The Sherlock actor discusses his Academy Award-nominated role in the Alan Turing biopic, The Imitation Game.
Actor Benedict Cumberbatch
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Emmy-winning, Golden Globe-nominated, and Oscar nominee, actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s currently starring in the film, “The Imitation Game” which tells the story of real life British mathematician and pioneering computer scientist, Alan Turing. Turing was a key figure in cracking Nazi Germany’s Enigma code which helped the allies win the Second World War.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Benedict Cumberbatch coming up right now.
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Tavis: “The Imitation Game” has been hailed by critics as one of the year’s best films. Benedict Cumberbatch–I love that name. Can I say that again? Benedict Cumberbatch, of course, stars in that film as Alan Turing, a key figure in cracking Nazi Germany’s Enigma code which helped the allies, of course, win the Second World War.
Cumberbatch is no stranger to viewers of PBS’s Masterpiece for his brilliant work in “Sherlock” which he’s filming right now. Well, not right now. He’s here with us right now, but will be when he leaves here. Before we start our conversation, let’s take a look at a scene from “The Imitation Game”.
Tavis: I was whispering to Mr. Cumberbatch while the clip was playing that Keira Knightley who’s been a guest on this program a couple of times was wonderful in this as well. I was just saying that she is pregnant, as we saw at the Golden Globes. I had to congratulate you ’cause you’re pregnant as well right now here.
Benedict Cumberbatch: Thank you. Not me personally, but yes [laugh].
Tavis: Yes [laugh].
Cumberbatch: Yes, the couple are doing fine in that department. It’s great.
Tavis: Congratulations on that.
Cumberbatch: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Tavis: And congratulations on this wonderful film.
Cumberbatch: Thank you. Thank you very much. I’m really quite proud of it.
Tavis: Wonderful, wonderful film. In preparing for our conversation, this is the first time we’ve met, I was reading in a number of places that your parents didn’t really want you to do this.
Cumberbatch: Not really, no. And I sort of saw it firsthand why, you know. It’s a very odd peripatetic, crazed, out of your control work and social schedule. It’s very hard to plan a family life, let alone know where the next paycheck’s coming from.
So they worked very, very hard as my parents, but also as actors to afford me an education whereby I had the opportunity and the privilege to be able to try and channel myself towards other goals.
You know, I wanted to be a barrister because there’s definitely a crossover, especially in criminal law with trying to persuade an audience of jurors and a judge of the case and your client’s story.
So I did go down that road for a little bit and I think they would have been very happy if I’d ended up there. But I just met so many people who gave me the same story. It’s over-subscribed, you can’t control your pay or your private life. I mean, there was so much that was a similar sort of set of problems.
I thought, well, why am I giving up on my primary dream for a very odd career, really even more competitive career in many ways than being an actor and not pursue my dream. So I did and, you know, much to Dad’s selflessness as a man and I have to echo that one when my time comes to be a dad.
He said to me in a car park after a play I’d done at Manchester University when I was student there, he said, “You’re better now than I was or ever will be”, which is a huge thing for a man to say to his son.
He said, “I think you’re going to have a great career and I can’t wait to watch you and support you.” I was like, my God. So the primary motivation for me in my life is to make them proud. I love them both very much.
Tavis: You said two things I want to go back and pick up if I can.
Cumberbatch: Yeah, sure.
Tavis: Number one, so we’re off and running now [laugh]. Number one, barrister, thespian, barrister, thespian. You laid out clearly before why you could see your parents didn’t want you to do this, given the challenges that actors have. But in your life, in your mind, in your heart, what made the difference? What made you make the transition?
Cumberbatch: I think that it was something that was just sort of naturally in the blood that I was surrounded by and sort of in an environmental way and nurturing way, as well as a sort of nature way.
You know, the acting community’s a very small but intimate familial group of people and I was enthralled by the company my parents kept. I was enthralled by the work I was lucky enough to see them do at close quarters.
You know, some smart teacher at school thought wisely that, if you give the classroom show-off some responsibilities, give him some lines to learn, some other actors to cooperate with and compromise with and give them a focus and an objective for their unruly energy, good things might come about and, thank goodness, they did.
So I was saved from being just yet another pest in the classroom to my poor teachers’ ever-decreasing patience. But given these wonderful roles, I just took off at school. I really enjoyed it, really enjoyed it, so I’ve become that.
Tavis: The second thing I want to follow up on, and it really struck me when I heard you say what your father told you ’cause it made me think about my own dad. I’ve been trying my whole life and I’m still not there yet to be half…
Cumberbatch: To please your father?
Tavis: Not just to please him. I want to please him, but I want to be half the man that my father was or is. My father, you know, raised 10 kids, only five of whom were his, but he took in five other kids. He worked multiple jobs. I mean, my father’s just a remarkable man for what he did to raise all 10 of us…
Cumberbatch: He sounds it.
Tavis: In the way that he did. So I’ve been struggling my whole life. I’m 50 now and still not there yet to be half the man that he is.
Cumberbatch: I’m sure you are, but with different objectives and goals. You know, you’ve got different obstacles in your life.
Tavis: Oh, you’re kind. I’m working at it. But I was struck when I heard you say your father looks at you and says to you, “You are better now than I am.” How do you process your father giving you that kind of accolade?
Cumberbatch: Well, that really, I just had a massive outbreak. It was a very emotional moment for us.
Tavis: It had to be.
Cumberbatch: You know, I already felt unqualified and unconditional love from them from the beginning of my life until that point.
Tavis: Do you have siblings?
Cumberbatch: Yes, from my mother’s first marriage, I have a half sister, Tracy, who I adore. But there’s an 18-year age gap, so we didn’t grow up together, but we’re very, very close. So I am the only child of that marriage, of my mother and my father’s marriage. I obviously crave what you don’t have. I wanted brothers and sisters. Everybody else, all my friends would say, “You don’t know how lucky you are.”
Tavis: I got nine. You want a couple? I can loan you some [laugh].
Cumberbatch: Exactly. You’ve got some to go around, yeah [laugh]. I have friends in the similar position and it’s like, you know, big families, you really have to fight for your place at the table and I didn’t. You know, my place was there. But, you know, I wanted to capitalize on that. I think what I’m saying, though, about going back to how do you process that.
Emotionally, it was just overwhelming and then you process it as, right, well, now I have a duty to that promise and that level of sacrifice and humility. I have to honor that and that gives you a great, great sort of motive for your work ethic and for how you go about living your life, I hope, and to honor dad’s faith in me. That’s one of my driving motivations.
Tavis: I want to go back to this barrister, thespian. I’m still noodling on this.
Cumberbatch: Good word.
Tavis: On these two routes that you could have taken. So you were abundantly clear earlier, Benedict, about what you hoped to accomplish, had you gone the route of being a barrister. So what did you hope to accomplish, what do you hope to accomplish as a thespian, as an actor?
Cumberbatch: To have longevity, really. To have a career that stretches, you know, to the great ages that some of our most celebrated and brilliant men and women still manage to work in.
I think I only really set out with wanting to make a living out of it, yes, but to continually sort of evolve as an artist and challenge myself and get better, you know. Just keep failing better, keep failing upwards, I guess, in falling upwards.
Tavis: Samuel Beckett said that, yeah.
Cumberbatch: Samuel Beckett, yeah. Fail and fail again and fail better. It’s all of that. It’s an imperfectible art form. We’re imperfectible as a species, let alone as actors sort of portraying that species. So, you know, I’ve got so much to learn and so much more, I hope, still to give.
So while this is an amazing moment, the word moment sort of has a tinge of dread about it for me because I didn’t ever project to this point. I didn’t project to award ceremonies. I projected to getting opportunities to do good work, but not necessarily in films. It could have been in television or theater.
All I ever really saw was a long game and a career of longevity. I think the only other goal was a measure of respect from my peers for doing it the right way, I suppose. Yeah, and have fun with it as well and not take it too seriously.
Tavis: How do you define–I promise we’ll get to the movie in a second, but you got me going. So I’m going to follow you.
Cumberbatch: No, no, no. Do this.
Tavis: How do you define doing it the right way?
Cumberbatch: Well, you know, just the sort of grass root basics, I think. You know, being respectful, being approachable, knowing your craft, doing your homework. I’m still working on being good at being on time all the time. I’m still working on being perfect with lines.
I do seem to get quite a lot of them, but nevertheless, you know, that’s something that I’ve always found difficult. I always found it difficult to learn lines. Yeah, well, just creating an environment that’s fun for everyone to be a part of rather than just being about you. God, the list goes on, but I’ve learned from the best.
I’ve worked with the most extraordinary people in that regard, as well as my parents, but people like Judi Dench and the extraordinary cast I work with on “Sherlock”. All of them to a man or woman are just exceptional in every one of those roles. You know, there’s a huge support working that and it’s a happy place to be.
Tavis: That seems a serious work hazard, though, being an actor and having trouble learning lines [laugh].
Cumberbatch: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Are you sure you made the right choice? Are you sure the barrister isn’t calling you?
Cumberbatch: Yeah, you’re right, you’re right.
Tavis: You sure got no lines as a barrister.
Cumberbatch: You have to learn quite a lot by rote for being a barrister as well. There’s a hell of a resource you have to carry around inside your head as well as being able to improvise an argument in the moment or situation. You have to carry the might and truth and fact of the law in your head.
So they have their version of lines, as we all know from court and those closing speeches and all the rest of it. So I think my work would have been cut out and would be just as stressful for me there as it was for my chosen profession.
Tavis: So I’m working my way to “The Imitation Game” and one more stop along the way. We get right into the film ’cause I love the film.
Cumberbatch: Thank you.
Tavis: When you saw this–let me start with this. You mentioned the award season and how you really hadn’t factored all this. Well, you’re in the middle of it. I mean, you’re nominated for this and nominated for that, and all the ceremonies. I saw you photobombing. Was that Meryl Streep?
Cumberbatch: I couldn’t resist.
Tavis: Did I see that picture?
Cumberbatch: I mean, I got asked…
Tavis: I saw a picture of you photobombing Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes?
Cumberbatch: It’s outrageous. It’s like I’ve got no respect for the woman. It’s very much opposite. No, I just thought I’d get down on the thing. It was happening right in front of me and, you know, it was a sort of ongoing satirical nudge that everything North Korean related in the recent year of Sony’s trials.
I thought, I can’t. You know, you’re dangling a carrot way too close to me. They knew what they were doing [laugh]. I think Meryl knew I was there. I think they knew…
Tavis: The photo looked like you were having fun. I only raised it because how are you navigating your way through all of this process of award season? How you handling it?
Cumberbatch: To have fun. I mean, it’s odd. I went online just now which is a very dangerous thing to do in my line of work or life or whatever. It’s just an odd place to engage with and I rarely do. But I went online because I wanted to see–I literally was off a plane. I literally got off a plane onto the red carpet literally about an hour after landing. We were delayed an hour in London.
Anyway, a real sort of, you know, skin of the teeth moment. Get there, literally meet John on the red carpet. We had a rough idea of doing it as if I’d been picked at random by Amy and Tina, or they’d have that idea, rather. They scripted the idea.
But, you know, we didn’t rehearse it. I didn’t know where my mark was, didn’t know who I was going off, who was going to have the envelope, didn’t know if there was–I didn’t know anything about the machinations, nuts and bolts of it.
So, you know, that first bit was just sort of really nerve-wracking. I just sat down in my seat. I was just going, “Was that all right? Did we hit the right note?” And I was just looking now backstage trying to see a clip of it and, before I even got to the clip, there’s this whole review of me and award seasons, my strategy. I’m like, look, I leave that to the Weinstein Company.
I’m happy to be at the forefront of a film of a very quiet man who would have hated anything to do with this. And the reason why I enjoy it is because it gets into talking about and ensuring this exceptional human being who is shy, diffident, awkward, never really fitted in, I’m sure, into any of the sets that he should have done.
And to be able to stand up front and say this man who died too young is a gay icon, war hero and the founder of modern computer technology and programming is somebody who should be on the front cover of history and social textbooks as well as science books. He should be on the back of bank notes with Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton in the U.K. He’s somebody, great cultural and political and historical and scientific importance.
So this award season for me–I’m very proud of my work, really proud of it. I don’t mind if I’m the guy who’s the bridegroom and someone else is the bride. I mean, Eddie is a really good friend of mine, so I’m happy to applaud that man’s work. He’s phenomenal…
Tavis: Eddie Redmayne from…
Cumberbatch: Yeah. So all this sort of thing about strategy. What’s he going to do next? Somebody said, “I’m going to dedicate the award to my child.” I couldn’t think of anything more disgusting. And the idea that this is life, it’s not, you know.
I’m working in London playing Sherlock Homes. I’m in the middle of doing the Christmas special. So I’m here for a day and I go home. It refocuses you. It is all about the work. And let’s not forget the other performances like David Oyelowo and Steve Carell. I mean, just incredible performances.
Tavis: I did not realize until I was reading for our conversation, since you mentioned Eddie Redmayne who did win the Golden Globe in the category that you were in for playing Stephen Hawking, is it true that you played Hawking?
Tavis: You played Hawking in another project.
Cumberbatch: Which is a slightly weird hall of merit aspect. I know these are framed as well. But I only played him up to the point that he gets his doctorate in the great paper he wrote reversing the idea of a black hole into a big bang potential.
So I did it out of a point of singularity, the universe could have been born, this incredible science of Einstein that was made beautiful again by this paper, this really young, brilliant mind that was already crippled by motor neuro disease and that wonderful moment in his life. So I can watch from afar, but there is a way of really…
Cumberbatch: It’s odd, yeah.
Tavis: So I am a long way from being the brightest bulb in the box.
Cumberbatch: I wouldn’t say that.
Tavis: But it is always arresting for me to go see a movie like this movie and have had no clue about the subject matter.
Cumberbatch: I know.
Tavis: I just had…
Cumberbatch: Why I’m saying that is because I had the same thing. I had the same reaction.
Tavis: I felt like stuck on stupid that I had no idea. I use a computer a bunch every day, had no idea about Alan Turing.
Cumberbatch: Well, not enough people do and that’s sort of a double tragedy not only of his demise and how he was treated by the very government that he helped save. But at the end of reading that script, the emotional impact of the story was raw, but also the feeling of anger and frustration.
This man hadn’t achieved the recognition that he deserved in his too-short life and, you know, it’s a very weighty responsibility when you’re portraying somebody who existed, whose legacy is important to his family, to the gay community, to the science community, but also to people who’ve yet to meet him.
You know, this is the chance to shine a bit of a light on somebody and engage people in our version of the story and ask people to investigate obviously a very complex man in a fuller way by reading Andrew Hodge’s beautiful, very detailed biography which the script is based on and beyond into Turing’s work. I don’t know. That was a guiding, really strong fuel, well, for all of this, but also for wanting to play the role in the first place.
The anger I felt, the injustice of how unknown he was in comparison to the scale of his achievements and suffering. It’s like you’re not alone. I mean, I felt the same, and a lot of audiences seeing it for the first time feel the same.
Tavis: Because you starred in it and I’ve already seen it and loved it, we jumped so fast, I should probably ask you to back up for a second and just tell a little bit about what the story is about. I love it, yeah.
Cumberbatch: Of course, of course. It’s a story about this very extraordinary mathematician who applies for a job to work at Bletchley Park which was undercover operation for code-breaking in the Second World War.
And it’s about him building a machine to try and break the German Enigma code using an algorithm, funny enough, that’s still employed now with Google search engines. I mean, this guy’s legacy continues well into our lives and beyond.
And it’s a story of the kind of pressure cooker environment, this point in the war. The islands of Great Britain was under siege. We were having ourselves starved. We had merchant navy ships with supplies being sunk by German U-boats. We had to crack the code to get an intelligent step ahead.
And in conjunction with that, we learned about the puzzle of Alan and, as the sort of thriller aspect and the humor of seeing this sort of slightly awkward, diffident, non-team player kind of come into the group with love and trust and collaborative work very much through Keira Knightley’s character, Joan Clark, thawing this pressured and protective man, you see this extraordinary human being evolve and you jump back to what he was as a young man when a lot of his most formative experiences happened.
Tavis: I’ve talked to so many actors over the years who have had the honor, the opportunity, to play historical figures, some dead, of course, some alive. Turing, of course, as you said, dead too soon at the age of 41. And yet, when I saw you in this film, I thought what a wonderful gift you were given. I mean, you gave us a gift with your wonderful acting…
Cumberbatch: Oh, thank you.
Tavis: But what a wonderful gift I think you were given to enlighten us about someone that we knew nothing about. It can’t get much better than that.
Cumberbatch: No, it can’t. So when you’ve got material that hooks you from the first page, Graham’s script is extraordinarily deft and humorous and nuanced and complex, thrilling, funny, moving. I mean, wonderful ingredients to play with as an actor and a filmmaker.
All of us had a great, great time with our parts and all of the parts in the film deserve their own film, by the way. I mean, incredible characters in the story of Bletchley Park. But this particular man at the center of it all, you know, he’s rendered in such a vivid, unapologetic, non-vain, frank manner from the very first encounter that you see a little bit of in that clip.
You know, he’s single-minded, has a complete irreverence for figures of authority, wants to do things the same way. He’s very funny and casually kind of gauchely very pedantic with language. And there are miscommunications which are both funny to laugh with him and/or laugh at him slightly because of his, you know, misfit status.
And out of this evolves this incredible story of an outside hero who is as relevant now as he ever was then. It’s a very extraordinary story rendered in a very brilliant script. So, yeah, it really was a gift of a role and I got hooked in, like I said. From that first page, Graham had me.
Tavis: I mentioned earlier that PBS audiences know you well…
Cumberbatch: Yes, they do.
Tavis: And love you for your work in “Sherlock”. So tell me how that’s going right about now.
Cumberbatch: Very proud to be up here. It’s going well. We’re a week into doing a Christmas special which will be out this time, well, Christmastime, I suppose, next year. And I’m gunning for a dual transmission date so we don’t pretend that Christmas happens later in America that it fell to the U.K. We have that possibility at the same time by our little lag of a couple of hours.
I really want that to happen because it’s become such a sort of communal thing, this moment of whenever we air one of the programs. It’s got such a kind of loyal fan base around the world. I mean, it’s huge. It’s alarmingly big, but it’s exciting. And, yeah, we’re doing a great show. It’s gotta be a corker.
Tavis: To your point about it being loved around the world, you must clearly be aware that the PBS audience in this country–I mean, I don’t know that you could put anything on our air that is not British born, British based that the audience would not love.
Cumberbatch: I know…
Tavis: So what is it about what you guys are drinking in the water over there that seems to work so well over here?
Cumberbatch: I don’t know. We use our consonants a little more than you guys do [laugh]. Clipped accents. We know how to do a table setting at a formal estate dinner.
Tavis: “Downtown Abbey”, “Sherlock”. I mean, you name it, yeah.
Cumberbatch: Listen, you know, much is made of the you and us kind of thing. Even looking at that map over there, it’s not that big a distance anymore. I mean, the global village makes it instantaneous and I think the appeal is the same as why American cultures always appealed to us, you know.
Tavis: It’s gotten so bad now–let me say this again ’cause I don’t want the viewers to take this out of context. It’s gotten to the point–and I’m not even denigrating this…
Cumberbatch: Your work is huge, like…
Tavis: It is, but now it ain’t even just white Brits. It’s Black Brits who are taking jobs now. You look at the “Selma” script. You look at “12 Years a Slave”. I mean, I love all these actors. They’re wonderful, but you guys are coming over here just taking over, man.
Cumberbatch: Well, it’s an even playing field [laugh] which is we all stand in our tights under the same conditions. I can’t speak for David Oyelowo, but those are two actors who work and live here as well, you know. They paid their dues for years by just beautiful, beautiful performances from very fine actors.
And I think as long as we pay our subs and our taxes over here when we work camp, I think it’s fair game. I mean, you know, Meryl Streep can come over and play Margaret Thatcher. Why can’t we come over and play in your sand pit, you know?
In all seriousness, I know what you’re saying. I think as far as colored actors go, it gets really difficult in the U.K. and I think a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here than in the U.K. and that’s something that needs to change.
Lenny Henry who’s a real force for good for many, many reasons, a brilliant actor, comedian–I was about to say chariter. That’s not a word–an amazing figurehead in raising money for Africa through comic relief. You know, he’s rightfully launched a campaign to keep it in check ’cause something’s gone wrong.
We’re not being represented enough in our culture of different races, and that really does need to step up a pace. I don’t want to get involved in any debates about that, but it’s clear when you see certain migratory patterns that there are more opportunities here than there are in the U.K.
Tavis: We recently had Ava DuVernay on this program who directed “Selma”.
Cumberbatch: What a wonderful film.
Tavis: I raise that only because one of my favorite movies of 2014, she sat in this chair. Speaking of Black Brits, Amma Asanta, who directed “Belle”.
Cumberbatch: Yeah, yeah, it’s a great film.
Tavis: What a beautiful film.
Cumberbatch: She was fantastic in it as well. Really beautiful performance from her. I mean, I live not far from that property where she…
Tavis: Where she filmed that?
Cumberbatch: Yeah. Well, the whole story, where the story happens.
Tavis: Sure, sure, sure.
Cumberbatch: So I was aware of it. I said, God, why isn’t this being made into a film? Almost not finishing my sentence before the person who was telling me about it said, “It has. It has. It’s coming out.” Oh, thrilling.
Tavis: I love the name. I’ll say it again. Benedict Cumberbatch stars in not just “Sherlock” for Masterpiece fans here on PBS, but he is the star of “The Imitation Game”. It is a wonderful film. If you’ve seen it, you already know that. And it’s gonna get more buzz as this award season continues on. But it’s wonderfully done. I’m honored to have you on this program.
Cumberbatch: Thanks. Thanks for having me on.
Tavis: Thank you. Congrats on the baby and all that good stuff.
Cumberbatch: Thank you very much.
Tavis: Come back whenever you can.
Cumberbatch: I’d love to do that. Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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