In the peculiar-looking, former cross-dressing Shakespearean actor Benedict Cumberbatch, Hollywood has found an unlikely leading man.
Benedict Cumberbatch was in mid-monologue, holding forth on the dangers of the surveillance society, when it suddenly occurred to him that he was meant to be promoting his latest movie, whatever that was (he has been in a lot of them lately). He talks superfast, so that when he paused, the effect was of a train driver slamming on the emergency brakes. “Why does anyone want to know my opinions?” he asked. “I’m not interested in reading my opinions.”
He has no idea. There are people out there these days who so love to hear Cumberbatch talk — who so love to watch Cumberbatch exist — that they do not care what he does, as long as they get to observe him doing it. Somehow, along a career consisting of highly interest-ing but generally non-megastar-making roles (most recently, the lead in the BBC series “Sherlock”; Khan, the wrathful villain in the movie “Star Trek Into Darkness”; the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, in “The Fifth Estate” and the voice of Smaug, the very bad-tempered dragon in the latest “Hobbit” movie), Cumberbatch has progressed from being everyone’s favorite secret crush to one of the most talked-about actors in Hollywood.
His celebrity manifests itself in unexpected ways. When Cumberbatch, who is 37, appeared on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” Fallon noted that more people were waiting in the standby line than for any other guest that year. He was reportedly tweeted about 700,000 times in 2013. Last fall, he appeared on the cover of Time’s international edition. Although he has not been a romantic lead in any big films, and although he says he looks like “Sid from ‘Ice Age’ ” and although he once declared that “I always seem to be cast as slightly wan, ethereal, troubled intellectuals or physically ambivalent bad lovers,” there are numerous websites devoted to the subject of his romantic prowess, e.g., “Benedict Cumberbatch — Fantastic Lover,” a compendium of clips set to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” that has been viewed more than 490,000 times on YouTube. (These are mostly posted by his army of female fans, who call themselves “Cumberbitches” and who use the hashtag “Cumberwatch” when they tweet about his activities.)
His appeal is manifest, yet hard to pin down. His name is odd, Hogwartsian, suggesting both an Elizabethan actor and a baker whose products are made with rustic ingredients no one has heard of. Tall and lean, he has an other-century look about him, with his long, narrow face, his mop of crazy hair (he keeps it shorter off-duty) and bright, far-apart, almond-shaped blue eyes that on-screen can play intelligent, ardent, manic or insane, depending on the job. In “Sherlock,” he looks like the sort of person who has a stratospheric I.Q. and an abysmal E.Q. but is dead sexy with it; at the same time, if you were to remark on his resemblance to an otter, you would not be the only one.
When he sat down with a cup of coffee in a Camden pub last November and began to discuss electronic surveillance, the government, his favorite movies, his career, the rabidity of “Sherlock” fans and how coffee affects him (it makes him talk even faster), Cumberbatch had just come off an extraordinary run of work. “The Fifth Estate,” in which he perfectly captures the slippery nature of Julian Assange — free-speech hero, treacherous colleague, possible megalomaniac — had just come out. Over the next two months, three more of his films would be released: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” in which he gets to intone things like “I am death” in a creepy dragon voice; “12 Years a Slave,” in which he plays a sympathetic slave-owner; and “August: Osage County,” in which he has a small role in an ensemble of superstars like Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep.
The Time cover had just hit the newsstands, and Cumberbatch was slightly freaked out. “It’s one of the more bizarre levels of success,” he said. At first he thought it was fake. “Someone sent me a photograph of it and I thought, ‘Some fan has got hold of a photo and done one of those neat apps where they impose your head on something,’ ” he said. Also, he had had an exciting experience on a British talk show, when Harrison Ford, a fellow guest, emerged from his taciturnity to announce that he loved him as Holmes. This has been happening to Cumberbatch a lot lately, fellow actors declaring themselves fans, such as when Ted Danson saw him through a crowd of stars at a pre-awards party recently and began shouting “Sherlock!” A few days earlier, he had wrapped his most recent movie, a biopic of the British cryptographer Alan Turing. Cumberbatch talked for a long time about the tragedy of Turing’s life and about what has been a series of very intense roles, heavy on iconic fictional characters and real people. “I am so ready to play a really dumb character,” he said.
He was born in London, to parents who were in the business — the actors Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton — and had his first substantial part in high school at Harrow, the famous boys’ boarding school that is the Yale to Eton’s Harvard. “I played the queen of the fairies,” he said. (That would be Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”) Later, when he performed in “As You Like It,” an old alumnus watching the play apparently pronounced him “the best Rosalind since Vanessa Redgrave.” He went to the University of Manchester and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and then slid pretty easily into work; so far he has appeared in more than 30 films and dozens of television, radio and theater productions. But it was his title performance in “Sherlock,” which debuted in 2010, that propelled him to a new league. Part of it has to do with the witty, knowing script, with its clever allusions to the old stories; and part of it has to do with Cumberbatch’s sublime portrayal of the odd, brilliant, infuriating, charismatic detective. Sherlock-the-character has a fanatic following, with fans who debate every Cumberbatchian movement and every plot twist with the fervor of grassy-knoll conspiracy buffs. Cumberbatch takes care to remind them that though they might well love Sherlock, Sherlock would never love them back. “I always make it clear that people who become obsessed with him or the idea of him — he’d destroy you,” Cumberbatch said cheerfully. “He is an absolute bastard.”
Over a follow-up breakfast at the Algonquin Hotel in New York a few weeks later, I started to see what his public life is like. We walked there after a quick trip to my office, in which we spoke to no one but which precipitated three breathless “Is that who I think it is?” emails from normally phlegmatic colleagues in under five minutes. (He came back a couple of weeks later, and the non-phlegmatic people were gaping in the halls.) In the street we had to move quickly, because crowds form if Cumberbatch stands still for too long. In the hotel, we positioned ourselves behind a pillar, but people spotted him anyway (when they asked for autographs, they invariably asked on behalf of their teenage children).
As good a sport as Cumberbatch is, he sometimes finds it a bit too much. Filming “Sherlock” last year in Cardiff, Wales, he had an awkward interlude when he had to walk from his trailer to his car wearing a costume that, had anyone seen it, might have become a major plot spoiler. When he failed in his efforts to get a particularly persistent paparazzo not to photograph him, Cumberbatch shrouded himself in a hoodie (“I looked like Kenny in ‘South Park’ “) and held up a sign he had hastily fashioned that said: “Go photograph Egypt and show the world something important.” The move was lampooned by the British newspapers, particularly when, to the delight of hundreds of fans massed on the street in London for another shoot, Cumberbatch did it again, this time with signs printed with provocative questions about democracy, government intrusion, journalism and the battle between liberty and security in the war on terror. “These are very complex questions and very difficult arguments to be very clear about, so to ask the questions is to stimulate the debate,” he explained. He has not done it since, though, he said, “I felt really strongly about it at the time.”
In New York he was visiting his friend Zachary Quinto, who acted alongside him in “Star Trek,” seeing some movies, going to some museums and trying to keep a low profile. He is currently unattached, and is gearing up for his next batch of work. One question that has excited “Star Trek” fans is whether his character, who all but stole the last film, will appear in the next one. There is certainly that possibility: He ended the film frozen in a pod and stored away in space. (“That was a stupid thing to do,” Cumberbatch said, referring to Starfleet Command. “They should have just blown me up.”) He pulled a cap over his head and prepared again to withstand the public. He says he has a way of negotiating big-city crowds: “If you pick a point far behind them they perceive you as not seeing them, and you’re the obstacle they have to get around.” For a moment, he sounded positively Sherlockian. “There is a way of just shadowing through,” he continued. “The higher the walls, the more dark the windows, the bigger the sunglasses — the more people are going to look. The greatest disguise is learning how to be invisible in plain sight.”