'Imitation Game': Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley Stress Codebreakers' Modern Relevance

'The Imitation Game'

"Only 20 percent of the employees at Google are women — yeah, that's a problem, and it was absolutely on my mind"

After appearing on Good Morning America, Live! With Kelly and Michael and Charlie Rose, Benedict Cumberbatch entered the packed Terrace Room at The Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City to a slew of flashing bulbs and familiar faces — his Imitation Game cast.

"Can I have a glass of wine, or will I immediately face-plant into the table?" he asked screenwriter Graham Moore and author Walter Isaacson (The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution) at the intimate luncheon with reporters and Academy voters. Despite his packed press schedule on the rainy Monday afternoon, Cumberbatch energetically noted the all-too-applicable relevance of the biopic following Alan Turing, the World War II codebreaker and father of modern computing who was prosecuted for being a gay man in 1950s Britain.

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"Sadly, things are cyclical, we're seeing nationalism rise in many different places, whether it be Russia, Turkey, god knows in France — when I went to Paris recently, there were riots against a gay rights march," he told The Hollywood Reporter. The people came in to beat up gay men, and then it just became a riot, full stop. They just came in to seek out gay men and women — this was in the summer, two years ago. I couldn't believe it. Minorities are continuing to be scapegoated, as they've been before.

"What I mean by all that is, it's not an isolated moment in history," he continued. "It's a lesson and a warning that our prejudices can still rise and destroy those who are fragile, different and can make an incredible difference in our lives. We differentiate between what's us and what's them at our own peril — orientation, religion, creed."

After refueling on salad and sirloin while deconstructing with his tablemates his upcoming Richard III role in BBC Two's The Hollow Crown miniseries — "In the last years of his life, he became an alcoholic and drank three bottles of wine a day, which back then was just refreshing yourself.... But my god, does he have fun along the way; I'm not holding back!" — Cumberbatch told the luncheon's guests during a panel, "The sickening irony is how the consequences of the time bore down on him continually," from his isolated, heartbreaking childhood to his early death following a year of government-ordered "chemical castration" treatment. "That combination of communism and homosexuality was made real with the Cambridge spies, but I think it was a marriage that was imagined to be far more intense in the fear of the status quo and the government of the time, because of this ridiculous situation where men who love men had to live their lives in secret, so that they were potentially a fertile ground to sow seeds of political opposition in the form of communism. It was an odd collision, psychologically, the fear that persisted and fed that prejudice."

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Turing found solace in project recruit Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley. "They enjoy each other's company and conversation, and love one another," said Cumberbatch. "It seems completely natural to me that that relationship flowers and maybe unlocks, unfreezes something that he had to shut down." Knightley added that her character's hope for a partnership with Turing over a romance "made complete sense to me...particularly in an age in which if she had married someone else, I think she would've been chained to a kitchen sink and wouldn't have been able to pursue the work she was completely obsessed by."

Additionally, Knightley noted her fascination for Clarke's Bletchley Park plight as the only female codebreaker — initially listed as a secretary but then registered as a linguist so she could get more pay, but still less than that of her male co-workers, the actress explained. "She's trying to break that glass ceiling, she's trying to get a place at the table.... I was completely bowled away that we're dealing with the 1940s, and still the center of the feminist argument today is a place at the table and equal pay, and how depressing it is that it's exactly the same, but fascinating.... I met Sergey Brin the other day and he said only 20 percent of the employees at Google are women. Yeah, that's a problem, and it was absolutely on my mind."

At a panel also featuring Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech and Matthew Beard, Moore said of penning the Black List-topping script: "The idea that we are human to the degree that we can convince other people that we are human — I remember when I first started working on this, the notion that that statement, that revolutionary philosophical statement, was coming from a closeted gay man in Britain in the '40s is tremendous.... You see so much of his personal struggle changing 20th-century philosophy, mathematics and the history of the war."

Read more Benedict Cumberbatch Explains the Subtle Intention of the Final Scene in 'The Imitation Game'

Between the film's multiple heartbreaking topics and puzzle-like narrative structure, director Morten Tyldum told THR, the most difficult scenes to stage were those with comedy. "The big dramatic moments were so pure because we all knew the character so much, and my biggest job there was to give them space for them to be in those extremes," he explained of balancing the film's tone. "I didn't want this to be like a dusty old history lesson, I wanted this to be fun, engaging and thrilling, because that's how his life was — there's a lot of humor in how this awkward, arrogant mathematician crashes with the old-school bureaucracy of British military!... And how does Alan Turing tell a joke? I shot that so many times in so many ways!"

The Imitation Game hits limited theaters Nov. 28.

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee