THE TOTAL FILM (INDONESIA) INTERVIEW: BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH
Scientist. Dragon. Spy. Name the role and he’ll be on a roll (brilliantly, too). As one of the most talented British actor of today, Benedict Cumberatch has stolen a million hearts as Sherlock Holmes. Now he’ll steal a lot more as the main villain in Star Trek Into Darkness. But he denies, “I don’t feel like a villain…”
PORTRAIT BRIAN BOWEN SMITH
KHAAAAAAN! Khan? Not quite. John Harrison? Debatable. You’ll have to forgive us if even until now we still can’t believe the name of the character Benedict Cumberbatch plays in J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi extravaganza Star Trek Into Darkness, a sequel to the franchise’s 2009 reboot Star Trek, is actually called John Harrison. Considering this is a movie by the master of twisted turns such as Abrams, we reserve the right to remain skeptical until we sit inside a cinema and directly watch the film.
But what we’ll never be skeptical about is the actor acting the villain. Cumberbatch, with acting blood in his veins, is not just any actor. If he’s got a legion of female admirers (and perhaps a few male ones too), we are entirely unsurprised. His eyes and cheekbones can really cut through the heart of many… and who doesn’t like a charming, intelligent Brit man with plenty of wit? Which is why it comes as a surprise that this London-born thesp (born 19 July 1976) built the earlier part of his career out of playing prats, like that pompous windbag Patrick Watts in Starter For 10 and molester Paul Marshall in Atonement. Even now, his new roles are still leaning towards the evil: recently Islington in BBC 4 Radio Extra’s Neverwhere, Smaug the dragon and The Necromancer in The Hobbit, and of course ‘John Harrison’.
When we first saw him in BBC’s Sherlock, we almost couldn’t believe that this detective was fleshed out by the same man who brought scientist Stephen Hawking in Hawking (2004). The transition from a smart and sympathetic figure like Hawking to an arrogant investigator with little to no moral conscience, though, does prove one thing: that despite having an army of fans as widespread as NATO’s military units (maybe even beyond), Cumberbatch has given evidence that he is a quality actor rich in experience, range and particular charisma.
Watching him act is a one of a kind experience (when we watched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, where he assisted Gary Oldman that hit Tom Hardy and making small talk with Colin Firth, our row was shamelessly noisy, doling out praises), and John Harrison – or whoever his name is – appears set to be his most entertaining role ever since Sherlock Holmes. It is ironic, then, that his actor parents (Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham) wanted their son to be a lawyer. What would cinema be without Cumberbatch? Although, from the way he evades STID spoilers, we’re very sure he’d make a good lawyer too…
We’re quite certain you have a confidentiality agreement…
I think it’s a rare commodity, a bit of enigma, a bit of mystique, and it goes a long way because we live in a world where everything is spoiled and known, and it’s oversaturating an already volume-filled market with who can shout the loudest and stand the tallest. I’m kind of grateful to JJ for creating this secrecy, in a way. I can understand how it must frustrate some people, but I think most of us, secretly, are quite glad of it.
So is it true that you recorded your Star Trek audition on an iPhone?
Yes it is [laughs]. I shot my audition on an iPhone. It was Christmas 2011 but work goes on and in Hollywood they wanted to see this audition. But all the casting directors I knew were away because it was the gap between Christmas and New Year and I said that I’d try to get it done on the 27th and then technology failed me – the batteries weren’t working and the camcorder kept going off and I was sort of stuck. I was really keen to be in Star Trek but I’d literally stopped filming Parade’s End on the night of the 23rd and so I’d had about 3 days off and I had to gear up for this big thing, having just celebrated Christmas.
What did you do?
So I called up my best friend, whose son I’m godfather to, to ask him to help and he said, “Sure, come round” and so I drove back to London. I got there about 10 pm and we did it for about an hour, 3 scenes with 2 takes. And the kids were asleep in the back. I was in their kitchen using a table lamp as an arc lamp to arc at the right level, which meant I had to crouch down on the back wall doing these scenes. I didn’t have the whole script but J.J. had fleshed out the story for me. My friend’s wife, who is a set designer, had to balance the camera on two chairs to get the right angle. But we managed to get something down and then it took a whole extra day to compress the files [laughs]. I sent the best versions to J.J.
Have you met J.J. at that point?
No, I’d never met him. Damon [Lindelof, writer and producer of Star Trek Into Darkness] had seen Sherlock and said to J.J. that he thought I’d be right for this role.
What really drew you into making this Star Trek sequel?
Because of the first film, which I thought was great. I wasn’t a die-hard Star Trek fan so I really came to this in the same way that J.J. did because he wasn’t a crazy Star Trek fan to start with either. I enjoyed it and I’d seen some of the TV shows and some of the films. But I’d seen J.J.’s first Star Trek film, the origins story, and I got really excited by that, especially for somebody who is not obsessive about Kirk and Spock and Scotty and the rest. It was really cool and I thought Eric Bana [ Nero in 2009’s Star Trek] was brilliant and unrecognizable as himself playing that ferocious villain. He was wonderful. He was very, very impressive. So for me it was a huge mantle to take on and extremely flattering to be offered the chance to be the next Star Trek villain.
You seem to love the 2009 Star Trek a lot…
I thought there was humor, action, a great story and every character was so three-dimensional. I was crying within the first five minutes and in the next ten I was laughing so hard. Chris [Pine] is just great as Kirk. It was the script, the spectacle of it and, primarily, the great performances and the way that J.J. had reshaped the whole idea of this franchise. That’s what drew me to it. When they asked me to audition my agent was frothing at the mouth and was really excited – like a kid in a candy store salivating – and said, “You have to do the tape now!” So I did the tape. I got a call back maybe 5 days afterwards that I’d got the part. And J.J. emailed me, saying, “Do you want to come and play?” I didn’t even have to think about the answer. Then I got a script but I trust J.J.’s taste from the first film so he only had to describe to me what he had planned for the second film.
Your character, John Harrison, is very mysterious. What exactly can you tell us about him right now?
He’s a terrorist, he’s not the usual villain. There’s a real calculation and intelligence to his actions. But also he is a ferocious warrior, both in hand-to-hand combat and with weapons. We did these fantastic choreographed fight scenes, which I really enjoyed. But he’s equally dangerous in a still moment where he’s not necessarily physically seen to be in charge.
Is he politically motivated?
I think within the world of the film, very much so. It is a political ideology he is fighting for.
So you can say he’s a ‘freedom fighter’ and not just a terrorist?
I think so.
You mentioned fighting choreography. What sort of preparation did you have to do?
I was consuming 4.000 calories a day for about a month and a half. Before that, just eating 5times a day was enough but it really ramped up for the last month and a half for this scene… which might be cut [laughs].
I can’t say why at this point. But it was for a scene where my physicality is revealed at one point. But it might be cut because it might not fit in with the final edit. My trainer and I are heartbroken! [laughs] I worked my ass off – literally. Not that I had a big ass but even that was toned. I went from a 38 to a 42 (inch chest) in the space of about a month. And I love it! [laughs]
You really don’t mind all of that training?
It was terrific and what was terrific about it was having a hell of a lot of oxygenated blood running around your system, which is great for fast thinking on a set. J.J.’s family that he creates on set is a wonderful, but when you’re new to it and you’re also playing an outsider, it’s difficult to get into. There’s a fantastic energy amongst them, they all know each other from the first movie and became close friends, while I’m trying to craft out this character who is an outsider. But they were really supportive and every time they saw me being anxious they went out of their way to reassure me. I was terrified because this is a big step up for me. And I did gain confidence as the film went on, once I was more relaxed about what I was doing and have that feeling that you can trust your intuition. Once that was there, I had to resist the temptation to have a lot of fun with those guys and focus on where and when I did need to be separate from them.
So you joined an ensemble cast that’s made up of good friends…
It’s a really wonderful bunch of people. I know that’s hyperbolic actor [bullshit] to say it, but it’s rare that you have a movie of this scale with so many people that are just so nice and so welcoming. J.J. has a good measure of group dynamic and that pays off in terms of the work.
Is it like Steven Spielberg’s approach?
Yes, it is. And like Spielberg, it’s J.J.’s name above the title, because he is the star. And so we can fit into his world and help realize his vision. He casts people who are perfect for the roles and you get a very laid back atmosphere. It’s a peer group that you feel parity with and that’s a rare thing in this industry. What’s exciting about all of us being at a similar age and stage in our careers in this, and getting along well, is that it becomes fun. We were all trying to do a good job and there’s very little ego, no vanity – it’s all about the work. There are tussles between the characters, of course, but there was no status play.
What does it feel like when you first entered the Enterprise?
It’s amazing. The first time I stepped on the set I was looking up to The Bridge – I was in outer space basically looking in. And obviously there’s lots of green screen for that scene. But after we’d done the scene, J.J. said, “Come and look at the Bridge…” So J.J. walked me through on to the Bridge and it was this incredible set that was just mind blowing. Suddenly I’m the biggest Star Trek fan ever! [laughs] When you become part of it like that, you do become a little bit obsessed. I walked around the corridors that link all the different areas on the Enterprise and it’s just beautiful. There are echoes of spaceships you have seen in films that you’ve watched down the years, it triggers lots of associations and yet it is completely unique to J.J.’s version of this franchise. Every set we walked on to was phenomenal. J.J. is so enthusiastic. And it’s genuine with him – it’s not like an irritating cheerleader, he genuinely is really fired up by the whole thing. He surrounds himself with fantastic artistry in every department – make up, costume, design. And he’d asked, within budgetary constraints, for as much of the ship to be built as possible. And so there is a heck of a lot that isn’t green screen in this film, it’s live action. That’s such a thrill because it felt like being on this incredible fairground ride.
And what was it like when you saw a full sequence that you’d previously done on green screen?
The stuff I have seen where we were working with the green screen has blown my mind because that’s the set that wasn’t there on the day and so you have to imagine it all and you throw yourself into it and it’s extraordinary. The only fear that you have is that they create such an extraordinary environment that you think, “I hope my acting doesn’t look out of place in it because I didn’t imagine it to be quite like that…” But I think they’ve got it right with this. You know, some people seem to worry that this is a science fiction-only trip and it isn’t. It’s a great action thriller with great comedy and romance and all the action, fights and spectacle that you would want in a huge movie. It’s a strongly based character driven drama and that’s all about J.J. – he can do spectacle with great characters and that’s a winning formula.
This movie is in 3D. What’s your take on that?
I think people will look back and see this as a golden era of cinema – especially with the advent of 3D and IMAX because they really are such immersive experiences and it takes it to yet another level. You have extraordinary artists working at this time. People always hark back to the golden age of Hollywood in the ‘60s and ‘70s but now we are still making films like that and, on top of that, we have this new technology which people like J.J. are mastering. There’s room for a big canvass in cinematic art and I think that this might be a groundbreaking moment.
Going back to your physique, what kind of stunts did you have to do?
Well, some of the stunt scenes we did included being dragged across the floor at 60mph by rope pulls and being jerked back. We were jumping off things suspended by wires – at one point my character jumps off a bridge.
And you still enjoy all that?
It was just so thrilling. And I loved it – as much as I was allowed to do it. I have to hold my hand up and say that I had an amazing stunt man called Martin De Boer whom you will be seeing a lot more of, because he’s a good actor as well as being a great stunt man. He’ll probably be taking my roles soon! He’s wonderful and he did stuff that they deemed I shouldn’t do. Of course, like most actors fit in mind and body, I wanted to do as much as possible.
Did Star Trek mean anything to you when you were growing up?
Not a huge deal. I knew of it and I watched it and pretty much every generation of it and I’ve seen some of the films. But I’ve never been an obsessive fan and I’ve never had that sense of belonging to a club, even a football club. I never obsessed about anything. I never bought the T-shirts.
How much of the geek gene do you possess?
Not very much. I’m quite homespun. I would say I’m more modern rustic than gadget-orientated. I obviously have a latent fan fixation with Star Trek because of how thrilled I was when everyone got together in the first reboot. I never was obsessive about anything I watched when I was a kid, except maybe The A-Team and Airwolf… And I loved Knight Rider and then later Baywatch. But I was never obsessed.
But you do comprehend the fan gene?
I completely understand. I’ve just not had that singular focus on anything in my life. I like to be able to move from one world to another. I guess that means I travel lighter. I completely get it, though – it’s like having a team, being a supporter, all the travails and ups and downs, that similar sense of a tribal belonging.
Did you follow the speculations online and photos of your head slapped on Ricardo Montalban’s torso?
No, no! I mean, I saw them, but I didn’t go searching for them. Maybe when I was in make-up someone would go “Look at that!” It’s part of what’s brilliant about entering this universe. There’s such an incredible knowledge and possession and pride in this world that the fans hold. I know I’m entering a very treasured universe, but actually it’s about pleasing the man who’s entrusted me to do that. So if I’m crap in it it’s all JJ’s fault. Because he trusted me to do it [laughs].]
Your parents are actors. Did you spend a lot of time back stage when they worked in theaters?
A little bit. But they tried to keep me away from it and also said backstage is kind of dull after a while, although I didn’t think so. They didn’t want me to get as involved or as excited as I did, unfortunately. So I did spend a bit of time backstage. I used to watch them go on. I remember my mother having a casual conversation with a stage manager back stage and then the door opening and this light coming from the stage and I could hear the dialogue. I remember standing on a stage that my godmother gave me when she was working at the Royal Shakespeare Company so I was literally a spear-carrier and I must have been about 5 or 6 years old. And apparently this rather alarming smile spread across my face as I stood looking into the darkness going “Wow!” That’s the romantic way of describing how I got bit by the bug but in truth they afforded me a very privileged education by working really hard, they weren’t moneyed themselves, and I tried to make use of that to do anything other than be an actor, because their wish in giving me a great private school education was so that I could be a lawyer, an architect or a doctor.
They didn’t want you to be an actor?
Well no. They wanted me to be an architect, a doctor, a lawyer. [laughs] Anything but an actor because they saw the pitfalls of it the life they were living every day – it’s peripatetic, you can’t control your social life, and you don’t know where your next job is coming from. They wanted me to be free of all that, but I just felt the constant tug of the world and I kept on acting, through school and then university.
Now, with your role in Star Trek Into Darkness, aren’t you afraid people will see you even more as a villain?
No. I’ve just played a guy called Little Charles in a film called August: Osage County and he’s a 37-year-old man who lives above his parent’s garage and can’t get his life or shit together and has fallen in love with his cousin and it’s all a bit of a disaster. He’s a vulnerable, very sensitive human being. And if you look at my back catalogue it’s not all villains; Sherlock is an anti-hero, he’s complicated and morally ambiguous, he’s on the side of the angels but he doesn’t think he’s one of them. But he’s not a villain. So no, I don’t. A. AAYUSYA/N. SETCHFIELD
Star Trek Into Darkness opens on 17 May. August: Osage County will open on 8 November and The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug on 13 December 2013 in the US.
Five star turns
Benedict is the king of the screen…
1. HAWKING (2004)
Staring a career by playing Stephen Hawking is like predetermining Benedict Cumberbatch as a genius typecast. But no one can deny that he was the perfect young Hawking. The actor met the scientist in real life to find his inner Stephen, and the result is one of his career best roles – and he’d only just begun!
2. STARTER FOR 10 (2006)
Once again a genius, but this time with plenty more snobbery and faster speech. If you admire Cumberbatch for his Holmesian performance, his Patrick Watts in Tom Vaughan’s rising star-studded (at that time) film can be considered ‘a rehearsal’ for the consulting detective gig. Although there’s James McAvoy and Dominic Cooper here, Cumberbatch’s Patrick remains one of the more memorable Starter For 10-er.
3. STUART: A LIFE BACKWARDS (2007)
His role as Alexander in a movie based on a book (based on a true story), Stuart: A Life Backwards, not as striking as his other roles. Next to Tom Hardy’s absurd and stunning Stuart, Alexander just seems normal. But because of that normality, Cumberbatch shows his range as an actor – that he can make simple acts of eating and walking become rather attractive.
4. SHERLOCK (TV) (2010-NOW)
After a long time acting, the BBC adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mysteries finally pushed the actor to the surface. His interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is considered unique and, by now, iconic. Working incredibly well with Martin Freeman, it’s hard to name another dynamic duo that’s better than this pair.
5. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011)
As Peter Guillam, assistant to Gary Oldman’s George Smiley, once again Cumberbatch plays the sidekick to a magnificent lead. Though not the main star of the show, he still shines, especially at that moment where he sobs at the departure of his (male) lover. Once again with Hardy, Cumberbatch stole all the spotlight from his more senior and experienced co-stars. Vive le Hardybatch!
+ This is the English translation of my own Benedict Cumberbatch article featured in Total Film Indonesia Issue 42 (May 2013). This interview contains materials obtained from Paramount and also SFX (TFI are a licensee of their publishing company) so please buy the magazine because that is the most legal way you can read the interview. No copyright infringement is intended by posting this interview in the article author’s blog.
+ I reserve the right to decline any request to provide or hi-res photos of Benedict Cumberbatch that appear in the magazine; due to copyright issues, please note that these photos are supposedly to be featured IN PRINT MEDIA only.
+ This interview – in either Indonesian or English – is not permitted to be posted anywhere else without permission in entirety (linking and/or quoting allowed). If you are a website owner and want to translate this to another language other than English/Indonesian, please contact me in the comments and I will get back to you ASAP.