Friday, May 17, 2013

Benedict Cumberbatch, Out of Darkness By Mary Kaye Schilling (VULTURE)

I meet Benedict Cumberbatch the afternoon after an awkward ­appearance on Letterman, where he was promoting his part as John Harrison, an intergalactic terrorist, in J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s a summery spring day in New York, and we’re on the patio of his room at the Bowery Hotel. Cumberbatch—his dead-white complexion shaded by a newsboy cap—is “chuffed” by his posh digs; it’s his first starring role in a blockbuster, and he’s not used to this level of star treatment—well, from everyone except David Letterman, who has not, apparently, been following the actor’s rise as avidly as the actor’s Internet fan club, the ­Cumberbitches. Not only did Cumberbatch have to follow an animal act, but Letterman, who began by referring to Star Trek as Star Wars, asked his guest—a ­veteran of twenty movies, including ­Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and War Horse—if he was new to major motion pictures. (The actor, being the polite, Harrow-­educated Brit that he is, jumped in to save his host: “This major? Yes!”) I tell Cumberbatch that, given Letterman’s cluelessness, I was surprised there weren't the usual efforts to wring a laugh from his name.

“Well, since he couldn’t even say it,” says the actor. “At one point, before I came on, he announced me as ‘Benedict Cumber… ,’ and his voice sort of trailed off. My friends said, ‘What the fuck was that? It was like his batteries ran out.’ But that’s the sort of thing that’s been happening here, where I’m not as well known,” he continues. “It’s strange to be 36 and still explaining the weirdness of my name.”

Cumberbatch is very well known in Britain and practically a superstar ­online thanks to his Golden Globe–nominated role as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s high-tech, modern-day Sherlock, which debuted in 2010. (It’s more of a cult hit here, where it airs on PBS.) “I generally don’t look to see what people are saying about me,” he says. “But when the show started to explode in Britain, and I was reading stuff online, I started to think it was real. I thought I’d walk outside my door and hundreds of people would be lining the streets, cameras would be flashing. I quickly ­realized the audience was virtual.”

Well, not really. Those are flesh-and-blood fans huddled outside the London locations of Sherlock, which is currently shooting its third season. “That’s why I have this ridiculous length and color,” says Cumberbatch, tugging at his black hair (he’s naturally auburn). “Every time I take Sherlock out of the box, I have to put the fucking hair dye on.”

This is a man who lives for details. His breakout role in Britain was the young Stephen Hawking in the BBC’s 2004 film Hawking. It introduced one of his great talents—humanizing the analytical—and a reputation for precision and obsessive preparation. To wit, this description of his Star Trek villain, a genetically engineered superman: “I wanted Harrison’s voice to have something slightly manufactured and odd, that sounded test-tube-made, where every word was sort of etched,” Cumberbatch explains. “I was keen to make his violence quick—not balletic, but purposeful. And his physique—he’s not Bane, he’s not this unsurpassed physical entity. He’s a warrior, a spearhead—someone who just carves his way through and doesn’t stop. There had to be emotion in the movement as well, and when he was at rest, it was more reptilian.”


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