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.
Were you a fan of the ‘Star Trek’ universe before making this film? Or were you an agnostic?
‘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…’
And of course you play a human in ‘Star Trek’ rather than a different species in ‘The Hobbit’.
‘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.’
Are you just a voice in ‘The Hobbit’?
‘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.’
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.
‘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.’
Can you reassure your theatre fans that they haven’t lost you to the big screen?
‘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.’
‘Star Trek’ is surely going to bring even more attention your way…
‘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!’
Readers of The Sun have voted you sexiest man two years in a row now.
‘It’s very nice. As you can see, I’m okay-looking. I don’t really get it.’
Their website has a picture of you walking out of the sea on holiday – like something out of ‘Casino Royale’.
‘That’s when I was trying to audition for Daniel Craig’s role. I should have stuffed more seaweed down my trunks.’
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?
‘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’ opens in the UK on Thursday May 9.
Read our review of 'Star Trek Into Darkness'
It’s compulsory for blockbuster villains to be British of course, and Cumberbatch runs with an imperial theatrical haughtiness rather than trying to bury it. His bad guy is distinctly human, if a little two-dimensional, and he succeeds in showing real ice running through his veins and bringing some weight to a cast that generally offers more geniality than gravitas.