Benedict Cumberbatch: 'Sherlock,' Smaug And Spying

Originally published on May 4, 2012 5:18 pm

Information that could ruin the British monarchy locked in a smartphone. A crime scene surveyed through the video camera of a laptop. A blogging Dr. Watson.

This is the world Sherlock Holmes inhabits in the BBC series Sherlock, a modern spin on the classic tales by Arthur Conan Doyle that reached American audiences in the fall of 2010. That's also when a lot of us were introduced to Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor who plays Sherlock — and the purveyor of many an intense stare and quick calculation in that role.

Now he's back: Sherlock's second season begins Sunday on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS. Cumberbatch, who has since made appearances in the Oscar-nominated films War Horse and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, says that for a time, acting wasn't his intended career path.

"My mum and dad had worked incredibly hard to afford me an education," Cumberbatch tells NPR's David Greene. "I had the privilege of being able to choose, or at least have the opportunity to work at, being anything but an actor."

Cumberbatch says his parents, actors themselves, were living proof of the vagaries of the profession, and while they made a living, that's not the case for many. Cumberbatch initially was on a path to be a lawyer.

"As I was learning to be a barrister," Cumberbatch says, "and choosing my levels around potentially doing Oxbridge and ... all the rest of it, I just encountered loads of other people on the same course who said it's so much down to chance and luck. And I thought, 'Well, why am I giving up on my primary dream to work doubly hard to do something as an alternative to what I really still want to do?' "

One emotional turning point in Cumberbatch's journey to acting came when he played the role of Antonio Salieri in a university production of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus.

"My father ... turned to me," Cumberbatch recalls, "and he said, 'You're better than I ever was or could be. You should do this for a profession — I think you'd have a good time.' And that's a huge thing for a man to say to his son, and — not necessarily true, I might add, he's a wonderful actor himself — but it was so encouraging and supportive."

Cumberbatch says it was "a moment of extraordinary humility and pride" — and that from then on, the knowledge of his parents' confidence gave him the nerve to pursue acting professionally.

"It was always important to have their blessing," Cumberbatch says, "and one of the reasons I get up in the morning is to make them proud."

On Playing Villains And Sociopaths

On his similarities to Sherlock, Cumberbatch says he's not nearly as smart — or quite as sociopathic — as his character, but he can understand where the investigator is coming from.

"I can be bit irate or impatient at times," Cumberbatch says, "and my mum worries sometimes I might be turning into him. [Sometimes] I can sort of see the picture of what's in front of me and expect everyone else to get it as fast as I do."

Other times, he confesses, he can be incredibly slow when it comes to assimilating information.

Cumberbatch's next major roles may stretch some decidedly more malevolent muscles. He plays Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit, and a villain in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek sequel — a role for which he auditioned via iPhone.

"My best friend, Adam Ackland, and his wife, Alice, basically helped me out," Cumberbatch says. It was Christmas, and Cumberbatch couldn't find a casting director to record an audition reel for him. "I was in a bit of a corner. ... They recorded me in their kitchen at about 11 o'clock."

As he makes the transition to doing more Hollywood roles, Cumberbatch says, he has had to endure his fair share of media gossip.

"It's just like most press narratives," Cumberbatch says. "It's much more interesting to read that somebody's sold his soul to the devil and has taken the golden handshake and gone off to Hollywood and has abandoned his homeland."

In the wake of the inquiries into the News of the World scandal, Cumberbatch says, the British media especially are in for some soul-searching.

"[Rupert Murdoch] is being fingered, but the blame can be spread a lot wider," Cumberbatch says. "But people will always knock you when you're up. It's fine — I can take the rough of this move, but it's kind of disappointingly predictable."

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Information that could ruin the British monarchy locked in a Smartphone, a crime scene surveyed through the camera of a lap top and a blogging Dr. Watson


MARTIN FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) people want to know you're human.


FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) 'Cause they're interested

CUMBERBATCH: (as Holmes) No, they're not. Why are they?

FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) You know, 1,895.

CUMBERBATCH: (as Holmes) Sorry. What?

FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) I reset that counter last night. This blog has had nearly 2,000 hits in the last eight hours. This is your living, Sherlock.

GREENE: Actor Benedict Cumberbatch plays a whole in the BBC series "Sherlock." The first season aired in the United States two years ago and now "Sherlock" Series Two begins on PBS this Sunday. Cumberbatch hopes it's a chance for more Americans to discover it.

CUMBERBATCH: I just want to bring people in a little bit to the idea of sitting down on a Sunday three consecutive weeks and having that water cooler moment that really was a sort of a national sensation in the U.K., 'cause it's kind of fun. And it was an extraordinary cultural moment.

GREENE: His work in "Sherlock" has led into roles and Oscar-nominated films, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "War Horse." And he'll be appearing in Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" among other high-profile projects.

Both of Benedict Cumberbatch's parents are actors. But for the actor it took leaving the stage to rediscover his passion.

Did you ever think like, God, I was just destined to do this but maybe...


GREENE: know, maybe I'd rather be a lawyer or...

CUMBERBATCH: Well, yeah. It was exactly what I wanted to be for while. I mean my mom and dad had worked incredibly hard to afford me an education where I had the privilege of being able to choose, or at least have the opportunity to work at being anything but an actor. They were living proof of the vagaries of the profession.


CUMBERBATCH: And while they've triumphed and then made a living out of it, which is a miracle considering the percentage of people who aren't employed in our profession. And as was learning to be a barrister and sort of choosing my (unintelligible) potentially doing Oxbridge and doing law conversion courses, I just encountered loads of other people on the same course who said it's so much down to chance and luck.

And I thought, well, why am I giving up on my primary dream to work doubly hard, to do something as an alternative to what it really still want to? And...

GREENE: Was there a moment, a performance that really you look back on, it just brought you back?

CUMBERBATCH: Well, there was a moment of extraordinary humbleness and humility and pride, as well, with my father when he turned to me - and I think it was after I played Salieri in "Amadeus" at university. And he said, You're better than I ever was or ever could be, you should do this for profession. You'd have a good time.

And that's a huge thing for men to say to his son - and not necessarily true, I might add. He's a wonderful actor himself. But it was so encouraging and supportive and I knew then that they felt confident enough that I'd have a good ride. So I think that was sort of an emotional turning point, I guess. It's always important to have the blessing. And one of the reasons I get up in the morning is to make them proud.

GREENE: You have spoken in the past, about feeling like you, yourself share some qualities with the character, Sherlock Holmes.

CUMBERBATCH: I'm not nearly as smart as him and I am not as sociopathic. But there are just moments where I think I, like him, and cut off consideration for taking other people with me, rather than just expecting them to be the mind readers.

GREENE: I wondered if you've ever have to work on getting out of character. I mean you're sitting there in our studio in New York. I mean do you walk in there and look for, you know, shoelace fibers, fingerprints on the keyboard?


CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, I'm casting my eye around. It's quite a neat little studio you've got here. And the cleaners obviously been in the night before. I don't think many people have been in and out. So what am I looking at - a microphone. Yes, it's hard. It's hard. I'm really not Sherlock Holmes. I look a little bit like him and sound like him, but...


GREENE: You know, the British press has really played up this idea from Baker Street to Hollywood. Is that a thing? I mean is that a transition that's been tough, extraordinary in some way?

CUMBERBATCH: No. No, it's just like the most press narratives that is much more interesting to read that, you know, has sold his soul to the devil and is taking the golden handshake and gone off to Hollywood. And he's abandoned his homeland which, you know, immediately happen the minute I stepped foot in L.A. to film "Star Trek." Which is kind of tiresome, but people still think it sells papers.

And I think we're living in an era, especially in the British media where there's an awful lot of soul-searching that should be done at this stage, with the Leveson inquiry and Murdoch being held out to task, and just being exposed for, you know, the fraudulent, pathetic, abhorrent behavior that is rife in all of our media. I mean, you know, he's been fingered but the blame could be spread a lot wider.

But, you know, people always want to knock you when you're up. So it's fine, I can take it after this move. But it's kind of disappointingly predictable, I think is what I'm trying to say...

GREENE: Well, the JJ Abram's project, the new "Star Trek" sequel, I understand that you auditioned for that on an iPhone.

CUMBERBATCH: I did. Well my best friend, Adam Macklin and his wife Alice, basically helped me out. I was in a bit of a corner. I couldn't get any casting directors because I did (unintelligible) Christmas. And I had to do it on my iPhone and they recorded me in their kitchen at about 11 o'clock.

GREENE: Just like recording video on an iPhone.

CUMBERBATCH: Exactly. Exactly, I mean it was kind of romantic. I mean we are in the modern age where that is feasible. But I think it's one of the first I've heard of, of actually getting a role that way. But...


GREENE: It's the modern day of mailing in auditions, I guess.

CUMBERBATCH: Exactly. Exactly, I'm not exactly cold calling 'cause it was asked for. And JJ was like, You did that on your iPhone. And it was great. He was very complimentary about it. But I owe it to Adam and Alice for taking the time with their two kids, who were asleep in the background somewhere in their bedrooms. And, you know, every now and then we stopped because we thought we heard one of them work up. It was really sweet and it was lovely for them to be a part of it.

GREENE: Smaug the Dragon is going to be your character in Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit."

CUMBERBATCH: And the necromancer, as well, which is great fun to do.

GREENE: Can you give us a little Smaug the Dragon? I mean have you - where are you...

CUMBERBATCH: Well, God, no. No, and I can't do that. That's looking behind the curtain. That's one that's coming up.

GREENE: A little different than Sherlock Holmes.

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, little different.

GREENE: Is there definitely going to be a season three? Is that in the works?

CUMBERBATCH: Well, I don't know. I mean it really depends on what happens at the end of the three that you're about to see.

GREENE: You can break news here. It's OK. We're fine with that if you want to tell us.

CUMBERBATCH: Oh, are you?


CUMBERBATCH: That's good to know.

GREENE: Yeah, just, you know...

CUMBERBATCH: Here's some breaking news...

GREENE: Let me know.

CUMBERBATCH: coffee is lovely.

GREENE: Excellence, you know, we try our best.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, you can see him as Sherlock Holmes in "Sherlock" Series Two which is starting this Sunday on "Masterpiece Mystery" on PBS.

Benedict, thanks so much for spending time with us.

CUMBERBATCH: An absolute pleasure, David, thank you.

GREENE: From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.