Cumberbatch is so engagingly unguarded, and cheerfully forthcoming, it would be easy to forget just how big a star he is, for there is none of the bland wariness of a Hollywood commodity in his manner. He finds himself at a particular moment in his career where he’s successful enough to know what proper traffic-stopping, mayhem-inducing fame is really like (“Walking through central London on a Friday night is not top of my list to do any more, I have to say”), but not yet jaded enough to stop marvelling at it.
“It’s just really bizarre. [My friend] James McAvoy was walking through Leicester Square and this big guy just picked him up and licked his face. Can you imagine? And that’s not,” he adds, starting to laugh, “because he’s short and lickable – he’s not got a lollypop head. It’s only because he’s on the telly.”
When Cumberbatch performed in Frankenstein on stage, he was unnerved to see the same faces in the front row, night after night. “I was like, this is weird. And I told them that, and they were mortified. I said, ‘But come on, look, just hear me as one of you. Because I used to be in the audience, I used to obsess about things. But I don’t understand this.’ Two young women from China saw literally every performance. And I asked them, ‘How do you afford the time and the money?’ And they just said, ‘Oh it doesn’t matter. We love you’.”
Cumberbatch hadn’t been prepared for his surprise promotion to the status of Hollywood heart-throb. On screen he has the sort of face that critics tend to describe as interesting, rather than beautiful – though in person he’s far better looking than I’d expected, reminiscent of a young Hugh Grant. I‘d wondered if he might be touchy about discussing the improbability of his becoming a pin-up, but instead he bursts out laughing.
“I find the whole thing hysterical. I see the same problems I’ve always seen when I look in the mirror. I don’t go, ‘Hey, Brad, looking good today’.” He mockingly kisses his imaginary reflection, then shakes his head. “No. But people are suddenly mad about it. But I think, seriously, it comes a lot with the work, because still, if you put me in line with Brad and George and all of them, you do kind of go,” and he mimes pointing along the line, “Lovely, yes. Handsome, yes. Oh, strange-looking guy. Next, lovely, yes. Handsome, yes...” He breaks off, laughing again. “And why shouldn’t you? But I’m quite happy with that, because hopefully it gives me more of a shelf life. And it means I can still play character roles without people going, ‘Oh, he’s doing a Charlize Theron – he’s doing beautiful playing ugly’.”
In his personal life, it must be quite strange at 36 to find his sexual currency inflated so dramatically. “Well,” he agrees, “it puts a bit of a spring in your step. It’s nice, you swagger a little bit, it’s enjoyable. But think about it – the actual reality of, ‘Will you pull every beautiful woman in the room every night?’ Nah. They come up to you and go, ‘Oh. Umm, maybe.’ The point is, I can’t take it seriously, because it’s all through a filter of them knowing much more about me than I know about them. So yeah, it’s kind of weird. But it’s to be enjoyed. I’ve punched well above my weight this year. And that,” he adds coyly, “remains very much a secret.” If only his 15-year-old self could have known what was coming, he reminisces wistfully. “If I only knew.”
Some men who become famous resent the fact that the world suddenly treats them like an Adonis when it never used to. “Yeah, that’s me,” he jokes, with heavy irony. “I hate the fact that I’m a sex symbol. God damn my beauty and success. No, I find it hysterically funny, I really do. It’s a giggle. I wield it with a massive smile.”
The only thing he worries about is finding his private life splashed all over the tabloids. “If I have a lot of fun with it, then there’s far more chance of me being exposed having a lot of fun with it, which makes me look like a w****r. That is a little bit of a worry for me. It inhibits me from going, ‘Dah-dah-dah, let’s party!’ because you just know your behaviour is going to get on some blog or tweet or gossip column. Before, with anonymity, I didn’t have to worry about that problem. But then,” he adds with a wry chuckle, “I didn’t have that much to wield with a smile.”