Benedict Cumberbatch got an early birthday surprise Thursday morning. Following some time in New Zealand working on the next “Hobbit” film, the British actor, who turns 37 Friday, was on his way from a “Star Trek: Into Darkness” promotional tour in Japan to a friend’s wedding in Ibiza – you know how it is -- when during a brief layover he discovered his phone had been flooded with messages.
Worried something terrible might have happened, Cumberbatch was delighted to learn he had instead had received an Emmy nomination for his performance in “Parade’s End,” the HBO/BBC miniseries adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s series of famously dense modernist novels.
“I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was hearing things,” said the actor, whose slew of upcoming projects include the highly anticipated third season of “Sherlock,” the Wikileaks movie “The Fifth Estate” and another biopic, “The Imitation Game,” about code-breaking mathematician Alan Turing.
It’s the second Emmy nomination in as many years for Cumberbatch, who is up against Al Pacino (“Phil Spector”), Toby Jones (“The Girl”), Michael Douglas and Matt Damon (both for “Behind the Candelabra”). “To be in that category, with a list of my acting heroes, is just remarkable. I’m over the moon about it,” he said. Though given his track record of late, they’re probably just as delighted to be in his company.
We talked to the actor about “Parade’s End,” the long-awaited return of “Sherlock” and his air-travel strategies.
How are you feeling?
I’m very, very good. Kind of in a state of shock.
It’s a really heavy-hitter category this year, isn’t it?
It’s proof, as if it were needed, there is a massive influx of heavyweight talent in television. We’ve been having this conversation for the last decade, pretty much -- aptly, sadly to honor Mr. Gandolfini. But since that first series announced the depth and range that television can reach, you’ve got great names that are coming to television.
I think you’re the only one in your category playing a fictional character.
I hadn’t made that distinction until you said it; I don’t know if that increases or decreases chances. I just hope I can get there because I will be in the thick of filming a real character, a most extraordinary overlooked hero of British history, Mr. Alan Turing [in the upcoming “The Imitation Game”].
You’re doing that now?
I’m about to start shooting the third episode of the third season of “Sherlock,” and after that wraps I go into prep for “The Imitation Game.” And I start shooting in September.
So I take it you’ve resolved how Sherlock will come back from the dead after his fall at the end of Season 2?
Maybe … maybe not. Maybe I’m just a haunting in Watson’s mind.
When will we get to see it?
Hopefully, by the end of the year. I’m really pushing for PBS and “Masterpiece” to broadcast it simultaneously, or at least offer some kind of streaming to people who want to watch while we broadcast it here. It seem churlish, really, to deny savvy “Sherlock” fans, who know how to break code and watch it illegally, to stop us from having an audience in America. There’s a very hungry audience of all ages. Why they should be denied the pleasure because of some odd disjuncture, I don’t know. I’m being very forceful about that and mentioning it in all the interviews. We’re aiming for the end of December or early January, but we haven’t had a date confirmed.
And you just did Julian Assange.
The trailer just came out yesterday. I’m really excited. So yeah, it’s been a hell of a year.
How long is your layover?
Not too long, and I’ve got my best friend because it’s my birthday tomorrow and he came to meet me. I’ve got to sort my luggage out now and take out the stuff I had from New Zealand. I was over there evolving Smaug [his character in “The Hobbit”] again with new material, and that’s very, very exciting. I’ve got cold weather clothes from New Zealand, and formal stuff from Japan. Now I’ve got to go through my bags to get things I need for a four-day holiday.
What’s your strategy for long flights?
I sleep, I eat to the time zone I’m going to. I’m quite a sensible traveler now. I try not to be the kid in the candy store with all the bright lights and free drinks. I’ve got scripts, the third episode of “Sherlock,” which I was reading, a very large biography on Alan Turing, and then I slept a lot. It’s not very rock ‘n’ roll. It’ll be rock ‘n’ roll once I get to Ibiza, but not until I get there.
Can you talk a little about your character in “Parade’s End”?
Tietjens is an inspiration himself, even though he wasn’t a real character. I think he without doubt is the character I love the most of all that I’ve played, the one I’d like to emulate in spirit and heart and soul. I absolutely adored him; I had such huge affection for him. I related to him strongly. He’s somebody I’d desperately like to live up to the standards of in real life -- an extraordinarily kind, generous, charitable, intelligent, wise, sophisticated and tasteful man who believed in meritocracy but also believed in a social order.
He just takes all the whips and scorns that the story throws at him, and he does become at times a foolish figure. I had a fat suit -- I’d just finished filming the second season of “Sherlock” so I was quite lean and mean, and this man is described as a “bulwark-walker, a meal sack of Anglican sainthood, a blond-haired rotund fat English Yorkshire gentleman, a face like a deep sea fish.” I had these things in my cheeks to expand the cheeks and jowls. It was not a hardship, to be honest. Because like I said, I felt very akin to that character and that period.
I had a deep spiritual bond with him; he got completely under my skin. It was very strange. I did feel when I was working, you really can feel the weight of ghosts on your shoulders, the history’s so rare and raw still. Even though it’s a century old now, it resonates. [World War I] was such an appalling war in such a concentrated land mass that there is something haunted about that place. I’m not superstitious, I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, but you do feel something of it.
It really struck to my core. I guess that’s when you’re able to do good work. It’s just a matter of hoping you’ve done justice to the inspiration that’s in front of you every day. This is a wonderful validation of that.
Were there particular challenges for you? The source material is not easy.
It’s incredibly detailed rich narrative in the book. The books are the most extraordinary blueprint for creating a character that an actor could ever dream of. It’s a very potent combination. It took me some persuading. I was familiar with “The Good Soldier,” which is his more widely read novel. It’s far more easily digested. The quartet that “Parade’s End” is based on are very dense, heavy books, beautiful stunning pieces of writing. For an actor, they’re fantastic, but for an adapter, they’re a nightmare. But every actor who came near [Tom Stoppard’s] script was just bowled over by its genius and depth and also its daring.
Are you a fan of the other nominated movies/miniseries?
I saw “Behind the Candelabra,” I started watching “Phil Spector” when I was going over to New Zealand. I had to stop halfway through, but he is just extraordinary, what a rich canvas. The other ones I’m just catching up with. I think Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, they always excel and they’ve always been heroes of mine. There’s massive, quite rightful sentiment for Michael because he’s back and well and he’s just turned in this career-defining performance that exceeds any expectations of the kinds of men he’s played before, and it’s just a joy to watch him in it. Matt Damon is just gold in everything he does; I adore him, I adore his subtlety, and to do something that’s out there like this. I hate the word “brave,” but hats off to them; it’s not easy to do this very full-blooded stuff.
And Soderbergh’s a genius, I’ve always wanted to work with him. Apparently he’s retired to paint, but when he gets bored he knows who to call. It’s only bittersweet for me that we can’t all win, because how you differentiate between all the performances, I don’t know. Good luck to the judges on that. I hope to God I can make it to the ceremony and meet them.
So you have you met any of them before?
Toby Jones is a wonderful, wonderful actor. I adore him, I adore his children. We’ve worked together a couple of times; we’re very old family friends. My dad dated his mum when they were very young. Whoever wins there, we’re both winning for each other, it’s very amicable between us. He’s a phenomenal actor with the most incredible range, and someone I’ve always looked up to and asked advice from when I went to Manchester University. I kind of went there because of him, so I owe him a lot. I’d be thrilled to see him lift it above his head.
Countdown: Emmys 2013