Benedict Cumberbatch was shooting the third series of Sherlock in Cardiff until the middle of the night before this interview. Caked in camera-friendly make-up and styled to fulfil the image of the A-list star he’s rapidly becoming, 36-year-old Cumberbatch is spending the day in London plugging his new film, Star Trek Into Darkness.
Afterwards, he will return to the set of the TV series that has seared his name and face on the public consciousness more than any of his prodigious TV, film, theatre and radio output over the past decade. He’s been Frankenstein on stage, Stephen Hawking on television, he’s acted in landmark British films including Atonement and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and now he’s cashing in the chips he earned performing worthier roles by playing Smaug in the ongoing Hobbit films as well as the villain in the second movie in JJ Abrams’s rebooted Star Trek series.
Time Out: Were you a fan of the Star Trek universe before making this film? Or were you an agnostic?
Benedict Cumberbatch: Yes, very much agnostic, that would be the term. I didn’t reject it. I’m not Richard Dawkins. I’m not a “Star Trek” atheist! I got a sentimental kick during the reboot, though, so there must have been something there. I think because it was on BBC Two before the six o’clock news. But as far as escapism went, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark got more under my skin.
I’ve got a respect for Star Trek now. I remember even at the time thinking these were quite tight morality plays and it wasn’t just about the fastidiousness and endless detail that people can obsess over in the Trekkie universe. Which is great…
Time Out: And of course you play a human in Star Trek rather than a different species in The Hobbit.
Benedict Cumberbatch: Yes, I’m actually there. I’ve been asked before to play cerebral or manipulative masterminds, but not ones as brawny as this, so I enjoyed all that too. As a bad guy, you don’t just want to do nasty things and blow shit up. Working on Star Trek, you can marry your role slightly to real-life experiences but, playing Smaug in The Hobbit, it’s impossible to do that – he’s a 400-year-old firebreathing worm who lives on top of a pile of gold and likes eating doors.
Time Out: Are you just a voice in The Hobbit?
Benedict Cumberbatch: Obviously, I’m personally a biped rather than a serpent, so the motion-capture element is limited. I was mainly on my belly on the floor playing at being a dragon. It was like being a kid: no marks, no make-up, no continuity, no worries about camera positions. It was so much fun.
Time Out: You’ve played several real people on screen, most recently Julian Assange for The Fifth Estate. That must come with a strong sense of responsibility.
Benedict Cumberbatch: I didn’t want to hang him out to dry, I wanted to give a fair account of him. It’s a living story, and the moral responsibility was very much part of the job. I tried to reach out to him, to communicate with him, and he was having none of it as far as a meeting goes.
He felt that a meeting would condone a film he felt was too poisonous an account. He got hold of an old script and all sorts of issues blew up when we were filming. He tried to attack it and in his position I’d do the same, probably. We had a discussion, though, which was good. If Julian is feeling that way, politically, he’s right not to let [a meeting] happen, because it would be like a blessing.
Time Out: Can you reassure your theatre fans that they haven’t lost you to the big screen?
Benedict Cumberbatch: Oh no, no, not at all! I love theatre, and you learn too much as an actor and enjoy too much of it not to want to go back a lot. I’m just trying to build a little bit of momentum with the monkey-puzzle climbing thing of the film world at the moment and that’s been a lot of fun over the past year and a bit.
I’m aching to get back on the stage. It’s weird in this culture that we have this idea that we own people: “Oh, we’re going to lose him to Hollywood.” No, you’re not. I’ve got a suitcase, and my family, home and life are in London. This is where I come from and where I always go back to. I’m just thrilled that Hollywood appreciates what I’m doing at the moment.
Time Out: Star Trek is surely going to bring even more attention your way…
Benedict Cumberbatch: Yes, everyone’s saying that… “It’s going to go to another level”, “Benedict blasts off”, “It’s going to go into warp drive”, and all those terrible puns! But I go: “Well, yeah, I know James McAvoy, and he’s okay. Michael Fassbender, I know a little bit, and he’s doing fine.” It’s possible to remain grounded.
It’s all a bit of an adjustment. I can’t be anything but flattered because of the attention towards the work. It does get strange when you realise people will hang around for hours to get a glimpse of you doing scenes outside.
A lot of the filming for Sherlock has become like street theatre in London. When they get wind that somewhere’s been locked off, that’s it. I got performance anxiety the other day when I went to Gower Street and there were 500 people there. I’m just there to work. This is kind of like my office!
Time Out: Readers of [London's] The Sun have voted you sexiest man two years in a row now.
Benedict Cumberbatch: It’s very nice. As you can see, I’m okay-looking. I don’t really get it.
Time Out: Their website has a picture of you walking out of the sea on holiday – like something out of Casino Royale.
Benedict Cumberbatch: That’s when I was trying to audition for Daniel Craig’s role. I should have stuffed more seaweed down my trunks.
Time Out: The director of Star Trek Into Darkness, JJ Abrams, is directing the next, rebooted Star Wars film. Are you holding out for a call from him?
Benedict Cumberbatch: He knows where I live, and I’ll always put another audition online for him should he need it. Yeah, that would be dreamy!
Star Trek Into Darkness in theaters now.