Benedict Cumberbatch on playing Hamlet, his parents and how Sherlock’s hair makes him look like a woman
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH – INTERVIEW & LOVES & HATES
It’s shaping up to be another Year of the Cumberbatch. Having earned massive accolades and an Oscar nomination for his performance as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, and having wed theatre director Sophie Hunter, the wildly popular Benedict Cumberbatch is about to take on a role that has defined the careers of so many great British actors – Hamlet. This latest staging of the legendary Shakespeare play will take place at the Barbican Centre beginning August 5 and run for 12 weeks. Tickets were sold out almost as soon as they became available, but fans of the wildly popular Cumberbatch need not despair – the play will also be broadcast live to cinemas around the world by the National Theatre.
On the heels of his Oscar-nominated performance as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, there seems to be no stopping this juggernaut thespian. Cumberbatch has already wrapped work on Season 4 of Sherlock Holmes, the series that turned him into a cult figure in the UK and abroad, and has only just returned from shooting the Marvel Studios blockbuster, Dr. Strange, in which he plays the title character, of course. And if that weren’t enough, Cumberbatch will also be seen in the upcoming Hollywood film, Black Mass, a gangster drama starring Johnny Depp, as well as the highly anticipated second season of BBC 2’s The Hollow Crown, in which he plays Richard III.
The 38-year-old Benedict Cumberbatch is the son of actors Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham (who both appeared in the 1973 BBC TV series The Lotus Easters) and whose great grandfather Henry Arnold Cumberbatch was a famous British diplomat. A product of Harrow, Manchester University, and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Cumberbatch lives in London with his wife, theatre director Sophie Hunter. About his beautiful and elegant wife, Benedict recently declared: “It’s brilliant to have (someone like Sophie whom) I think is more important than myself in my life to focus away from myself, you know what I mean? That brings me into a good space.” He and his wife Sophie are expecting their first child, due in late Summer.
Q: Is there a sense of exhilaration at having attained the kind of stature you now have?
CUMBERBATCH: It’s exciting to have the opportunity to play so many good parts. I’ve been very, very fortunate and I’m very grateful to have been able to work with so many great actors and directors. I try not to think too much about all that because it can be frightening to look back on what you’ve done and you start worrying about whether you can sustain that and keep finding that level of work.
Sometimes you feel so elated when you learn that you’re going to be playing an extraordinary figure like Alan Turing or prepare to play Hamlet in one of the greatest Shakespearean plays of all time. But then you have to face up to the reality of getting ready to actually play these parts and bring the characters to life and deal with all the expectations that come with that. That’s when your fear and doubts kick in and you push yourself harder so you can do your best work.
Q: Is it particularly daunting to take on Hamlet?
CUMBERBATCH: (Laughs) It’s a role that I’ve been thinking about and wanting to play for many years. I’m also reaching an age where my time to play Hamlet is running out and luckily I found a brilliant director, Lindsey Turner, who has a bold new take on things. We’ve been discussing the production for the past year and I’m looking forward to our collaboration especially since I believe she’s the greatest director of her generation. She told me that she wanted me to treat (Hamlet) like it’s a new play that’s just arrived at the Royal Court Theatre and you can question the writer as if he’s in the room.
Q: What are your thoughts on the iconic character of Hamlet himself?
CUMBERBATCH: Hamlet has incredible insights into human nature. He has a profound understanding of the human condition and the existential dilemmas that we face. Hamlet is chronically aware of being powerless and how to treat that with humor, self-laceration, anger and action and then this incredible journey to a point where he’s just calm, where there’s this very Buddhist, “let it be” quality to an acceptance really of fate.
Q: You’ve also finished playing another great Shakespearean character, Richard III (as part of Season Two of BBC 2’s The Hollow Crown series)?
CUMBERBATCH: It’s been great to be able to play Richard all through the Henrys. It’s a nice run when you really get to understand why this disabled son of these athletic Kennedy-esque jock guys is slowly festering his resentment and why he sets his sights on the crown at the cost of everything in his path.
You don’t just get the slight wink of a psychopath at the beginning of “Now is the Winter of our discontent.” You know what’s come before, you know who it is saying that, so I’m really thrilled to bring that version of the character to the screen.
Q: Acting was not initially what you wanted to do with your life, was it?
CUMBERBATCH: I was learning to be a barrister, choosing my levels around potentially doing Oxbridge and all the rest of it. But then I encountered loads of other people on the same course who said it’s so much down to chance and luck. And I thought, “Well, why am I giving up on my primary dream (acting) to work doubly hard to do something as an alternative to what I really still want to do?”
My mum and dad had worked incredibly hard to afford me an education. I had the privilege of being able to choose, or at least have the opportunity to work at, being anything but an actor…But in the end acting was something I knew I had to pursue.
Q: You’ve often expressed your deep love and appreciation for your parents and how they helped shape your life?
CUMBERBATCH: My father supported my decision to become an actor and I will never forget that. My mum and dad always wanted the best for me and sending me to Harrow was very difficult for them because they had to work very hard to be able to afford that kind of an education for me. I’m very grateful and proud of that.
Q: Does having someone to share your life with help make things easier?
CUMBERBATCH: (It makes it) easier to escape the obsession with self. If you have someone you love and you’re devoted to them and it’s a proper devotional love — as I do in my life — there’s nothing better than that tonic.
First of all, you have your world between you and that person. But also, being devoted to that person takes you away from yourself. There’s someone more important. Not that that’s a reason to be in a relationship, but it’s a very healthy byproduct of it when you’re doing such an obsessional job as acting can be.
Q: Apart from all your other work, your portrayal of Sherlock Holmes continues to draw so much attention and utter devotion. It’s also turned you into a sex symbol?
CUMBERBATCH: I was never seen as sexy by anyone until Sherlock came along and so I understand it more as a reflection and appreciation of the work rather than my own natural magnetism. I certainly remember when I was an adolescent and despairing why girls weren’t interested in me!
I’ve always maintained that Sherlock is sexy and people are merely projecting his cold, brilliant, charming, flawed self onto me. He’s an extraordinary man whose appeal lies in being so very different and difficult and someone whom people find strikingly attractive and compelling. He’s the ultimate outsider hero.
Q: How satisfying is it to you how much people love you as Sherlock?
CUMBERBATCH: I’m very happy that audiences have responded so strongly and enthusiastically to the character….When people stop you in the street and want to congratulate you on your work and express their joy at having seen you in the role… It’s such an affirmation of that. You feel great. It’s good.
“The primary motivation for me in my life is to make them proud. I love them both very much…. I’ve been surrounded by love from a very early age and it’s easier to place value on your own existence if you get love first-off as a child…I remember when my father said to me in a car park after a play I’d done at Manchester University when I was student there, he said, ‘You’re better now than I was or ever will be,’ which is a huge thing for a man to say to his son. He said, ‘I think you’re going to have a great career and I can’t wait to watch you and support you.’ My work is an ongoing journey of honouring that faith in me.”
“I meditate a lot. That’s a huge tool in trying to calm myself, get away from the crazy circus of it all, have a focused mind as well as be a kinder, considerate person in the world. I took a lot of stuff away from my experience in Darjeeling, West Bengal, right at the Nepali border. It was Tibetan Buddhist monastery in a converted Nepali house in India, with a view of Bhutan. It was a profoundly formative experience at a very young age. It’s something I’ve tried to keep in my life.”
THE SEA AND BEING IN NATURE
“I love losing myself in nature, I’m never happier than when I’m staring at the sea. The absorption into a moment, looking at that point where the horizon meets the sea. I love being off the grid and just having the primal experiences that we’re all entitled to as humans on this Earth – whether it’s love of someone dear to us, children, nature… I know it sounds very soppy but it’s hugely important to nourish what it is in us that’s human.”
“I enjoy being able to meet people at red carpet events where I’m able to engage with the public and acknowledge their support. It just makes people happy when I’m able to connect with them. It’s a great thing to do and I get a kick out of it as well… I never want to feel that I’m letting people down and I will always make an effort to honour the fact that there are many devoted fans waiting outside to see or meet you. It’s very flattering it means a great deal to me.”
“Alan Turing, (British mathematician and computer pioneer) should be recognised in the same way as Darwin and Isaac Newton as one of the greatest scientists this country has ever produced.”
SHERLOCK HOLMES’S HAIR
“I can’t think of a wittier or even accurate comparison, but I just think (Sherlock’s hair) makes me look a bit like… a woman.”
“There are moments when you can get completely and utterly blocked (by fear). No one has an end game when they start a rehearsal process, or when they first read a script or when they say yes to a job…You’re jumping in the air and you kind of leave the ground. By the time you’ve landed you go ‘Oh, f—k, I’ve got to do this. I’ve actually got to make this work.’ I’ve got to bring a really iconic, well-known character to the screen. I’ve got to work on one of the most famous Shakespearean texts of all time…Immediately, you’re burdened with the fear of what the work is actually going to entail.”
BIGOTRY AND DISCRIMINATION
“People are being beheaded in countries right now because of their beliefs or sexual orientations. It’s terrifying. It’s medieval — a beheading! I’d take up arms against someone who was telling me I had to believe in what they believed or they would kill me. I would fight them. I would fight them to the death. And, I believe, the older you get, you have to have an idea of what’s right or wrong. You can’t have unilateral tolerance. You have to have a point where you go, ‘Well, religious fundamentalism is wrong.'”
THE TERM CUMBERBITCHES
“(It sets) feminism back a few years….”