Benedict Cumberbatch On His Spy Movie ‘The Courier’
Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the alarmingly awkward Sherlock Holmes catapulted his career to unimaginable heights. Before donning the detective’s hat in 2010, the distinctive-looking London native landed several quirky acting jobs. He’s played theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, Van Gogh and, lest we forget, the hair-raising paedophile in Atonement (2007). But it was his fast-talking performance as the private investigator, which Steven Spielberg has called “the best Sherlock Holmes on screen”, that transformed Cumberbatch into a high-cheek-boned dreamboat, quite literally overnight.
Now 45, Cumberbatch has proven to be the ultimate chameleon, having played everyone from Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate (2013). His portrayal of British mathematician Alan Turing, who cracked Nazi Germany’s Enigma military code during the Second World War, earned him Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. This year, the performer’s true-life drama The Courier was released to critical acclaim. Originally scheduled for a 2020 release, the film was just one of the many much-anticipated movies that was shelved due to shuttered theatres and lockdowns the world over.
This Sixties-based spy story bursts with intrigue and political subterfuge, but what was Cumberbatch’s most memorable moment on set? “The last scene we shot because I got to eat a doughnut afterwards,” he tells me. For the role, he lost a striking amount of weight to transform himself into British businessman Greville Wynne, who spied on the Soviet Union during the Cold War and spent 18 months in a Moscow prison after being caught. Directed by Dominic Cooke, The Courier is based on Wynne’s real-life experiences, and production had to be suspended to give Cumberbatch enough time to slim down to Wynne’s post-lockup figure.
Drawn to characters he describes as “unexpected”, Cumberbatch enjoys the challenge of an on-screen transformation. But when asked about his greatest achievement, he refuses to answer. “That’s a question for others. Getting my first paid acting job felt as good as anything I’ve been lucky enough to land.” His thoughtfulness has somehow survived super-stardom. “Life’s about the journey,” he reminds me, before admitting that winning his first Bafta for the title role in Patrick Melrose (2019) was a “wonderful moment”.
For Cumberbatch, there was never any doubt about which road his career would take. When asked what he would do if he could no longer act, he draws a blank. “I have no idea. Maybe I’d be a surf instructor in Costa Rica. Or a tree surgeon.” The only child of British actors Tim Carlton of Downton Abbey (2011) and Wanda Ventham of Only Fools and Horses (1989-1992), Cumberbatch grew up in London’s exclusive Kensington neighbourhood before attending Harrow, one of the oldest all-boys schools in Britain. From there, he headed straight to drama school. On advice from an agent, he began calling himself Benedict Cumberbatch—adopting the surname his father had dropped years before, thinking it too complicated.
You’d be wrong, however, to assume it’s all been smooth sailing. While filming the BBC mini-series To the Ends of the Earth (2005), Cumberbatch and two of his co-stars were kidnapped in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, after a day spent scuba-diving. When the trio pulled over with a flat tyre, six men jumped them at gunpoint. After a visit to the ATM, the hijackers let them go. Surprisingly, this harrowing ordeal hasn’t put Cumberbatch off the underwater sport. “I’ve loved diving ever since I learned how to do it with a friend in Mozambique years ago.”
It’s one of the reasons Cumberbatch wears a Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris Memovox. The original from 1968 had one of the first diver’s alarms, which would remind divers when it was time to resurface. Cumberbatch was introduced to the Swiss watchmaker when he starred in Doctor Strange (2016), in which he plays one of Marvel’s more mind-blowing superheroes. The sequel, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is planned for 2022.
“In 2016, Jaeger-LeCoultre was just another watch brand to me,” admits Cumberbatch, but he learned more about the company after visiting its manufacture in Vallée de Joux. Engraving and enamelling require hours of minute manipulation. “There was a George Seurat masterpiece called Bathers at Asnières projected onto a screen that was the size of the original painting,” he recalls. “Not understanding what I was looking at, I turned around and saw that a lady was painting it onto the back of a Reverso watch, which is no bigger than a postage stamp. She was doing it with a brush barely bigger than a millimetre.”
Halfway across the world, at the time of the interview, Cumberbatch and his family were adjusting to life after lockdown in New Zealand, where he is filming Jane Campion’s upcoming drama The Power of the Dog––set to be released in September 2021. He and his wife, the stage director Sophie Hunter, have two sons, Christopher (nicknamed Kit) and Hal. “I’ve tried to maintain some sense of sanity by using lockdown as a forced opportunity to be in one place.” Fun-filled activities include learning how to play the banjo and baking bread. “Actually,” he contemplates, “it’s been really busy.” And a good thing too, because we won’t have to wait long before he’s back on the big screen.