Though Benedict Cumberbath’s meteoric rise to fame is a familiar story in the world of here-today-gone-tomorrow stars of the screen, few have achieved his level of superstardom whilst remaining so down to earth.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s star is on the rise. If his trajectory continues, he is likely to shoot through the ceiling of the universe into the bright unknown.
He is the toast of Hollywood, a critical darling as well as a massive blockbuster box-office draw, and he has become one of the more unlikely sex symbols of our time. He is the thinking woman’s crumpet – a man that journalist Caitlin Moran describes as “lavishly, wonkily beautiful, 900 foot tall (with) a voice like a jaguar hiding in a cello.” He’s also BFFs with Ellen.
His public presence has gone from bubbling-under to saturation point very, very quickly. He is a respected theatre actor, but he has also done TV (Sherlock), massive Hollywood blockbusters (Star Trek) and indie gems (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).
“I want to be known as an actor”, he says. “Not as a film star, or theatre actor, or television actor, or Sherlock, or for just one role. I want to be known as an actor, and do a bit of everything.”
The dazzle of Tinseltown is a world removed from Cumberbatch’s early days as the scion of a rather distinguished family. His father was an actor by the truly magnificent name Timothy Carlton Congdon Cumberbatch. His great-grandfather, Henry Arnold Cumberbatch CMG, was the consul general of Queen Victoria in Turkey and his grandfather, Henry Carlton Cumberbatch, was a decorated submarine officer of both World Wars and a prominent figure of London high society.
Cumberbatch attended boarding schools from the age of eight, including the prestigious Harrow School, where his drama teacher called him “the best schoolboy actor” he had ever worked with. He then attended the University of Manchester, where he studied Drama, before continuing his training as an actor at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
Bearing all of this in mind, it would be tempting to believe that he had an inordinately privileged upbringing. However, he wasn’t exactly born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
“I have always been very grateful for the opportunities I have, because I wasn’t born into them”, he says. “My mum and dad worked really hard to afford them. Mum made commercial choices – and dad as well – to keep me in school uniforms and keep the fees paid. I was like a walking mortgage! I was a very expensive child because of the way they tried to educate me. That was completely off their own bat. Dad had a pretty nasty experience at public school and was ready to pull me out at any moment if I didn’t enjoy myself. I didn’t have a great time – I had a mixed time. I really enjoyed some aspects, but I was far happier at the first school I went to. So I was of that world, but not because I was born into it. Not that that gives me any right to talk about how the other half lives, or any other half – but it means, I guess, that I have a perspective on it. I’m not just what the label makes me look like, having been to a public school.”
His upbringing and relatively sedate early career path ill-prepared him for the rocket-ride into fame that his role as BBC’s Sherlock secured for him. His performance as the brilliant, albeit socially awkward detective propelled him into cult status. Subsequent roles in film such as Atonement, War Horse and, of course, Star Trek: Into Darkness saw him take the leap into the higher echelons of fame.
His latest film The Imitation Game sees him tackling the story of Alan Turing, a brilliant Cambridge mathematician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist who was enlisted by his country during World War II to break the Nazi Enigma code.
Directed by Morten Tyldum, it spans the key periods of Turing’s life: his unhappy teenage years at boarding school; the triumph of his secret wartime work on the revolutionary electro-mechanical bomb that was capable of breaking 3,000 Enigma-generated naval codes a day; and the tragedy of his post-war decline following his conviction for gross indecency, a now-out-dated criminal offence stemming from his admission of maintaining a homosexual relationship.
“The script is extraordinary”, Cumberbatch says. “I jumped off from that, wanting to learn more. I was astounded at how much we didn’t know about him. Too few people know about him in comparison to the impact and importance he has had on our lives. Historians and activists know about him, but it’s extraordinary that the general public has very little idea about who this person was. He helped save approximately 14 million lives by bringing World War II to a close two years earlier than it would’ve been without his efforts, and he is the father of the computer. He invented the whole concept. So yeah, he is a very important person.”
The role has already generated Oscar buzz, something Cumberbatch remains refreshingly ambivalent about.
“It would be amazing, but to be honest, it’s so premature”, he says. “It would be almost futile to talk about it. It always happens at festivals at the beginning of the year when I’ve just had my suit back from the dry cleaners after the previous Oscars. The most important thing is that any kind of buzz creates an interest in the film, which hopefully means that more people will see it. That means that Alan Turing’s story will get to a broader audience. That is all I am concerned about as a storyteller, you know, and if I’ve done a good job as him as well, that’s great.”
While the film is not quite on the scale of, say, Star Trek, there is little chance of it dimming the brightness of his star. It doesn’t seem like much will – a fact that he is not entirely comfortable with.
“I still haven’t adjusted”, he says. “It’s a constant process of negotiation and understanding. It’s very odd, but fun, and I think I’m all right with it. Fame has a learning curve. It is a constant thing.”
One of the ways Cumberbatch deals with fame is by using it for good causes. He is an ambassador of The Price’s Trust and a patron of organisations supporting arts amongst disadvantaged young people such as Odd Arts, Anno’s Africa and Dramatic Need. Since portraying Stephen Hawking in the 2004 TV film Hawking, he has been an ambassador for the Motor Neurone Disease Association. He has also campaigned against cancer, war, misogyny, homophobia and the muzzling of the free press.
“I know how lucky I am to be paid to be in a position to have a voice, to do my work, and also just the fact that it’s really good fun”, he says. “You owe society a little bit for that – your fans for giving you a good life, but also yourself, just to pay back. I feel very strongly about the little work I do when I have the time. I try to be principled. Of course there is a part of me that is a bit of a do-gooder – keeping the moral slate clean. But it is really enjoyable and I get a kick from it. It is not a sense of duty, it actually makes me feel good to do things for other people, where it can make a difference to talk to people who wouldn’t normally have access to you, the kind of world you live in or the work you do.”
His relationship with fame is challenging. Bearing this in mind, it is unsurprising that he is careful about drawing lines around his private life and finding the downtime necessary to decompress away from the Hollywood pressure cooker.
“I certainly don’t talk about my personal life to journalists”, he says, laughing. “I’m really good at switching off. I can prioritise. That’s really the secret – knowing how to avoid getting snow-blind and just focusing on what’s right in front of you. When you’re not working, don’t worry about the other things that you could be doing. Just switch off. You have to wind down for a bit in order for your metabolism to slow so you can actually get the rest that your body needs.”
At a glance
- Born Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch on 19 July 1976 in London, England
- Both parents, Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, were actors
- His great-grandfather, Henry Arnold Cumberbatch CMG, was the consul general of Queen Victoria in Turkey
- His grandfather, Henry Carlton Cumberbatch, was a decorated submarine officer of both World Wars, and a prominent figure of London high society
- Attended boarding schools from the age of eight
- He was educated at Brambletye School in West Sussex and was an arts scholar at Harrow School
- Was involved in numerous Shakespearean works at school and made his acting debut as Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was 12
- Cumberbatch’s drama teacher called him “the best schoolboy actor” he had ever worked with
- He was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role for his performance as George Tesman in Hedda Gabler
- In 2004, he landed his first main part in television as Stephen Hawking in Hawking, for which he was nominated for the BAFTA TV Award for Best Actor and won the Golden Nymph for Television Films – Best Performance by an Actor
- In 2010, Cumberbatch portrayed Vincent van Gogh in Van Gogh: Painted with Words
- In the same year, Cumberbatch began playing Sherlock Holmes in the first series of the joint BBC/PBS television series Sherlock, to critical acclaim
- In 2006, Cumberbatch played William Pitt the Younger in Amazing Grace. The role garnered Cumberbatch a nomination for the London Film Critics Circle “British Breakthrough Acting Award”. Cumberbatch subsequently appeared in supporting roles in Atonement (2007) and The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
- In 2013, Cumberbatch also appeared in J. J. Abrams’s sequel Star Trek Into Darkness as Khan, the antagonist of the film
- In August 2014, Cumberbatch was announced to voice and do performance capture for the tiger Shere Khan for Warner Bros. Pictures’s film adaptation of Jungle Book: Origins alongside Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett