Benedict Cumberbatch is back on our screens in Parade’s End – and is soon heading to Gloucestershire to appear at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. He’s become a household name after his quirky portrayal of Sherlock Holmes and now, as he tells WEEKEND Magazine, Hollywood and filming with Brad Pitt is next on his list
BENEDICT Cumberbatch is bent over a canvas bag, busily rifling through its contents.
“It’s got to be in here somewhere,” comes a muffled voice.
“Aha, here it is,” he eventually exclaims, holding aloft the book he’s reading in preparation for his latest movie Twelve Years A Slave.
The 36-year-old Sherlock star admits he should be reading another tome suggested by the production team but explains (with a few swear words thrown in for colour) that it’s “boring”.
Unlike many of his incarnations, from the austere officer in War Horse to the quiet spy in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it turns out Cumberbatch is a hive of hyperactivity.
If he’s not searching for books, he’s flicking through his iPhone to find part of a script from Parade’s End, now showing on BBC2, that he wants to read aloud.
And he does, to tremendous effect, but then this is the man who won a Laurence Olivier theatre award, with Johnny Lee Miller, for their shared role in the National Theatre’s Frankenstein.
Based on a quartet of novels by Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End is a flagship mini-series of which Cumberbatch talks in long, sometimes eloquent, sometimes rambling, monologues.
The lavish adaptation stars the likes of The Town’s Rebecca Hall and heralds the return of playwright and screenwriter Sir Tom Stoppard to British television.
“Stoppard does write the most extraordinary adaptations so it was a huge pull,” he said.
A thinker as well as talker, the actor is first to admit Ford’s books are slow burners.
“I’d read the script, of course, but didn’t read the books until after I decided to do it.
“I realised Tom had made a wonderful, beautiful, very witty simplification of a complex novel.”
Set during a formative period of British history, from the twilight years of the Edwardian era to the end of the First World War, the action moves from Yorkshire to the corridors of power in Whitehall, through the drawing rooms of high society to the trenches of Belgium.
“It’s about a rapidly changing world being overtaken by politics and a war that in its appalling leadership sent eight million to their deaths and precipitated the end of the Empire,” said Cumberbatch, who stars as English aristocrat Christopher Tietjens.
At the centre of the story is his relationship with two influential women, his beautiful but wilful wife Sylvia (Hall), and Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens,) a young suffragette who represents the future for Christopher.
“On a domestic drama level it’s about a failed relationship; two people who love each other but want different things and end up destroying each other in the process.”
There wasn’t a lot of time to prepare but he considers himself something of an expert on the period, having researched it ahead of Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse.
Cumberbatch “completely fell in love” with Tietjens and considers him a hero.
“He’s the most adorable and long-suffering character I have ever played. He has many admirable qualities that I’d like to siphon off into my life,” he said.
“What makes him heroic is the idea that he stands for what he believes in with utter transparency, and to hell with the consequences.”
But tall, slim Cumberbatch, looking suave in black trousers and a dark blue shirt, did wonder why he’d been chosen to play the bulky protagonist.
“I kept saying, ‘He’s a fat, blonde Yorkshireman. Why do you want me to play this part?‘” he said, laughing.
Cumberbatch concedes he has a certain period ‘look’.
“I’ve got a long face and I look a bit weird so I kind of suit period costumes.”
The legion of fans who call themselves ‘Cumberbitches’ can’t get enough of his pronounced cheekbones.
“There is some obsessive behaviour, which is quite worrying. I worry for them, not for me,” he said.
“I’m still very sensitive and wary of people recognising me. The only thing that really annoys me is people trying to surreptitiously take a photo on their phone without asking.
“I feel it’s cowardly and a bit pathetic. Just ask me if you really want me to have a photograph with you.”
Although both his parents (Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham) are actors, London-born Cumberbatch didn’t start performing until he was at Harrow.
He later studied drama at Manchester University and then LAMDA (after a gap year teaching English in a Tibetan monastery) and parts in a string of the standard TV shows, from Silent Witness to Heartbeat, soon followed.
In 2004 he received plaudits for his portrayal of the young Stephen Hawking, and cemented his tag as ‘one to watch’ with roles in Amazing Grace, Atonement and Small Island.
Then in 2010, Cumberbatch made his debut in the modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, now a worldwide phenomenon.
Today, Hollywood beckons. He recently filmed JJ Abram’s Star Trek sequel and Peter Jackson’s equally secretive trilogy The Hobbit, in which he’s playing a dragon.
– and describes wearing a motion capture suit for the part as strangely liberating.
“You can go to London Zoo and look at Komodo dragons and lizards but then you really just have to lose your inhibitions and just imagine yourself into it,” he says, chuckling.
He’s now set to join Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in America’s Deep South where he’ll start filming Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave, about 18th century slavery.
“I feel slightly terrified but it’ll be fascinating,” he said.
You’re left sensing this is only the start of a remarkable big screen career.
“I treat each job as a new experience and new beginning. I’ve got loads more goals to achieve. It’s not like I’ve completely conquered the whole thing. That’s a lifetime’s objective.”
* Parade’s End is on BBC2 on Fridays.
* Benedict Cumberbatch is appearing at Cheltenham Literature Festival on Saturday, October 6, in Sherlock – A Thoroughly Modern Victorian. The event starts at 8.45pm.
EXTRA TIME – FORD MADOX FORD
He was born on December 17, 1873 in Surrey.
In the years leading up to World War One, he moved to London and founded the English Review.
His major work of the Edwardian period includes the trilogy The Fifth Queen and the novels A Call and The Good Soldier.
In 1915 he enlisted in the Army and served in France between 1916 and 1917.
He published the series of four novels known as Parade’s End between 1924 and 1928.
He died aged 65 in Deauville, France.