Earlier this month, English actor Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, August: Osage County, Star Trek Into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave, War Horse, The Hobbit, et al.) kicked off our new In Conversation series with BAFTA at The Standard, High Line. Before the event, we had the opportunity to sit down with him to talk about the perils of fame, why Brits make better actors, and those devoted Cumberbitches ...
You’re kicking off our In Conversation series with BAFTA. Happy to be here?
I am. It’s genuinely a really big thrill. BAFTA is such a great non-profit organization that does so much to help promote the arts and the British role in them. What bigger honor than to be the first one to be asked to do this series in Manhattan? It’s very cool.
British actors are having quite a run in the States. Why do you think that is?
I think the Americans are extraordinary as well, of course, but I think what we’ve got at the moment—which we’ve always had, but now is more useful—is that fact that when we train in England we have the opportunity to do radio, television, film and theater all in one place. In America, actors have to make a really difficult choice. If you’re fresh out of Julliard, you’ve gotta ask yourself, 'Am I gonna do the classics off Broadway? Am I gonna go ply my wares for TV pilots? Am I gonna try to do films?' There are so many ways up the slippery pole.
I think we’re also grounded in the classics but at the same time completely in touch with pop culture and social media. We can fly in the face of convention as quickly as the States can.
Benedict starring in clockwise from top: Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) Sherlock (2010-) 12 Years a Slave (2013) War Horse (2011)
Was there a point in your career where you packed your bags and headed for Hollywood?
Not at all, no. James McEvoy actually was my main inspiration. I could see him doing everything brilliantly, and the work was coming to him. He was in the States if he needed to be for work, but he wasn’t gonna come over and kick his toes around in a pool waiting on some pilot script. I think once you do that, you kind of want to stay here, and I’ve never wanted to stay here. I’ve always wanted to be free enough to just travel to where the work is, because my base of family and friends are in London.
I had heard your name six months before I even knew what you looked like. Do you have the best PR team in the world or are Sherlock fans really that rabid?
You know, a lot of people who don’t like me say, Oh, he’s got really good PR and he should shut up, but actually it’s all down to this wonderful sort of exponential growth of cultish adoration for Sherlock, which is global now. That’s why you really got to know my name, I guess. But also a series of things happened at the same time as that series first aired. I got cast in War Horse, Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, and Frankenstein, so it was just a sort of bumper crop in all sorts of mediums. So that’s why. To be honest, my PR team are there to stop me from being overexposed. You’re contracted to promote the work you’ve done, and have conversations like this, and normally it’s kind of abhorrent. You don’t want to do it. You want the work to speak for itself. But people need to understand the messenger as well as admire or enjoy the message, so there’s this constant examination of the personal.
Does it bore you?
I bore myself! I bore myself listening to myself. You get stuck in a bubble talking, especially when you’re promoting a film in an airless hotel room, unlike this one, I should add. It’s horrendously repetitive. But these are high-class problems. It’s hardly hard work. It’s just rather nullifying and not particularly elevating or creative. You’re sort of talking in a loop.
How much of your time is devoted to promotion?
Despite what my critics might say, my publicity team are brilliant about stopping me from doing things that I don’t need to do, and just pointing out what’s good to do, what I have to contractually do, and what I really don’t need to do. So it’s getting less, hopefully. I don’t engage in social media because of that …
You don’t? You have quite a devoted following. The Cumberbitches, I think they’re called.
Nope, not at all. Not at all. I get on with my work and my fans are very respectful of that, weirdly. I think they’d love it if I started Tweeting, but as I’ve said before, the people who are good at it are great at it. It’s like a new art form. It’s phenomenal how much it’s opened channels of communication. I like those channels of communication for my work, but I don’t want to journalize my life and publicize it because I really value my privacy and also my time. It would take me forever! I’d worry about it and fret over it. Unless you’re as instantly brilliant as Stephen Fry is—unless you have that kind of immediate capacity to condense a moment into a pithy phrase—why bother? He’s Wildean in his epigrammatic ability to do that. I’m full of admiration for it.
Have you ever logged on to Twitter?
I joined once under a pseudonym when the London riots were happening ‘cause I thought I wanted to get some kind of idea of what was happening on the street. It was rubbish, actually, by the end. They were saying the Electric Ballroom was burning and all these people were writing fierce comments back saying, No, no, no, that happened two years ago! If I did Tweet, I think I’d probably become dangerously obsessed by it and never pick up a book again and never really be able to do my homework and stretch myself as an actor. So I’m kind of protecting myself. It’s not because I feel it’s wrong.
How do you spend your downtime?
I just increasingly enjoy the quiet moments when I can be on my own with my friends and family, or with a book, having a live experience. That’s really what I crave, and I always have done. It’s very weird for my friends now, and they’ve realized that unless they get me in their kitchen, or in mine, or a hotel room somewhere private like this, the amount of demands on my attention—very polite, usually; very polite and considered—are just too much. They know they can’t get any access to me until we’re alone.
That doesn’t sound very fun.
It’s strange, and my friends see it. They get it very quickly. After all, they’re my friends, so they’re very empathetic.
“I was an art scholar back at school, but I wouldn’t call myself David Hockney or anything.” During the interview, Benedict drew us a picture on our iPad.
It’s all pretty good stuff though, no?
It really is, actually. People aren’t throwing insults at me. You get the occasional one, but the majority of people just want to touch base and say that they saw your movie. I have to say, I’m so sorry, which one?
You’re 37 now. Do you think that’s helped you cope with fame?
I think it’s got to have helped, but you still experience learning curves that nothing prepares you for. I’m still walking into a lot of my experiences as an innocent. I guess you have a slightly more secure and comfortable sense of who you are, so you’re able to deal with that with a little bit more maturity. It’s difficult, though. I’ve had to wean myself into a position where I can say “no” to things. I’m usually quite acquiescent in a kind of cooperative way, but then it costs me, and I get resentful. People will say, “But you said you wanted to do it!” I’ve got to stop saying “yes” to everything. I’ve gotten better at that. A little bit.
Enjoy his full talk at The Standard, High Line where he discusses everything from swapping acting secrets with Meryl Streep, to feeling like a complete booby shooting green screen.
The BAFTA New York In Conversation Series is a celebration of British talent held at The Standard, High Line. Read our other Interviews:
• Hello, Mr. Hugh Dancy
• Eddie Redmayne on Kissing His First Boy
• Keira Knightley on Feminist Rebellion