And at that point, this adrenaline of fight or flight just exploded in my body. I was like, 'Oh f---, we're f---ed!' "
Tears spring into Cumberbatch's eyes as he recounts every petrifying detail, explaining how the abductors drove him and his friends off and then, when the actor protested that his bound limbs were losing sensation, yanked him out of the car and threw him in the trunk. Finally, they came to a halt in the middle of nowhere and tossed Cumberbatch on the ground. Deep into the night, he remained in terror. "I was scared, really scared. I said: 'What are you going to do with us? Are you going to kill us?' I was really worried that I was going to get raped or molested or just tortured or toyed with in some way, some act of control and savagery."
Eventually, without explanation, the assailants let their prey go, slinking off into the night, after which Cumberbatch rediscovered the sheer wonder of being alive. "It really, really enriches your values in life," he says. "It's incredibly important."
Then the prickliness returns, and he lambasts me as one of "you guys" (i.e., journalists) who probably won't add how moving it was when a pair of hands -- a complete stranger's -- reached down to save him. "I looked into this black man's face, and I cried with gratitude," he recalls before returning to what he said about enriched values. "F--- it. If that's a cliche, I don't care." Benedict Cumberbatch is nothing if not complicated.
Both highly intellectual and intensely emotional, he has faced death yet puts his life at risk through his passion for skydiving and high-speed motorcycling. Pursued by women, he remains single and in some ways a loner, though he spent years in a relationship with British actress Olivia Poulet, whom he met while a student at the University of Manchester.
At the flick of a switch, he can turn from icy to incandescent, from dignified to indignant. "He embodies the contradictions of Julian Assange," says DreamWorks partner Stacey Snider. "He is classical and modern, he is cerebral and intuitive, he attracts you and at times keeps you at a distance. That's what makes him singular and utterly compelling."
Cumberbatch speaks of being drawn to the "transcendent" and calls himself a Buddhist (at least "philosophically"), but he can just as easily leave all that, become Holmes and "imagine faking my own death."
He lives in a flat in north London, which he describes as both minimalist and eclectic ("I like light; there's not a single room in the house that doesn't have a window"). He watches some television, including Breaking Bad and The Killing, but not much. He professes a deep admiration for Stanley Kubrick, the subject of a dissertation he wrote at university about "how within a diverse subject matter his worldview is still very unified."
He has a fondness for music, particularly Icelandic band Sigur Ros: "It transports me. It gives me a mental landscape that is very inspiring. It gives me a space in my head where I can imagine great emotion and depth."
He seems both part of this world and removed from it, with an old-fashioned liking for books (he lavishes praise on Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, the basis of an HBO miniseries for which he has received an Emmy nomination) and a contempt for the Internet, where vitriol "is horrific. You can't win. It's like a new form of bullying. I find it quite despicable."
Before he became an overnight Internet favorite following Sherlock's 2010 British debut to astonishing ratings (the first season aired on PBS in October 2010), Cumberbatch had seemed consigned to being an actor's actor, drawing praise for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in a TV movie about the scientist and gaining notice for roles in such films as Atonement and War Horse. But he was catapulted to a different level of fame by his present-day take on Arthur Conan Doyle's creation.