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“There are parallels,” the Emmy-winning (Sherlock) and Oscar-nominated (The Imitation Game) actor Benedict Cumberbatch acknowledges while discussing the three roles that have brought him to the Toronto International Film Festival over the years: Julian Assange in 2013’s The Fifth Estate; Alan Turing in 2014’s The Imitation Game; and, most recently, Thomas A. Edison in The Current War, a Weinstein Co. film due out in November that had its world premiere the night before the actor-producer and I sat down at Toronto’s InterContinental Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast.
“They’re smart men, they’re all fighting battles, they make enemies along the way and there are questionable motives or behaviors in some of their actions,” Cumberbatch notes, adding that they are men “who divide opinion within their worlds” and “who have not been as exposed as these stories make them.” However, the 41-year-old emphasizes, “beyond that, they could not be more different!” While the actor’s work in all three films has been lauded, it remains to be seen where The Current War, once it’s seen by the public, will fall on the spectrum between The Fifth Estate, which proved a flop, and The Imitation Game, which proved a critical and commercial triumph.
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Cumberbatch, who was born in London, grew up attending boarding schools throughout England — at one of them he studied under an English teacher who also taught drama and helped introduce him to acting. He was involved in the theater at the University of Manchester and while getting a one-year MA in classical acting at LAMDA. But upon his graduation, it quickly became clear that Cumberbatch, with his unconventionally handsome looks, might find at least as much success on screen, and indeed his first major part was as Stephen Hawking in the 2004 BBC TV film Hawking. “It was a big break for me,” he says, “a launching point.” A subsequent performance, in 2007’s best picture Oscar-nominated Atonement, impressed Stephen Moffat, who was preparing a new take on the most played character in screen history, Sherlock Holmes, imagining him as a 21st century crime-solver. Cumberbatch ultimately auditioned and got the part, which changed his life and career.
“I had no idea that it would be that big of a deal,” Cumberbatch confesses. But when the first season of Sherlock aired on the BBC in 2010, it exceeded even the most optimistic estimates of its ratings potential. “It was crazy,” the actor recalls, noting, “You could just feel this reaction instantly.” Four seasons of Sherlock now have aired, all of which have brought him Emmy nominations, and the second of which brought him an Emmy win in 2014. “It’s been an extraordinary journey,” he says, while adding, “The good stuff that comes with that is fantastic; the bad stuff that comes with it is fantastically awful.” Almost overnight, Sherlock turned Cumberbatch into a celebrity, worshipped by legions of fans, some of whom once called themselves “Cumberbitches,” but most of whom now prefer the appellation “The Cumbercollective.”
Sherlock marked the beginning of a remarkable run for Cumberbatch. In 2010, he also starred in After the Dance at the National Theatre. And, in 2011, he played “a lovely but small part” in Steven Spielberg‘s best picture Oscar-nominated drama War Horse; appeared alongside Gary Oldman in the film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; and returned to the National Theatre to star in a repertory production of Frankenstein under the direction of Danny Boyle. In 2012, Cumberbatch was Emmy-nominated for his work in the BBC/HBO miniseries Parade’s End, and then made a fateful decision, declining to go to Broadway with After the Dance. While somewhat guilt-plagued by the fact that his decision meant the rest of the company wouldn’t get that opportunity either, his newfound availability did just what he hoped it would: It made him able to pursue — and land — some major screen roles.
In 2013, no actor was as omnipresent as Cumberbatch, who played major parts that year in Star Trek Into Darkness, August: Osage County, the eventual best picture Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave and the aforementioned The Fifth Estate, his first bona fide leading role on the big screen. While The Fifth Estate wasn’t well-received, it did not derail The Imitation Game, which provided Cumberbatch’s bona fides beyond any doubt. “It felt like a wonderful gift to have been given,” he reflects. After a draining Oscar season, Cumberbatch returned to the stage, in a rapturously received Hamlet at the Barbican Centre, and then returned to the big screen as Marvel superhero Doctor Strange — “a huge opportunity,” he says — carrying a $165 million movie with that same title to $677 million at the global box office and, in a rarity for comic book adaptations, strong reviews.
All of which led to The Current War, to which Cumberbatch says he was drawn by “a bobby-dazzler of a script” by Michael Mitnick that vividly brings to life the rivalry between Edison and George Westinghouse (played by Oscar nominee Michael Shannon), in the earliest days of electricity, as they fight to develop the predominant electrical current (direct or alternating, respectively). “I didn’t know if I liked him,” Cumberbatch says of his character, whose voice he studied through old phonograph recordings. Cumberbatch, who also is a producer of The Current War, credits director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (2015’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) for creating a film that “dares you to sort of engage with complex true-to-life, universally human aspects of our human interaction,” and emphasizes, “I could not be more proud of it.”
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