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Interview with Benedict Cumberbatch

10 January 2014 | London Calling

Not content with conquering the UK as everybody’s favourite detective, London born Benedict Cumberbatch is now in the process of taking over Hollywood as well.

The 37-year-old’s career continues to soar to new heights, peaks that now include regular box office smash hits and huge personal acclaim to go with his celebrated theatre and TV work. Benny is ready to escape the shadow of his most famous role.

True, few programmes enjoyed such fevered anticipation - not to mention promotion - than BBC’s Sherlock. His festive return proved one of the TV events of the year, but Cumberbatch isn’t one to dwell. Indeed, the last 12 months have seen the actor dominate the big screen with appearances in (deep breath) The Hobbit, August: Osage County, Star Trek, 12 Years a Slave and, portraying Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, The Fifth Estate - winning a BAFTA for Artist of the Year and confirming that the actor is as prolific as he is brilliantly adaptable.

“It may appear that way but all these films have managed to find their way into theatres at more or less the same time,” Cumberbatch laughs. “This megalomania is actually completely out of my control.”

Yet it is 12 Years A Slave that could yet prove to be his most significant role to date. Directed by Steve McQueen, the touching film sees Cumberbatch play a guilt-ridden Louisiana slave owner William Ford, a key figure who shackled Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) meets along his terrifying odyssey through the American South after being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Michael Fassbender co-stars as the brutal slave master who torments Northrup, while Brad Pitt occupies a small role as a benevolent Canadian abolitionist.

“It was an important film with a brilliant cast and I wanted very badly to be part of it,” Cumberbatch says. “I also wanted to work with Chiwetel, whom I've admired for years, as well as with Steve McQueen who has made some outstanding films. I won the role on the basis of an audition tape I sent to Steve and I'm rather proud of that, too. Overall it was a wonderful experience and I very much enjoyed the way Steve creates an environment where actors can find a very productive and defined space in which to work.”

The character of Ford enabled Cumberbatch an enjoyable freeness given the conflicting nature of a complex man in the eye of an even more multifaceted tale.

“There were a lot of contradictions to Ford. He was a preacher, a God-fearing man, yet also someone who was a slave master, and who regarded slaves as both children of God and as commodities. Even though he was a learned man, he was in grave moral conflict and felt tortured to a certain extent by his self-awareness of the immorality of slave owning.”

Born in Hammersmith on July 19, 1976, to actors Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, Cumberbatch was raised in Kensington (he says his earliest memory is “watching a helicopter fly to Kensington Palace when I was on the roof of my parents’ flat”) and went to Harrow School before honing his acting at Lamda Drama School.

Despite the obvious sneering at alleged privilege - “it’s not like I had any titles or anything, and I am proud of my parents for sending me to Harrow, and I am glad that they did” - Cumberbatch still retains a love for his home town.

“Of course, people cannot be as respectful as you might like on occasions, like anywhere else, but London is great on the whole. It is still where I feel most comfortable. It has personality and bravado and it’s bigger than all of us. How could you not love the place?”

It is why Cumberbatch has kept such close ties with the capital. And going forward, he is set to feature in a Museum of London exhibition on Sherlock Holmes that opens in October, as well as agreeing to star in a production of Hamlet, although details are sketchy.

Can the next 12 months possibly match the previous year, given the level of critical and commercial success he has achieved?

"It's been an incredible year and although one worries about being overexposed I'm very grateful to have worked in a wide variety of films. It's an embarrassment of riches, but it's kept me very, very busy. I’ve just had a nice long break to regroup and see where to go next.”

Wherever that will be - and we already know that The Imitation Game, an historical drama set in World War II, is also released next year - Cumberbatch is determined to prove that 2013 won’t be his ultimate annus mirabilis.

“I still feel that my best work lies ahead. As an actor, you're always looking for the infinite. You want to be able to soar and find roles that carry you further than your expectations might have allowed you to go.

“I try to remain focused on the work and not pay much attention to the commotion around me. I'm not staring in the mirror every day thinking, ‘Hey, looking good today!’”

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