Eye on Emmy: Benedict Cumberbatch on Playing Sherlock at 50, His Mad Men Envy and That 'Mortifying' Downton Abbey 'PR Disaster'
Why Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch has yet to be nominated for an Emmy is a question that might befuddle even his super-sleuth alter-ego. But, rather than solve the mystery, this year it might instead be resolved. Not only is the actor’s name — memorable as it is — on the verge of becoming a household one, thanks to his appearances in two of last year’s Oscar contenders, War Horse and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but he’s also collared a plum role (rumored to be that of Capt. Kirk’s nemesis, Khan) in the highly anticipated Star Trek sequel. On top of all that, his work in his PBS hit’s second season was — almost unimaginably — better than his work in the first. In the following Q&A, Cumberbatch talks about “switching on” the Sherlock engine, looks ahead to Season 3 (and beyond!) and shares his real thoughts about Downton Abbey.
TVLINE | Of the three episodes in Season 2, Masterpiece has chosen to submit “A Scandal in Belgravia” for Emmy consideration. Do you agree that that was the strongest of the three?
It’s tough to say. It was the first you got to see Holmes, who at times is less than heroic and very adolescent, experience love. Not that he was in love, but he was in the midst of playing or experiencing or being seduced and toyed by and with love. It was a very smart play on the Irene Adler story. Irene [played by Lara Pulver] and Sherlock were like two predators circling each other waiting for the kill — it was hardly conducive to the normal conversation you would have on a first date. It was really, really enticing because it works on the principle that the best romantic stories are about the waiting [and] the game; the audience is just waiting for something to happen, and it doesn’t necessarily happen. I think it combines so many elements of what the show is about: the wit, the action, the visual style. [“Belgravia”] also [spanned] quite a long period of time, which made it feel weirdly more like a film than most anything I’ve ever done. It’s impossible to say whether it’s the better one. But I’m very proud of it.
TVLINE | What were the particular acting challenges you faced depicting the twisted relationship between Irene and Sherlock?
Well, he’s supposedly an asexual, emotionless machine, and has cut off feelings of attraction or sensory enjoyment or interest in the female form other than to gain information. So it was [about] how to get the audience to believe that you could possibly be in a position that was vulnerable — how could he possibly be feeling something for this woman? But the thing about [Irene] that is very obvious when you read [the 1891 short story by Arthur Conan Doyle in which the character is first introduced] is Sherlock definitely does fall for her and he does lose his cool; he’s no longer the logical machine. He fell for her charms. And so it was a balancing act, but it was so deftly written [by Steven Moffat] that it was so easy to do.
TVLINE | Do you have a process for getting into character as Sherlock, or do you just show up and wham — you’re him?
[Laughs] No, I’m much slower than him. I have to rev up an engine that needs a lot of oil and concentration and focus. There’s an elasticity to his movements as well. He’s ferociously expressive and I’m very still and content, so there’s different mood swings and temperatures and tones to experiment with in any given situation. But I take my time. I’m very good at switching it on.
TVLINE | The awareness for the show is not as high here in the U.S. as it is in Britain, but that seems to be changing. Are you feeling that shift as you spend more time in the States?
I am a bit. We don’t have a massive publicity budget, and I’ve been in L.A. for three and a half months now [shooting Star Trek] and every other day I’m passing a billboard of Game of Thrones or The Killing or Mad Men — all shows I love. It would just be wonderful to drive down [Sunset Blvd.] and see one Sherlock poster. It would make me feel like we’re reaching out to the bored and confused Angelenos in their traffic jams and just making them think about it because there’s [so much competition] for the viewing audience now; there’s so much high quality. So for a PBS show to gain the kind of audience we’ve got is a huge testament to how popular we are. And you know, we’re not a period drama — and I don’t mean that disparagingly [against Downton Abbey], despite how my comments have been [misinterpreted in the past]. There’s a romantic association with British history and nostalgia, which fuels that across the generations, whereas I think [Sherlock] has encapsulated a younger audience.
TVLINE | Speaking of your past comments, did you get any blowback from the perceived slam you made against Abbey’s second season in that recent New York Times article? (Editor’s Note: In the piece, Cumberbatch recalled an incident at the Golden Globes in January where Masterpiece exec Rebecca Eaton playfully taunted him with the statue Abbey had just won. “I just looked at it and went: ‘Begone, woman,’” he recounted. ‘Bring it back when it says Sherlock or Steven Moffat or myself — someone else who’s more deserving than the second (season) of Downton Abbey.’”)
Oh God, you would not believe it! I mean, honestly, it’s like people don’t have any sense of irony or a brain. First of all, I knew it was the first [season] that it was getting awarded for, so that was the first part of the joke. The second part is that Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer on Sherlock and Downton, is a friend. The third, and probably the most important, is that [Abbey creator] Julian Fellowes has known me since I was born. [Abbey leading man] Dan Stevens is one of my good friends — one of my closest friends in England — as is Michelle Dockery. There’s just no way I would say something like that without it being tongue-in-cheek. And I don’t walk around town saying ‘Begone, woman!’ And suddenly [I’m in the middle of] a PR disaster. Maybe I am a PR disaster because I talk too much or don’t filter enough. But I was kind of mortified. I play such a contemporaneous, vile and whiplash-smart [character] who doesn’t [tolerate] mediocrity or any type of bureaucracy or any stupidity, and yet as an actor — a misunderstood actor – you have to put up with a lot of it. So I just let that go. I can tell you I’m a huge fan of Downton, and what I said was quite, quite clearly – to most intelligent New York Times readers – a joke.
TVLINE | It sort of brings up the point that there is an inherent competitiveness to awards.
Well, yeah, but I mean, you have to take it all with a pinch of salt. What we do for a profession is an absolute gift of a job; it’s a blessing. So then awards on top of that? They’re sort of fantasy icing on the cake. Do awards change careers? Well, I haven’t heard of many stories where that’s the case. It’s a fun excuse to meet colleagues and celebrate people who’ve done well that year in certain people’s eyes, and it’s nothing more than that. If it’s taken more seriously than that, then we’re all sort of working for the wrong reasons. So if there’s rivalry, well, you know, it’s pretty much forgotten the minute the next glass of wine is drunk on the night.
TVLINE | You’re about to be exposed to a much larger audience in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek sequel. Should we be worried that big-time Hollywood success will take you away from Sherlock?
Oh, no. No, not at all. I’ll always do Sherlock — it’s something I’m not going to give up on. I love it too much. It’s hard work, but it’s so rewarding and such a lovely bunch of people who do it. We love our fans and we love what it’s created. It’s an incredible thing to be part of; it doesn’t happen that often. Don’t worry; it’s not going to disappear.
TVLINE | When do you start shooting Season 3?
January. That’s the plan.
TVLINE | And then beyond Season 3?
There’s no reason for us to stop if it’s still being adored and we still enjoy doing it. We only do three [episodes] at a time, so I think the normal fear of over-stretching the mark and just doing too many [doesn’t apply]. It’s good to leave people wanting more. I’d like to see [Sherlock] getting older. We’re starting quite young. It’s rare to see Holmes and Watson at the beginning of their relationship; we usually join them in their mid-to-late 40s or 50s. I’ve got a way to go. I mean, I’m only 35.
This story first appeared in the pages of TVLine’s print sibling Awards|Line. The specialty Awards|Line editions canvass various facets of the Emmy and motion pictures awards season including deep coverage, analysis and interviews with the leading contenders and industry players.