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Benedict Cumberbatch on ‘The Imitation Game’ and making Alan Turing less of an enigma

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    If you haven't heard much about Benedict Cumberbatch, you're likely to, soon. He's starring in a popular TV series, and landing top feature film roles, including his latest as British mathematician Alan Turing. His work is stirring buzz about a possible Oscar nomination.

    The movie opens in New York and Los Angeles today, then nationally in December.

    Jeffrey Brown caught up with Cumberbatch in New York.

  • ACTOR:

    This big paper you wrote, what's it called?

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    "The Imitation Game."

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In real life and in the new film "The Imitation Game," Alan Turing was a man of secrets.

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    I like solving problems, Commander. And Enigma is the most difficult problem in the world.

  • ACTOR:

    No, Enigma isn't difficult. It's impossible. The Americans, the Russians, the French, the Germans, everyone thinks Enigma is unbreakable.

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    Good. Let me try and we will know for sure, won't we?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He was a brilliant British mathematician who worked in secret to break a key German code called Enigma, allowing Allied forces in World War II to see and plan for German attacks ahead of time, thereby saving perhaps millions of lives.

    Today, he is considered a father of modern computer science. But Turing also lived a secret life as a gay man at a time when that could and eventually did lead to his prosecution.

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    Well, the judge gave me a choice, either two years in prison or hormonal therapy.

  • ACTRESS:

    Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    Yes, yes, yes, that's right, chemical castration to — to cure me of my homosexual predilections.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Actor Benedict Cumberbatch recently told me why he was, as he put it, blown away to take on the role.

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    Well, first of all, the uncompromising nature of how the character is introduced, there's no vanity about him. You just presented him. There is no explanation. He just is the way he is, sort of gauche at times, but incredibly direct, quite rude and disrespectful of authority, very smart and very funny.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You liked all of those things.

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    I loved all of those things, because it was just there.

    You discover him. And then, just when you're embroiled in reasonably getting to know him, and the reality of what then happened to him in the '50s hits you, and you're winded with the emotion of this injustice this man — and I was really upset and then angry, angry because I didn't know about this story, I didn't know enough about this story and why.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You saw him in parts or as this whole? How did you come to see him?

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    As a whole, very much as a whole. All these compressions of circumstance and the sense of the person created him, rather than it being one flavor.

    And you learn that as the film evolves. You think, well, this is quite a cold, difficult, isolated, uncooperative man. But you realize why. He's been pretty hurt in his time and his life and very formative times.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The 38-year-old Cumberbatch has a penchant for playing complicated geniuses. PBS viewers know him of course as Sherlock, the lead in the modern-day take on the classic Arthur Conan Doyle story now in its third season.

    He's also played WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Khan, a superhuman, in the most recent "Star Trek" remake, and astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    For Stephen Hawking, I needed to understand the equations we were working on as best as I could.

    And while I may have got lost after the first sort of three minutes and just sort of looked at the guy explaining it to me and going, oh, you have got eyebrows, I desperately held onto his coattails to just give some kind of justifiable ownership over these extraordinary abilities that these men have.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You studied a bit of the science?

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    A lot. Yes, I tried to. But I would be the first person to fall if you ask me any specific questions.

    I could give you general explanations, but if you face me with his actual algorithms and ask me to explain the mathematics, the equations of his work, very hard.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In thinking about Alan Turing and some of the other characters you have played, scientific genius, artistic genius, it always has struck me as a viewer. They're hard to do, because all the action is sort of in your head.

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    But isn't that sort of the gift of the camera, the fact that, through silence, we can see thought. We can perceive or project some understanding of someone's internal life.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, but how do you project that internal life?

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    Well, you rely a lot on the intelligence of an audience and you try to have those thoughts. You try to link your inner workings to the moment of the drama and of that character's existence, and not overthink it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Cumberbatch spoke of a scene late in the film when Turing, weakened by drugs given to supposedly cure his homosexuality, is unable to work on an early computer that he has named Christopher.

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    Christopher's become so smart. If I don't continue my treatment, then they will take him away from me. You — you can't let them do that. You can't.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Alan Turing would take his own life at age 41.

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    You can't let them leave me alone.

    It was a hard scene. But the first three takes were sort of effortlessly emotional. And I couldn't stop crying. And I realized seeing that it wasn't that I was looking from the inside out. I was actually looking from the outside in. I was being an actor or a person that had grown incredibly fond of my character and thinking what he had suffered and how that would affect him.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You were aware of that in the moment, of being outside looking in?

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    Yes, because it was out of my — it was out of — it didn't stop at the end of the take. It carried on.

    So, then I had to adjust, and then I couldn't feel where his place was in the scene. And then a couple of takes in, we were back on track.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So you had to get back inside the character.

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    Inside, yes, yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It sounds like a different sort of experience than the normal.

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    I try to have that level of engagement with all the characters I play. That's sort of…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You do?

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    Yes. I think it — listen, even with a comic foil in a moment of silliness, it's just — it's — you are trying to do your job well.

    So, I try to work hard. I'm really proud of what I get to do as a living. I still pinch myself. But I also know it's a craft, and I can get better at it and learn every time I do it. So I try to work hard no matter what the task is.

    But with this one, of course, there's an added responsibility of legacy. I want to get it right for his story, for his history, so that, you know, we can bring this with pride to a wider audience, because it's so important to make this man better known. And that bears down a little bit on you, of course, because you have that responsibility.

    But none of this was with hard. It felt absolutely necessary to do what we were doing in telling his story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Benedict Cumberbatch, thanks so much.

  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:

    My pleasure. Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Online, we put together eight things you probably didn't know about Alan Turing. Plus, Benedict Cumberbatch answered questions from our Facebook fans. You can find those on our home page.

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