• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The imitator

Thinking woman’s crumpet Benedict Cumberbatch talks to Alexander Bisley about his latest film project.

Benedict Cumberbatch waving
Benedict Cumberbatch wows the crowd at the Toronto International Film Festival. Photo/Getty Images

Al Pacino and Denzel Washington are here. Reese Witherspoon and Jon Stewart too. But it’s Benedict Cumberbatch who makes the crowds at the Toronto International Film Festival go seriously silly.

But The Imitation Game’s leading man refuses to let the circus outside go to his head. In interviews, he’s considered, intelligent and good company. And he speaks with real passion about The Imitation Game’s subject, Alan Turing, a pioneer in computers and artificial intelligence and the man in charge of cracking Germany’s Enigma code at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire. “The single most important achievement of the Second World War,” said Winston Churchill of Turing’s work.

“It’s estimated he shortened the war by two years and saved 14 million lives,” says Cumberbatch, who has previously expressed his disbelief that Turing’s “not on bank notes”. Yet in 1952, Turing was convicted of “gross indecency”, homosexual acts being a crime at the time. Instead of prison he “chose” a sentence of chemical castration that saw him injected with a synthetic oestrogen. He died of cyanide poisoning in 1954, apparently suicide. He was 41.

Alan Turing
Alan Turing. Photo/Getty Images

Around the time of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s 2009 pardon and apology to Turing, he was hailed as one of the three or four greatest British scientists, alongside Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, says Cumberbatch. But much of what happened comes as a “rude shock” to people.

“The injustice Turing suffered is just intolerable,” says the film’s director, Morten Tyldum. He disagrees with critics who think the film should have included explicit sex scenes. First of all, says Tyldum, Turing described his time at Bletchley as a “sexual desert”. “If it were a story about a heterosexual man, I wouldn’t just have random sex scenes with him being sexual if it doesn’t fit the story.”

What else didn’t make the 114-minute cut? Cumberbatch says, “You sometimes have to play very subtly … the doctor giving him injections said, ‘This is embarrassing, old chap, a weekly oestrogen injection.’ So he offered him the alternative of a slow-release device in his hip that was triggered by his metabolism and that kept on dosing him.”

The impact on long-distance runner Turning’s body and sexuality was terrible, says Cumberbatch. “[Eventually he] got a kitchen carving knife and cut it out of his thigh. We don’t show that … I limp in the film and that’s why. So there are various little things that, of course, I’ll always try to work in.”

Cumberbatch, who speaks in precise Queen’s English befitting his Harrow education – he was a rugby player but at 13 also took the role of Titania, queen of the fairies, in a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – approached Turing’s slight speech impediment subtly. “The stutter was something that was very high on everyone’s account of what he sounded like, how he appeared, what it was like to have a conversation with him – staggered, difficult, sometimes awkward, but after a while you got used to it. So that was obviously something we couldn’t put to full force in the film as it would be unendurable.”

The Imitation Game
From left: Allen Leech, Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard and Matthew Goode in The Imitation Game.

He was impressed by the verbal fluency people had in Turing’s era. “If you look at newsreels of the time, everyone had an extraordinary verbal capacity. People spoke clearly in grammatically sensible sentences and often very fast. It didn’t matter what class or education they’d had or were from. People just spoke with a lot more verve and engagement … There are moments when [Turning’s] obviously in great emotional turmoil, and that horrible panic and constipation of not knowing how to express himself, not being understood, results in the stammer coming out far more strongly.”

Cumberbatch says Turing was subtle, uncompromising, unusual and quietly stoic. “He didn’t knowingly martyr himself, he was just true to himself … He just did his work and behaved true to his nature. I think he’d probably be the last person to describe himself as a hero.”

Cumberbatch is the last person who’d describe himself as a star. But Matthew Goode, who plays Turing’s suave co-worker Hugh Alexander, has his own thoughts on the matter. “He’s taken on this mantle now, he’s practically [John] Gielgud, how he was. He acts in similar kinds of ways. He’s a man of stage, he’s a man of television, he’s a man of film. Cumberbatch is zeitgeist. But he’s tackling really important, prominent roles that a lot of other people can’t possibly do.”

Engaged to actress Sophie Hunter, Cumberbatch has attracted a band of followers, though he’s mortified his legions of female fans have dubbed themselves the Cumberbitches. They appear not to be fazed by the object of their affection playing the Hobbit trilogy’s Smaug, whom Cumberbatch described to the Telegraph as “a 400-year-old fire-breathing worm who lives in the middle of a mountain on top of a pile of gold, who is three or four times bigger than the Empire State Building and can fly”. The role required time in a motion-capture suit. “You feel like a tit in all that gear, but Peter [Jackson] is so lovely, you soon forget.”

Benedict Cumberbatch
A selfie in Toronto. Photo/Getty Images

Having played, among others, Sherlock’s titular crime solver since 2010, Stephen Hawking in the 2004 BBC TV movie Hawking, German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg in a 2013 BBC Radio version of the play Copenhagen and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange in 2013’s The Fifth Estate, Cumberbatch is set to appear as Marvel superhero Doctor Strange in the yet-to-be-released film of the same name. He says it’s flattering that directors see him in such roles, if a little disturbing “because I’m far removed from the level of intelligence of the characters I’ve been lucky enough to portray”. But even if he did only achieve middling results in secondary school maths, he excels at playing thinkers – and then there’s that voice, which he lends to tiger Shere Khan in Andy Serkis’s upcoming live-action film Jungle Book: Origins and to the character of Richard III in a project that’s part of the Hollow Crown series of BBC TV films currently in production.

Cumberbatch says he looks for roles that have something the audience can relate to, so they can develop “an investment in these extraordinary people who achieved extraordinary things. That’s an easier task for an actor, to humanise these incredible machines of ideas that some of those people are. It’s not always easy, but that’s the challenge, that’s what I’ve enjoyed doing.”

He says he likes to “unearth” unsung people and their stories – “somebody who’s endured something unfathomable to our times” – and enjoys learning. “I have a healthy respect for history and understanding the times and other people’s experiences of life. It’s a wonderful part of the spoil of riches that we have as actors; it’s a form of further education to discover these things, and that’s a great thrill.”

Goode’s not the only Imitation Game collaborator who’s effusive about how talented Cumberbatch is and how much they love working with him. “I think Benedict did such a phenomenal job. It’s such a many-layered character,” says Tyldum. “Benedict is very driven. He’s really hard on himself and he wants everything to be perfect.”

Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park. Photo/Rex Images

Keira Knightley portrays Turing’s fiancée Joan Clarke. “I worked with him on Atonement and we’ve been friends ever since. I think he’s always been sensational and he’s always worked more than any other actor I’ve known. It was great when Sherlock suddenly became this huge thing that launched him. He’s always dived into something and tries to find every single nuance. He always throws a bit of a curve ball and I love that. He’s not hard to work with, but he puts a lot of pressure on himself and on everybody.”

Cumberbatch underplays his work and research, deflecting praise towards his colleagues. “A lot of the heavy lifting is done by [Graham Moore’s] extraordinary script.” The biographies by Andrew Hodges and David Leavitt, on which the script is based, are also thorough, he says. “There are lots of accounts of the way [Turing] talked, the way he moved, his body language around people, how he took in people he trusted, how he made direct contact with them and was very warm and generous, and how he was shy or avoiding with others he didn’t trust or couldn’t manage in the moment of focusing on something else.”

Filming took place at Bletchley Park, where Turing and his colleagues made their groundbreaking discoveries. “There’s a charge to treading on the hallowed grounds of where things actually happened. It’s a thrill … To go back, playing people who were actually there, doing what they did, was wonderful.”

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.