At first, there is not much about Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch that seems very cool. Born in west London, he is an ex-public schoolboy whose parents are both fusty stage actors. He is seen as incredibly English at a time when that is most definitely out. And he is best-known for playing cerebral, slightly nerdy characters like Sherlock and Marvel’s Doctor Strange.
When we meet him, at a lavish hotel suite in central London, he isn’t particularly impressive either. Wrapped up in a navy scarf and green quilted jacket, he looks like he has a cold (he doesn’t, there’s just a chilly anti-COVID draft coming from a nearby window.) He’s also wearing blue-tinted, prescription sunglasses, which he seems embarrassed about. “I’m not trying to be Bono,” he says. “I have [eye problems] in my family. So you can’t be too careful.”
It’s a very Milhouse move, starting an interview talking about your glasses. And yet, by the end of our lengthy chat about motorbikes, music and Manchester’s best techno clubs, we’re left in no doubt. Benedict Cumberbatch is actually very cool. Definitely cooler than Bono.
For starters, there’s his new film The Power Of The Dog. Far from the refined subjects of Hawking and Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, Jane Campion’s gritty adaptation of the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage has Cumberbatch playing Phil Burbank, a rugged 1920s cowboy who runs a ranch in Montana with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). He rides, he fights, he lassos cattle – he even rocks out on the banjo.
“It took me a long time to master half a piece,” Cumberbatch confesses, before detailing a difficult pre-production in which he juggled lockdown child-care duties with regular online lessons from the world’s “third-best” banjo player. “It’d be brilliant if I could play covers – stuff like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – but I’m not that good sadly.”
When they eventually arrived in rural New Zealand and started shooting, things got quite intense. Cumberbatch went full method. He didn’t wash, he stayed in character permanently on-set, and he refused to answer if someone called him Benedict. Other tasks included swimming naked in the river, covering his body with mud and smoking filter-less rollies all day. His reward for putting himself through the ringer? Nicotine poisoning – on three occasions.
At one point in the film, Phil’s brother brings home a new wife (Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst), and his fragile peace is fractured. Memories of a traumatic event from his past resurface, so he cruelly taunts Rose until she is driven to alcoholism.
“I didn’t want to be really mean to Kirsten, but I needed to stay in character,” Cumberbatch says of their relationship. “So I didn’t speak to her on-set. She was the same. We were the negative to each other’s positive. [We were] repelled by each other.”
The result of this mutually agreed nastiness is a much meaner Cumberbatch than we’ve seen before. Incredibly skilled yet emotionally crippled, Phil is played like a tortured rock star who suffers for his art. Though in this case, he’s not writing indie songs with depressed lyrics, but hay-stacking, whittling wooden figures and braiding thick rope from real horsehair. Kind of like Clarkson’s Farm, but without the jokes.
“Meeting Radiohead was weird”
“[Radiohead producer] Nigel Godrich and [Last Night In Soho director] Edgar Wright came to see me in Hamlet,” remembers Cumberbatch of his celebrated stage run at the Barbican in 2015. “They came backstage afterwards and we had a nice, long chat.
“I said to Nigel: ‘I’m a massive Radiohead fan, I don’t suppose any of the boys would want to come and see some Shakespeare?’ So Jonny and Thom [Yorke] came one night and afterwards we talked backstage. I was really nervous because it hadn’t been a great performance, so I was looking at the ground all embarrassed. But so were they – and Thom was muttering: ‘Yeah, we’re really big Sherlock fans…’ There was all this shifting around, all looking at our shoelaces. It was so weird!”
Cumberbatch, it turns out, is quite good at name-dropping. Apart from his brush with “the Radiohead boys”, he tells us about being accosted by Ted Danson at the Oscars (“he just went bananas”), bumping into Buzz Aldrin (“a sweet man”), surfing with Flea (“another famous musician”) and getting the seal of approval from Jack Nicholson (“he just looked at me, raised his eyebrows and cheers’d me from across the room”).
He’s also been to some very good gigs over the years, including Radiohead on the A Moon Shaped Pool tour – and Pulp’s era-defining Glastonbury headline set in 1995, when they stepped in last minute for The Stone Roses ‘cos John Squire fell off his bike. “They fucking blew the roof off the sky,” he remembers.
Cumberbatch first got into music as a teen in the ‘90s, plastering the walls of his bedroom at boarding school with magazine posters of Ride, Frank Black and David Bowie. “I was a rebellious teenager… big into NME,” he says. “It was the middle of Britpop. So I was definitely part of the ‘Blur or Oasis?’ thing.” He’s Team Blur, if you were wondering.
After that, Cumberbatch studied drama at Victoria University in Manchester, where he discovered the city’s legendary party scene. “I was very, very into techno for a long time. That was my bag at uni,” he says. “I went clubbing a lot and all sorts of nonsense ensued. Havok on a Friday was my favourite night because I just loved dancing.” He slaps his knee, as he always does when making a point he really believes in. “I still do.”
“I was a rebellious teenager”
If the image of a sweaty Alan Turing, off his nut and getting down to acid house at 3am feels strange, then that’s because it is. But it’s just one unexpected anecdote from a youth that’s full of them. Before he was ‘Sherlock off the telly’, Cumberbatch really lived.
During his gap year, he spent five months teaching English to Tibetan monks at a monastery in the east Indian Himalayas. He credits the experience as key to his later success, and says the stillness he learned from transcendental meditation made him a better actor. On a slightly less-relaxing trip in 2005, Cumberbatch was abducted after bursting a tyre in South Africa, stuffed into the trunk of a car, and made to beg for his life in front of armed kidnappers.
“It taught me that you come into this world as you leave it, on your own. It’s made me want to live a life less ordinary,” he said previously. “I will always remember that ‘How to Disappear Completely’ by Radiohead was playing [when the tyre burst].”
The way in which Cumberbatch reacted to this crushing event is inspiring. Instead of retreating into himself like some of us would have or collapsing into a scared, self-pitying mess, he went on “an adrenaline junkie overdrive”. He skydived. He rode motorbikes. He hot-air ballooned. It’s typical of a man who seemingly had life handed to him from an early age, but has succeeded by grabbing it with both hands.
Sixteen years after those traumatising couple of hours, and Cumberbatch’s life has completely changed. He’s a megastar now. Sherlock put him on the map in 2010 and he’s spent the past decade-and-a-half bouncing between blockbuster franchises (Star Trek, The Hobbit, Marvel) and awards-worthy dramas (Black Mass, The Hollow Crown, Patrick Melrose). He’s also made a habit of picking roles in acclaimed projects about noted Brits. Some of them, like Hawking or 2019’s Brexit: The Uncivil War, in which he played a then lesser-known Dominic Cummings, have since enjoyed a second life. Cummings became one of the most famous political faces in the country soon after Cumberbatch portrayed him – and there was a spike in streaming of Cumberbatch’s 2004 TV movie when Stephen Hawking died three years ago. Is this simply good luck – or part of a strategy?
“I hadn’t thought of that, it’s a very cynical observation,” he says, smirking. “I have played a lot of people who have passed though. It’s an interesting theory, but I kind of like things to have their life in the moment. The last thing I want is for people to only watch the films when they kick it!”
He was, naturally, shocked to see Cummings suddenly splashed across the front pages of every newspaper: “I couldn’t believe it. I teased [The Uncivil War writer] James Graham all the way through it. All of it. Boris being elected, the whole thing. And then COVID hit and I was like: ‘This is getting too dramatic to actually dramatise.’ This is bizarre.”
“Nick Cave is the coolest man in the world”
Thanks to COVID, Cumberbatch is about to enter a very busy period. The backlog created when cinemas were forced to close during lockdown means he has a whopping four films out in the next six months: first The Power Of The Dog, another biopic in The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain (in cinemas January 1), and then two Marvel films (Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness).
Of those, Louis Wain is particularly special to him because it gave Cumberbatch the opportunity to reconnect with Nick Cave. The pair met at charity reading event Letters Live in 2013, but have not worked together since. Cumberbatch doesn’t share any scenes with Cave, who plays sci-fi author H.G. Wells, but he was on-set for the louche rocker’s big bow.
“He’s the coolest man in the world. I worship him,” he gushes. “Nick came up to me afterwards and asked [Cumberbatch adopts a drawling Aussie accent] ‘Is this alriiiiight? I don’t really know what I’m doinggg.’ I just told him to be himself. He’s Nick Cave in the film. He’s saying H.G. Wells’ words but it’s Nick Cave really.”
The way in which Cumberbatch talks about the rock stars he’s met, and considers friends, is interesting. He doesn’t seem to think he’s on the same level. It might be for-the-cameras humility, but his comments about actors often compare their processes. When he mentions musicians, though, he uses words like “worship” and “genius”. Acting is a job to him. Music is high art. The next step, you’d think, would be to combine the two in something like Rocketman or Bohemian Rhapsody.
“There are some rock stars I’d like to play,” he says mysteriously, those azure sunnies doing a good job of hiding his thoughts. “But I don’t think it’ll happen and I’m not going to say who. You’ll have to guess.”
What about the Radiohead boys?
“Oh I don’t think they want their lives made into a film. It would be quite a weird film, love them as I do. No not at the moment, but you know, we’ll see. Watch this space.” Benedict Cumberbatch as Thom Yorke? Now that’d be really cool.
‘The Power Of The Dog’ is in select UK cinemas on November 19 and on Netflix from December 1