Benedict Cumberbatch, just as lovely as you think he is

October 11, 2013

Benedict Cumberbatch sweeps into an empty hotel ballroom, cutting a natty figure in a black-and-white glen plaid jacket, checked shirt and striped canvas sneakers. “I see you have your festival bag,” he says confidingly, taking note of the crumpled Toronto International Film Festival tote at an interlocutor's feet. It’s a substitute for the one that broke at customs, overstuffed with a laptop and sundry travel necessities.

“That’s exactly what happens to me,” he offers enthusiastically. “Because I’m packing all the time. I’m always killing really perfectly good bits of luggage by shoving loads of stuff in them, and then the seams break, handles drop off, you know.”

Sure, we know. But, let it be stipulated, no one can really know what it’s like to be Cumberbatch, who has had a year that has been, well, especially packed. 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.” But he truly burst into mass popular consciousness this past summer, when he thoroughly dominated the role of Khan in “Star Trek Into Darkness.” On Oct. 18, he will star as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in “The Fifth Estate” and has supporting roles in two high-profile films arriving soon: “12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen, and “August: Osage County,” adapted from Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

“A packed year, exactly,” Cumberbatch says with a reflective sigh. “It’s been amazing. It’s been amazing. But two years really, because ‘Trek’ we filmed the beginning of last year, and before that — God, it winds back quite a ways. I mean, literally, just sort of 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 speaks at a breathless clip, his words spilling out in a joyous, oncoming rush that suggests he really is thrilled to be here, however tempting it would be to read his gee-whiz protestations as the practiced act of a canny ingenue. He is, quite simply — and this is for all those self-proclaimed Cumberb**ches out there who have designated him an unlikely pin-up idol — just as chiseled, engaging, well-mannered and disarmingly modest as they imagine in their wintry, wind-tossed fantasies.

He comes by it honestly. Cumberbatch is the son of two actors — Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham — who 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. (So how did Cumberbatch end up with his last name? It was his father’s surname; Carlton a middle name turned stage name. So Benedict has simply reclaimed the family name.) But his career has followed contours that even his parents couldn’t prepare him for. He’s done high-profile work in such highly regarded films as “Atonement,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “War Horse,” as well as on television, in “Hawking,” “Sherlock” and “Parade’s End.” He’s a celebrated figure of the London stage: In 2010 he earned kudos for his performance in a revival of Terence Rattigan’s “After the Dance,” and the following year he won an Olivier Award, along with fellow Sherlock Jonny Lee Miller, for his work in an experimental version of “Frankenstein,” adapted by Danny Boyle. It was “After the Dance,” he says, that marked the turning point when the phone started ringing. It hasn’t stopped.

“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. But also the workload and everything, it’s different to their game.”

It’s enough to turn a boy’s head. But Cumberbatch, along with such contemporaries as Michael Fassbender, is forging the kind of career that actors covet these days, combining recurring roles in huge franchises like “Star Trek” and “The Hobbit” with artier indie fare. His role model, he says, is James McAvoy (his one-time co-star in “Starter for 10”), who along with Fassbender appears in the “X-Men” movies.

“I know James really well. I’ve sort of been working with him for a while, 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.”

“Quite interesting” is an understatement when it comes to Cumberbatch’s work, which has found him slipping into personae and physical types with the ease of a practiced shape-shifter. Nowhere are his skills in finer form than “The Fifth Estate,” in which he seamlessly 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 in the process of making “The Fifth Estate,” Cumberbatch e-mailed Assange hoping that they could meet. He got no response until the day before shooting began, when Assange sent the actor an email 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 e-mail [arrived], imploring my better nature to step away from the project that he thought would be abhorrent and damaging to his cause,” Cumberbatch recalls. “It was a very powerful thing to suddenly land in your inbox.”

Cumberbatch wrote Assange back. “And my response was equally as considered and I hope as charming. 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 of being the truth, it is a truth.

“Secondly — well, actually, there are three points. Secondly, it is just a film. It’s not going to be able to shift perception. It’s a film of its own genre [that’s] not going to be ‘The Hobbit’ or ‘Star Trek.’ 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.”

One result of the exchange was that Cumberbatch become something of Assange’s advocate on the set, demanding that his point of view be aired when others had had their say. (“The Fifth Estate” is based on the accounts of two disaffected former Assange colleagues, Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Guardian investigative journalist David Leigh.) “It was great, because it was sort of like having Julian there,” says “The Fifth Estate” director Bill Condon. “This was a movie where there was more conversation about the context of scenes than almost any I’ve done, which was really stimulating. Because it forced you to look for the 10th, 11th, 12th time at the validity of what you were dramatizing.”

Cumberbatch admits now that he was “really kind of winded” by Assange’s last-minute plea. Condon recalls his frustration at not being able to stop the correspondence, which was clearly rattling his leading man. “I realized what an unfair position it put him in, in a way he didn’t even understand. Can you imagine? It’s almost like being schizophrenic. Because you’re walking around thinking like a person who’s also saying, ‘Don’t be me.’ I’ve talked to him about it and he said, ‘I wanted to take that on because it’s part of understanding his predicament.’ I think he’s right, but I still feel like I saw the torment that it put him through.”

Now, a few days after “The Fifth Estate” made its world premiere as the opening night film in Toronto, Cumberbatch shows no sign of torment. Far from it. One minute he’s fondly recalling how he danced with Fassbender (a.k.a. “Fassy”) at the “12 Years a Slave” party the night before; the next, he’s sharing warm memories of living in Los Angeles while filming “Star Trek,” hanging with best friend Adam Ackland (grandson of actor Joss), lifelong mate Tertius Bune and “Starter for 10” and “Trek” co-star Alice Eve. He’ll be flying back to London soon to begin rehearsals with Keira Knightley for “The Imitation Game,” about encryption specialist Alan Turing; he’s also agreed to star in the action adventure “The Lost City of Z,” produced by his “12 Years” producer Brad Pitt.

“I love it. I’m really enjoying it,” he says of the red-carpet-let’s-take-a-meeting-flavor-of-the-moment whirl. He loves L.A.; he loves Pitt and his production company, Plan B; he loves New York and wants to work there one day; and he really loves London, especially his neighborhood near Hampstead Heath. “I go running and swimming there, it’s fantastic,” he says, those words still coming in a bubbling rush. “It’s a beautiful, neighborly part of the world as well — families, it’s quiet, especially during the night, it’s gorgeous. It’s a really nice place to go home to.”

As for the foreseeable future, though, Cumberbatch is cheerfully resigned. “I don’t know,” he says with a barely fatigued sigh. “Have suitcase will travel.” Bursting seams and all.

The Fifth Estate

Opens in area theaters on Oct. 18. Rated R for some violence and language. 128 minutes.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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