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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.

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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."

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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"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?"