Benedict Cumberbatch bought a new phone this morning. It’s a swanky, top-of-the-range thing – it has a password lock and face recognition. Unfortunately, he’s already forgotten the password, and face recognition is struggling to recognise his face. I guess this is one of the problems with being a very versatile actor – which face did he use when he initially set it up? Was he being Julian Assange; Sherlock; Khan; Dr Strange; Smaug the dragon from The Hobbit? There have been so many Faces of Cumberbatch.
We sit at a table in Soho as he holds the phone up and gurns into the receiver. I try to work out what he’s doing. Alan Turing? Hamlet? “Argh! Why does it keep flashing at me?” he despairs, pawing at the screen. “Have I been hacked? The Russians are onto it!” Do you think you ever have been hacked? “I don’t know… but the tabloids probably have,” he shrugs, seemingly resigned. He gives up with the face recognition and puts the phone on the table. “Shall we drink? Tequila!”
He orders it from the waitress, in a multilingual flurry, and warmly compliments her on her hair – “very Una Stubbs”. She smiles – confused by the reference – before leaving. “Of course! She’s Italian! She doesn’t know who Una Stubbs is! She thinks I’m a terrible half-wit s***hole,” he predicts, mournfully. “And did you notice I ordered it in a combination of French, Spanish and Italian? I panicked. Idiot.”
I’ve interviewed Cumberbatch a few times, and he’s enormously engaging company – by turns captivatingly earnest and pleasingly silly. In the space of an hour and a half, he covers #MeToo, drugs, being posh, marathon-running, fame, Syria, Twitter, cold-water swimming and Robert Kennedy, and throws in spot-on impressions of Tom Hiddleston and Robert Downey Jr – “It’s a happy set [on Avengers: Infinity War, where Downey Jr plays Iron Man, and Cumberbatch Dr Strange] when he’s around. He’s everything you’d want in a friend and colleague, and you get a proper lunch-break, with really great food. He’s very generous with the spoils of his success. On the days he’s not there, you’re eating out of a Styrofoam box going ‘What is this? BRING BACK DOWNEY JR!’ ”
You can see why so many of his roles have been playing sardonic characters with hyper-verbal flows – Sherlock, Hamlet – “Although I’ve always found learning [lines] very hard. It doesn’t come easy.” The lines might not, but the energy does – his default conversational style is “whirlwind”, with touches of “tsunami”.
This energy is what drives Patrick Melrose, his latest TV show, starting on Sunday 13th May on Sky Atlantic. A fan of the Edward St Aubyn books it’s adapted from, Cumberbatch threw his hat in the ring to play Melrose back in 2013 – “Melrose and Hamlet were the only two roles I was ever desperate to play. And now I’ve done both! I can retire! Much to the relief of the world! Except, I will never retire.”
You can see why he was so driven to fight for the role – “At the first meeting, I was on best behaviour; I speed-reread all the books the day before. Madness.” For if he weren’t already very famous – going from “respected actor” to “global sensation” overnight when the first, lightning-strike episode of Sherlock broadcast in 2010 – Patrick Melrose would be the moment the world heard of him. It is an astonishing performance: laugh-outloud to heart-in-the-mouth in the same minute, and surely up for every Leading Male award, come gong season. No other actor would have been able to give such kinetic, kaleidoscopic intensity and charm.
Cumberbatch plays the eponymous Melrose. In the first episode, we meet the wealthy, f***ed-up Melrose in the 48 hours he spends in New York, picking up his dead, abusive father’s ashes, and embarking on a cataclysmic drink-and-drugs bender. It’s quite the two days – Melrose injects cocaine, then heroin; struggles with blunt hypodermics; shovels down every pill he can get his hands on; attempts both meaningless sex and suicide; rants at his father’s corpse before it’s cremated, and ends up on his knees, banging his head against the coffin.
Throughout – and despite being one of the great, monstrous, archetypal f***-ups in literature – Melrose is so constantly, flamboyantly, darkly hilarious, you root for him, hard. In one scene, when he gobbles Valium, his friend offers him water. “I’m not an amateur,” he huffs, before choking like a dog. Arriving – high – at the house of a vague acquaintance who struggles to recognise him, he introduces himself with a cheerful, “Patrick Melrose. I once turned blue in your bathroom! We had to take the door off. Yes! ’tis I!” Standing in his hotel suite, he tries to open the window, finds it locked, and huffs, “What is the point of a window, if you can’t jump out of it?”
He’s basically Withnail with a beautiful suit and millions to burn. “He’s properly posh,” Cumberbatch says, sipping his tequila. “I know everyone goes on about the posh thing with me – but despite looking it, I am not that class. That class is landed gentry. I had to posh up for this.”
Despite his attendance at Harrow, within the arcane ranking of the British class system, he is as one of Fagin’s orphans, compared to Melrose. It’s just unfortunate that he has a name that makes him sound like something owned by the National Trust – “Have you been to the tea shop at Benedict Cumberbatch? Fabulous cream teas. And a beautiful shell grotto!”
It’s a difficult line to tread, I muse: trying to find the humour and humanity in a character so avid in his drug use, but not to glamorise it in any way. “We talked endlessly about the tone of it,” he says, leaning forward, “how it’s a slice of fiction pitched in that Trainspotting direction – and I remember when I saw Trainspotting I’d never taken any drugs, and people said it was glamorising them, and I thought, ‘What is glamorous about this? Do I want to wake up having nightmares in my parents’ bedroom, with babies crawling on the ceiling? Do I want my friend to be dying of Aids because of a dirty hypodermic?’ Nothing about this would induce me to do drugs. The consequences are fairly clearly laid out.”
Have you ever been addicted to anything? He thinks. “No. I mean, I say that proverbially touching wood” – he hammers on the table with his fists – “but, no. I’ve had the opportunity; but even with that thing of having a glass of wine when the kids have gone to bed, I’m like, ‘I’m quite tired, and I don’t really fancy that glass of sugary alcohol,’ boringly. I’m very happy with near-sobriety. I have the odd blow-out, now and again – a big birthday, or crazy weekend at a festival – but I prefer yoga and meditation.”
He’s charmingly firm on not talking about his domestic life – “I just can’t,” he says, pleadingly – but the general sense is that he’s incredibly happy and settled with Sophie Hunter, whom he married in 2015, would like to add to his collection of children (he has two: Kit, three, and Hal, one), and has found a pleasant life/work balance, after the first rush of fame: “I know everyone thinks I’m in everything, but I actually have quite a few lovely spaces now. Because [his children’s childhoods] are such a precious time, and you want to be there for every heartbeat. Work makes me a better person – but I also want time when I’m just focusing on them.”
On a day-to-day basis, how much time is actually spent “being” famous? When does the fame intrude? “If the average day is me at home in the morning and evening, and working during the day, then the cab driver will be like, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ And if I’m walking down the street – I mean, on the way here, I had someone do a double-take, and walk into a lamp-post, which is always funny. Most of it’s benign. It’s not like walking onto the internet – where it feels like there’s a constant queue of people waiting to throw rotten tomatoes at you. I prefer the real world to the internet. It’s much kinder.”
This recent loosening of his work schedule has allowed him to form his own production company, SunnyMarch, with his friend Adam Ackland. Patrick Melrose is one of their first projects. “Why is the company called SunnyMarch?” He starts laughing. “It’s top secret. But, being realistic, my name gets projects moving, and there were so many great projects I wanted to get involved in, so – production company.”
What kind of boss are you? Could you fire someone? What would your firing style be like? He immediately assumes the character of a kind-but-stern boss, as befits his thespian flexibility. “Hello, hello. Thank you for coming in today. Now, we value what you have done, but I’m afraid it’s just not working out…”
And if I started crying: “My children are ill, Mr Cumberbatch! It’s the workhouse for me!”
“I can assure you we’ll give you a very good character reference, and I wish your children a speedy recovery, but the planets have not aligned for us… Oh God, it wouldn’t be fun. It would be horrible. But you know the quote: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ ”
For someone with his level of fame, Cumberbatch has been unusually vocal in talking about politics and morality. Before he found fame, he went on Stop the War marches and spoke at TUC rallies against cuts to arts funding. When he gained his global platform, he simply continued – giving a speech at the end of every performance of Hamlet about the refugee crisis, and raising £150,000; identifying as a feminist; campaigning for the posthumous pardon of all gay and bisexual men prosecuted under indecency laws.
You believe in talking about what’s right and wrong. “I do,” he says, simply. “I’m not an expert – I’m always ready to admit if I’ve got something wrong or need to learn more – but I am in the public eye, and I can use that. I can say, ‘If you, like me, feel aggrieved at an injustice, here’s where you can donate some money, here’s what we could be doing as citizens of the world.’
We turn to equality and #MeToo. “It’s about implementation,” he says; speeding up, as he does when talking about something serious. Just to fit all his thoughts in. “Equal pay and a place at the table are the central tenets of feminism. Look at your quotas. Ask what women are being paid, and say: ‘If she’s not paid the same as the men, I’m not doing it.’
“I’m proud that Adam and I are the only men in our production company; our next project is a female story with a female lens about motherhood, in a time of environmental disaster. If it’s centred around my name, to get investors, then we can use that attention for a raft of female projects. Half the audience is female! And, in terms of diversity, Black Panther is now the third most successful film of all time! The audience is there! It’s about facilitating platforms for talent. If you do that, the combination is combustible – world-beating. That’s what we want to do.”
Would you, in the interests of feminism, play a role in a female-centred film where you were man-totty? Hot, objectified manmeat? “If it’s good enough for Chris Pine [in Wonder Woman], it’s good enough for Benedict Cumberbatch!” he says cheerfully. “Yeah! Definitely!” Like, just in your pants? Slow pan up from the feet to the head… “with sexy screaming saxophone music in the background? Ha-ha-ha, yes! So long as it was fun. I’d have to be in good shape, though. Prepare.”
He’s looking wiry and trim – he’s now vegan, and still non-smoking. “I have puny wrists, but look at the bicep! A coy flash!” he says, lifting his T-shirt – but has a fairly relaxed “regime”: “a perambulation in the evening, some dips.”
After playing Stephen Hawking, in 2004, he planned to run the London Marathon (for the Motor Neurone Disease Foundation, of which he is patron), but was prevented by injury. Close escape, I say – you might have ended up doing a poo in the gutter, like Paula Radcliffe in 2005. It seems he’s never heard of this infamous event. “A poo?” he boggles. “Like, into a doggy-bag?” No. In the road. She had stomach cramps. “And they showed it on TV? They didn’t blur it, or make… two emojis come out of her bum?” He seems horrified. He thinks. “I’m not sure I’ve ever… pushed myself to that level,” he says.
He’s due to leave, to record The Graham Norton Show, but that face recognition on his phone still isn’t working, so he can’t see if his car’s arrived. He does more faces – Van Gogh and maybe Patrick Melrose having an overdose – and we tootle through his manbag, while he waits for someone to fetch him.
A biography of Robert Kennedy – “Might be a project,” he says. The controversial Jordan B Peterson book on men’s rights – “Not everyone’s cup of tea, but done with real bombast. A good read.” A flask of ginger tea – “My tipple.” Kindle, iPad, rock-crystal deodorant, and – pants? “No, trunks. Outdoor swimming. You never know when you might find a puddle. I was still swimming outside in November, in my little hat.
The last thing is an Avengers baseball cap. “Now, this – this is a point of contention,” he says, faux-tetchily. “Tom Hiddleston – he comes back from doing Thor, and he’s like [accurate Hiddleston impression], ‘Look, dude!’ And he’s got a Thor lunchbox, a Thor slurpy cup and Thor backpacks. And there’s Spider-Man backpacks, and Hulk backpacks. And I’m like, ‘I’m a Marvel superhero, too! Where’s my Dr Strange backpack, for Christ’s sake? Where’s my merch? I can bloody manipulate time! I can fly! Kids need to realise the potential value of having a Dr Strange backpack!’ ”
But you can’t wear a backpack with a cloak, though, can you? Dr Strange’s outfit makes it impossible. Cumberbatch pauses, and gives a dramatic, furious sigh. “A FRICKING LUNCHBOX, THEN,” he says. And with that, he whirlwinds off again.