Benedict Cumberbatch has had quite a year. The 37-year-old Brit, who has been a cult heartthrob among the PBS-BBC-plummy-literary-adaptation set, played the Necromancer in last year’s Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Last summer, he dominated the role of Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. On Friday, he will star as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate and has supporting roles in two high-profile fall films: 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, and August: Osage County, adapted from Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
“A packed year, exactly,” Cumberbatch told the Associated Press. “It’s been amazing. . . . the height of what I could ever imagine myself being asked to do as an actor has been going on pretty much now for about four or five years.”
Cumberbatch is the son of actors Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham and grew up in London and is as at home in the posh precincts of Burke’s Peerage (an ancestor was a consul under Queen Victoria) as in the klieg-lighted world of Show People.
“I knew when I started out that I wanted something very different from what Mom and Dad had anyway, but I didn’t know quite what — I didn’t know how it would manifest — but even they look at it and go, ‘Whoa,’ ” Cumberbatch says. “It’s beyond everyone’s sort of expectation.”
Cumberbatch is forging the sort of career that actors covet these days, combining recurring roles in huge franchises with artier indie fare. His role model, he says, is James McAvoy (his one-time co-star in Starter for 10), who appears in the “X-Men” movies.
“I’ve been working with him for awhile, and I just love what he did,” Cumberbatch explains. “He let the game come to him. It’s about the quality of his work, and I wanted the same thing. I didn’t want to go and try and force myself on people. I wanted people to go, ‘Oh, that guy could be quite interesting,’ and that’s sort of what’s happening.”
In The Fifth Estate, Cumberbatch masters Assange’s signature Australian accent, lisp and fey, look-at-me-don’t-look-at-me demeanor (admittedly with the help of a blond wig). Early on, Cumberbatch emailed Assange hoping that they could meet. He got no response until the day before shooting began, when Assange emailed him begging him not to do the film.
“I was just doing the last fittings for the wig and makeup and stuff, and this very erudite, charming and lucid and intelligent email arrived, imploring my better nature to step away from the project that he thought would be abhorrent and damaging to his cause,” Cumberbatch recalls.
Cumberbatch wrote Assange back. “I completely respected his point of view, but I really tried to illustrate for him two things: one is that this film is not a documentary, it’s not a piece of evidence admissible in a court of law, not a factual entity that shifts perceptions or point of view . . . . Secondly, it is just a film. It’s not going to be able to shift perception. . . . It’s not going to have a massively popular tidal-wave effect. I really want people to see it, but his fear of it being some mass propaganda tool that’s going to damage him was really overstretching the point. And thirdly and most importantly, it was never going to be antithetical to his point of view or him or vilify him. No one was interested in portraying something that was going to tell the audience what to think.”