“I was an acting school graduate that nobody wanted to hire”

Benedict Cumberbatch

Interview

  • INTERVIEW DANIEL SCHIEFERDECKER, PATRICK HEIDMANN

His portrayals of quirky geniuses such as Sherlock Holmes and the code breaker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, have brought the British actor, 38, world fame. In an interview, he talks about his father’s tears, his love of hobbits and a rendezvous with a sperm whale

Mr. Cumberbatch, you are an avid diver. Considering your busy schedule, do you ever have time to go diving?

My time is tight, it’s true, but when I can arrange to do so, I climb on a plane and fly somewhere where I can dive. Nothing gives me a greater sense of peace and tranquility than being under water.

What is the best diving spot you’ve ever been to?

It was fantastic in Cuba, which has a fascinating underwater world.  My first nighttime dive was in Mozambique, and that too, was sensational. But South Africa was amazing, the best! On my very first dive, I got to see a sperm whale and its calf swimming together no more than ten meters away. That was one of the most impressive moments of my life.

Is there any truth in the rumor that you always have excess baggage when you travel?

Yes, I never manage to stay within the  weight limit. I usually pack too many books and then end up paying a hefty surcharge.

You have built yourself an incredible career over the past few years. What do you have that others don’t?

I don’t know whether there’s a secret to my success. I just work hard – and I enjoy my work. And when I do have a break, I make the most of it and recharge my inner batteries. By diving, for instance.

The secret to success? "I just work hard – and I enjoy my work."

The secret to success? "I just work hard – and I enjoy my work."

The actor with his wife Sophie Hunter

The actor with his wife Sophie Hunter

© Danny Moloshock/Reuters
as Sherlock Holmes, a well-known role

As Sherlock Holmes, a well-known role

© Robert Viglasky/A.P.L. Allstar Pictrue Library/Bbc/Polyband
In The Imitation Game, for which he received an Oscar nomination

In The Imitation Game, for which he received an Oscar nomination

© ddp images

Maybe you are a genius, like some of the men you have been playing recently…

That would be news to me (laughs). I have been damn lucky. That’s why I always try to make the best of the opportunities I am offered – and at the same time, to deal with them one after the other. I concentrate all my attention on the project I am ­currently working on, and only when that’s completed do I look around the corner to see what’s coming next.

Have you ever looked around the corner and been surprised at what you found?

No, it has all been a gradual process. Of course Sherlock changed things; the series touched a nerve. But even before that, I had had regular work for quite a while and also had some great roles.

Is there anything you wish you had experienced earlier in your career because of how it would help you now?

No. I have learned that it’s best in this job not too worry too much about the little things, and also that there are is much we have no control over. But I learned all of that right at the start, after graduating from acting school and not being offered a single job for six months.

The characters you play are often a bit different, eccentric, say. Have you ever felt like an outsider in private life?

Everyone knows the feeling of being different, or not belonging, like at a party when you stand around wondering what you’re actually doing there. Like when you discover hair on your body where you never had any before – or the other way around. Or when you imagine everyone around you is better, further along, more normal, more successful than you are. But I wouldn’t equate any of that with what it feels like to really be an outsider or persecuted, like the gay mathematician Alan Turing, whom I portrayed in The Imitation Game.” This is a subject that should concern each and every one of us.

Why?

Because things are becoming dangerous again today: Fundamentlism, extremism, nationalism – every day I am horrified at the direction our world is taking. ISIS is beheading people who don’t share their beliefs; in Russia, you have to conceal your homosexuality, and even in democratic countries like Greece, people who are different end up as the scapegoats in times of crisis. Fear and ignorance are a terrible combination. As an actor, I hope to be able to show in some small way that we can overcome our differences by making the effort to understand one another.

Your parents are also actors. Did your father read you good goodnight stories?

Oh yes! Tolkien’s The Hobbit was one of my favorite books very early on. My father was fantastic at bringing all of the characters to life. I have him to thank for my voice-over in the Hobbit films. The way he used to read aloud illustrated to me the power of words and how letters can bring whole fantasy worlds to life.

Everyone knows the feeling of being different, or not belonging

What was your father’s reaction to your role in The Hobbit?

He was absolutely thrilled, but then he said: “Why didn’t they ask me?” (laughs)

Is there a role your parents were particularly impressed by?

My parents are always terribly proud of me. I owe everything I am  to them. They showered me with love when I was a child and have always supported me in everything that was important to me – ­really always.

It sounds like a wonderful relationship.

There’s a story about me and my dad from when I was still at university. I was playing Mozart’s nemesis, Salieri, in a stage production of Amadeus. After the show, we were sitting in the car and my father said: “Son, you are better than I ever was and ever will be. You have a great career ahead of you if you decide to go into acting professionally.”

What was your reaction?

We were both moved to tears and ended up putting our arms around each other. That was one of the best moments of my life – after the experience with the sperm whale.