The Confessions of Benedict Cumberbatch
Snider says he's at the top of DreamWorks' list for almost any project, other than a broad comedy. His astonishing ability to transform himself, along with his intense preparation (he even studied the violin before tackling Holmes), has made him one of the world's most admired actors.
But the requisites of stardom still seem alien to him, and he is dubious of his fan appeal, describing how odd it is to be surrounded by portraits of himself that fans have given him: "I've kept a couple that are stunning, that are just really beautiful drawings, and the rest I've had to give away. And I've told fans, 'Look, I'm very flattered, but what do you expect me to do with it? Think about it. Would you want your room surrounded by drawings of you?' It's a bit weird."
One of these fans got out of control and spied on Cumberbatch in his home from a nearby building, tweeting his actions as he took off his shirt and put on another. The experience shook him to the core. Coming to terms with it, he says, is "an ongoing process. To think that somebody knew everything I'd done in a day and told the rest of the world in real time!"
Add to that the actor's discomfort with female fans' self-definition as "Cumberbitches" ("Some of them have now called themselves the Cumbercollective; that's a slightly less offensive noun"), and it's hard not to think of Cumberbatch as a reluctant star, or one who has yet to reconcile his public and private lives -- lives that increasingly have become intertwined as the British media and Internet trolls scrutinize his every move.
"I'm not like Holmes," he says. "I don't have his capacity to compartmentalize." Cumberbatch adds, "I'm now haunted with, 'But he did want children, and now he doesn't? What's gone wrong? Is he gay? Can't he commit to relationships?' All this speculative shit. There's a point where I just go, 'I've said all I have to say.' "
If Holmes put Cumberbatch on the global map, it is Assange -- the subject of The Fifth Estate -- who might consolidate his stardom, with the role coming only months after his acclaimed turn as the villain in Star Trek Into Darkness.
Cumberbatch heard about the part "at someone's birthday party. I stepped outside, and both my agents [he's repped in Hollywood by UTA's Billy Lazarus] were sort of going, 'Woo-ooo! Really exciting news!' And I said, 'What? What?' I had no idea. And they said, 'DreamWorks would like to offer you Assange.' "
While preparing, he did everything to reach Assange. Although they never met in person, the two did communicate, via "e-mail through a friend, basically," explains Cumberbatch, wary of divulging the details. "He was pretty keen for me not to do the film, and the rest is sort of between us, really."
He seems sympathetic to the man who has been vilified in the Western media and who is now living inside the Ecuador embassy in London while Sweden attempts to extradite him on charges of sexual assault. "The thing is this: I have a profound respect for Julian," he says. "I also have a profound respect for the need of states to have a currency of secrets in order for Western democracy to exist and for fundamentalism to be defeated. And I don't think Julian is interested in fundamentalism triumphing."
Assange's interests, and actions, continued to play out in the media during the film shoot, which largely took place in Belgium early this year. "When you're playing someone who's in the eye of the storm, you suddenly become incredibly conscious of that particular world, those particular concerns," says Cumberbatch. "And the news kept crashing in about [WikiLeaks source Pfc. Bradley Manning]. There was this static in the air all the time."
And not just static, says director Bill Condon: "You had this extraordinary situation for an actor in the last few days of rehearsal, where he is channeling Assange at the same time as the real Assange is begging him to drop out of the film. You can imagine what pressure that put on him. But he handled it with remarkable grace and tenacity."
Cumberbatch grew up middle-class in London but attended Harrow. His parents wanted him to be a barrister, though they are actors; instead, their son fell in love with the craft while backstage at one of mother Wanda Ventham's plays. Instead of plunging into acting when he left Harrow, however -- and before studying drama at Manchester -- he spent months teaching in a Tibetan monastery.
"It was very lonely at times but also inclusive," he says. "There was this incredible experience of just for the first time properly thinking, 'Oh my God! There's so much going on in there.' " Cumberbatch still meditates, but "10 minutes every other week, practically. It's very sporadic. But I do still try."
It's unclear what direction Cumberbatch's career will follow outside Sherlock, for which he's committed to another season after the current one (he claims he does not know how long he'll continue beyond that). Regardless, he seems poised to become one of Britain's most memorable actors.
He's had his tentpole movies, with Star Trek and a voice part as Smaug in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, while continuing to embrace smaller, character-driven projects. He appears in 12 Years a Slave (which screened in Toronto, to rave reviews, along with Estate) and The Weinstein Co.'s August: Osage County. In the former, he plays a sympathetic slave owner; in the latter, the bullied son of Chris Cooper.
Although his work on 12 Years was fleeting, director Steve McQueen was impressed. "There's a dignity to him, a correctness," he says. "He's a real gentleman, and there aren't a lot of them about. There's also a Britishness to him that is very old-fashioned, and I don't mean in a stuffy way -- in a real, welcoming way. We haven't seen people like that in a long time."
Cumberbatch says he'd like to appear in a feature film that Gary Oldman is planning to direct but is circumspect regarding questions about the next Star Wars film, despite rumors that he will join its cast: "I don't know. Who knows, who knows? Nothing is known of that. I worked with J.J. [Abrams, who directed Star Trek Into Darkness and now is prepping Episode VII]. Obviously, he knows. Everyone who wants to be part of that film, they know about."
He is adamant that Star Wars had nothing to do with his recent decision to pull out of Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak. "Absolutely not. No, no, no, no. That was nothing to do with it at all. [It was] between me and Guillermo, to be honest. It was amicable, and that's all I'm going to say."
Questions like these are likely to dominate Cumberbatch's life for the foreseeable future. Whether he is ready to answer them is another matter.
If he wants to be a major star, he may have to, like it or not. And right now, Cumberbatch seems torn about the future, ambivalent toward the lure of stardom and more drawn to the less ephemeral.
"Sometimes as an actor you're looking for the infinite," he says. "If you can hold that, if you can remember that in the chaos, [it will] anchor you and give you grace and ease."
This is the better half of Cumberbatch, the part that makes him appealing. But then his defensiveness returns.
As he heads back to the set, where he has just days to wrap Sherlock before flying to Toronto for the Fifth Estate screening, he reminds me bluntly not to leave out the end of his experience in South Africa, when that stranger came to his aid.
"Everything has to be reduced [in an article]; that's the nature of it," he says. "But don't tell me, after I've given you all of this, that that's not important to you, and it won't end up in the story. Because that means a lot to me. You know?"