Tag Archives: Buddhist monks

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.

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”.