We’ve barely sat down at our banquet at a fancy-pants brasserie at London’s Barbican Centre when Benedict Cumberbatch curses gently under his breath: “Oh Lord, here we go, here we go.” He indicates two middle-aged women in flowery dresses sitting at a table across the room. “The florals over there,” he says, eyes averted. “They’re giving a bit of a head-turning – it’s begun.”
Surely Cumberbatch must be accustomed to such attention by now? He nods. “I’ve spent a lot of time getting to where I’ve gotten by observing human behaviour, so I’m really sensitive to it anyway. You can’t help but feel that you’re on show, which on good days is fine – you breeze through it, and do whatever you do as a performer and a human being to just feel relaxed and comfortable in your own skin. But we all have days when we’d rather not show our face for whatever reason – because we’re hungover, emotionally withdrawn, whatever it may be, physical or emotional. And then it’s really hard; it’s really, really hard, because you just don’t want to engage with it.”
Cumberbatch seems to have come upon his fame without really trying. He laughs at the tendency of Hollywood types to say he’s “popped” (“Did I? Sorry, I hope it didn’t smell too much”) but agrees that his career has accelerated. Five years ago, he was appearing in well-made but decidedly unshowy TV fare: Sunday-evening whodunnits and period dramas like Small Island, based on Andrea Levy’s prizewinning novel about Jamaican immigrants in 1940s Britain. Then, in the summer of 2010, came the BBC’s contemporary reboot of Sherlock Holmes. The show is now watched in 180 countries.
Season four of Sherlock is currently in preproduction, a complex undertaking given Cumberbatch’s many commit- ments. He has three movies scheduled for release in what remains of this year, including Penguins of Madagascar (in which he plays a secret agent wolf called Classified) and Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies.
But the movie that might win him an Oscar nomination is The Imitation Game, a biopic about the gay mathematician Alan Turing and his role in breaking the Enigma code used by the Nazis during the Second World War. Save, perhaps, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, with this act Turing did more than anyone to ensure an Allied victory.
The Imitation Game is elegantly made, beautifully filmed and loyal to its source material (in this case, Andrew Hodges’s excellent 1983 biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma), but what brings the whole to life is Cumberbatch’s immensely accomplished performance as Turing, a misfit at ease with his homosexuality (he named his computer Christopher after an unrequited schoolboy crush), but utterly at odds with the world around him. (To use David Leavitt’s apt comparison, Turing was a kind of real-life Mr Spock, insensible to human discourse, and wholly unable to “read between the lines”.)
Turing was 41 years old when he was found dead by his housekeeper, a half-eaten apple by his bedside, commonly believed to have been laced with cyanide. Urban legend suggests that Turing’s apple was the inspiration for the logo for Apple Computers. (On QI in 2011, Stephen Fry revealed that he’d asked Steve Jobs about the logo and Turing, and Jobs replied, “It isn’t true, but God we wish it were!”)
What is unequivocal is that Turing was hounded in his last years by the authorities after being arrested for “gross indecency” with another man. Faced with imprisonment or a regimen of oestrogen injections to “cure” him of his tendencies, he chose the latter. Last December, almost 60 years after his death, Turing received a posthumous royal pardon for his conviction. The gesture, following years of campaigning, left Cumberbatch underwhelmed.
“It’s an insult,” the actor says, “for anybody of authority or standing to sign off on him with their approval and say, ‘Oh, he’s forgiven.’ The only person who should be [doing the] forgiving is Turing, and he can’t because we killed him. And it makes me really angry. It makes me very angry.”
Cumberbatch, who has clearly done his research, thinks the persecution of homosexuals in the UK has its roots in the Cambridge Five, a group of men, some of who were gay, at the highest echelons of society, who had been recruited to spy for Moscow.
“It was our form of McCarthyism. If you were intellectual, if you were gay, if you had any kind of liberal ideas, you were immediately a threat to national security.”
The irony is that Turing, who had the temerity to be gay and intellectual, was the last person to see himself as any kind of martyr. “He wasn’t someone who purposefully put himself in the way of things as a protest – he was just a great role model for anyone who’s different or feels different,” says Cumberbatch. “And it’s tragic because you look at every single trajectory in his life and understand completely why he was different, why he stuttered, why he was isolated in his work. [You also see] why he was useless with men in any form of relationship – because he’d never experienced the love that he deserved.”
“And yet, within that, this man invented the idea of mechanising mathematics – of a computer. He conquered, through cryptography, the Enigma code, which means he saved millions of lives. And even as his body was morphing he was doing work on how the environment causes cellular structures to change. I mean, God knows, he probably would be celebrated as someone like Bill Gates. Without a shadow of a doubt, he would be held as a totem of the modern world.”
For all that The Imitation Game is a period drama, Cumberbatch is anxious that Turing’s story be kept alive as a parable on the price of intolerance. “It’s not a history lesson; it’s a warning that this could very easily happen again. People are being beheaded in countries right now because of their beliefs or sexual orientation. It’s terrifying. It’s medieval – a beheading!”
“I used to think, ‘Yeah, I can sort of understand all extreme…’ I can’t any more, I can’t. 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.’
Cumberbatch sees some of that same homophobic prejudice today in Hollywood, a subject he’s discussed at length with his friend Zachary Quinto who came out as gay a few years ago (the two met on the set of Star Trek into Darkness). “I think if you’re going to sell yourself as a leading man in Hollywood, to say ‘I’m gay,’ sadly, is still a huge obstacle. We all know actors who are [gay] who don’t want to talk about it or bring it up, or who deny it. I don’t really know what they do to deal with it.”
Sixty years after Turing’s death, he’s amazed that it should still be an issue. “Human rights movements and sexual and gay rights movements have made huge social progress in the last 40 years, without a doubt, but there’s a lot more work to be done. I think it’s extraordinary that every time we get to a point where there’s any kind of trouble in society, people are scapegoated very, very, very quickly.”
It’s around this stage in our conversation that one of the floral ladies seizes her moment to approach the table. “Excuse me, could you make my daughter’s day and take a photo with me?” she asks. Politely, but firmly, Cumberbatch declines. “No, no I can’t, but it’s very nice to meet you. What’s your name?” Defeated, the lady retreats, and a manager approaches, offering to intercede should it happen again. Cumberbatch declines. “The worst thing is when you have guard dogs, because then it just becomes an extension of you,” he explains.
Recently at Comic-Con in San Diego, to publicise both Penguins and The Hobbit, he was caught in just such a moment, after bodyguards blocked the crowd as he exited to a waiting car.
“People were dragged off the streets [crying], ‘I just wanted an autograph.’ It’s horrible. And then I get into the back of an SUV, going, ‘Sorry,’ and this one girl goes, ‘Yeah, whatever,’ with tears in her eyes. It’s not me. I can’t control an ex-military security man who’s just had a whole day of it, and just thinks he’ll lose his job if he doesn’t punch some poor teenage girl in the face to give me an inch more room to breathe.”
At this point in his career, the observation that Cumberbatch has made a speciality of playing complicated geniuses – not just Turing, but also Sherlock Holmes, Vincent van Gogh, Julian Assange, Stephen Hawking – is something of a cliché that he shakes off with only the barest hint of irritation. “It’s not as simplistic as, ‘Oh, you kind of go for geniuses.’ They’re all very, very different people. There’s a singularity about them, a drive and an obsession, but they are completely unique, thank God. Van Gogh was troubled in very different ways to Stephen Hawking and to Sherlock and to Turing.”
What is clear is that what motivates Cumberbatch is the tangled roots of psychology, biology and biography. What makes a character act the way he does? It’s why he says Turing is fascinating, not because he’s easy to understand, but because he isn’t. As with Sherlock, we come to appreciate him in spite of himself, and because Cumberbatch makes his emotional constipation explicable.
All of which makes the roar of Cumberbatch’s rabid fan base – the popular collective noun is “Cumberbitches” – somewhat perplexing. (It reached new heights on the recent announcement of his engagement.) Nothing about Cumberbatch screams Hollywood heartthrob, and nothing about Sherlock corresponds to a typical ladies’ man.
“People keep coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh, he’s so sexy, do you think he’s interested in me?’” says Cumberbatch. “Do you not think he’d just look at you twice and tell you everything you hate about yourself and crumple you up like a little bit of paper and flick you away? He’s a machine, brutal and ruthless, and has no time for the distractions of your fawning.”
Cumberbatch can talk like this – passionately, thoughtfully – for a long time. Although he always enjoyed acting, he says he toyed for a while with being a barrister – “just standing up in a court of law, holding an argument” – and you can see why. It’s that same quality of interrogation and inquiry that makes him a compelling actor. “The thing that motivates me most is the work,” he says. “And the by-products, I just sort of ignore them, by and large.”
The Imitation Game is released in UK cinemas today (14th November)