13 October, 2013
TORONTO — Benedict Cumberbatch sweeps into an empty hotel ballroom, cutting a natty figure in a black-and-white glen plaid jacket, checked shirt and striped canvas sneakers. “I see you have your festival bag,” he says confidingly, taking note of the crumpled Toronto International Film Festival tote at an interlocutor's feet. It’s a substitute for the one that broke at customs, overstuffed with a laptop and sundry travel necessities.
“That’s exactly what happens to me,” he offers enthusiastically. “Because I’m packing all the time. I’m always killing really perfectly good bits of luggage by shoving loads of stuff in them, and then the seams break, handles drop off, you know.”
Sure, we know. But, let it be stipulated, no one can really know what it’s like to be Cumberbatch, who has had a year that has been, well, especially packed. The 37-year-old Brit, who has been a cult heartthrob among the PBS-BBC-plummy-literary-adaptation set, played the Necromancer in last year’s “Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” But he truly burst into mass popular consciousness this past summer, when he thoroughly dominated the role of Khan in “Star Trek Into Darkness.” On Oct. 18, he will star as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in “The Fifth Estate” and has supporting roles in two high-profile films arriving soon: “12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen, and “August: Osage County,” adapted from Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
“A packed year, exactly,” Cumberbatch says with a reflective sigh. “It’s been amazing. It’s been amazing. But two years really, because ‘Trek’ we filmed the beginning of last year, and before that — God, it winds back quite a ways. I mean, literally, just sort of the height of what I could ever imagine myself being asked to do as an actor has been going on pretty much now for about four or five years.”
Cumberbatch speaks at a breathless clip, his words spilling out in a joyous, oncoming rush that suggests he really is thrilled to be here, however tempting it would be to read his gee-whiz protestations as the practiced act of a canny ingenue. He is, quite simply — and this is for all those self-proclaimed Cumberb**ches out there who have designated him an unlikely pin-up idol — just as chiseled, engaging, well-mannered and disarmingly modest as they imagine in their wintry, wind-tossed fantasies.
He comes by it honestly. Cumberbatch is the son of two actors — Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham — who grew up in London and is as at home in the posh precincts of Burke’s Peerage (an ancestor was a consul under Queen Victoria) as in the klieg-lighted world of Show People. (So how did Cumberbatch end up with his last name? It was his father’s surname; Carlton a middle name turned stage name. So Benedict has simply reclaimed the family name.) But his career has followed contours that even his parents couldn’t prepare him for. He’s done high-profile work in such highly regarded films as “Atonement,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “War Horse,” as well as on television, in “Hawking,” “Sherlock” and “Parade’s End.” He’s a celebrated figure of the London stage: In 2010 he earned kudos for his performance in a revival of Terence Rattigan’s “After the Dance,” and the following year he won an Olivier Award, along with fellow Sherlock Jonny Lee Miller, for his work in an experimental version of “Frankenstein,” adapted by Danny Boyle. It was “After the Dance,” he says, that marked the turning point when the phone started ringing. It hasn’t stopped.
“I knew when I started out that I wanted something very different from what Mom and Dad had anyway, but I didn’t know quite what — I didn’t know how it would manifest — but even they look at it and go, ‘Whoa,’ ” Cumberbatch says. “It’s beyond everyone’s sort of expectation. But also the workload and everything, it’s different to their game.”
It’s enough to turn a boy’s head. But Cumberbatch, along with such contemporaries as Michael Fassbender, is forging the kind of career that actors covet these days, combining recurring roles in huge franchises like “Star Trek” and “The Hobbit” with artier indie fare. His role model, he says, is James McAvoy (his one-time co-star in “Starter for 10”), who along with Fassbender appears in the “X-Men” movies.
“I know James really well. I’ve sort of been working with him for a while, and I just love what he did,” Cumberbatch explains. “He let the game come to him. It’s about the quality of his work, and I wanted the same thing. I didn’t want to go and try and force myself on people. I wanted people to go, ‘Oh, that guy could be quite interesting,’ and that’s sort of what’s happening.”