Benedict Cumberbatch: How a Mimic Became a Star

He has the best name in show business (which he describes as sounding “like a fart in a bath”), and might be the single most educated actor on television, but friends of the man the Washington Post once called “Bandersnatch Cummerbund” have discovered that he can be easily pranked. When Simon Pegg, his co-star on Star Trek Into Darkness, convinced Benedict Cumberbatch to apply a face cream to protect himself against radiation due to the fact they were filming in a nuclear facility, the actor not only complied, but later apologized to the other actors when he flubbed his lines, explaining, “I think the ions were getting to me.”

Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch was born on July 19, 1976, to parents Timothy Carlton (who dropped the “Cumberbatch” for professional reasons) and Wanda Ventham. Both parents are actors — Carlton in the theater, Ventham in television shows (including three spots on Doctor Who) and films, as well as several theater productions.

And yes, Ventham and Carlton play Sherlock’s parents on the show.

At age eight, Cumberbatch went off to boarding school before becoming an arts scholar at the prestigious Harrow School (which has been referred to as the Yale to Eton’s Harvard). He bristles now at the notion that he somehow had a posh upbringing, explaining that his parents were working actors who did not come from a lot of money. He didn’t go to Harrow because of a mountain of wealth, but because of his own intelligence and hard work, acing the entrance exams and attending on a scholarship. He loved being surrounded by the other boys; Cumberbatch is an only child, with a half-sister from Ventham’s first marriage who is 18 years his senior.

As a child he was fascinated with other voices and trying to imitate them. For a short time he carried a Dictaphone around with him, recording people talking and then practicing their voices until he could do remarkable impersonations of them. He studied mannerisms, imitating the way people moved and carried themselves, a skill he still uses today when playing historical figures such as Alan Turing, Julian Assange, or Stephen Hawking. “I had a problem focusing,” he explains now. “I probably had attention deficit disorder, or something on the border of it. I was always performing, doing silly voices. The teachers realized I could go on one of two ways: be creative or destructive. I was made a prefect and it calmed me down. I realized I was being respected and I needed to return that respect.”

The Dictaphone soon disappeared, and Benedict began using his talents for good, joining the drama program. As a child he had wanted to be a barrister until he was told that most of the job was simply chasing down the next paycheck, and he decided acting would be easier, especially if he was already showing a talent for it. Because it was an all-boy’s school, some of his earliest roles were as women. “I was Titania [Queen of the Fairies] in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was 13,” he says. “I did a good enough job to get the part of Rosalind [in As You Like It] the next year. I was a very late developer.”

After graduating from Harrow, he spent a year teaching English at a Tibetan monastery before attending the University of Manchester to take his undergraduate degree in drama, followed by a graduate degree in classical acting at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He knew he’d made it as an actor after a university performance of Amadeus, when his father came backstage to congratulate him on playing the part of Salieri. Cumberbatch says, “He looked me in the eye and grabbed me by the shoulders and said, ‘You’re better now than I ever was or will be. I think you’ll have a wonderful life and career as an actor, and I can’t wait to be a part of watching it.’ And I pretty much burst into tears. What a huge thing for a man to say to his son. I mean, not only an actor to an actor, but to give me that sort of ‘I bless this ship and all who sail upon her’ kind of a message.”

From there Cumberbatch went on to do a lot of work on the London stage, appearing in such classic plays as Love’s Labour’s Lost in 2001 and Hedda Gabler in 2005. After some small parts in television shows, in 2004 he starred as Stephen Hawking in the BBC television production of Hawking, about the theoretical physicist’s early years at Cambridge and the beginnings of his struggle with ALS. Cumberbatch received widespread acclaim, and he was nominated for a BAFTA TV award the following year. Over the next few years, he was the go-to “where do I know that guy from?” for North American audiences as he appeared in films such as Starter for 10, Atonement, The Other Boleyn Girl, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

It almost didn’t happen, though. While filming the television miniseries To the Ends of the Earth in South Africa in 2005, Cumberbatch was taking a day trip with some friends when they got a flat tire and pulled to the side of the road. They suddenly found themselves surrounded by a group of men who looted the car, tied up Cumberbatch and his friends, threw him into the trunk of their car, and drove to another location, where they lined them up on the ground and held a gun to the back of Cumberbatch’s head, execution style. Cumberbatch immediately began talking, and in a moment that could have been taken right out of Sherlock, he managed to talk the kidnappers out of killing them, and they were released. The next morning, rather than traumatized by the events of the day, he found himself happy to be alive and determined to live a more exciting life. “I want to go out and swim and run through the sand dunes and into that landscape,” he recalls thinking. “It was a small event in a big country.”

In 2010, he read for the part of a lifetime when he was asked to meet with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. It was a daunting task, not least because actors such as Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, and Jeremy Brett had defined the popular perception of Holmes through their performances. Jeremy Brett, whom many consider to be the ultimate Holmes, was even more intimidating for Benedict because he’d been a family friend. “He casts a towering shadow,” Cumberbatch says. “He was a friend of my mom’s, and he was around our family a lot. He and the part collided, and he let it take him over.” Once Martin Freeman was cast as the Watson to Cumberbatch’s Holmes, the next hurdle was learning how to deliver the lines the way Gatiss and Moffat wanted, which was true to the books but so close to impossible that no other actor had done it at such a breakneck speed. “It’s a huge challenge to learn and perform at [that] speed,” he says. “It takes time and an awful lot of takes sometimes, but it’s like music, you can hear when it’s right or wrong and it’s a fantastic feeling when it flies, as there is no thinking time to be self conscious about the choices you’re making, it’s all about driving it forward so hopefully it’s as thrilling to watch as it is to perform.” Once the first season was a boffo hit, Benedict suddenly realized he was a star. Next up were major roles in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, Star Trek Into Darkness, the BBC mini- series Parade’s End, the Best Picture Oscar–winner 12 Years a Slave, The Fifth Estate, and The Hobbit, playing Smaug to Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins. He sang in August: Osage County and even voiced Severus Snape in an episode of The Simpsons.

But he didn’t leave the theater behind. Before Jonny Lee Miller started making his own deductions as Sherlock Holmes, he and Benedict took on roles in a unique production of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle for the Royal National Theatre. From February to May 2011, the two men shared the two main roles, with Cumberbatch playing the Creature one night while Miller played Victor Frankenstein, and then switching the following night. The show was such a critical smash that the National Theatre broadcast two of the March performances live to Cineplex Odeon theaters around the world, followed by encore screenings in 2012 and 2014. Both actors are extraordinary, with Cumberbatch playing the Creature as a man who could once walk and talk and must now relearn how to do both, and Miller playing his Creature as a child learning to do both for the first time. The two shared the Best Actor trophy at the Olivier Awards and London Evening Standard Theatre Awards, and Cumberbatch took home the same award on his own at the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards; in doing so, he accomplished what is called the “Triple Crown of London Theater.”

It wasn’t just theater awards he was being nominated for: he racked up nominations for television (Sherlock, Parade’s End) — winning an Emmy in 2014 for his role as Holmes — and film, receiving BAFTA noms for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Imitation Game, and being nominated twice in the same category for his parts in the ensembles of August: Osage County and 12 Years a Slave. He’s been awarded in all three media in which he works, but he and Freeman still joke about getting a Retrafta one day: “It’s something Martin and I made up. Where you act so badly, they come and take your BAFTA off you.”

In interviews Cumberbatch can be fiery and doesn’t suffer fools gladly — he’s told more than one critic to go home to do his homework — and his strong political beliefs and impatience for tabloids led to some controversy on the set of Sherlock when he was filming the third season. In the midst of working on the third episode, where his character appeared to be strung out, he was walking to his car in costume when a paparazzo snapped a photo of him. He walked over and asked if the guy could delete the photo, explaining that publishing it could be a major plot spoiler for fans. The photographer refused, so Cumberbatch pulled the gray hoodie over his head and continued his walk while holding up a sign that read, “Go photo- graph Egypt and show the world something important.” The British press — where tabloid newspapers and magazines far outnumber broadsheets — had a field day, so Cumberbatch held up more signs later in the shoot, commenting on democracy and national security, asking such questions as “Is this erosion of civil liberties winning the war on terror . . . ?” The press could mock him all they wanted, but one thing was for certain: this was not a stupid actor.

Despite having a lot to say, Cumberbatch shies away from social media. He’s famously verbose — many interviewers comment on his very long responses to their questions, and any attempt to interrupt simply makes him turn up the volume and keep right on talking — and for that reason he eschews Twitter. Someone who not only wants to make a statement, but explain that statement because he’s studied every area of the topic, doesn’t belong in a 140-character universe. “I get on with my work and my fans are very respectful of that, weirdly,” he says. “I think they’d love it if I started Tweeting, but as I’ve said before, the people who are good at it are great at it. It’s like a new art form. It’s phenomenal how much it’s opened channels of communication. I like those channels of communication for my work, but I don’t want to journalize my life and publicize it because I really value my privacy and also my time.”

He’s still trying to get used to his stardom, which, despite all his years as a working actor, has come on quite suddenly. He still rides his motorbike and takes the Tube when he needs to, but he’s no longer anonymous. “The strange thing is walking into a room and knowing that people recognize you,” he says, “and you don’t know who they are. That’s a different energy that you have to get used to, and some days I’m good at that and some days I’m not. And when I’m not I feel self-conscious. But I still plow on with my day. I don’t scuttle home. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to build high walls.”

With stardom comes the inevitable fan adoration and loss of privacy, especially regarding his romantic life. While at the University of Manchester, he met fellow actor Olivia Poulet, best known from In the Thick of It, a sharply written and bitingly hilarious British political comic drama. The two of them dated for 11 years, amicably splitting in 2011. Cumberbatch dated a few other women, and his half-sister even suggested to the media that perhaps he was so intelligent it made finding an equal match rather difficult. In several interviews he talked about how badly he wanted to settle down and start a family, and how much he loved children and wanted to have some of his own some day. “My mother’s daughter from her first marriage had a kid when I was about 11,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible, they come in much smaller sizes!’ I was only used to my band of brothers at prep school. I was always the one at parties who looked after the younger children. I really enjoyed it.”

On the fifth of November, 2014 (“Remember, remember . . .”), the internet exploded when a very simple notice appeared in the Times’ Forthcoming Marriages column: “Mr B.T. Cumberbatch and Miss S.I. Hunter. The engagement is announced between Benedict, son of Wanda and Timothy Cumberbatch of London, and Sophie, daughter of Katharine Hunter of Edinburgh and Charles Hunter of London.” Sophie Hunter, an actress, writer, and theater director, became one of the most-searched names on the internet that day as some fans took to Twitter to express their deep sorrow at the announcement, while others were overjoyed. Somehow he’d managed to keep the relationship itself pretty quiet and under wraps — they met on the set of the 2009 film Burlesque Fairytales — and the announcement came as a shock to some people. On January 7, 2015, the internet crashed once again with the news that Cumberbatch and Hunter were expecting a Cumberbaby later that year. The day after Cumberbatch received the prestigious Commander of the Order of the British Empire honor from the queen, his son arrived on June 13, 2015.

With season four of Sherlock — among countless other projects — on the horizon, Benedict’s star continues to skyrocket. He has just become a father, secured Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for The Imitation Game, and was even named Britain’s dishiest actor by a national British poll conducted by U.K. TV . . . an honor that came with its own life-sized statue of Benedict made of 500 Belgian chocolates and weighing 88 pounds.

And frankly, I’d take that over an Oscar any day.


Excerpted from INVESTIGATING SHERLOCK: An Unofficial Guide by Nikki Stafford

Images from:,,,,

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