The Mind-Bending Benedict Cumberbatch

Starring as another alienated genius, this one with superpowers, the actor reveals his own attraction to the edge.

by Michael Schulman for Variety | photographs by Jason Bell | November 2016

When Benedict Cumberbatch was 19 years old, he got good and lost in the Himalayas. No longer a schoolboy, not yet the internationally known star of Sherlock and one of the world’s most unlikely sex symbols, he had taken a gap year before university to get a glimpse of life beyond A-level exams and Sunday chapel.

In a hillside town near Darjeeling, he taught English to Tibetan monks, giving himself a crash course in improvisation as he conjured up instructional games. On weekends off, he would seek adventure: white-water rafting down the Kali Gandaki River, traversing the desert province of Rajasthan. But the mountains beckoned.

So he and three friends caught a bus from Kathmandu. Sherpas were expensive, and they were students traveling on the cheap, so they decided, extremely unwisely, to wing it. Altitude sickness derailed them one by one. By the third night, Cumberbatch recalls, “I started to have really weird, f**ed-up dreams, and felt things were happening in my sleep. I wasn’t sure if I was conscious or awake.”

He and his friend reached a spiritual fork in the road, which happened to be a literal fork in the road: up or down? They chose up. And that’s when they got utterly, hopelessly, bewilderingly lost. They ran out of biscuits. They drank rainwater squeezed out of moss, because they’d read it was safer than river water. As night fell, with their flashlights losing power, they pressed on through the thicket, until they spotted a corrugated-steel roof in the distance: salvation?

Turns out it was an abandoned barn. They threw themselves belly-down on straw and drifted to sleep. That night, they had even more f**ed-up dreams, each of them convinced that someone—or something—was rifling through their bags. But when they woke up, there was no one.

The next morning, they followed the river, hoping it would lead to civilization. They nearly broke their necks slipping down moss-covered boulders. The alpine fog gave way to forest, and leeches stuck to their ankles. They found a path. Finally, the trees thinned, and they came to a clearing of terraced pastures and log cabins that looked like something out of The Sound of Music. Running toward the inhabitants, they mimed the international sign for hunger and were served the best-tasting meal they’d ever had—unwashed greens and a bowl of eggs—after which Cumberbatch immediately got dysentery.

“Ah,” the actor sighs 21 years later, “you take the highs with the lows.”

Cumberbatch is recounting this tale in the lobby of Shutters on the Beach, a five-star hotel in Santa Monica. He’s been staying here all week, doing pickups for Doctor Strange. He tosses his sunglasses on the table, then reclines on a canvas-wrapped chair in an off-white T-shirt and trousers, gazing blearily at the bicyclists and roller skaters out on the boardwalk. It’s 11 A.M., and he’s working on no sleep.

Seriously, none. He was out shooting an exterior nighttime sequence until 7:30 in the morning, acting opposite co-stars who weren’t actually there, punctuated by long stretches in the makeup chair during which he struggled to stay awake. “It’s probably, hours-wise, the craziest day’s work, if you can call it a day, I’ve ever, ever done,” he says over an iced coffee. He offers a very English disclaimer: “Fluidity, accuracy, intelligence, humor—all these things might be very odd today. I don’t really know who I am.”

And yet he proceeds to talk in a sprint, like Sherlock Holmes briskly deconstructing a crime scene. On-screen, Cumberbatch’s motormouthed precision and dagger-sharp blue eyes can read as otherworldly. If he’s been pigeonholed, it’s for playing socially challenged geniuses, people who compute more than relate: the World War II code breaker Alan Turing (in The Imitation Game, for which he was nominated for an Oscar in 2015), the WikiLeaks mastermind Julian Assange (The Fifth Estate), and, of course, Sherlock, whom he’s played since 2010 in the wildly popular BBC series.

CUMBERBATCH’S OWN CURIOUS APPEAL IS PART MR. DARCY, PART CYBORG.
The Cumberfrenzy can be traced to July 25, 2010, when the first episode of Sherlock aired in the U.K., watched by 7.5 million viewers.

Cumberbatch greets the fan deluge with a practiced amusement. On my way to meet him in Santa Monica, I check online for the latest haul. A Twitter user has posted: “Sometimes when I’m sad I picture a shirtless Benedict Cumberbatch slowly eating an apple fritter. Try it!”

When I read this to Cumberbatch, he blushes on cue and says, “Have you tried that? It wouldn’t work for me.” He laughs, a little uneasily. “I’m glad I’m bringing a ray of sunshine to an otherwise dull day, being imagined eating fritters shirtless. But, I don’t know, it makes me giggle. I don’t look at myself in the mirror and go, ‘Yeah, absolutely! I see what they’re saying!’ I see all my faults and everything that I’ve always seen as my faults.”

Doctor Strange in Cumberbatch’s description is “the primary sorcerer on earth and the defender of our realm against other-dimensional threats.”

If his brainiac roles have defined him, he insists that’s just because those are “the characters that pop. They’re the characters that people are in awe of, because they’re a little bit beyond us.” He might as well be describing his own curious appeal.

“Benedict is an extremely nice person to work with,” Swinton says. “Engaged, quick-witted, enthusiastic, kind and relaxed, up for a giggle and properly companionable on long days, self-sufficient, concentrated, yet chock-full of fun.”

Cumberbatch is no comic-book geek. When some journalists at a Star Trek event told him a few years ago that he’d make a perfect Doctor Strange, he replied, “Doctor What?” He was “lukewarm” about the material at first, thinking the comic too dated. But it put him in the mind of his sojourning teenage self.

And so, last fall, Cumberbatch caught a plane to Kathmandu. It was his first time there since his misbegotten trek in the Himalayas. This time, he was the antithesis of a man lost in the wilderness, searching for signs of humanity—humanity would now find him whether he liked it or not.

The first few days, he and the cameras passed through the city unnoticed, thanks to Strange’s “desperate caveman” look. “We did a lot of guerrilla stuff, just walking through markets,” Cumberbatch recalls. But then word got out, and the crew was ambushed by locals with cameras yelling, “Benedict! Benedict!”—or, more often, “Sherlock! Sherlock!”

“There were throngs of people,” recalls Chiwetel Ejiofor. “I didn’t know that Sherlock was big in Kathmandu, but apparently I was wrong.” At one point—preserved on YouTube—Cumberbatch stuck his bearded face out of a window overlooking Lalitpur’s Patan Durbar Square and waved to the crowds; shouts of “Say cheese!” are underscored by a distinctly female group wail. Time ran the headline TURNS OUT BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH CAN’T GO ANYWHERE.

ACTORS’ ACTOR
Nothing from his upbringing suggested that his chosen craft would inspire this level of fanaticism. He grew up in Kensington, the only child of Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, both working actors who made careers in commercial theater and British sitcoms. (Timothy Carlton dropped the “Cumberbatch” from his stage name, thinking it too fussy. His son, after starting his career as Benedict Carlton, did the opposite, on advice from an agent.) Ventham was a stunner. “Whenever they wanted a glamour girl or someone rather beautiful, they wheeled in Wanda,” says her longtime acquaintance Una Stubbs, who now plays Sherlock’s doddering landlady, Mrs. Hudson; Stubbs recalls running into Ventham on the street and gossiping as four-year-old Benedict tugged at his mother’s dress.

“I saw the fallow periods as much as I saw when they were ticking along nicely and getting work.” Dragged to see his mother in yet another chintzy Feydeau farce, he would sniff, “If I see another one of those, I’m going to have to disown you.” Nevertheless, his parents worked doubly hard to send him to Harrow, the elite boarding school. Harrow was “obscenely pampering and privileged,” he says and as the son of actors he didn’t always fit in among the peers and princes. But his first two years there he landed two big Shakespearean roles, both female. “The first time I stepped onstage in front of an all-male public-school crowd was dressed up as queen of the fairies, Titania, with a Cleo Laine wig and a pineapple crown.”

Playing Rugby and cricket insulated him from taunts. But in his final years he dropped sports to focus on acting and painting. After his mind-opening pilgrimage east, he returned to study drama at the University of Manchester and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He worked at a steady clip. But he envisioned something bigger than his parents’ journeyman careers: “I wanted to do things that they didn’t get the chance to.”

Now that Sherlock he does not expect to return to the character “for the immediate future.” Sherlock made him a meme; The Imitation Game made him an A-lister; Doctor Strange may yet make him a mega-star.

Because he resembles a sun-deprived habitué of the London Library, you wouldn’t peg Cumberbatch as a daredevil, but he has always gravitated toward the edge: motorbiking, skydiving. “He’s definitely a bit of an adrenaline junkie,” says his best friend, Adam Ackland. Acting, for Cumberbatch, is another form of thrill-seeking, a way to scale Himalayan summits of the psyche. Hamlet was a kind of Everest, one he seems to have conquered. As the Telegraph critic wrote, “Cumberbatch admirers can take heart, his female devotees are entitled to swoon: in this trial of his acting strength, he emerges, unquestionably, victorious.”

To understand his taste for the extreme, you have to go back to 2004, to a near-death experience even more harrowing than his misadventure in the Himalayas. He was in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, filming the BBC mini-series To the Ends of the Earth, and went scuba-diving in Sodwana Bay with two of his co-stars, Theo Landey and Denise Black. As they were returning at night, along a stretch of highway notorious for carjackings, they pulled over with a flat tire. Six armed men jumped them and took their cell phones and credit cards, then forced them back into the car at gunpoint and drove. At one point, Cumberbatch was stuffed in the trunk. “Ben kicked and screamed blue-bloody murder,” Landey recalls.

The robbers stopped under a bridge, where the actors were tied up with their own shoelaces, crouching execution-style. Convinced these were his last moments, Cumberbatch pleaded for his life. After several minutes of silence, he realized the men had left. The actors managed to untie themselves and wandered along the highway until they stumbled across some local women who lent them their phones to call for help.

Rather than retreating into himself, as some might after a trauma, Cumberbatch says the ordeal only intensified his lust for adventure. “I was definitely more impatient to live a life less ordinary,” he says. “I wanted to swim in the sea that I saw the next morning. If you feel you’re going to die, you don’t think you’re going to have all those sensations again. All those hit you as firsts again. It is, in a way, a new beginning. But we were on our way back from the first weekend of a scuba-diving training course, so it wasn’t as if I was insular before that. I think it just made me run at it a bit more recklessly.”

The past two years have tempered, or perhaps transmuted, his need for adrenaline. When I ask where he wants to find his next thrill, he says, “It’s a sappy answer, but the truth is I want to seek some thrills at home.” He met [Sophie] Hunter almost two decades ago, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but it took them years to get together. After a courtship that they miraculously managed to keep out of the tabloids, they married Valentine’s Day 2015. Hunter was pregnant with Kit, who was born that June, two weeks before Cumberbatch began rehearsals for Hamlet. He has since given up motorbiking, to say nothing of jumping out of airplanes.

“Having a baby—it’s massive,” he says. “And on a very unexpected level. Suddenly I understood my parents much more profoundly than I ever had before.” Fatherhood gave him counter-intuitive insight into the most challenging role in the theatrical canon. “I was expecting, with Hamlet, that it might be a hindrance to be a father, because it’s all about being a son. But it’s the opposite. You understand much more about being a son, becoming a father.”

Swinton says, “My fondest impression of him is as a new husband besotted by his girl, and a new father enchanted by his boy.” She doesn’t worry that fame will spoil him: “I think he knows that he wants—and has—a life first and foremost, that his life suits and nourishes him and that it makes the world go round.”

Speaking of which, Cumberbatch has to catch a plane—back to London for a few days, before a much-needed Italian holiday with Sophie and Kit.

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in Variety, Nov.2016.

November 1, 2016 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links