TORONTO – Benedict Cumberbatch sweeps into an empty hotel ballroom, cutting a natty figure in a black-and-white glen plaid jacket, checked shirt and striped canvas sneakers.
I see you have your festival bag, he says confidingly, taking note of the crumpled Toronto International Film Festival tote at an interlocutor’s feet. It’s a substitute for the one that broke at customs, overstuffed with a laptop and sundry travel necessities.
That’s exactly what happens to me, he offers enthusiastically. Because I’m packing all the time. I’m always killing really perfectly good bits of luggage by shoving loads of stuff in them, and then the seams break, handles drop off, you know.
Sure, we know. But, let it be stipulated, no one can really know what it’s like to be Cumberbatch, who has had a year that has been, well, especially packed. The 37-year-old Brit, who has been a cult heartthrob among the PBS-BBC-plummy-literary-adaptation set, played the Necromancer in last year’s Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But he truly burst into mass popular consciousness this past summer when he thoroughly dominated the role of Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness.
This month he stars as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, which opened Friday, and has supporting roles in two high-profile films: 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, and August: Osage County, adapted from Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
A packed year, exactly, Cumberbatch says with a reflective sigh. It’s been amazing. It’s been amazing. But two years really, because Trek’ we filmed the beginning of last year, and before that – God, it winds back quite a ways. I mean, literally, just sort of the height of what I could ever imagine myself being asked to do as an actor has been going on pretty much now for about four or five years.
Cumberbatch speaks at a breathless clip, his words spilling out in a joyous, oncoming rush that suggests he really is thrilled to be here, however tempting it would be to read his gee-whiz protestations as the practiced act of a canny ingénue. He is, quite simply just as well-mannered and disarmingly modest as his fans imagine.
He comes by it honestly. Cumberbatch is the son of two actors – Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham – who grew up in London and is as at home in the posh precincts of Burke’s Peerage (an ancestor was a consul under Queen Victoria) as in the klieg-lighted world of Show People.
But his career has followed contours that even his parents couldn’t prepare him for. He’s done high-profile work in such highly regarded films as Atonement, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and War Horse, as well as on television, in Hawking, Sherlock and Parade’s End. He’s a celebrated figure of the London stage: In 2010 he earned kudos for his performance in a revival of Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance, and the following year he won an Olivier Award, along with fellow Sherlock Jonny Lee Miller, for his work in an experimental version of Frankenstein, adapted by Danny Boyle. It was After the Dance, he says, that marked the turning point when the phone started ringing. It hasn’t stopped.
I knew when I started out that I wanted something very different from what Mom and Dad had anyway, but I didn’t know quite what – I didn’t know how it would manifest – but even they look at it and go, Whoa,’ Cumberbatch says. It’s beyond everyone’s sort of expectation. But also the workload and everything, it’s different to their game.
Cumberbatch is forging the kind of career that actors covet these days, combining recurring roles in huge franchises like Star Trek and The Hobbit with artier indie fare. Cumberbatch’s work has found him slipping into personae and physical types with the ease of a practiced shape-shifter. Nowhere are his skills in finer form than The Fifth Estate, in which he seamlessly masters Assange’s signature Australian accent, lisp and fey, look-at-me-don’t-look-at-me demeanor (admittedly with the help of a blond wig).
Early in the process of making The Fifth Estate, Cumberbatch emailed Assange hoping that they could meet. He got no response until the day before shooting began, when Assange sent the actor an email begging him not to do the film.
I was just doing the last fittings for the wig and makeup and stuff, and this very erudite, charming and lucid and intelligent email (arrived), imploring my better nature to step away from the project that he thought would be abhorrent and damaging to his cause, Cumberbatch recalls. It was a very powerful thing to suddenly land in your inbox.
Cumberbatch will be flying back to London soon to begin rehearsals with Keira Knightley for The Imitation Game, about encryption specialist Alan Turing; he’s also agreed to star in the action adventure The Lost City of Z, produced by his 12 Years producer Brad Pitt.
I love it. I’m really enjoying it, he says of the red-carpet-let’s-take-a-meeting-flavor-of-the-moment whirl.
As for the foreseeable future, though, Cumberbatch is cheerfully resigned.
I don’t know, he says with a barely fatigued sigh. Have suitcase will travel. Bursting seams and all.