His second turn as Holmes in the BBC miniseries Sherlock in 2012 inspired a rabid cult following, a legion of fans who call themselves Cumberbitches. You might think that inspiring an Internet meme ought to signal one’s arrival, but British-born Benedict Cumberbatch is just getting ready to take Hollywood—and America—by storm.
Beginning this week, the former character actor can be seen as the mysterious terrorist-villain John Harrison in filmmaker J.J. Abrams’s action-packed sequel Star Trek Into Darkness. Later this year the 36-year-old will appear as the Necromancer in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, star opposite Brad Pitt in filmmaker Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, share the screen with Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep in the dramedy August: Osage County, and, last but certainly not least, portray WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the Oscar-bait drama The Fifth Estate.
Were you a fan of Star Trek as a youngster?
I realized I was when I watched the reboot that J.J. did in 2009 and got nostalgic about the origin story. I had thought I was a Star Wars kid—I wanted to be Han Solo, without a doubt. But the first film, and the feelings I had toward the characters, made me realize I did have an affinity with [Star Trek]. It has this universally beautiful message of humanity and tolerance.
You kick a substantial amount of ass in this film. What sort of training did you get?
A lot! I’ve never done this kind of work before. I felt like I had to have more heft, so I was eating 4,000 calories a day for about two to three weeks and working out nonstop. It’s this Hollywood-fu style of fighting, which is a mixture of martial arts and Western fights. And the stunts—all the wirework, leaping through plate-glass windows—it’s boyhood dream time, and the 10-year-old in me was delighted.
Speaking of boyish activity on the set, I heard about some pranking that went down.
I completely got had! We were in this facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where they’re basically trying to produce an endless supply of energy through fusing hydrogen atoms. So in this exceptional environment, I was ready to believe anything they told me. [Co-stars] Chris Pine and Simon Pegg are bastards and basically told me I had to put on “neutron cream” in order to stave off any radioactive neutrons that may land on me and damage my skin, and that we had to do a “neutron shake” to shake the neutrons off our skin. There I was, in the middle of this incredible real experiment, shaking with a Truman Show–esque level of complicity among the crew. J.J. would come up to me every time to say something but then close his mouth and walk away; he was mortified that I was being fooled so badly. I eventually read the disclaimer form, which I had just signed without checking, and it read, “Star Trek, hereafter known as the H.H. Project, here in Livermore, known as the National Ignition Facility and hereafter known as NIF, we do solemnly ask you, the artist, in the aforementioned facility, to be very aware that ‘neutron cream’ is USELESS.” As soon as I read that, the entire crew doubled up, crying with laughter.
I’m excited to see your take on Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. How did you get into Assange mode?
The film is still in the edit ... but I will say it was a great privilege to portray the guy—a really incredibly complex human being. WikiLeaks is an extraordinary evolution in media, and to explore that, and the initial ideas and triumphs of that organization, and the brilliance of that partnership between Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Julian Assange was a great experience.
You also taught English at a Tibetan monastery?
I took a lot from that experience, including meditation. It still informs my work and helps me concentrate. I still try to seek out those moments in my life—whether it’s doing crazy stuff like jumping out of an airplane or scuba diving, or even stealing a glass of wine and a quiet moment with a friend. It’s important with all the craziness going on. I have an appetite for the normal in my life, as well as the abnormal.
Speaking of abnormal, what do you think of your legion of crazily dedicated fans known as Cumberbitches?
They’re very dedicated. I’m very proud of them, and they’re very cool. But I try not to get too involved in that sort of thing, because I think the Internet can be a crazy hall of mirrors for an actor. Some of it’s very amusing, some of it’s ominous, and some of it is ... a little disturbing.
You said you grew up idolizing Star Wars, and J.J. is helming the new Star Wars film. Are you planning on bugging him for a role in that?
The man knows me now, and he knows where I live. I’ve got an iPhone, so I’m happy to audition for him on an iPhone again. I’ve told him I want to be a light saber, so if I’m not there somewhere as a light saber, I’ll be really mortified.