Benedict Cumberbatch: "I have been the bearer of a few secrets this year"

Benedict Cumberbatch first set hearts aflutter in the BBCs hugely popular Sherlock, which returns on New Year’s Day, and has since made great waves playing Julian Assange, Khan and now, as the voice of Smaug, the dragon in The Hobbit. He has also made a big impact on the world of otters. He talks to Donald Clarke


Night falls in Berlin. Look upwards from Alexanderplatz Station towards the Fernsehturm – around which Prussian mists gather ominously – and you could easily think yourself in a grimmer corner of Middle-earth. (Some of the odder citizens lurking in archways appear keen on firming up that impression at ground level.) It is, then, appropriate that Peter Jackson and his team have chosen to take the premiere of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to the always-energising German capital.

Jackson’s adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s fantasy novels have never relied much on star power. Orlando Bloom may have made a name for himself in The Lord of the Rings, but it took Pirates of the Caribbean to turn him into a supernova (now slightly dimmed). Ian McKellen was then best known for his stage work. The first batch of Hobbits are barely household names even now.

Jackson has, however, secured the services of a contemporary phenomenon to voice the titular dragon – and a barely glimpsed Necromancer – in the second chapter of his Hobbit trilogy. Who would have guessed? From the moment Benedict Cumberbatch went before mass audiences – as Stephen Hawking for the BBC and as William Pitt in Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace – it was clear that he was going to be an actor for the ages. But a movie star? A sex symbol?

With his high forehead, slightly cruel face and patrician vowels, Cumberbatch looked to be the sort of performer who would spend his career fleshing out superior dramas with high-
end weirdness. (One popular internet meme compares Cumberbatch’s appearance to that of an otter.) English cinema has produced quite a few such actors: George Saunders, Denholm Elliott, Jeremy Irons. They do good work. They even win Oscars. But they don’t often end up on the same bedroom walls as Orlando Bloom.

The public surprised us. Cumberbatch caught a few eyes as an awful cad – a part Saunders would have savoured – in Atonement. The critics slobbered over his dual performances as Frankenstein and the Creature (job-shared with Jonny Lee Miller) in the Royal National Theatre’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s most famous work. But what really set hearts a-flutter was the BBC’s hugely popular Sherlock.

Who would have thought so many would warm to such an emotionally inaccessible, psychotically self-absorbed fanatic? The furore surrounding the detective’s apparent death at the end of the most recent episode recalls nothing so much as the public’s craving for news concerning Little Nell’s fragile health in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. All will be revealed on New Year’s Day.

So, against the odds, one imagines a kind of shudder shaking the foundations when Mr Cumberbatch enters the room to talk us through Smaug and related matters. He has, after all, recently made the cover of Time. Earlier this year, he reanimated Khan, one of the great villains of popular culture, in the excellent Star Trek Into Darkness.

“I went up the television tower and had a lovely lunch,” he says, remembering his last time in Berlin. “It was a crisp day. Berlin was like a fairytale sprinkled with snow.”

Well-spoken, though not hugely animated, Cumberbatch is man with a job to do. He’s not exactly warm. But he’s perfectly friendly. Dressed in a good black suit, public-school fringe in gorgeous disarray, he has the air of a senior doctor delivering inconsequential news to an unnecessarily fretful patient.

Before we venture into Middle-earth, let’s address this issue of the massive secret he has been carrying around. Nearly two years ago, Cumberbatch’s version of Sherlock Holmes seemed to leap to his death from the roof of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital. How has he stopped himself from spilling the beans? Close friends and family must have been badgering him as to how he survives.

“I wasn’t really tempted, no,” he clips. “Because I think people genuinely enjoy watching it unfold as it unfolds. I have been the bearer of a few secrets this year and some of them have worked and some have not. I have sat in an audience of Star Trek when they didn’t know for sure whether I was playing Khan. When they heard, they were so delighted. That’s important.”

It is hardly worthwhile pressing him to reveal any more about the “death”. One imagines that, should any revelation pass his lips, uniformed BBC agents will pounce and we will all be spirited away to a secret location. But Cumberbatch is prepared to say something about Sherlock’s latest adversary. Lars Mikkelsen – brother to Mads and co-star of Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did – appears in series three as Charles Augustus Magnusson. The character sounds like a walking riff on the title character from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Charles Augustus Milverton, a top-quality Holmes story. Can he be as vile as Andrew Scott’s slippery Moriarty?

“Lars is such a lovely man,” Cumberbatch says. “But in character, he’s such a horrible piece of work. He’s a fucking arsehole. It’s a very different temperature and character to Moriarty. It’s going to be such a thrill for audiences. It’s a brave, new and chillingly recognisable invention. Moriarty is the most extraordinary character. This is a character from our world.”

Cumberbatch seems confidently at ease in the entertainment universe. None of this should surprise us. Now 37, he was born into the business. Readers of a certain age will remember his mother, Wanda Ventham, and his father, Timothy Carlton, appearing in the exotic BBC drama The Lotus Eaters during the early 1970s. Ventham was something of a star: she also appeared in Gerry Anderson’s smashing TV series UFO, in horrors such as Asylum and The Blood Beast Terror and, more recently, as Leslie Ash’s mum in Men Behaving Badly. His dad has also plugged away with great facility throughout the decades.

Theatrical parents are more likely to baulk at their children entering the profession than beam with pride at their decision to take over the family business. Seasoned thespians know how hard this lark can be. The story goes that Wanda and Timothy send Benedict to Harrow with the intention of steering him away from acting. How were they to know that, in the new century, the business would become flooded with actors from the top public schools?

“It wasn’t quite that drastic,” he says. “Dad said the most extraordinarily generous thing a father can ever say to his son. He said: ‘You are better than I ever was or ever will be and I can’t wait to see you have a great career.’ I was 20. I had just left university and just played Salieri in Amadeus. That was a big thing for a man to say to his son. I don’t think they’re too upset that I ran in the opposite direction to the education they arranged for me.”

Well, it would be hard to object when your son turns up on the cover of Time, bosses the Graham Norton show twice in one year and gets his face mixed up with those of happy otters.

“They are thrilled about the way it worked out,” he agrees. “And Dad read me this book when I was a kid. So it’s come full circle. I remember being six or seven and his Gollum, his Smeagol, was sensational.”

“This book” is, of course, The Hobbit. As only recovering coma patients will need to be told, the film is the second in Jackson’s three-part adaptation of the novel that preceded The Lord of the Rings. The first part did not receive universally rapturous reviews, but it took more than $1 billion worldwide and seemed to satisfy many hardcore Tolkien fans. Martin Freeman – Watson in Sherlock, of course – made the central role of Bilbo Baggins his own and Andy Serkis ate up the screen as the avaricious Gollum.

That character makes no appearance in The Desolation of Smaug, but Cumberbatch’s oleaginous, sly dragon just about makes up for the loss. He is equally creepy as a version of the Evil One credited as “the Necromancer”.

How did he react when he got the role?

“Well, I was thrilled,” he says. “I rang Dad and he said: ‘That’s great.’ And then, being a good actor, he said: ‘Why haven’t they seen me for any roles? I talked to Peter very early on and said I don’t want just to do the voice of the Necromancer and Smaug. I want to do some motion capture.”

We end up with a strange, but very effective, creation. Whereas Gollum’s every move was modelled by Serkis, this version of Smaug – not being a bi-ped – can’t quite be mapped onto Cumberbatch’s improvisations in the motion- capture room. But there is certainly something of the actor’s posture in the dragon’s stately movements. Smaug could, in fact, be seen as another of Cumberbatch’s trademark eccentrics. That does seem to be his speciality. Sherlock, Hawking and Frankenstein all fit the description. So, does Julian Assange, whom he played in this year’s The Fifth Estate. He’s the eccentric’s eccentric.

“I like shuffling back to that every now and then,” he says. “While they are great fun to play and different, I do also like being the hero. I like anything that’s complex and difficult and engaging. I like playing the guy next door and I have done both of those things. Look, you have to play to your strengths and what you are known for. If my work in Hollywood came as a result of Sherlock, it follows that I will end up playing certain types of characters.”

We should all have such problems. Over the past two years or so, Cumberbatch has, indeed, achieved unlikely heartthrob status. He doesn’t like the wilder fans being described as “Cumberbitches”, but many among that tribe describe themselves in those terms. Everywhere he goes, enthusiasts are crawling towards him.

“Well that sounds horrible,” he laughs. “I guess so. But, look, I try and treat each job like it’s the first job I ever had. I try and concentrate on the compact with the actors and the other film-makers, rather than worry about the weight of expectations that fans bring. There’s a lot that’s strange. There’s a lot that’s difficult. I have enough of a grounding to know what is real and what is surreal.”

He furrows the famous brow and allows the more famous fringe to sag.

“I know what to step away from and what to engage with. I am learning. I am not deaf to criticism. I keep an eye.”

yyy The Hobbit: The
Desolation of Smaug
opens today and is
reviewed on page 12