Benedict Cumberbatch, 36, became a household name after the smash-hit Sherlock reboot. He’s now gone interstellar as the baddie in Star Trek Into Darkness.
How bad a bad guy are you in Star Trek Into Darkness? Pretty bad. He’s a supremely confident, supernaturally strong warrior. He’s not another species or anything. He’s a psychological warrior, capable of taking someone’s prerogative and twisting it to his own intentions – getting them working for him.
Your actor parents didn’t want you to follow in their footsteps. Why not? They wanted anything else for me because they know how precarious the business is and how, if you’re self-employed, you just never know where the next pay cheque is coming from. And you can’t really organise your social life on a structured level. You’re always at the beck and call of the phone ringing and your agent saying: ‘We need you for a voiceover, audition,’ whatever it is. But they now live vicariously through what I’m doing, which is great.
What’s the story behind your fantastic name? There’s a sort of debate about that. Cumberbatch could be Welsh for a small valley dweller. The ‘cum’ in Cumberbatch is hill. I need to look into it. Benedict means blessed. My parents liked the sound of the name and felt slightly blessed because they’d been trying for a child for a very long time. I’m not Catholic, so it’s not that. They liked the idea of Benedict and Ben, the fact that it can be contracted. I think Toby was their second choice.
How did you get started as an actor? I did a lot of acting at school and university, then I went to drama school. It was quite a normal route. I think my teachers discovered it in me more than I did. I was prone to doing impersonations and mucking about – kind of the class clown – and I could be disruptive. Acting filtered that energy into something a bit more productive.
You seem quite academic. Was there pressure to do something else? I did sort of blow my GCSEs out of the water. I couldn’t believe it and neither could my teachers. And then there was a lot of pressure on me to achieve an Oxbridge level of brilliance at A-levels. But then adolescence came late and I discovered girls, pot and all sorts of other things, so I got a bit lazy. That stagnated my growth a bit as far as being academic. I guess it came back when I was doing my dissertation and everything for my degree, so it is there somewhere.
Does it bother you when you work with people who have never had any training? Not at all. There are lots of actors who learned their craft through people they’ve worked with. I have to say there’s a lot to be said for that and you can see people’s careers, trajectories and craft growing after starting young in this business. The armoury of having any academic education does not necessarily set you up for being a good or better actor. It’s rare in life that you walk into an environment where that expertise is accessible to someone who’s basically starting their apprenticeship.
Actors always talk about the joy of observing people. Now you’re famous, have you lost that ability? No, I’m still the same guy walking to get my coffee and I can sit down and watch someone coming in to get their coffee. But you can’t watch someone arriving on horseback and leading a cavalry charge against machine guns. You can’t watch somebody bewigged standing up in parliament in an era of abolishing slavery. You can’t even watch people who existed just before your time, say in the 1950s. That’s why it’s helpful to have applied your imagination to things outside the realm of your experience.
Have you learned a lot from actors? Lots. I worked with Abigail Breslin, who is only 17 and astonishing. I definitely learned from her.
Are you a disciplined person? Acting definitely gives you discipline but I have to say I’m not the best example. I see others who are amazing, such as Keira [Knightley], who’s dyslexic; it’s pretty f***in’ impressive what she does. Her work ethic is phenomenal. She was wonderful in Anna Karenina.
What other women do you admire? Rebecca Hall, who I did Parade’s End with. It’s phenomenal to watch people’s methods and work rate: so much understanding of the material and the character. And Meryl Streep, of course.
Do you think actors are different from the rest of us in the way you look at the world? I don’t agree with us being different. I think there’s a skill set that’s particular. I think if we become different to the world we are portraying, audiences are wily enough to smell people who have a disconnect to them. So you have to show that the character is based on being somehow of their world. You can’t be separate from that. It’s something that sort of comes out. I’m not saying it’s magic, I’m not superstitious, but it’s an alchemy that happens.
Star Trek Into Darkness is in cinemas now.
Via Tee Poulson, Kuldip Patel