What’s On Stage: 20 Questions With… Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch – currently starring opposite Eve Best’s Hedda Gabler at the Almeida – considers how the production will settle into its new West End home & reveals his acting secrets & a desire to be Elvis or a neurosurgeon.

Benedict Cumberbatch may have been nominated for a BAFTA for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in last year’s one-off television drama, Hawking, but the young actor has also garnered an impressive list of theatre credits.These include in Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like it and Oh What a Lovely War! at Regent’s Park’s Open Air Theatre. He also played Linstrand in Trevor Nunn’s 2003 Almeida production of Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea, which starred Natasha Richardson in the title role.In addition to Hawking, Cumberbatch’s television appearances have so far included Dunkirk, Nathan Barley, Forty Something, Spooks, Cambridge Spies, Tipping the Velvet, Fields of Gold, Silent Witness and the forthcomingTo the Ends of the Earth. On the big screen, he’s been seen in To Kill a King and Hills Like White Elephants, while on radio he’s been heard in The Far Side, The Odyssey, D Day, The Cocktail Party and Mansfield Park amongst others.Cumberbatch is currently playing husband George Tesman to Eve Best‘s title character in Ibsen’sHedda Gabler, directed by Richard Eyre. The production continues at north London’s Almeida Theatre until 30 April before transferring to the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre in May (SeeNews, 8 Apr 2005).Date & place of birth
I was born in west London in the summer of… I’ll let you guess what year.Training
LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) for a year and Manchester University.Lives now in…
Shepherd’s Bush, west London.First big break
Regent’s Park’s Open Air Theatre, where I played the King of Navarre in Love’s Labour Lost and Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They were my first two professional roles in the theatre. Or perhaps playing Anne in Half a Sixpence at the age of nine with a very bad wig – it was the first time I realised I looked good in girls’ clothes.

Career highlights to date
Being read a poem by Harold Pinter which happened just the other night. Actually, he recited it to me because it hasn’t been published yet – it’s going to be published in the Guardian. Also being directed by Richard Eyre, playing Stephen Hawking, and playing Edward Talbot in the upcomingEnds of the Earth. And my BAFTA nomination for Hawking.

Favourite productions
That’s a nonsensical question… all of them are favourites for too many reasons to list.

Favourite co-stars
Jamie Sives. He’s a mate and my co-star in both To the Ends of the Earth and Hedda Gabler.

Favourite directors
Stanley Kubrick, the reason would take 30,000 words – ie my dissertation.

Favourite playwrights 
How do you compare Ibsen to Mamet? I suppose it has to be Shakespeare.

What roles would you most like to play still?
A young Nick Drake (the folk musician) – on film or telly. Play-wise, Oswald from Ghosts, Hamlet obviously. And why not Constantine (from The Seagull) as well.

What’s the best thing you’ve seen on stage recently?
Lots actually, but Days of Wine and Roses at the Donmar really sticks out. It was so well directed – it was beautiful, really beautiful.

What would you advise the government – or the industry – to secure the future of British theatre?
Believe in subsidy, believe in the power of investment and believe in the rich wealth of talent in which this country’s reputation in the arts is based.

You’ve already clocked up an enviable number of screen & stage credits. Which medium do you prefer? What are the different skills you need for each?
I’ve no preference. You need to be a very good mime artist for radio, to be able to avoid walking into furniture and able to learn lines for the stage, and as far as TV is concerned, just don’t look into the lens! I’m being facetious, but I could give you a half-hour lecture on each one. It’s important to remember that integrity in all is paramount. And, no matter what the medium, the challenge is thinking rather than showing and doing – that’s the best way to tackle it.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
It’s got to be Elvis, the post-war phenomena at the Star Dust in Vegas. Or someone like that.

Favourite holiday destinations
Iceland, Namibia and West Bengal.

Favourite books
William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth trilogy and Saturday by Ian McEwan.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I’d have liked to have been a neurosurgeon – I’m thinking that because of the character inSaturday. It would have been nice to have done something useful, responsible, that required a mind-blowing skill, where something really important hangs in the balance.

Why did you want to accept the part of Tesman in Hedda Gabler
I wanted the challenge of making Tesman a sympathetic three-dimensional character and to give him the integrity that is often overlooked, to try to honour Ibsen’s intentions. Tesman has a genuine love of his wife born out of respect. Hedda is above him socially and he wants to be a worthy match for her. He hero-worships her, thinks she’s fantastic, beautiful and a great catch.

This is your second Almeida production (after 2003’s The Lady from the Sea). Both plays were by Ibsen, both directed by ex-National artistic directors &, in both, you played a dejected lover. Do you have a sense of déjà vu?
I did when I applied for this job and got it, but there couldn’t be two more different productions, challenges and directors. I was slightly scared. But, in the end, the results are both very wonderful and very different. There are similarities, of course – as well as the fact that both characters are naïve men who have rude awakenings. In Tesman’s case, the awakening is a far more dramatic and forceful one – it’s done my ego no good at all! At the end of each week, I have to check Eve Best still likes me. Being an emotional punchbag for eight performances a week takes its toll.

I’ve enjoyed the work for different reasons. The frail physicality of The Lady from the Sea‘s Lyngstrand – and his age and level of experience – required a very different interpretation to that of Tesman. So, even though on paper Tesman and Lyngstrand seem similar characters, if you held the two performances up, you’d see they are very different. I don’t want to bore myself or audience.

How well do you think this production of Hedda Gabler will move from the Almeida to the West End’s larger Duke of York’s Theatre?
Fine, because the Almeida is a theatre, not a studio. It’s been adapted into a space that’s intimate but very much on a theatre principle. The Duke of York’s is in the theatre bijou style. It’s typically Victorian with a proscenium arch. The move will certainly present new challenges, but I don’t think we’ll lose the level of intimacy. If we were playing to one of the bigger houses in the West End, that might be a problem, but the space that’s been chosen should work very well.

What’s your favourite line from Hedda Gabler?
Hedda says of the smell in the house: “It reminds me of flowers after a dance”

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened in the run to date of Hedda Gabler?
I got shouted at by a front row octogenarian one night at the curtain call. He said: “Leave her, leave her, leave her!” There’s also a fantastic moment every night when Eilert Loevborg (played by Jamie Sives) takes a drink and the audience never fails to gasp.

What are your plans for the future? 
To the Ends of the Earth is on BBC2 in June. Hopefully Hawking will be re-screened later this year. I’m also doing a short film with Nathalie Press who was in My Summer of Love. It’s untitled as yet. There are a lot of things going on so we’ll have to wait and see.

– Benedict Cumberbatch was speaking to Hannah Kennedy

source: 20 Questions With… Benedict Cumberbatch – Interviews – 25 Apr 2005