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”.