Interview: Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch might be one of the hardest working people I have ever been in a room with. It’s the midway point of the Toronto International Film Festival, just after 8pm, long after most press days would have ended. Most people would have packed it in if their day was running this far behind schedule. He has, after all, been working since 5am promoting his latest starring role in The Imitation Game pretty much non-stop. It’s the end of the day and about three hours behind schedule. Not his fault. Sometimes these things happen. He could have left, but he stayed despite the fact that he still has to attend a function following our interview culminating in the end of a week full of 20 hour work days.

No one wants to keep him there, so it’s agreed that we’ll ask two questions and leave it at that. When sitting down with him over a freshly poured cup of tea, he admits he’s knackered, but he does it with a chuckle and a smile. Not a forced chuckle and smile, but something far more genuine. He’s the rare breed of actor who seems to love what he’s doing and is willing to push himself as far as possible in anything he does. That’s probably why in the past year alone he’s reprised his role in a major television series (BBC’s Sherlock), had high profile appearances in half a dozen major Hollywood studio productions, and most recently landed the highly coveted lead in Marvel’s Doctor Strange franchise. Even listening to his two answers suggests someone who can’t half-ass anything. I almost feel bad for the guy, but there’s something undeniably inspiring about watching him go to work.

In his latest film and his biggest chance yet at garnering major award season consideration (opening exclusively in Toronto this Friday and expanding throughout Canada in the coming weeks), Cumberbatch plays renowned mathematician Alan Turing, the man generally credited with saving the allies from defeat during World War II. Tasked by the British government to work at Bletchley Park in secret with a band of fellow cryptologists and mathematicians to help break the secrets behind the German Enigma machine, the often difficult to work with Turing should have been heralded as one of the greatest war heroes of the twentieth century. Instead he was relentlessly persecuted in the UK simply because he was a homosexual during a time when the country expressly outlawed it and shamed people into staying in the closet.

We kept things simple and asked him about how he personally found the character of Alan Turing and what he felt playing the role.

The Imitation Game - Benedict Cumberbatch


Dork Shelf: Now there’s a lot that we know about Turing now, but not a lot about his actual days at Bletchley, so I’m assuming you had to do a lot of work to fill in the gaps in his life and career, so what’s it like playing an important figure that not a lot of people know about in great detail or remark upon?

Benedict Cumberbatch: Well, actually, to be honest, I’d love to lie to you and say it’s true and I did all the work on my own (laughs), but I did have the help of looking at some really amazing biographies accounts that had some great detail to them. I mean, not a ton, because you’re right that there’s not a lot of real, hard specifics, but enough to sort of pin down the world he was in.

But there were great details about what he looked and sounded like, how he moved, things like that. I could pin some hunches on that. There were also people that I had met that knew him; his nieces and one colleague who had worked with him in Manchester. You get to piece together a picture, and then you begin to wonder how much of that you can fully realize in your interpretation. Like his stutter, that was very severe, and it would often raise his voice into a high, high pitch, so we had to curtail that a bit. That’s something where the further you investigate someone, the nearer you get to an understanding of them. But at the same time the further you can get away from actually being able to play that person.

But Graham (Moore)’s script did a lot of the heavy lifting in those respects, both in terms of conveying Alan’s intelligence and his behaviour. Alan is unapologetically different because the world has kind of conditioned him that way. He never owed anyone an apology. He was never a brute about it. He never martyred himself about it. He just got on with things and in his own way.

What’s amusing about playing someone who can be seen as irritating or confrontational, as you see Alan in something like the opening scene with Commander Denniston [Charles Dance], is that over time and throughout the film you see that he’s someone who has suffered so many shocks, bruises, and maltreatments that you understand why that person was the way he was at the beginning of the film. He was a child with a terrible stutter who found the love of his life and had a great friendship just ripped away from him. That was the one person who understood him and accepted him for who he was, so to have that taken away is gutting.

Even going back further than that, he was fostered from birth until about the age of four, and when they discovered that he had a stammer, that was something on its own. A child with a stammer at that time was a huge, huge, huge disability, and he was never in that time and at that age going to have normal, healthy social interactions in the schoolroom. As a person who’s introverted, seemingly selfish in his working methods, and doesn’t look people in the eyes and stays guarded, there’s a reason he’s been conditioned that way.

He’s a sensitive soul who has been battered around on life’s cruel sea his entire life, and it continued particularly worse again particularly at the end of his life to a point where the only protest he had left was to give up. There was nothing left to salvage of who he was. Everything that he was able to love in his life and be passionate about and his work was undone by this society of conformity and McCarthy-ist levels of paranoia that homosexuality was somehow linked to Communism. When the estrogen that he was forced into taking began taking over his physiology, he stopped being a gay man with an active sexual life. He had no understanding or control of himself anymore. He was so far from the person he was before the treatment that he was desperate to find a way out of it. He was given a slow release  treatment that was implanted in his left hip because the doctor was so embarrassed to give him weekly injections.

Those doses were only supposed to last for two years, but one night be picked up a kitchen knife and tried to gouge it out of his body. That to me speaks of a man who has lost everything who is trying to hold onto who he was, but he couldn’t. And when you know about something like that and everything else you’ve been able to understand, it’s about creating a picture of a person who’s strong, but eventually worn down to get to that point. Even in the midst of all this, though, he was still doing incredible work on things like artificial intelligence and so many other things. He was an extraordinarily resilient man, but he couldn’t perform any part of what he was as a human being. He wasn’t able to be with men and he was no longer able to do his work. He was lost, and I think death was his only option, and that’s tragic, and you really have to look at everything between the life and death to convey that.

DS: Gordon Brown delivered a posthumous apology in 2009…

BC: And so did the Queen…

DS: …in 2013. Why do you think that took so long to happen, and was that on your mind a lot while playing him and illustrating his contributions?

BC: Yeah, and it made me very angry, because the only person who can offer any sort of forgiveness for the actions of what happened to Alan is Alan. And Alan is dead. He can’t give that forgiveness, and we can’t forgive the idiocy of the government at the time. He helped liberate people from fascism, dictatorship, and Nazi rule, but he was persecuted because they didn’t understand him. They didn’t understand differences, and that’s what all hatred is.

That’s all ignorance, and you see it going on now with homophobia in Russia and Islamaphobia around the world. You see it amid the credit crisis in Greece and the rise of something like The Gold Dawn over there, people are being beaten up in public squares at night. You see it in something like ISIS, as well. It’s the sense of fundamentalism where anything that’s different from their sense of conformity is punishable by death. It can be punishable by death, or in some cases be a fate worse than death. It’s not a history lesson because this is something still going on.

It’s right that The Queen and politicians apologized, but it was grossly late in the date. In a way, that’s only galvanized by the fact that it was the centenary after his birth. He was a healthy enough man while he was alive, and God knows what he could have done. He could have even lived to see this century. But we’ll never know.