The Star Trek actor on playing the villain, Sherlock, and learning from Meryl Streep
I meet Benedict Cumberbatch the afternoon after an awkward appearance on Letterman, where he was promoting his part as John Harrison, an intergalactic terrorist, in J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s a summery spring day in New York, and we’re on the patio of his room at the Bowery Hotel. Cumberbatch—his dead-white complexion shaded by a newsboy cap—is “chuffed” by his posh digs; it’s his first starring role in a blockbuster, and he’s not used to this level of star treatment—well, from everyone except David Letterman, who has not, apparently, been following the actor’s rise as avidly as the actor’s Internet fan club, the Cumberbitches. Not only did Cumberbatch have to follow an animal act, but Letterman, who began by referring to Star Trek as Star Wars, asked his guest—a veteran of twenty movies, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and War Horse—if he was new to major motion pictures. (The actor, being the polite, Harrow-educated Brit that he is, jumped in to save his host: “This major? Yes!”) I tell Cumberbatch that, given Letterman’s cluelessness, I was surprised there weren’t the usual efforts to wring a laugh from his name.
“Well, since he couldn’t even say it,” says the actor. “At one point, before I came on, he announced me as ‘Benedict Cumber… ,’ and his voice sort of trailed off. My friends said, ‘What the f**k was that? It was like his batteries ran out.’ But that’s the sort of thing that’s been happening here, where I’m not as well known,” he continues. “It’s strange to be 36 and still explaining the weirdness of my name.”
Cumberbatch is very well known in Britain and practically a superstar online thanks to his Golden Globe–nominated role as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s high-tech, modern-day Sherlock, which debuted in 2010. (It’s more of a cult hit here, where it airs on PBS.) “I generally don’t look to see what people are saying about me,” he says. “But when the show started to explode in Britain, and I was reading stuff online, I started to think it was real. I thought I’d walk outside my door and hundreds of people would be lining the streets, cameras would be flashing. I quickly realized the audience was virtual.”
Well, not really. Those are flesh-and-blood fans huddled outside the London locations of Sherlock, which is currently shooting its third season. “That’s why I have this ridiculous length and color,” says Cumberbatch, tugging at his black hair (he’s naturally auburn). “Every time I take Sherlock out of the box, I have to put the f**king hair dye on.”
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