By Stuart McGurk | 16 December 13
Over the course of three hours GQ spent with Benedict Cumberbatch for this month’s cover story everyone’s favourite consulting detective divulged a great deal that didn’t make the final cut. Topics included his thoughts on filming the third series on location in London, auditioning for Madonna, working with JJ Abrams and his deeply peculiar interactions with Julian Assange. To mark his first GQ cover, here we publish for the first time Bendict Cumberbatch’s thoughts on 24 key topics that you won’t find in the edition out now on newsstands.
On filming Sherlock
“When you do Sherlock in London, it becomes street theatre. When we’re in Gower St, it’s barmy. A massive element of our day is crowd control. It’s weird, you go out onto the street and you actually get this bubble of performance anxiety like you do if you’re going on stage. It’s really hard. I mean if I went like that [makes hand signal], then a load of people would laugh, someone would say, ‘What did he do?’ Then they’d review it on their phones, post it, and put it on the internet as me dancing on the top of a hedgehog to Michel Jackson or whatever it is they fancy doing that day. It’s kind of weird. Me and Martin end up finishing the day double exhausted because we’re trying to do a job at the same time.
Before, I’ve just gone up and said, ‘Look, this is kind of our office, you’ve got to respect that. It’s a public space, you have every right to be here, and we f***ing love the fact you’re this keen on it. It’s amazing and we love you a lot, and yet at the same time we need to keep doing what we’re doing. We have to keep making the programme, making it good, so we’ve got something we can be proud of. I know you can understand that [so], if you haven’t been here before, please just be quiet while we’re taping, take your rubbish with you, and they’re like, ‘We will!’ For the most part it’s not needed, they’re very, very intelligent, engaged people. But yes, normally, you raise an eyebrow and it causes a ripple of applause.”
On making the cover of Time magazine
“I completely f***ing forget it was a cover, I just thought it was going to be a story inside. And I was honored by being one of the very few actors who get a profile inside of the magazine. When it came out literally thought it was a mock up that a fan had done: I thought, ‘That’s not my hand!’ So when I found out it was a reality I was genuinely floored. Floored in the same way I just sat on the sofa with one of my boyhood heroes [Harrison Ford], and he said to me, ‘I love what you do’. I just thought ‘Wow!’ I mean, two speechless moments, incredible moments.”
On wanting to be an actor
“I think, going into it, I had self-belief in my talent. I think you have to have a certain amount of confidence, just because you have to risk failure. Obviously there was a lean into that with mum and dad, and [then it] became a thing of, is this a career choice I’m really going to make? Am I going to aim my sights for this? I knew the pitfalls were and the realities of it. So I just thought, I have to do this. But I wanted further education, I wanted to kind of have that maturation before I started acting because I felt that … I don’t know really. Except that I genuinely wanted to carry on learning and being with friends. And also, frankly, maybe I wasn’t good enough at the time. I’ve read about me where it says I ‘toyed with’ being a lawyer – I mean, you don’t ‘toy’ with being a lawyer, you think very seriously about it, and I don’t think I was smart enough. And I didn’t really try in the end, so it’s kind of a closed book on that, but people often say ‘Maybe you just weren’t smart enough’. Well, you know, the friends I have who are lawyers are incredibly smart.”
On working with his idol, Gary Oldman, on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
“I really treat every job as if it’s the first time I’ve worked, otherwise I would be paralysed with fear. Like, otherwise, going onto a set with Gary Oldman, I couldn’t do it. You have to normalize that by becoming a co-worker. I mean, I remember Tom [Hardy] being really, really intimidated by Gary when he first met him, and I think I probably was too – I think he was in a corridor, and he was quite silent. He’s actually quite shy Gary. He just looked me up and down in silence, and I just didn’t quite know what to say. Little did I know the man was harbouring huge fears about the shoes he was going to step into. And I just thought he was sizing me up! But he wasn’t!”
On not being on Twitter
“I DO sleep, unlike James Franco, and I know lots of other people who are busier than me, and they’re just better at being concise. And while that would be a good exercise, I would much rather put my energies into other things to be honest. And that’s no disrespect for the people who are on Twitter, I’ve just said from the beginning that social media is not where I’m at, with my job, it just isn’t. There’s a certain amount of me that likes to respect the idea that my work is public but my life isn’t. You’re really asking for an awkward bleed if you’re talking about who you’ve just seen, and where you’ve just met them. But who knows, maybe I’ll decide it’s a game I’d like to play? At the moment I’m just really enjoying the space I’ve got in the public, which is through my work, and this is an extraordinary year.”
On 12 Years A Slave
“I saw a screening before Toronto [film festival], because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to make the screening at the festival, but also I wanted to see it away from an audience, and let the impact of the film play out on me. Because I’m only playing a small role in it, I knew I could do that at a first viewing, and when you’re a lead or a role bigger than the one I’ve got in it, you just get in the way of being immersed in the film. But the way this evolves it wasn’t too distracting. I watched it, and I couldn’t look anywhere afterwards. When I was walking through Soho, everything was on mute, and I looked at every bit of Georgian or Victorian architecture, it just grabbed me, every brick looked complicit. The phone in my hand that I was trying to type some congratulations to Chiwetel [Ejiofor] and Steven [McQueen], I could only think that the elements in these chips, the logos everywhere, the stark multinational logos. [Slavery] still exists, it’s worse than ever. There are different forms of slavery, there’s debt slavery, where people are born into a situation that even though they work and earn money they’ll never get out of debt; there’s child labour, there’s child soldiers, there’s … just the f***ing thing goes on and on, you know. I mean, sex trafficking! All of that. And [in Soho] it was this gauche-rash-Friday-night-blargh-end-of-the-week-piss-up atmosphere, and I couldn’t hear any of that, it was all on mute. It was f***ing extraordinary film. I really do think it’s a modern classic. It’s a masterpiece.”
On Julian Assange leaking their email exchange
“Yes, the emails came out, not the whole exchange, but he was very courteous about it. He asked if I minded him publishing it and to be honest, I knew I was writing to a publisher, so I was very aware that my responses and my emails might get published. And he’s been very respectful about that. He wrote to me where he expressed his concerns very clearly and it’s a powerful argument. And I wrote back a response, which I didn’t publish in response to him publishing his argument, and at some stage in these email he wrote ‘To Your Eyes Only’. I said, ‘Look, Julian, you know, this is as far I am concerned a gentleman’s agreement that this goes no further. It’s not for publication. Unless you want to, and you’re a publisher, but I’d love to have that gentleman’s agreement.’ So, gentlemanly, he came to me and said, “Do you mind?” And I said, ‘Well, no of course, and what does it matter if I do?’ You have to do what you have to do, I understand why you want to get traction on this and get your voice heard about a project that you think is pretty damaging to you. I mean, I think he’s smart enough to realise this is not all about me, it’s really not.”
On his Oscar chances playing Assange
“I mean, I think so, but then I never really held out for this, I’m just thankful that it has positioned me as someone who is capable of doing that kind of a role. And whether the film has a big box office or not, it’s still the response of how I have performed as him has done me huge favours. But really, who knows what might happen? Who knows? But from what I’ve seen and what I’ve read is coming out, the strength of performances … it’s a bumper f***ing crop of amazing films this year, it’s really exciting.”
On his inquisitive nature
“I mean I’m certainly inquisitive, and I have better attention now than I did. I think I’m better at focusing my learning now. I love that about what I do about my job too. But also the position of access if gives you for incredible minds and incredible opportunity. It’s fascinating. And to be able to have conversations with other artists in other mediums as well. To understand what their concerns. So I feel more galvanized with my learning now that I used to do. You know, I hold my hands up, people say you didn’t go to Oxbridge, and it wasn’t because I wasn’t bright enough, it might have been that though. I don’t know, maybe I should test myself! Or, maybe not, maybe my IQ is 70 or something! But I’m definitely curious, I’m eager to learn, I always have been.”
On George Clooney
“It was great talking to a man like him. I really do think he wears it so well, his fame, so, so well, and while every one of us has our detractors, while one man’s elixir is another man’s poison, no-one is everyone’s favourite, I think there is a pretty universal respect for what he does both as a humanitarian and as an actor. And he is very good at wearing his fame, he’s so courteous. There’s none of that, ‘Urgh, here we go, I’m going to put on a mask now’, it’s just, ‘Hi, hey, I’m George’, and you don’t see the cracks of, ‘Pffff, I hate this, these people are in my face’. I think that’s because genuinely he realises we’re very f***ing lucky. And he uses his fame for such potent and great causes.”
On living in London
"I am really lucky to be in London. You come out of your front door and you have everything. And it’s not the case in America so much. There’s a big film industry in LA and a big film industry in New York, but the business of film is pretty much predominantly in LA. And I saw James do that, I saw McAvoy do that, he’s letting the work to come to him, and I thought great. I really admire people like Matthew Rhys and others who by hard graft got their breaks and are now taking it, but I don’t think I have the stomach for that, for literally sitting by the pool reading script after script and signing up for five years for a pilot and not knowing what it’s going to be like. And London feeds me culturally - I go to galleries, to music, to films, and everything else, as well as the broad and varied canvases of work I get to do. And there’s nowhere else in the world that really has that. You know, I’ll go and work in LA for months on end, of course I will, and doing Star Trek out there was amazing, playing the bad guy in the biggest film at the time, working in the studio with JJ and that cast was thrilling. A dream. I love that in London, that you have so much on your doorstep, I mean I take the Tube, I go around on my bike, you can achieve a certain anonymity and be famous here. I mean, on the tube, rush hour is fine, because literally you can’t even see the person next to you."
On holding papers to camera on the Sherlock set
"Ok, well, the first instance was more, this is ridiculous guys, I’m going on set in heavy disguise because I don’t want people to speculate about the state of make up I’ve got on and what I’m wearing, because I want that to be revealed to people enjoying it on a Sunday night in a couple of months’ time, rather than internet gossip, and they’re still trying to get long lens shots! So it was just, you know, go take a more practical photograph of something that’s more important that some actor going to set! And it wasn’t to lecture my audience, or beat down on celebrity culture, there’s every reason why the high-minded can exist with pop culture. And I get that, I get that as much as the next person, I get why my life is a source of intrigue. And it’s an immovable obstacle, and you’re screaming in the wind and it’s stupid if you don’t accept that. And it was literally on my television before I came out, the day of the riots, in square in the summer. It wasn’t about political posturing, it was purely a message to that photographer, saying, dude, don’t waste your time. And the other one, again, it was just at the time it had happened with [David] Miranda [the partner of then Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald] being detained at the airport and hard drives being destroyed at the Guardian, and it really worried me. It’s a complex argument, and all I wanted to do was ask the question - I had the media audience on my back, and it was just a case of what do you think of this?"
On appearing on David Letterman
"I was so nervous, I was so tired, and he’s so legendary, he is a master at it. The producers asked me my name, but yet he was like, ‘Next up, Ben-Er-Dick-Cum-Ber… Batch. Whoever the f*** that is. After this break. In a minute. Let’s talk about Iguanas wearing a hat!’, then, ‘What is this, Star Wars? Star Trek?’ And I was trying, God knows I’ve done it enough times. And [after they played the clip of Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness], he was like, ‘Wow!’ That was very nice. It was incredible. And all the producers laughed about it. It was a genuine reaction [from him]. They said to me he just doesn’t say that, it was genuine. It’s normally, ah, looks great buddy, good luck. They said they hadn’t seen a reaction like that [from him] for years."
On Downton Abbey
"Well, not that I was ever offered [a role], but I mean, I think in certain circumstances I think I certainly would have done it. It hasn’t hurt Dan Stevens. And Dan had done great work before that. Downton is a populist vehicle, which is great."
"That’s something I do like to spend a bit of money on. I do like to go a bit above the good £15 bottle in a newsagent, there’s nothing better. I don’t like more than really a glass, but if I’ve got friends over I will spend more on a bottle, like £40 or £50 for something really special, possibly, more, but not like, hey, look at my really expensive bottle of wine. It’s just such a pleasure but it’s something I have to share with other people. I’m not a solitary drinker, I never have been, and if I do that with a good bottle of wine I end up throwing half of it away. And I’ve done that once, and I don’t want to do it again. I’m not one of those people who thinks, oh, it’s there, I’ll just drink it! I just can’t. I don’t enjoy that sensation, I like being fit enough to read a book or do my work or see a film or just … and it’s not to say I don’t let loose, but not on my own."
On auditioning for Madonna’s W. E.
"It was extraordinary. I was literally in the middle of previewing After the Dance, I think we’d done our second preview, so half of my mind was on that, and in the process of it went on a bit, and James [D’Arcy] was already there, as was the lovely Natalie Dormer, and when I went through into the room [at Madonna’s London house], there were cameras, and this is not a story to tell at her expense, because she is extraordinary, but it was such an odd situation. My usual experience of auditions is that you do things in front of a camera and you send off a tape, or you get the opportunity to speak to someone in a room, to talk though, the process, it’s collaborative, and that’s always the preference. And that’s what this was, but she wanted to operate the camera too! She was really stressed out because she was trying to figure out people’s availability at the same time, she brought her producers’ hat on. And brought all of that in a really guileless lovely way, but it was kind of extraordinary and a bit discombobulating to the usual Brit actor dong an audition, because she was learning her craft, she’s not a seasoned director. She walked in and went, ‘Ahh, you actors are such a f***ng nightmare, the scheduling is just impossible!’
Then she said, ‘Ooh, yeah, you’re the one with the strange name!’ And I think I said something along the lines of, ‘Yes, I am, Madonna.’ And she then smiled wryly. Which was quite amusing. We did the audition, it was in a beautifully floored gym area in her house, and she was setting the cameras and lighting up, really setting it up into a proper scenario, quite full-on for an audition, and part of me was saying this is not good, and she was setting up this shot, and it involved moving a mirror. And she went, ‘F***, my floor! Uhm, you need to meet in the middle… and …’. And so I just said, “Look, you’re going to tell is where our frame is, we’re going to cross over - it was about him and the brother meeting in the hall way and having an argument - and so we did it, and she said, ‘You’ve done this before’, and I said, ‘Huh, yeah, maybe I have!”
On performing the Sherlock monologues
"You read the scripts, and you go ‘Great!’ And then you go, ‘Oh no’. Because it is really hard. I think my process has improved, but when I get behind it is a mess. I mean, when it’s the sweet spot, it’s the wonderful thing, but you pull it off about once or twice in a about five takes. It’s really hard. It’s really hard to be slightly ahead [goes into Sherlock monologue speed] because-you’re-literally-speaking-at-the-speed-of-thought-and-you-can’t-think-what-you’re-going-to-say-next-and-I’m-trying-to-do-it-now-and-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-going-to-say-next-look-at-that-over-here, and yet this really isn’t random association, it’s really specific. And then just the performance of it, and not because it’s a struggle, because the writers when they pull it off there’s a sparkle in it. It’s hell, but it’s very satisfying to get right. But you know sometimes, I drop the ball and it’s hard. I’m not lazy, I work very hard, but I’m not a quick learner. It’s like we were talking about being clever, that’s another reason I guess. It just takes me a long time. It’s amazing when it just feels like air, when it just feels easy to do and you can just play with the nuance of it, and I hit a couple of those sweet spots, which is where you’re completely involved in what you’re doing and you believe in it, and you can move in any direction of it, and you’re not in fear of the pattern being broken."
On Tom Hardy
"Tom is like an incredible factory, he’s like a hungry puppy, he sort of sucks the oxygen into his flame, and sometimes it doesn’t leave you much room to manoeuvre but we became such good friends on that shoot [for Stuart: A Life Backwards], because it suited the dynamic, because I was very much in thrall to the spectacle of this human being, that was the dynamic. I mean, I’ve never worked with Daniel [Day-Lewis], but I imagine you can’t talk to him about his process while he’s in the middle of it. And Tom, very much the opposite, he shoots the breeze, comes out of character, then snaps back into character. And people talk about him being a method actor - I don’t know what that means any more, he’s just really good!"
On women wanting to sleep with him
"You know. George [Clooney] was talking to me and he said, ‘Oh God, all these stories coming up! You know, it’s so much about projection.’ And that’s why I am happy about it, because to me it’s not just about the way I look, it’s about some appropriation of the work and what I carry with me."
On Stefan Moffat saying he’s ‘two degrees to the left of handsome’
"Yeah, yes! And he’s absolutely right! And I’ve never really been able to trade off my looks before. And that’s the other thing about this discussion of whether I’m a leading man, it’s situational. If you prove your actions are heroic, or as a character, you are a leading man, it doesn’t matter whether you look like a movie star.
It’s almost extraordinary that Sherlock is attractive, just because, however dangerous, and however much you may come under his criticism and rejection, and it’s quite a powerful presence to be in, and women are attracted to that…and I get it. I mean, they all want to fix Sherlock! And with James [McAvoy], you know, women just want to go up and hug him, , you know, ooh! You know, the boy dying of cancer whose birthday it could have been! I think it can also be a great incumbent, when beautiful people try to get taken seriously as actors, it’s a f***ing struggle. I think wherever we’re at, we’re always looking at the other angle. I think it’s very important for the long game not to think about this kind of shit. Because otherwise you’re like, oh no, I’ve got frown lines on my forehead! You know, who cares? The only time I care is if I’m being younger for a character, like I had it the other day with [Alan] Turing, and I thought, okay, this is a period where he’s 25, and it’s when you first see him in the film, and there’s a long journey he goes on, it’s tragic and beautiful and disturbing and amazing, and to get that right you have to have something at the beginning where you have this person who is younger than me, ten years younger, and that’s the only time. In normal life, I don’t give a monkey’s arse if I’m going a bit wrinkly or have been described as going a bit grey of having receding hair. Or whatever the f*** it is that people write in gossip columns. You know, it can go on forever. You know, I don’t look at Humphrey Bogart and think, “you look old”. I think he looks like an actor. I remember with George Clooney there was some controversy with Michael Clayton. The studio was having a bit of a whine because he wasn’t shot from particularly flattering angles!”
On meeting his fans
"I’ve had a very peculiar reaction, it was at the stage door and I think this girl had come from either China or South Korea, and she started to go green and shake and started sobbing, and I just went up and said, look, this is quite strange for me, because I understand in a way, because I’m still an audience member, I still watch people and get dumbstruck when I meet them in person, but what you have to do to really enjoy what you’re about. And then I sort of tried to shake her hand, and she sort of went, ARGH! Just fear and anxiety and not being able to manage the reaction. You know, I am just human, I walk amongst you! You know, we share the same circumstances, we’re born and we die."
On Star Wars
"Urgh! I mean, I think everyone is talking about it apart from JJ and me! Look, I mean, maybe when there’s a script we’ll know for certain, but from what I understand the heroes are really, really young, so that’s late teens early twenties, and then I don’t know, maybe there’s a baddie in there? But I think both JJ and I realise we’ve just done that with another massive sci-fi film, so that obviously hinders things a bit. I mean, there’s a possibility, of course there is, and JJ knows how much I would love to be a part of it, simply because, more than Star Trek, it really was something I grew up with. It does make me want to do it even more as well [that people want him to do it]. I don’t know. It would be terribly disappointing I suppose if I didn’t, but I completely understand what the reasoning might be, which is that this is too close to what we’ve already done, and what it is that I could do in this film. I mean, JJ and I are yet to have that discussion and I don’t even know how many of them he is developing at the one time. I’m pretty sure he’s working up one part of three and the spin-off films, there’s a shit load more."
On landing the role of Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness
"I remember with Khan I only found out about it three weeks before I was on set. I remember I was in a Cineworld in Cardiff, and Mark Gatiss [Sherlock co-creator] was like ‘OH MY GOD!’ I’m not a trekkie, I didn’t know … and not for a second did he go, ‘You’re not the right ethnicity!’"
On Star Trek fans voting Into Darkness the worst Trek film of all time
"I was really proud of my work in that film and I was really proud of that film. I think it’s had serious political impact and themes that are subtly nuanced and interwoven, and yet it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Critics and those who have seen it are really appreciative of the work I’ve done, and I can’t battle expectations, I can’t say that it’s right or wrong, whether it’s the worst Star Trek of all time according to the convention in Las Vegas. They were scrabbling for microphones to deplore it and JJ Abrams. I was just thrilled to paint a real really rich bad guy, a complex bad guy, in such an intelligent franchise. I don’t know. Anyway, that’s not to infuriate fans who hate me or it or Khan in the timeline or having him under disguise. I think because of the alternative timeline they feel they’re being cheated out of the real Star Trek. I’m not a Trekkie, and so I don’t have a place to say this, and I really would stress that if you’re going to include this…. of course he’s moving away from the traditional view of Star Trek, but at the same time there’s a lot of the original in this story, and maybe I can see why Star Trek fans feel it was glib, just a reversal, it was Spock trying to save Kirk." Read Stuart McGurk’s full interview with Benedict Cumberbatch in the January 2014 issue of GQ, out now.
And for more from Cumberbatch…huge thanks