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Benedict Cumberbatch: 'My parents wanted me to be a barrister or a doctor - but I pursued my first dream'

Published 28/10/2016

Super roles: Benedict Cumberbatch in his latest movie Doctor Strange
Super roles: Benedict Cumberbatch in his latest movie Doctor Strange
Expanding family: Cumberbatch and wife Sophie are expecting their second child
Benedict in Sherlock

He has the brains and British stiff upper lip down to a tee, but Benedict Cumberbatch is ready to tackle new territory as the latest Marvel superhero to grace the big screen. He tells Gemma Dunn how his life could have taken a different path.

He's just announced that his wife Sophie Hunter is expecting their second child, but Benedict Cumberbatch is giving little else away when it comes to his private life - except to say fatherhood has changed it for the better.

"It adds - it never takes away," says the 40-year-old actor, who became a parent for the first time last year, with the birth of his son, Christopher. "Lots of people, especially women, get told, 'Oh you know, it's going to really affect your career', and it does, but for the better in most cases that I know.

"I am in a very privileged position in my career," he recognises, "but I think everyone - even if they're in a challenging time in their life - draws strength from their children. They're inspirations rather than hindrances."

Meeting early morning, Cumberbatch - dressed in a simple navy jumper and jeans - flits between charming and impatient, starting the chat with an ice-breaking apology ("Sorry if I smell of breakfast"), before skimming over niceties ("We don't have much time"). He's a busy man, and don't we know it.

The son of actors Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, the London-born star trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, obtaining a Masters in classical acting before pursuing his career in theatre first, and later in TV and film, where he's gained a legion of fans thanks to his Oscar-nominated portrayal of code breaker Alan Turing in 2014's acclaimed The Imitation Game and as the titular Sherlock in the BBC's much-loved contemporised series.

He recalls a time when he was held hostage by armed carjackers while filming 2005 mini-series To The Ends Of The Earth in South Africa, at which point he poignantly told the media: "It taught me that you come into this world as you leave it, on your own. It's made me want to live a life slightly less ordinary."

He's certainly kept to his word.

"I started out in this profession with two parents to look up to, who'd had successful careers, who'd had the respect of their peers and who had a good time doing a job you know, at times, can be tough on family, because of timing, being peripatetic and the odd hours we work, as well as all over the place," he begins.

"I saw all of that and I thought, 'If I do half as good a job as they're doing, then I'm fine'. And things kind of snowballed.

"But their standards are the standards I wanted to meet when I started out," he adds.

His parents initially had other ideas, however.

"They're incredibly supportive and it wasn't that they weren't at the beginning, they just wanted something different and better, like a lot of parents do for their children," Cumberbatch explains. "And I'd seen all the good things, but I had also seen the bad things. I knew it wouldn't necessarily be the same, but I was very aware of the world I was walking into.

"They wanted me to do something a bit more grown-up, like be a barrister or a doctor or teacher," he elaborates. "I think law was the thing that bit deepest for a while. And then I discovered, the further down that route I went, it was as precarious (as acting).

"You're only as good as your last case, it's a form of performance of course, and it's so over-subscribed as a profession as well - so many brilliant, brilliant people not getting jobs - so why not pursue the first dream and roll with the punches? So I did."

And his latest bout comes in the form of Hollywood knock-out, Doctor Strange.

The latest in Marvels Studios' big-scale adaptations tells the story of world-famous neurosurgeon, Dr Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), the Master of the Mystic Arts, who made his first appearance in Marvel comics in 1963 - and whose life is turned upside down when a horrific car accident robs him of the use of his hands.

When traditional medicine fails him, he is forced to look for healing, and hope, in an unlikely place - a mysterious enclave known as Kamar-Taj. He quickly learns that this is not just a centre for healing, but also the front line of a battle against unseen dark forces bent on destroying our reality.

"Sherlock Holmes is a bit of a superhero in a way, isn't he?" quips Cumberbatch, in response to those who've questioned his superhero suitability for director Scott Derrickson's trippy epic.

"As far as the actors that Marvel use, if you think of anyone from Anthony Hopkins and then in other franchises, Patrick Stewart... We're actors, we do jobs, and this has an appeal because it's so utterly different.

"It's a huge film and that has a draw," Cumberbatch continues. "But it's also about the idea of being an action hero, learning kung fu and stunt moves, transformation in my body and voice, and playing something I haven't played before, like an American hero.

"It's a fantastic ride for an actor to go on."

Having spent time teaching English as a volunteer in a Buddhist monastery near Darjeeling when he was 19, he says he's always had an interest in topics such as the blend of Western science and Eastern mysticism, that plays out in Doctor Strange.

He insists his career moves are all but thought out, however.

"It's about me giving myself a surprise or doing something that I haven't done, or that's different in some degree, if not a complete U-turn," he explains firmly. "The older I get, the more it's about the people I want to work with, especially directors.

"I have my own production company, so I am interested in making cinema I'd like to see, as much as be in (films). It's not just about me," adds the star, who set up production company SunnyMarch in 2013, alongside Adam Ackland, Patrick Monroe, Ben Dillon and Adam Selves.

As for what's next - "We don't say 'never' on Sherlock" - he is quick to make his escape when the subject of Doctor Strange joining the much-hyped Avengers: Infinity War arises.

But with the cinematic Marvel Universe comes huge fandom - so has he found peace with the side of the job he has openly admitted to struggling with in the past: fame?

"You get on with it," Cumberbatch offers, ready to uproot from his chair.

"I'm thrilled to be doing the work I'm doing, and then you deal with the consequences."

  • Doctor Strange is in cinemas now

Belfast Telegraph

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