Benedict Cumberbatch on portraying Alan Turing

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Picture: Gareth Cattermole/Getty
Actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Picture: Gareth Cattermole/Getty
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HOW did Benedict Cumberbatch became Hollywood’s No 1 hottie? Surely not by playing brainiac geeks – or getting hitched in the pages of the Times…

TO HIS Chinese fans, he is Jie Wan Fu: “the curly haired one”. The Washington Post waggishly redubbed him “Bandersnatch Cummerband”. Sesame Street’s Murray Monster calls him “Benedict Sherlock”. And absolutely no-one calls him “Benny”.

Cumberbatch, left, in The Fifth Estate. Picture: Contributed

Cumberbatch, left, in The Fifth Estate. Picture: Contributed

“Well, very few,” reflects Cumberbatch with grim satisfaction. “They don’t live very long.”

Not that long ago, when he was still a mascot for plummy period telly dramas, global audiences regarded him as “Benedict who?” Not any more. Episodes of Sherlock are watched all over the world, including by a fanbase of 69 million Chinese who tune in despite the show being officially banned from the Chinese Central Television network and other major channels for being too racy. In the past year, he’s played Meryl Streep’s nephew, a southern slave owner in this year’s Academy Award-winning Best Picture, and a gold-hoarding dragon. No wonder American studio DreamWorks admit they send him pretty much every project they acquire. What do DreamWorks call Benedict Cumberbatch? I think they just hope that he will call them back.

Called “two degrees to the right of handsome” by his Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat, Cumberbatch may skew away slightly from conventional matinee looks, but he’s strikingly distinctive. Long and lean, he’s a sharp dresser who favours skinny bespoke suits for press interviews, but it’s his intelligent, equine face that pulls attention, with wide-set almond eyes which seem to have twice the peripheral vision of everyone else’s.

In 2013, he topped Empire’s Sexiest Movie Star poll. “I’m not a typical beauty,” he says, laughing. “I’ve got a long face and a long neck. I’ve grown up with this face, so when it goes on these ‘hottie’ lists it just doesn’t make much sense to me. When I started out, I was nowhere near the thousandth hottest. It’s projection, which is flattering because it’s about the work, I suppose.”

The Imitation Game. Picture: Contributed

The Imitation Game. Picture: Contributed

You get a small sense of how his work is regarded by walking around London on the day of the premiere for his new film, The Imitation Game. Just after midday in Leicester Square there are lines already forming for the red carpet screening in seven hours’ time. Clotted around his hotel’s two entrances, there are men and women with pictures to be signed, and mobile phones on standby.

There was a similar hawkish interest at a recent Bafta Q and A; the audience was filled with alert women, keen to laugh at all of Cumberbatch’s self-deprecating one-liners. It must be heady stuff being a heartthrob, especially since, as the actor points out, the love life of most Cumberbatch characters ranges from a little sad to quite catastrophic.

In The Imitation Game, the British mathematician Alan Turing registers somewhere around “it’s complicated”. One of our great war heroes, he applied computer science in its birthing hour to Enigma, a notorious Nazi code. His code-breaking operation in Bletchley Park is generally held to have shortened the course of the Second World War by up to two years. However, Turing’s world was not totally computable: from an early age, he knew he was gay, at a time when homosexuality brought harsh jail sentences or damaging experimental drug treatments.

Morten Tyldum’s film has already won the People’s Choice award for Best Film at the Toronto Film Festival, with Cumberbatch’s performance generating Oscar buzz. For a long time Leonardo DiCaprio was pegged to play Turing, but in 2013 DiCaprio dropped out and Cumberbatch parachuted in.

He had learnt about Turing from school, and also Derek Jacobi’s performance as Turing in Breaking The Code on stage and later on TV. Cumberbatch familiarised himself with the German Enigma machine on display at the Imperial War Museum, but also spoke to people who had known Turing, and uncovered some endearing reminiscences from one of Turing’s nieces. “She said that as very young children, they felt more comfortable around him than any other adult. He listened to them, he didn’t patronise them and he was very entertaining. He made them laugh a lot and did things like play games of chess with his back turned to the board.”

The Imitation Game covers several milestones; a significant school crush on a fellow pupil at Sherborne School, his struggle to make the importance of a “Turing machine” comprehensible to officials supervising at Bletchley Park, and the circumstances leading up to his early, tragic death. The real Turing was shorter, darker and thicker set than Cumberbatch, but it’s unlikely that many people will quibble on these points, not least because Turing’s archive barely records his appearance.

“There were lots of accounts of the way he talked and moved, and how shy he was,” says Cumberbatch, who incorporates a softened version of Turing’s stammer into his performance. “But physically there is no visual or aural recording of him, so there’s a huge blank canvas. It was a chance to personalise an extraordinary man.”

A prodigy, recruited to the war effort when he was still in his 20s, Turing’s famous “imitation game” test for machine intelligence made a huge contribution to philosophy and culture by opening up a theoretical conversation about artificial intelligence. Cumberbatch’s conversation with maths ended in a B at GCSE, and a group effort by The Imitation Game actors to challenge themselves with a little light cryptogram solving amounted to a crossword which took them five days to complete, says Cumberbatch. “I have a very superficial understanding of code-breaking algorithms, but really it’s about finding the humanity here. We can all relate to his moments of self-doubt.”

The algorithms of sexual attraction are another focus of the film. Turing’s relationship with young logician Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) presented its own logic puzzle: could a marriage of convenience bring him happiness. “What if I don’t fancy her in that way?” a beleaguered Cumberbatch asks of one of his Bletchley colleagues. Later Turing’s sexuality led to a conviction for indecency in the 1950s, which stripped him of his security clearance, and forced him to agree to chemical castration. He died, apparently from suicide, not long after in 1954. 
It took 50 years to rediscover Turing’s achievements, culminating in centenary celebrations in 2012 and a Royal Pardon the following year. Cumberbatch feels that Turing is still overshadowed – “why isn’t he on some denomination of our currency or the cover of science or history textbooks?” – and when the conversation turns towards the film’s awards expectations, he says with some asperity that he wants the film to generate interest in Turing and recognise his legacy. “If it gets people to see the film, frankly that’s all I care about,” he says. “As long as it creates an interest in people to see this film and what the fuss is about, then that’s fantastic.”

Cumberbatch is exasperated by press attempts to draw parallels between Turing and his Sherlock as if they were interchangeable uncompromising brainiacs; “They both have my face, but they’re utterly different people,” he says. “Turing is very quiet, stoic and determined. Yes, he’s socially awkward, but he doesn’t swish around in a coat with curly hair demonstrating how brilliant he is. I didn’t read this script thinking this was Sherlock in tweed, fiddling with valves.”

The real trickiness, of course, is that Turing was a real person, with real biographers. In the film, Turing admits his true sexuality to John Cairncross (played by Downton Abbey’s Allen Leech) who is part of Turing’s small team. Already it has been noted that Turing and Cairncross worked on different projects and probably never met. It has also been pointed out that Knightley’s character, Joan, was not quite as substantial an influence on Turing in real life as in the film. Cumberbatch has been down this road before, of course. “It’s tricky because most of the real people I have played are extraordinary, whether it is Van Gogh or Stephen Hawking or Alan Turing. All we can do is the most light, vague impression of these people and their depths. The cinema process condenses years into a eureka moment, or high drama. I know from my own research that it didn’t happen like that. You ask, ‘Why the hell are we doing anything about real people’.”

In the end, he has made his peace with the process as being “fictionalised truth”. “Most audiences are canny enough to understand that,” he says.

Cumberbatch’s experiences in biopics have been mixed. When he was cast as Stephen Hawking in 2004, it was the first time anyone had essayed the physicist on screen but word came back that Hawking liked his portrayal. He even said so on Richard And Judy. On the other hand, portraying WikiLeaks warrior Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate last year was a more bruising encounter. Assange wrote a silkily insistent missive to Cumberbatch urging him not to participate in the film, which he felt would be harmful to him.

The film was not a success. Assange was exultant. “He danced on the grave of the box office flop that it became – but I’d do it again tomorrow in a heartbeat,” asserts Cumberbatch. “That was very complex because it was so politicised. He thought I was working under DreamWorks/the State Department, which I protested quite fully in an email to him.”

The Fifth Estate has been Cumberbatch’s only real setback so far in a career as careful as his choice of words in interviews. His recent co-star Knightley worked with him on Atonement in 2007, and confirms his energetic perfectionism. “He is always up for trying things, and looking to make a scene better,” she says. “The only problem is that if it were up to Benedict, we would still be shooting the film. There are a million different ways of playing a scene and he wants to explore them all.”

Cumberbatch is forging the sort of career that should keep us intrigued for years, combining recurring roles in huge franchises with smart, artier work. He’s been recording the voice of the tiger Shere Khan for Andy Serkis’s new film of The Jungle Book, and is about to start work as Richard III in a series of Shakespeare plays for the BBC. He’s as happy in a no-budget radio play as when signing up as Dr Strange in an upcoming multi-million-dollar Marvel movie franchise, although he admits that it is sometimes hard to shake off character traits. Sherlock, all slanted cheekbones and billowing coats, will be back in 2015, and when he is in deductive mode, “I get impatient, as my mother has pointed out to me”.

Cumberbatch acted from a very young age. In a school nativity he recalls that he “pushed Mary off stage because she was taking too long”, before adding languidly, “I haven’t done that to a leading lady since.” When he won a scholarship to Harrow, he joined The Rattigan Society for the dramatic arts and took to Shakespearean roles, including Titania, Queen of the Fairies. And of course his parents are both actors with long careers in film and television. Timothy Carlton used to read The Hobbit to his son at bedtime. He has known Dame Judi Dench since he was a small boy, as a friend of his mother, Wanda Ventham, and unshowily name-drops people like Michael Gambon as co-workers and friends he admires. No wonder Martin Freeman likes to kid that Cumberbatch is a young soul hopelessly embedded into an old thespian community. “I thought you knew every actor over 50,” he quipped when Cumberbatch was forced to ask about the background of one British veteran. “I thought there was a by-law.”

Like Turing, it turns out this week that Cumberbatch is also very good at keeping secrets. After a month of heavy press attention, he wrapped up his publicity obligations, slipped off the radar, and then published his engagement to actress/director Sophie Hunter in the Times’ classified section, breaking fans’ hearts and quite possibly the internet. The couple had appeared together in a 2009 film Burlesque Fairytales, but had only been spotted together this summer.

Cumberbatch, while happy to enthuse about his plans next year for a sold-out three-month stint as Hamlet at the Barbican, had fended off any inquiries into personal projects, but perhaps the clues were there for us, if we were of a Sherlockian bent.

Asked by a magazine about his hopes for the future, he had responded rather sweetly, “Living in a stonewall cottage overlooking the sea, in a temperate climate, with lots of kids.” Well why not? At least he should have plenty of ideas when it comes to giving them names.

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

• The Imitation Game (12A) is released on Friday