Benedict Cumberbatch, star of After The Dance, talks to Matthew Amer about a “nutso” last few years and his long connection with Rattigan while trying not to let too many secrets slip.
“I don’t know if I should be saying that. I don’t want to get into trouble.” Sitting on a National Theatre balcony on a warm but grey June afternoon, tucking into a gammon lunch that resembles half a pig on a plate, leading man Benedict Cumberbatch is a little worried that his verbosity has got the better of him.
The ice blue-eyed 33-year-old, who is making his National Theatre debut taking the leading role in Terrence Rattigan’s After The Dance, is delightful company and will chat for hours about almost anything, which is why, on a couple of occasions he has to backtrack and put a stop to me letting slip anything that might cause embarrassment. Frankly, he is such an endearing chap that I feel guilty just for thinking about stitching him up by revealing his slip.
Over the past few years, Cumberbatch has quietly and consistently been filling his CV with work of the highest quality. On television, he was BAFTA-nominated for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in 2005’s Hawking, starred opposite Tom Hardy in Stuart: A Life Backwards and recently appeared in the BBC adaptation of Small Island. His film work has included Atonement, Starter For Ten and Amazing Grace, while on stage he has become a regular at the Almeida theatre and Royal Court.
Yet 2010 could be the year that sees Cumberbatch stamp his mark on the UK acting profession like never before with his first lead at the NT and a highly anticipated mini-series, in which he takes on the title role of Sherlock Holmes, due to air this summer.
Is he enjoying this moment in his life? If he enjoyed it any more he would physically glow.
“It gives you such a kick to be that side of the National Theatre,” he says, referring to the labyrinthine stage-side world of actors and creatives, “when I’ve spent so many joyous hours being this [audience] side of it. I ride a bike, partly just to make myself nervous and keep that edge of fear that is always good for acting. I come from north-west London. Every time I get to Waterloo Bridge, all the people who’ve cut me up, that I’ve braked for or who haven’t seen me, all that journey unwinds, my shoulders drop and I just go ‘Wow’; St Paul’s on the left of me, Parliament to the right and the National Theatre with a billboard saying ‘After The Dance by Terrence Rattigan’. It’s a kick. It puts a genuine smile on my face every morning.”
“I went to the same school, went to the same house, sat in the same chairs and read the same scripts as Rattigan”
He describes the “soul enriching environment” of the National’s rehearsal rooms as “like The Matrix”, which is a description for the South Bank institution that I never thought I would hear. In rehearsals, he explains, “You say ‘This piano stall is a little bit too high for my leg’ and three suddenly appear.”
For Cumberbatch, starring in a Rattigan play is something of a return to his past. “I went to the same school, went to the same house, sat in the same chairs and read the same scripts as Rattigan did,” he tells me in reference to his formative years at Harrow. He was even a member of the Rattigan Society, which was “an excuse to get out of school and go and see plays in the evening”.
One might have thought, then, that he would have appeared in a Rattigan production before now, but that close connection has worked against the joining of playwright and actor until this point. Cumberbatch left Harrow determined to distance himself from public school stereotyping. “I wanted to avoid becoming part of a set that was to do with that schooling; there are lots of very decent people at Hogwarts, but there were some Philistine arseholes as well.”
As an actor too, he had previously deemed Rattigan “too much to the manor born. I perversely wanted to do dramas on sink estates. I wanted to do something away from my social type, because it’s more fun to play people when you have to exercise more imagination to get into their headspace.”
So why choose now as a time to revisit the past and look history square in the eyes? The lure of a first leading role at a theatre with the cache of the National was certainly important, as was the connection to the project of director Thea Sharrock and co-star Nancy Carroll. But his decision also had much to do with his mother. “I wanted her to see me in a play here and I know she loves Rattigan,” he somewhat timidly confesses, before adding, more boldly, “You always want to make your parents proud and she’s been dying for me to work here, so it’s a huge thrill to be here and to be playing my first lead role in a revival of a play that is going to be a rediscovery.”
“The weight of responsibility is a joyous one to bear”
Rattigan’s play, first staged in 1939, portrays a hedonistic group of Mayfair socialites who continue to party as the world teeters on the brink of disaster. Cumberbatch’s character David lies at the group’s centre. The play may be a period piece, set, as it is, in 1938, but its “universal relevance,” he explains, “is about the destructive power of obsession, love, self-gratification and taking responsibility for your actions. Those are broad themes that flow across all lives, as is the idea that love tears us apart and can be a terrifyingly destructive, uncommunicated and repressed feeling. That’s a very British characteristic. There’s still a lot of that that goes on in my opinion, even in this touchy, feely, talky, problemy, worldly kind of place that we’re in now compared to then. We still beat around the bush a hell of a lot.”
In the spirit of avoiding such bush-beating, I tackle his infectious enthusiasm head on and ask if he thinks it will ever lapse. “I don’t think you could ever get jaded doing theatre,” he replies, “because there’s always an immediacy about it. Yes, you hear a screeching hearing aid. Yes, you have a mobile phone going off. Yes, there are kids giggling in the wrong places. But we’ll all be there at certain points in our life, whether we’re the giggling kid, the person who’s hard of hearing or the idiot who’s forgotten to turn our phone off. We’ve all done it. If you get grumpy about that, just remember you’re a f***ing actor; it’s your f***ing job. You’ve got a job, for starters, but as jobs go, you’re not saving lives, you’re hopefully moving and entertaining and distracting them for a bit. The weight of responsibility is a joyous one to bear. It’s not really that hard a task; it shouldn’t be. I think people who make it into that are miserable and I don’t think many of them last for long with it, which is good, because it has a knock on effect.”
Certainly his colleagues on both After The Dance and the upcoming Sherlock Holmes TV adaptation do not fall into that category. Nancy Carroll is “extraordinary”, he “adores” director Thea Sharrock, and Martin Freeman, Dr Watson to his Holmes, “is just heaven to work with”.
As conversation moves towards Sherlock Holmes, Cumberbatch finds a new, previously unthought of level of enthusiasm, and all this excitement is distracting him from his gammon, which, no matter how much of it he eats, never seems to lessen.
He assures me that, “There ain’t no pipes or deerstalkers or ‘Evenin’ guvner’ cockney-accent wonkiness” in the new adaptations by Dr Who head honcho Stephen Moffat and League Of Gentleman star Mark Gatiss. Though the three feature-length episodes have updated the classic detective tales to the modern day, they remain remarkably true to the original source material.
“I had gunk coming out of everything”
Cumberbatch laughs as he compares his experience to that of two other detective series, Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander and Rufus Sewell’s upcoming Italian project Aurelio Zen. “[Sewell] gets Rome in the spring, Branagh gets Sweden in the summer, I get Cardiff, Newport and horrible bits of London in the winter.” Filming was so cold in the glamorous British winter that during one deduction scene, filmed in the shadow of the OXO tower, Cumberbatch had to warm his jaw with hot water bottles between takes to enable him to continue.
His boundless enthusiasm may have landed him in trouble again during the Holmes filming, when, feeling a little run down, he was enjoying himself too much and soldiered on with filming. Eventually a doctor was called to the set and diagnosed pneumonia. “I had gunk coming out of everything,” Cumberbatch recalls. Yet, from the sounds of things, this didn’t keep him down for long: “A few antibiotics and I was back on my feet and doing it again.”
Cumberbatch goes on to share cinema-going tips amd laugh about Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law stealing his Sherlock thunder. He continues to struggle valiantly with the gammon before deciding that if he ate any more it would result in a Mr Creosote-style explosion and tries again to ensure I won’t reveal his earlier lapse.
“It’s nutso. It has been crazy for the last two and a half years,” he says, thinking back over the period leading up to this moment. “I’ve loved every minute of it. It has been really diverse, which is what I always wanted it to be, to be challenging. I’m so lucky. I work hard, I admit that, but I am very, very, very lucky. I do have to pinch myself every now and then.”
If what Cumberbatch hints at comes to fruition, life could get even better. Though on this occasion he manages to control his wayward tongue and keep the cat well and truly in the bag, there is a project on the horizon that has induced even more excitement than either After The Dance or Sherlock Holmes. He doesn’t want to jinx it by mentioning anything until it is signed and sealed, and I can’t bring myself to push him for more because I wouldn’t want to jinx it either. Anyone with his talent, drive, enthusiasm and love for his job deserves nothing but good fortune.
But as for that secret he let slip…