To the visible dismay of a nearby hotel employee, Benedict Cumberbatch has climbed on to the sofa while ShortList helplessly looks on. It’s not an elaborate Tom Cruise impression. Instead, he’s waging war on a bluebottle that had been buzzing by his ear, and now, with the third precise swing of a cushion, he’s whacked it against the window and sent it tumbling to the floor.
“Sorry about that,” he says, settling into his chair with a satisfied grin. “It had to be done. But that was pretty brutal. As you can see, Mr Miyagi was my trainer on Star Trek .” It won’t please animal welfare groups, but the Sherlock star’s insect-slaying sets the scene for a fiery 45 minutes in his company. As he machine-guns opinions on everything from copycat Holmes drama Elementary and sex scenes to camera phone-wielding fans and cracking Hollywood, it’s clear he’s more determined than ever. So spare a thought for that fly. It never stood a chance...
You’re starring in sweeping new BBC drama Parade’s End. We couldn’t help but notice you’re playing another tortured, hyper-intelligent aristocrat...
[Laughs] Ah, but it’s a fat one this time. That’s the difference. Seriously though, despite people’s opinions, I haven’t played that many aristocrats and landed gentry. Admittedly I do talk fast because I’m a public schoolboy, but I haven’t even done many period dramas. I’ve oscillated between the First World War and the Georgian period. That’s my niche.
What was it that lured you to the role?
Tom [Stoppard] came and had tea with me at the National Theatre, which is always quite seductive. As soon as he asked me if I wanted a biscuit with my tea, I knew what was going on. Rebecca [Hall], who’s a really good friend, sort of talked me around too. But really it’s the book [by Ford Madox Ford]. It’s the first modernist novel and it takes in consumerism, the First World War and the death throes of the upper classes through the prism of this love triangle. It’s incredible.
Did your friendship with Rebecca Hall make the first episode’s sex scene easier?
No, I mean we laughed our arses off – there was a lot of wasted film that day. But [it’s good to] giggle at the silliness rather than get uptight. I’m really good friends with her other half as well, which must have been odd. “How was your day, darling?” “Well, I was just riding Benedict in a train carriage...” [laughs].
Was it a fun shoot generally, then?
We had some fun times when we were filming in Belgium. I was desperately trying to put on weight, so there was a lot of [eating] rubbish food and drinking alcohol without worrying about it. With Sherlock, it’s lots of seeds, juices, swimming and running, but on this I was doing lots of beer, wine, chips and the most f*cking amazing proper steaks and goulashes. I still didn’t put on enough, though. But for Star Trek, I went up about three suit sizes.
Would you ever like to really bulk up for a role like your Tinker Tailor... co-star Tom Hardy did for Warrior?
I actually used Tom’s trainer Patrick [‘P-Nut’ Monroe] for Star Trek. But I’ve always been a bit po-faced about [the idea] that all you need to do to be put in the hallowed halls of method acting with Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro is put on sh*tloads of weight. Come on! I think Tom would discredit it too. The effort involved deserves some credit, but it doesn’t make a performance.
Have you noticed a leap in your fame recently? Do you get noticed more?
A little bit yeah, you just instantly lose that ability to be private in public. If I’m wearing a shirt and a suit I look very Sherlock and highly recognisable, but I try not to consciously downgrade my look. Having said that, as much as I try to resist them, hoodies and baseball caps work a treat. But the only cap I’ve got that fits my weird head has War Horse on it [laughs].
Not the best disguise…
No, it’d look like self-promotion. I think David Tennant has a hat with bits of hair stuck on it. That’s ridiculous, but it does show how odd it can be. People think we just walk from chauffeur driven cars to red carpets and basically have people wiping our arses for us, but sometimes you need to do normal things. So it’s a bit weird when people see you in the frozen pea section and start flipping out.
Do you find all the attention difficult, then?
Yeah, sometimes you want to go, “I actually do mind having a photo taken because it’s one o’clock in the morning and I’m off my face.” Nine times out of 10, I’m absolutely fine with it. But sometimes it’s just really bad timing. Plus, what the f*ck is this need for proof we all have? Why do people need me to ruin the front page of a book with my terrible signature so that they can prove that they’ve met me? Will no one believe them otherwise? It’s f*cking weird, and you don’t question it until it happens to you.
Going back to Star Trek 2, there’s been lots of speculation about your character...
Yep, it’s yet another thing I can’t talk about [laughs]. I’ll tell you this, it’s iconic and it’s exciting. I’m bored of denying that it’s Khan now, because people keep saying it.
Was it fun playing a villain?
Really, really good fun. It’s a great part and it’s really well written. I enjoyed the fights and the stunts, there’s lots of that and it really is proper action movie territory. I went off and did The Hobbit [doing motion-capture and voice work as dragon Smaug and the Necromancer] at the beginning of the job, so I literally came on set, established the look, did a day of filming and then f*cked off to New Zealand for two weeks before coming back. But it’s the stuff of dreams. I know it’s such a well-trodden, clichéd path, ‘Brit actor plays baddie in Hollywood’, but I channelled all of that and just really enjoyed it.
Are you surprised by the stir Sherlock’s ‘death’ caused at the end of the last series?
The level of obsession with it was nuts. When I read that in the script I got the biggest kick of my life. I remember ringing Martin and going, “Oh my f*cking God. Have you read this?”
Will we find out how Holmes did it?
Of course you’ll find out. But not now....
Can we run some theories by you?
You can, but it will be such a waste of your breath.
Right, so was it all to do with Sherlock’s homeless network?
Yes, all the homeless people in London caught me [laughs]. They formed a human mattress and it was lovely. It was like getting the bumps on your birthday, I didn’t feel a thing. Seriously though, I did that jump. I was on a wire and went off the edge of the building. I was jumping off about three metres into a bunch of cardboard boxes with only a railing separating me from the real drop. We did it about two or three times in the rain with people filming opposite, and it was f*cking amazing. I’ve skydived three times and it was nearly as thrilling. I even did a sky dive while I was in New Zealand, which I shouldn’t be telling anyone, but there you go.
Did [Sherlock and The Hobbit] co-star Martin Freeman join you?
Oh God no. Little Martin? Can you imagine that? He wouldn’t be allowed anyway, he’s got to be the grumpy Hobbit. He’d be down on the ground looking all cool and mod-like with his shades, listening to some ska going, “Yeah that looked like fun, you tw*t.” Whereas I’m there jumping around like Tigger.
Another Sherlock moment that came under, erm, intense scrutiny was Lara Pulver’s nude scene…
Yeah, she’s having a whole second wind to her career because of it. Which [I think] is really sh*t because she’s a great actress. But her story keeps changing... I mean, she did have things covering her. I read an article that went, “...and Benedict Cumberbatch was lucky enough to see everything.” I can tell you now, I would remember if that were the case. I’m a professional, goddammit.
Have there been any discussions about the next series of Sherlock?
Yeah, we’ve had a couple of meetings but I don’t think we’re filming until January. I need to have some more talks with [creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss] and tease them about the fact that I do have a career outside of Sherlock now, so they’d better f*cking write something.
What do you make of the new US modern Sherlock Holmes adaptation, Elementary?
Jonny [Lee Miller] asked me if I was all right with him doing it. I said, “What are the similarities?” And he went, “Well it’s modern...” I went, “Oh.” Then he said, “Lucy Liu’s going to play Joan Watson...” And I went, “Oh.” I got hold of the pilot script just to check it out. I don’t know, we’ll see. I think there’s room for us both to coexist. I don’t feel threatened by it and I wish him the best, which is as diplomatic as I can be.
It’s a strange position to be in...
It’s very odd. I did say, “Well, I’d prefer you didn’t do it but you’ve got a kid to feed, a nice house in LA and a wife to keep in good clothes.” When you get used to a certain standard of living and they waft a pay cheque at you, what are you going to do? I think Jonny was like, “Mate, I’ve got the f*cking mountain to climb here [to reach the acclaim of Sherlock], you’ve got nothing to fear.” I wish him the best of luck, but I’m a bit cynical about why they’ve chosen to do it and why they cast him.
Away from that, you’re off to film Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender’s follow-up to Shame, Twelve Years A Slave. Excited?
It’s a bit frightening because I’m one of about 10 principal cast members. Plus I’m joining Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I feel absolutely right about being in that company. It’s just they’re more experienced, and, obviously, Michael’s very used to working with Steve. It’s a good nervous, and I’m excited about having scenes with Michael.
Right, we’ve saved the big question for last: have you seen the website Otters Who Look Like Benedict Cumberbatch?
Yes! They’re great, but I have to say the people that did it could have matched up the pictures better. Put the effort in guys. There was a fierce blog comment about me once, saying I was “a wooden actor”. Those otter photos prove that, while I may be many things, I’m not wooden. You can’t level that at me.
Parade’s End continues at 9pm on BBC Two, 31 August
(Photography: David Venni, Images: Rex Features, All Star)