Benedict keeps busy


How smart is Benedict Cumberbatch? Smart enough to remember which project he’s promoting.

In a recent phone interview, the busy British actor acknowledges that it is hard to segue between publicity for the TV series Sherlock (on BBC since 2010), the animated film Penguins of Madagascar (which opened last month), the third Hobbit film (which opened last week and for which he reprised the voice of the dragon Smaug) and the dramatic thriller The Imitation Game (which opened on Christmas). And heaven forbid a reporter should quiz him about his rumored roles in the upcoming Doctor Strange and Star Wars movies.

“It’s been like this for a couple years,” he says. He also has to find time to plan a wedding to actress Sophie Hunter. “After this interview, I have to do a chi-chi photo shoot for Vanity Fair. It’s all so extraordinary. But I’m managing to enjoy it still, which is the main thing.”

Asked if he can name a new movie in which he is not involved, the multitasking star answers like the literal-minded computer whiz he plays in The Imitation Game: “Yes.”

Pressed to elaborate, Cumberbatch mentions The Theory of Everything, in which Eddie Redmayne stars as physicist Stephen Hawking. But that’s a trick answer. Cumberbatch portrayed Hawking in a British TV movie a decade ago.

Cumberbatch hopes that his friend Hawking will be able enough to attend the Academy Award ceremony in Hollywood on Feb. 22, where Redmayne and Cumberbatch are likely to be nominees. “But I know Alan Turing won’t be there,” Cumberbatch says, steering the conversation back to his own new movie.

Turing was a world-class mathematician, a war hero and a gay icon. Yet in his lifetime, few people knew his name. During World War II, he was recruited as a code breaker. To crack the Nazis’ encrypted communications, he built what is considered to be the world’s first digital computer.

Cumberbatch, 38, has been cast as an eccentric genius before. Besides Sherlock Holmes, he has played Wikileaks hacker Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, an intelligence agent in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the extraterrestrial Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness and Vincent Van Gogh in a TV movie called Van Gogh: Painted With Words.

Yet he speaks with a special fondness for Turing, who was a socially awkward and closeted gay man in an era when homosexuality was a crime. In 1952, Turing was convicted of “indecency” and sentenced to chemical castration. Two years later he was dead, a presumed suicide at age 41.

“He basically won us the war,” Cumberbatch says. “He broke an unbreakable code, and in the process he laid the foundation for binary computing. Because of him, computers around the world can talk to each other. We should never forget that the first computers were called ‘Turing machines.’ The Internet couldn’t exist without this man.

“I’m just a layperson with an amateur interest in science, but to carry on learning is one of the great joys of my job. So now I’ve got this megaphone, and I want to shout from the rooftops about Alan Turing, because that’s something he wouldn’t have done for himself. Had he publicized his early work on algorithms, he would have been up there with Newton and Darwin. But he just wasn’t interested in personal acclaim.

“He was all about the work. And that’s a quality I admire.”

Joe Williams

St. Louis Post-Dispatch