Benedict Cumberbatch plays the leader of a group of mathematicians working to crack the German Enigma code in WWII drama The Imitation Game. Based on a true story, the Sherlock star is Alan Turing, a scientist who developed a machine which decoded intercepted Nazi messages allowing the Allies to hasten the end of the war and save thousands of lives. But following the war his achievements remained top secret and he was prosecuted for homosexuality. Speaking at a press conference in the capital for the film, which has opened the London Film Festival, Cumberbatch talked about the genius and persecution of a forgotten hero whose legacy as one of the founding fathers of modern computing lives on.
Did you feel the weight of responsibility to do justice to the story of Alan Turing?
“I think so. He was wronged by history. There’s a disparity between his importance and prevalence in our modern culture, as well as what he achieved in the 20th century, and the comparative lack of knowledge of the full span of his story and life. The idea of getting a broader picture of him out there did carry the weight of importance. It’s his legacy. It’s been an extraordinary decade for him because of his centenary, official pardon from the Queen (for his prosecution for homosexuality in 1952) and now this film. It’s all part of the momentum to bring him the recognition he deserves as a brilliant scientist, father of the modern computer age and a war hero. We remember a man who lived an uncompromising life at a time of disgusting discrimination contextualised by the fear of the red threat of communism.”
What difficulties did you have building his character?
“There are no visual or audio recordings of him. Yes, it’s a blank canvas to an extent so you have a bit of freedom but you’re toying with something where you have nothing to bounce off. Graham Moore’s brilliant script and director Morten Tyldum’s research guided me towards a picture of the man. I was also lucky enough to meet people who either had met him or were related to him. They gave me accounts which were helpful to personalise this extraordinary man who we only know in broad headline terms.”
Does all the awards talk bother you? Do you fancy your chances of winning an Oscar?
“If it gets people to see the film, frankly, that is all I care about. It’s early days and very flattering of course but there are a lot of other extraordinary films and performances people haven’t seen yet. But if it creates an interest for people to see what all the fuss is about then that’s fantastic because our jobs as storytellers are made easier if there’s an audience. And more importantly for me, having had some experience with this man I really want his story to be known and our film to be a launching point for a proper celebration of Alan Turing.”
What was it like working with a Norwegian director on a very British story?
“I thought it was very a smart fit to bring a man who had delivered an incredibly entertaining but really dark thriller to the screen (the 2012 film Headhunters based on the book by Jo Nesbo). I was thrilled he combined that talent with The Imitation Game, which has a massive thriller component, but also I realised how astute he was with character study. You aren’t invested in a thriller unless you care about the characters. We shared a passion for the subject, engaged with the script and were both ashamed at how little we knew. I was saying to Morten, ‘Why isn’t this man on some denomination of our currency? Why isn’t he on the front cover of science and history text books?’ He was very specific in his direction and in tune with all the turns and twists of an important story. He’s got a lot of energy. A lot of caffeine… So some of my stutter in the film was often modelled on Morten!”
You’ve had great success playing a socially abrasive heroic genius on the small screen. Did you feel a certain pressure to inject Alan with nuances and personality traits to distinguish him from Sherlock?
“Well, I’m limited by who I am and what I look like but at the same time they’re utterly different people. Alan doesn’t swish around in a long coat with curly hair demonstrating how brilliant he is… He’s a very quiet, stoic, determined and different type of hero. He’s smart but an outsider because of the conditions of his personal life. As far as the similarity that he’s socially awkward… What you see in the film is an evolution in him which is humanising. That happens in some aspects with Sherlock but I didn’t read the script and think, ‘This is Sherlock in tweed’. I liked how uncompromising he was but that’s always a stong trait in strong characters. I have played stupid people as well. I want to point that out. So if anybody’s got any more stupid roles for me, great, bring ’em on!”
How much of the science of the film did you understand?
“There’s a great romance to the philosophy of maths and physics which is tangible. There are hugely exciting things that on a base level everyone can understand. The idea of coding, the idea of programming and the idea that what we use as language can be turned into something universal and can be used in a machine here, in China, Russia. Those things excite me along with the fact that my eyelash has carbon in it from a star excites me. I don’t necessarily understand everything about it but the broad brushstrokes are very appealing. If you put an algorithm in front of me now this would go on far too long!”
How did you approach playing Alan’s sexuality and it’s subtleties while doing it in a way that’s appropriate to his story?
“His sexuality is something contained that is expressed in the film but not shown explicitly. There is no heterosexuality expressed in the film. So what we show in his behaviour is sadly true to his story. He had to suppress his sexuality, make it private, make it something secret. When he talks about his sexuality in the film it shows his complete honesty, guilelessness, innocence. He was aware of the risks but at the same time wasn’t willing to cave in to the intolerance and potential permutations of confessing such a thing. Some people own him as martyr or as standard-bearer for a cause. I think he was just very true to himself, which is a form of martyrdom, but he didn’t make a political statement out of it.”
Why do you think has it taken so long for Alan Turing to receive recognition for his work?
“I guess the official secrets act. There’s a dark stain of shame of the government’s hand in persecuting thousands of men for their sexuality for fear of communist sympathies. I guess the idea that somebody’s work, which in the sphere of pure maths, is devoid of geopolitical interest or any kind of culture of celebrity, means the true amalgamated importance of the man is his life as well as his work. And that’s only just slowly become acknowledged. Why couldn’t his posthumous pardon have come earlier? I don’t know, I’m not the Queen or David Cameron. Maybe those will be my next roles. Can you see me in that frock? Weird visions going through my head… But seriously it would be very interesting to know why, because you immediately feel a sense of injustice playing a man treated as appallingly as he was and whose achievements have not been conglomerated into the fuller picture of who he was. As a society if we live through a very secretive or shaming era we’re very good at overlooking things. It’s dangerous to do that because the smell from underneath the floorboards is eventually impossible to ignore and hopefully this film will do something to expose the truth of what happened to the man.”
The Imitation Game is released in cinemas November 14