The Spellbinding Benedict Cumberbatch
Beyond James Bond suave and Chris Evans brawn, the world spellbound by a new breed of charismatic, intelligent leading men, like BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH. The Sherlock star is only learning the extent of his massive global fame in his latest superhero foray into the Marvel Universe with Doctor Strange.
In a navy sweater and jeans, looking tanned but hassled, Benedict Cumberbatch enters the room and immediately apologises.
“I’m sorry if I smell like breakfast food, I had about two seconds to wolf it down there.”
And that’s where the apologies stop. The Sherlock star appears cranky and burdened, maybe feeling the pressure of starring in his first tent pole franchise, Doctor Strange.
A new mega bucks chapter from the Marvel Universe, Cumberbatch is now taking his first step on a journey that will include sequels, threequels, cameos and appearances in a litany of connected spin-offs. In fact, he’s already earmarked for the forthcoming latest Avenger’s chapter.
It’s a huge change in trajectory for the London-born star, who’d recently announced the impending arrival of his second child with theatre director wife, Sophie Hunter. They have a one year-old son, Christopher.
Alongside a heavyweight cast including Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejoifor, he plays Stephen Strange, an arrogant and hyper-intelligent neurosurgeon who seeks enlightenment and healing with a secret society in Nepal after a debilitating accident.
What he discovers is powers to control space and time far beyond the reaches of his understanding. Has this affected the actor’s outlook in life?
Undoubtedly, says the star who looks back on his own experiences in Nepal and India while teaching English as a gap-year teen.
Benedict also chats about fame, fatherhood and Cumberbitches and the future of Sherlock.
You spent a year in Nepal teaching English — it’s like a happy full circle.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: I wasn’t actually teaching in Nepal. It was at a place called Sanadu, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near Darjeeling in West Bengal. I taught English there for five, six months. It was Nepali and Chinese cultures all swimming around with Indian culture. It was a completely different world of education than the one I had been exposed to up till I was 19. And it was everything that I could have expected and everything I couldn’t. It was a real life-changer to see that ritual and that culture up close and to take part in it myself. You know, I went on a meditation retreat for two weeks with a couple of the other teachers from the same area. It was amazing. We did go to Kathmandu, but just for a day when we had a two-week teacher break.
How was it like to be back in Nepal for the filming?
It was amazing to go there first in the beginning of filming; to go back to a place that’s so formidable and so different. And it was really important to be there because of the earthquake, which happened seven months before. I was absolutely adamant that we had to forge ahead to be filming there, but Marvel and the insurers were like, ‘Don’t worry, we’re gonna do it there’.
People are increasingly turning away or trying to escape modern society through meditation, through spirituality, which plays a big part in this movie, a Marvel movie no less.
People always need belief in their lives, and all cultures here have had those forever. I don’t think there seems to be any difference now. But I think we’ll wonder where we lie on the spiritual spectrum, and about what truths there are. As you’ll see in the film, they come in all different shapes and sizes. It can be an MRI scan or a chakra point. It’s not just the poetic about belief that draws us. It’s where Science leaps off into the unknown. You’ve got that perfectly meeting in this film: a man of Western logic who lives in a dualistic and causative reality, where actions have consequences. He goes into a place where there are multi-dimensions and demons and incredible magic — basically something that’s outside of what we know as our reality. I think it’s a jumping off point and fun to explore that. I’m sure it’s something very new for Marvel to explore too.
What did your experience of spirituality at the monastery lend to playing Dr Strange?
I wasn’t a cynic like he was; I wasn’t damaged; I wasn’t in need of healing. I went in there curious, with my eyes wide open, and expectant. And Strange is so non-expectant that he’s blown away by the magical mystery tour when she opens his mind. For me back then, I had this Western upbringing and for the first time in my life then, I was experiencing Eastern mysticism. It was very profound, the idea of the power of the mind shaping your reality. All forms of meditation aren’t so much a religion, but a way of life. It’s about the ability to still your mind and practice mindfulness, which in the 1960s was very new. Now, it’s something that is taught in corporation. It’s not distant anymore.
I have to admit I never saw you doing a superhero role. You’re better known for your more serious work…
Sherlock Holmes is something of a superhero, don’t you think? We’re actors with real jobs, and this [Marvel movie] has an appeal because it’s so utterly different. It’s also about being an action hero, learning kungfu and stunt moves, and having a transformation, not only in my body but also in my voice. I’ve never played an American hero, so that was a lot of fun to play a New Yorker. The film is fantastic, with a lot of comedy and drama between the action. I didn’t know much about the character before they approached me. A couple of people had already mentioned it as a good idea. In fact, a journalist said it to me when I was promoting Star Trek into Darkness (where Cumberbatch played the villain Khan), and I went and read it. People who knew Doctor Strange well told me he was a fantastic character.
Do you care about career moves?
No, it’s about me giving myself a surprise and doing something that I haven’t done before. It must at least be different in some degree if not a complete U-turn. Of course I’ve played clever and arrogant people before. Strange is an American. He’s materialistic, slightly sociopathic; he has a life, he has a relationship — though one that finished because it was all about him and less about her. It’s a different space than I’ve occupied before and that’s usually what seals the deal for me. As I get older, it’s more about the people I want to work with — especially directors — that is a leading criterion for me. I have my own production company. I’m interested in making cinema that I’d like to see — it’s not just about being in. To see projects from their inception to their completion is a new journey as well.
You’ve previously voiced your dislike of fame and all that so playing Dr Strange probably won’t help that. Are you more content with your celebrity now?
You get on with it, you just do. That’s the only way I can cope with it. I’m loving the work I do, so I have to deal with the consequences. I think I’m dealing with that as best as I can.
You weren’t too happy with the whole ‘Cumberbitches’ thing?
The people who first named themselves that were a very clever group of girls ranging from ages 20 to 40, and they did it as a joke because ‘bitch’ and ‘batch’ sound similar. They didn’t mean for it to be offensive. I just pointed out that as it got bigger, maybe it would be a good opportunity to show that it’s not aggressive. It was just people having fun, enjoying what I do. I never really had a big problem with the term [‘Cumberbitches’], I just suggested that there was some slightly softer name.
Has fatherhood relaxed you more?
Maybe. As every new parents know, you go from being a child and thinking about your own parents, to suddenly having your own children and having them think about you the same way you’re thinking about your parents. Fatherhood accelerates everything exponentially, and it helps me understand everything my parents did and how they did it. In my case, it is to be incredibly grateful for that. It’s surreal and incredible to think about. Having children has taken away nothing from my life, it has only added to it. When you’re expecting, everyone tells you how it’s going to affect your life and your career will suffer as a result. It does affect everything but only for the better. I know I’m in a very privileged position in my career. But I think that anyone who’s in a challenging part of life draw strength from your children.
Looking back, was it Sherlock that launched everything for you?
Did the phone ring off the hook after Sherlock? Well, it got very busy when three significant things happened at the same time — Danny Boyle, who’s never seen Sherlock, wanted me in Frankenstein; I had Tomas Alfredson cast me in Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy and just as it was released, Steven Spielberg had already offered me the part in War Horse. These were too really big films. And then there was Sherlock, so it was a cluster of things and I’m eternally grateful.
Did you ever struggle for work before that?
No, I was always working, and doing work that I loved — theatre. Television wasn’t always the lead. I started out in this profession with two parents who had two very successful careers respectively, and who had the respect of their peers. They had a good time doing a job that time can be very tough on, because of the odd hours all the time. So I always thought, ‘If I could do half as well as they’re doing, I’ll be fine.’ And then it kind of snowballed, but their standards were always the standards that I wanted to be at.