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From Sherlock to the hunchback in Richard III - why Benedict Cumberbatch's rise is just elementary

Published 11/05/2016

Stage star: Benedict Cumberbatch
Stage star: Benedict Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch with his wife Sophie Hunter
Sword play: Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III and Luke Treadaway as Richmond do battle in The Hollow Crown: War Of The Roses
Battle lines: Hugh Bonneville, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dame Judi Dench and Tom Sturridge in The Hollow CrownIII,”

Battle scenes, brutal training and the chance to work with Dame Judi Dench ... signing up for The Hollow Crown was a no-brainer for Benedict Cumberbatch. The actor talks to Keeley Bolger about the punishing prosthetics and medieval social taboos.

Benedict Cumberbatch goes topless in his next role, but in a rather unexpected way. Playing Richard III in BBC One's concluding trilogy of Shakespeare's histories, The Hollow Crown: War Of The Roses, the 39-year-old had to undergo quite the transformation to embody a king who has scoliosis and a hunchback.

"In the opening shots, we have the character topless, so you can see every detail of the curvature of his spine," explains Cumberbatch, who became a father last summer, welcoming a baby son, reportedly called Christopher Carlton, with his wife Sophie Hunter, who he married last February after a 17-year friendship.

"It took me three to four hours to put on the prosthetics. The weight of the silicone is incredible. It's painted to match the skin tone and it looks distressingly real," adds the London-born actor.

Unlike Mark Rylance and Laurence Olivier before him, the Sherlock star doesn't don a regal dark bob for the role, keeping his own lighter locks.

But appearances were vital when it came to playing the last Yorkist King of England.

"Physicality has always been at the centre of playing Richard III," explains Cumberbatch, who was nominated for a Bafta for his performance in 2014's The Imitation Game.

"He is very clearly described as being a hunchback with disproportionate legs. His physicality is there in the play and the script, in his own analysis and in other people's name-calling. It is unavoidable."

The trilogy (comprised of Henry VI Part I & II and Richard III) sees Richard III fight his way to the throne and, as director Dominic Cooke notes, details "the story of two men, an overly empathetic man called Henry VI and an overly villainous Richard III".

It's a star-studded cast. Alongside Cumberbatch, there's Dame Judi Dench as Richard's mother, the Duchess of York, as well as Hugh Bonneville, Sophie Okonedo, Tom Sturridge, Keeley Hawes and Phoebe Fox.

Clearly, he relished the role. "His arc is hugely brilliant," Cumberbatch says of his character. "He gives a speech about how he's going to go and kill the king, Henry, and how this ties into his feelings about himself as a disabled man. I think that humanises him.

"As an actor, you have to flesh out your character. You can't pantomime with the daggers and the looks, because that gets really dull."

It's unlikely, though, that Cumberbatch's fierce legion of fans (who famously named themselves the 'Cumberbitches') will tire of him any day soon. Dubbed the "thinking woman's crumpet" the talented star attracts female admirers to his performances.

The only child of two actor parents, Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, he studied drama at Manchester University and soon started landing roles, coming to international prominence after gaining the titular lead in BBC One's twisting drama Sherlock, alongside Martin Freeman.

Other notable credits on his CV include War Horse, The Hobbit, The Fifth Estate, Star Trek Into The Darkness and August: Osage County.

And while most of us are used to seeing him on television, even while at Harrow School he was a member of The Rattigan Society, the school's principal club for the dramatic arts. Here he made his acting debut as Titania, Queen of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream when he was 12. His appearance was lauded by his drama teacher, Martin Tyrell who described him as "the best schoolboy actor" he had ever worked with.

The Hollow Crown, then, is a bit of a change from his big screen roles - and one Cumberbatch was glad to sink his teeth into.

While often seen as a bloodthirsty villain - a fair appraisal given that in the play, Richard kills his nephews to become king - the actor has his own theories on the monarch.

"In medieval England, if you were not born perfect, you were often drowned at birth," he says.

"It was a terrible social taboo. In Shakespeare's story, Richard is fostered at a distance from the Kennedy-like family of perfect specimens. There's very little care for him.

"His deep-seated anger and hurt leads to his ambition and everything we know of him."

The opportunity to work with Dench, who he asked to be part of the production, was also a highlight.

"It took Judi Dench a matter of days to film her scenes playing my mother, but to get someone of that ilk to do that on stage would be tricky, if not nigh on impossible," says Cumberbatch, who is currently filming the fourth series of Sherlock.

Another joy of the series was getting stuck into the battle scenes.

"We were carrying around weapons of steel and aluminium, which were props but could still do a great deal of damage," he recalls with a laugh.

"We were fighting in fields and rivers, with water literally up to our chests. It was brutal. The broadsword as a weapon could crack your skull open with just a glancing blow.

"It really is such a barbarous way to go about winning power. I'm in awe of it.

"The training was tough ... all of us would come away from training looking shell-shocked and pale."

Next up for the star is Flying Horse, a biography of pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge, and fantasy-adventure Doctor Strange, but right now, he's relishing being part of The Hollow Crown.

"There's such humour in moments where Richard relishes his plans," he enthuses. "He's an anti-hero because he lures us in. He's very funny, hopefully. We don't necessarily side with him, but we revel in his villainy.

"I also don't want to burden Freudian analysis onto him, and make him more understandable. I don't want to say, 'Oh, he's just a victim of this cruel world, what other choice did he have?'

"Of course he had choices," Cumberbatch adds. "He very clearly makes the wrong ones, and suffers the ultimate downfall for that."

His English charm has translated in his favour, too, with American audiences naming him as one of the '50 Coolest and Most Creative Entertainers' in Hollywood whilst also making an appearance on The Hollywood Reporter's 'New A-list' issue.

And he regularly uses his fame to promote and raise awareness for charities, as well as being a strong patron of the arts.

Among other issues he has identified himself as a feminist after signing Amnesty International's letter to Prime Minister David Cameron for International Women's Day in 2014, calling for women's rights in Afghanistan.

The actor's approach to the characters he portrays are influenced by notable life events, such as the gap year he took after leaving Harrow.

He volunteered as an English teacher at a Tibetan monastery in Darjeeling, India and to this day subscribes to a Buddhist philosophy.

While in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa in 2005 he and two friends were abducted overnight and held at gunpoint by local guerillas.

While they were eventually released unharmed, the incident changed Cumberbatch forever. He said: "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 less ordinary."

The Hollow Crown: War Of The Roses continues on BBC Two on Saturday at 9pm

Belfast Telegraph

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