Tag Archives: Benedict Cumberbatch

A brief history of when I met Stephen Hawking on set

28 Jul
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Stephen Hawking enjoys his 65th birthday present: a zero gravity flight on a modified plane owned by the Zero Gravity Corp.

The paralysed cosmologist Stephen Hawking has already been played by Benedict Cumberbatch on screen, and will be followed next year by fellow “hunk who thunk” Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Before that, though, is Hawking, a documentary to be released on September 20, which reveals how very nearly none of this happened.

According to today’s Sunday Times, Hawking says in the new film that doctors recommended switching off his life-support back in 1985. He had only just been commissioned to write A Brief History of Time, the book which went on to sell ten million copies and made him so famous he has guested on The Simpsons five times, and the three weeks of intensive care that followed after his wife refused to let him die robbed him of what little remained of his speech. He wrote the book by raising his eyebrows to select letters on a computer program.

By 1991, when I met him on set of Errol Morris’s excellent documentary, he wrote and “spoke” through his voice synthesizer by twitching one finger on a toggle on his wheelchair. I’d known of Hawking for several years before he became globally famous. My elder brother studied Maths at King’s College, and he had pointed out to me the wheelchair ramps which made Cambridge the most disabled-friendly city in the world – built to facilitate Hawking’s passage from college to college.

I also read A Brief History of Time when it came out in 1988 – yes, from cover to cover. The first part is a very accessible overview of the history of physics and cosmology. The final part is a little hard to follow, though fascinating – especially for the Big Crunch theory, which is that at some point in the future there will be a reverse Big Bang, sending all matter hurtling back towards the single point from which it began: travelling backwards through time as well as space, so that at some point, untold billions of years from now, I will be alive again, and typing in the words of this blog, except in reverse; starting from the final sentence, deleting and deleting until I am left with nothing; then I will regurgitate my breakfast, get into bed, and sleep until Saturday night.

I will fondly watch my children grow younger and smaller and in greater need of my care. Having regressed to babies, one day they will be gone, but I will not be sad, it will be as if they never were. I will join The Times, leave it for AOL, then be appointed Editor of Time Out a few months after the chimes of Big Ben count down the historic twelve bongs from the 21st century into the 20th, then after a series of steadily less assured covers I will be moved into the less stressful roles of Deputy Editor, then Chief Sub Editor, then Sub Editor; I will go to Oxford university where I will spend carefree days with the former mother of my vanished children until, one day, we will see each other for one last coffee and part forever, without bitterness or regret.

I will go to school in Winchester; then emigrate to Canada to play in the snow; finally a confused and inchoate period of sleeping and crying and feeding and waking and being cradled in my parents’ arms, my father no longer dead but young and vigorous and beardless so that his bristly cheek would sandpaper over mine, until one day, I would simply… cease to be.

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Stephen Hawking and Errol Morris on set in 1991

I wanted to talk to Stephen Hawking about all this when I met him and Errol Morris on set (right), but the great man typed his sentences so painfully slowly that it was impossible to do much more than say hello. I noticed that, despite this, he still said “please” and “thank you” to everyone he dealt with, a courtesy that, for him, must have been important as every syllable cost him dear.

Watching him, I became obsessed with a thought, a truly terrible thought. Hawking was working, and is working still, on the Grand Unified Theory that will unite the contradictory worlds of Physics and Quantum Physics – “and then,” says he, “we will know the mind of God.”

What if, I thought, the motor neurone disease that paralyses him should progress so far that he loses even this small movement of the finger that, in 1992, enabled him to communicate? It’s all too close. These days, he says in the forthcoming film, he can only write and “speak” by flexing a single muscle in his cheek. One day soon he may lose even that movement. Kept alive, mechanically, for years after, his mind, floating free of earthly concerns, may finally solve the great riddle of science, the secret of life itself – and he will be unable to communicate this greatest of all discoveries to the world.

What will that be like? To apprehend the secrets of the universe but, imprisoned in his cage of flesh and bone, be able to do nothing, say nothing?

Perhaps he’d go mad and become God, like the intelligent bomb with the existential crisis in John Carpenter’s brilliant 1974 black comedy, Dark Star: “In the beginning, there was darkness. And the darkness was without form, and void. And in addition to the darkness there was also me. And I moved upon the face of the darkness. And I saw that I was alone…

“Let there be light.”

The Cumberbatch tapes, #4: Spielberg v. Madonna

11 May

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This is the final part of my interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, told as far as possible in his own words. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, and my review of Star Trek Into Darkness here.

On how he got the part in War Horse (above): “I got told that Steven Spielberg was a fan of my work! And that was just… I mean I can’t say it without laughing. I made one of the archetypal actor’s jokes when someone said Oh you must be having a break after this because you’ve just come straight from Sherlock to this play, and I said yeah, I’m going to definitely have a two-week break – unless Spielberg calls! And then Spielberg did actually call! I had to read the script, sign a confidentiality agreement, and that was it, he gave me the part.”

…And how he didn’t work with Madonna: “There’s another rather famous woman, who will remain nameless, she’s doing a film at the moment [putting two and two together, that woman was Madonna and the film was her directorial debut,W.E.], who demanded almost a dress rehearsal with her operating the camera. And, er, being an actor you jump through the hoops, and I came out going Wow… the difference between a confident director who knows what he’s doing and someone who hasn’t got a f***ing clue is just miles.”

On Doctor Who: For once, Benedict was reluctant to talk. When he finally came out with it, it was as though imparting some great State Secret. Matt Smith had recently taken over from David Tennant as Doctor Who, and I wondered, had Benedict ever been considered for the role? Long pause, then: “Possibly yes.”

That and Sherlock are quite similar roles, in some ways, I probed. “Aaaaaah… possibly. Well. The idea of Sherlock came along before David’s recasting, we did the pilot over a year ago, that was just about when David was going to announce he was going to stand down. And David and I talked about it, but to be honest, it had to be radically different from him, and I’m not sure I’m interested in doing something… you haven’t seen Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century before, and that was much more appetising. And Doctor Who is a ‘Bond role’ in the sense that each incarnation puts his own stamp on it, but I didn’t really like the whole package, I didn’t want to be doing school lunchboxes, I didn’t want to be known for that and nothing else.”

On meeting former Tory leader William Hague to prepare for the role of William Pitt the Younger: “It was great, a real privilege, I went to see where Pitt would have stood in the Chambers, I went to dinner with William Hague and talked about his book [about William Pitt], it was a fantastic evening, really special.”

Hague seemed too young to be a plausible leader at the time, I say. “Like a precocious Mekon, wasn’t he, like a possessed child. But he’s charismatic, very intelligent, very good company – he’s fit, focused, he doesn’t talk down to you, a very smart man. I’d like to see more of him, especially now he’s Foreign Secretary, it’s a great role for him. It is absolutely intoxicating being in the House of Commons, there’s such a feeling of power about the place.”

Finally, what does he think of Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes? “I really enjoyed it, it’s fantastic, he’s an extraordinary actor… but it’s really not Sherlock in my mind. He’s not Sherlock, he’s Robert Downey Jr!”

I’ve had some great feedback on Twitter (@DominicFilm if you want to Follow me) regarding this interview series. Benedict is lucky to have so many appreciative fans! Thank you, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. Come back next week, when I will be reporting from the Cannes Film Festival.

The Cumberbatch tapes, #3: The spirituality of acting

10 May

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Star Trek Into Darkness is wonderful, but though it’s a terrific ensemble piece, one actor stands out: Benedict Cumberbatch. He plays a villain with slightly superhuman powers, but it’s not so much the newly buff body and the action scenes that impress: it’s the stillness and calm he evinces before the storm.

In my in-depth interview with him, he explained where this stillness comes from. What follows, entirely in Benedict’s own words, is part three; read part one here, part two here, and my review of Star Trek Into Darkness here. The story so far: Benedict has been explaining how he taught some Tibetan Buddhist monks in his youth, and how they taught him more than he taught them…

“I also went on a retreat with a lama, several days of incantation to clear the mind and purify, along with a dozen other people. It was incredible, and I kind of floated out of there after two weeks. When you’ve been that still and contemplative, your sensory awareness is so heightened, sharper-focused, you’re taking in detail to the point where you have to pause a little bit, it was amazing.

“Stillness is an essential part of acting, so I already had a certain amount of focus in that beforehand, and I’d always been fascinated by the idea of meditation and what it meant. A still point is a very, very hard place to find, especially among the usual kind of pulped sheep pushed around by the blinking flashing world of modern technology. Sherlock Holmes is an interesting character, to get back on to that: he’s someone who has to push a lot aside, either by scraping away badly at a violin or just – there’s ways of shutting out white noise and one of these is he’s so rude to people, saying to shut up all the time…

“And I think there’s a real parallel; I think as an actor you have to be able to do that. I’ve had some pretty knockout moments, like on the press night of a play called The City by Martin Crimp, this phone rang for about five minutes. That took a lot of concentration!”

For the first time in a long while, there is a pause in the flow, followed by a semi-apology, not that one is needed – it’s been fascinating.

“This is a conversation fuelled by coffee, I’m trying to pack a lot in – I don’t speak like this all the time, because I have a relationship with other people that wouldn’t last! Though actually if you spoke to my girlfriend I think she’d say sometimes I do, and that’s why she’s like, ‘Wooooah!’”

The girlfriend was actress Olivia Poulet. Tellingly, a few months after this conversation, they ended their 12-year relationship. (NB: recent rumours of them being married or engaged are a hoax.) Let’s hope it wasn’t just the coffee that did it.

In the fourth and final part of my interview, Benedict discusses Doctor Who, Steven Spielberg, and a famous woman he gallantly doesn’t name (but I know who it is…) NOW ONLINE HERE.

Star Trek Into Darkness – Three words: A. Ma. Zing.

10 May

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Nearly 50 years after Star Trek first aired on television, the new film, Star Trek Into Darkness, feels box-fresh and cutting-edge. I’ve just seen it on opening night in South London’s famous Ritzy cinema, where they served Romulan Ale in the bar and the staff – sorry, crew – dressed in uniform with Starfleet insignia!

The film can be summed up in three words: A. Ma. Zing. It starts with the most thrilling opening sequence since Raiders of the Lost Ark – Kirk dodging spears on an alien planet while Spock is dropped into the boiling heart of a volcano – and then it goes into warp-drive.

I hate reading spoilers myself, so I won’t give away the plot. And anyway what we love about Star Trek is the interplay between the characters, and that’s all here and played to the hilt. The Kirk/Spock bromance? Yup. Each would die for the other. Spock singing The Logical Song? There’s a great exchange between him and an angry superior officer: “That’s just a technicality!” says the officer. “I am Vulcan,” replies Spock calmly. “I embrace technicality.” And, in an argument with Kirk, “Reverting to name-calling suggests you are defensive and therefore find my objections valid.” Maybe you had to be there.

It’s hard to write an ensemble script. Marvel Avengers Assemble managed it (see here); so does Star Trek Into Darkness. Simon Pegg has a bigger, funnier role as Scotty; John Cho as Sulu stands in as Captain for a while; Karl Urban as Bones gets several of his patented “For God’s sake Jim, I’m a doctor, not a missile defuser” lines; and Zoe Saldana’s romance with Spock is now on the rocks. “Really?” says Kirk. “Are you guys fighting?” A pause to consider Spock’s cool logicality. “What’s that even like?”

But the stand-out is Benedict Cumberbatch. He has the stillness and physicality of a Zen Warrior, the deep, slow, sure voice of a man utterly convinced of his ability to “walk over your cold corpses”. He’s already conquered TV with Sherlock, and dipped a toe into Hollywood with War Horse. After this, his phone will be ringing off the hook. He is unquestionably Britain’s next A-list star. See here for my interview with Benedict; part 3 will be posted on Friday.

I said I wouldn’t talk about the plot. Without giving too much away, I will say that just as the ‘60s TV show fostered love and understanding between nations by having Asian, Russian, black (and alien!) crew members working together, women alongside men, so too Star Trek Into Darkness has a moral heart. It is a film about the effects of terrorism. And, with Guantanamo Bay still open and drone attacks causing high civilian “collateral damage”, the message is clear.

“There will always be those who mean to do us harm,” says Kirk at the end. “To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves.”

Discover more about Benedict Cumberbatch in my in-depth interview. Click here for part one. Click here for part two. For part three, click here. FINAL PART: click here

The Cumberbatch tapes, #2: My life with Buddhist monks

9 May

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Benedict Cumberbatch is loved, I’m sure, for both his body and his mind. In this extract, he explains how he developed both, from being car-jacked in South Africa to teaching – and learning from – Tibetan Buddhist Monks.

This is part 2 of my in-depth interview; click here to read part one on the birth of Sherlock. The following is an unedited transcript, all in Benedict’s own eloquent words:

“I love the outdoors, throwing myself out of planes, that sort of thing. In South Africa I went a bit nuts, went to the ends of the earth in Namibia and went on an adrenaline junkie thing in Swapismund where they filmed the new series of The Prisoner.

“That was after I got car-jacked, and I think was partly why I went on this adrenaline kick. Because when you’ve been forced to look into the idea that you die on your own you kind of go, ‘Oh, okay, well if I’ve got my own company at the beginning and the end of this life I might as well do a few crazy things with it under my own steam.’

“It was I suppose the polar opposite reaction to becoming agoraphobic and internalised and haunted… there’s enough of that in my work! I didn’t want that small incident in a big country to put me off the beauty of Africa, so I wanted to be part of the people again and not fear them.

“I’d always done slightly crazy things like getting lost on treks in the Himalayas when I was 19. In my gap year I was teaching English to Tibetan Buddhist monks in a Nepali home near Darjeeling.

“They were amazingly warm, intelligent, humorous people. Hard to teach English to. I built a blackboard, which no other previous teachers seem to have done. With 12 monks in a room with an age-range of about 8 to 40, that’s quite important – and the reward-punishment thing of sweets or no sweets, or game or no game, worked quite well. But they taught me a lot more than I could possibly ever teach them.

“They taught me about the simplicity of human nature, but also the humanity of it, and the ridiculous sense of humour you need to live a full spiritual life. There was a time when these two rabid dogs were all over each other, screwing in the back yard, and all of this laughter, ‘Sir, sir, quick, come, sir, sir, quick!’ and these two dogs were just stuck together, having sex, pulling like this, like a Pushmi-pullyu [the two-headed animal in Dr Dolittle], and the monks were just on the floor laughing at these sentient beings’ pain and ridiculousness, two of them a conjoined couple. And it was so funny, they threw water all over them, but before they did, they were like, ‘Kodak moment, sir, Kodak moment!’ Brilliant!

“Then we watched Braveheart, which is a f***ing violent film for Tibetan Buddhist monks to watch, and they were all going ‘wahey!!!’ They saw Scotland as being the oppressed Tibetans and the English as the Chinese.”

PART THREE NOW ONLINE: Benedict Cumberbatch on spirituality… and how the experience feeds into his acting career: click here. PART FOUR NOW ONLINE: on Spielberg vs Madonna, click here. Star Trek Into Darkness review here: “Benedict Cumberbatch is unquestionably Britain’s next A-list star”. 

The Cumberbatch tapes, #1: the birth of Sherlock

8 May

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It’s three years since I spent a very enjoyable hour and a half above a pub in Soho with an emerging actor called Benedict Cumberbatch, interviewing him for a cover feature in the Saturday Times. Since then he has become a household name as Sherlock, got talent-spotted by Steven Spielberg for War Horse, played both Frankenstein and his monster for Danny Boyle at the National, voiced Smaug in The Hobbit, and now his angular face stares at us from a broken and burning London on the posters for Star Trek Into Darkness (above, click here for review).

Since the world obviously can’t get enough of this brainbox (he’s even played Stephen Hawking), geek sex-symbol and otter-impersonator, I’ve dusted down my interview transcript. Reading back over it I’m impressed, just as I was at the time, at how articulate he is. So I’m going to reprint extracts of our conversation entirely in his own words. Starting with Sherlock:

On the modern setting: “The challenges in a world where observation through surveillance, where detection through science, where publications and communications through media can all be turned against him make it a far more dangerous world for Sherlock to be in, so he has to be faster and ten times more practical than his Victorian incarnation.

“The idea is that Sherlock Holmes is the origination of all modern detectives, so to try and see whether he still has a workplace in the 21st century is a worthwhile experiment. He was a forerunner in forensic fields, he started experimenting with footprint and fingerprint analysis and bloodstain analysis and cigarette ash which he wrote monographs about, and he’s now in a world where all of that has been brought fully up to speed and where you have any number of brilliant maverick detectives who are brilliant at their job who have all been inspired by him, whether it’s Cracker, Tennyson, Rebus, who knock about with a bottle or some kind of addiction or personal quirk that means they’re slightly outside of their social realm. Luther is very similar, House is very much a Sherlock Holmes personality.”

Benedict speaks as though Sherlock is a real person, I say. “He’s real to me, yeah of course, it has to be. He is an icon, so there’s an element of him where he is a logo, and that is two-dimensional, and to escape stereotype you have to get some kind of understanding of who he is. So you do associate something very personable to him, and you start to think about him in real terms. And there’s such a massive wealth of detective stories that Conan Doyle wrote, he feels quite substantial. Abbey National or whatever bank it is still get letters to 221b asking for help with a missing cat or dead relative.”

On Martin Freeman as Watson (who of course is now also with Cumberbatch in The Hobbit): “I just adore him, we get on very well. He’s such a fine actor, and by fine I mean it in that very carefully beautifully nuanced way, he is a very delicate screen actor, and though he can do comedy at the drop of a hat he is achingly real as well as Watson, this man who is slightly lost in the civilian world, traumatised by his experience of war but also slightly in thrall to it, and missing the adrenaline of it. Also he’s an audience figure, an Everyman through which people can meet [Sherlock] this rather strange, modern Victorian Gothic, slightly character of the night, this slightly odd creature, this sociopathic, slightly autistic, slightly anarchic, maverick, odd anti-hero.”

See what I mean about articulate? Part two: Benedict Cumberbatch on his life-changing experience with the Buddhist monks of Nepal… Click here to read it. Part three: How spirituality helps his acting, click here. Fourth and final part: Spielberg vs Madonna, click here.

What’s up, Doc: So just Who is Matt Smith?

30 Mar
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“A wild ride”: Matt Smith with co-star Jenna-Louise Coleman in The Bells of St John

Matt Smith is not your typical leading man. Even his co-stars say he looks “odd”, “alien”, “like a mad scientist”… “everything about him is just weird”. He’s over six foot tall, yes, but thin as rake, and with a head like a shovel. You’d be more likely to use him on your garden than cast him in a drama.

And yet, as Doctor Who, he has turned his distinctive features to advantage: it’s not hard to convince viewers that he really is a super-sentient alien time-traveller with two hearts. 

When Smith was first announced as the 11th Doctor, viewers didn’t know what to make of him. David Tennant was a hard act to follow: handsome enough to have Casanova on his CV, he had made the part uniquely his own. Benedict Cumberbatch once told me he’d balked at the suggestion that he might step into Tennant’s shoes, taking on Sherlock Holmes instead. 

Matt Smith had no such fears. He threw himself into the role with such physical intensity and raw charisma that he became the first Doctor to be nominated for a BAFTA, and I’m not alone in thinking he is the best Doctor there has ever been. 

Strangely, he is only an actor by default. As Doctor Who would tell you, there is an infinite number of parallel universes, and in most of them Smith is a professional centre-back on even more than the £250,000-plus a year the BBC is said to pay him, employing those God-given gifts of gangly height and gigantic forehead to nod the ball to safety. 

In this universe, however, Smith’s career in Nottingham Forest and Leicester City’s youth teams was cut short at 16 by a back injury. His doting father, the boss of a plastics company, ferried him to Leicester for treatment every day for a year, but Smith never fully recovered. 

Smith was pressured into joining the National Youth Theatre by a school drama teacher, and went on to study Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. The fearless way he threw himself into his roles, as he might tackle a speeding striker, got him noticed. An agent signed him even before he’d taken his finals.

Until 2008, Smith was still playing teenagers: he acted in The History Boys at the National Theatre, and won rave reviews as Lindsay Duncan’s son in That Face. And then, suddenly, he was playing a 900-year-old Time Lord. 

Smith was still only 26 when he became Doctor Who, the youngest ever. He’s turned it into a plus: on him, tweed jackets and bow ties look more chic than geek. He’s made the series into a US hit, too, tapping into a particular brand of Britishness that appeals to Americans: eccentric, bumbling, intelligent, more likely to challenge a woman to a game of chess than make a pass at her. Smith might have modelled his Doctor Who on the famous photograph in which Einstein playfully sticks out his tongue, but Americans are more likely to think of him as a younger, livelier, space-age Hugh Grant. 

So what’s next for our Matt? He made Bert and Dickie, a mismatched-buddy-movie for the BBC about two Brits who took rowing gold in the 1948 Olympics. He’s going to be filming a US movie opposite Ryan Gosling, and he keeps hinting that he’d love to be cast as a young Macbeth. He recently directed a Sky Arts drama, Cargese. But otherwise, it’s still not so much what, as Who. 

Smith is soon returning to Cardiff to film the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who, and is clearly in no hurry to hang up his sonic screwdriver just yet. “It’s a wild wave when you get to surf it,” he smiles, “and I think you have to make the most of it while you can.”

A longer version of this post first appeared in Sense magazine