Benedict Cumberbatch is having quite a year. After winning the lead actor in a movie or miniseries Emmy for his iconic role as Sherlock Holmes, he also will be making waves again as Smaug in the Hobbit finale this holiday season, as well as voicing a key role in another holiday offering, The Penguins Of Madagascar. But it is his widely acclaimed role as thwarted genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game that promises to break him out into the stratosphere with its already deafening Oscar buzz. But Cumberbatch, in a recent conversation, clearly seems more interested in the role itself than all the hoopla surrounding his portrayal.
Alan Turing helped defeat Nazi Germany during WWII, but then was arrested in the 1950s for being gay and was forced to undergo estrogen injections. Did you know about Turing when you were cast in this role?
Not an awful lot. The feeling you have for the man after getting to know him through the duration of the film is really exacerbated by the frustration and anger, not just at the injustice served him, but also at the fact that, why don’t I know this story? It seems unbelievable that someone who is a war hero, someone who is the father of the modern computer age—and a gay icon—could remain in such relative obscurity to the scale of his achievements in his brief time on this planet. One of the main reasons I was really attracted to playing him was to try and bring his story to as wide an audience as possible. It still seems unfathomable to me that Turing is not on bank notes; that he’s not on the front cover of a textbook. I’m serious. I mean, Newton and Darwin are on bank notes for Christ’s sake. This man, as acknowledged by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and other titans of the digital age… was the forefather of modern computing. He was an extraordinarily important man. I just think he should be celebrated as a social-cultural hero as well as someone of extraordinary importance in the scientific and modern worlds.
Is it easy playing a genius?
Yeah, I wake up clever, and I dream even smarter. (Laughs.) The real sort of clue into Turing—in trying to build the character—was realizing that he was utterly part of the same world as us in a really full, human way, as well as a physical way. He was an active gay man. He was an athlete at an Olympic level. He was an incredibly, profoundly sensitive child. I think the reason was because he craved parental love that, in those days, wasn’t available because his parents were abroad for a lot of his early life because of their diplomatic service in India. It’s a bit of an armchair psychology kind of understanding of it, but I can imagine having his stamina then, let alone now—it’s incredibly isolating.
Turing retreated into himself. He interiorized his world… So, when I realized that, I thought, OK, well that is achievable. It’s a human story. There are universalities that are common to all of us, and while this film celebrates people who are different… it is a warning against having prejudices against people who have those differences, whether they’re sexual orientations, politics, whatever it may be. The film, at its heart, is a celebration of someone who we can see belonged to the same species as us; someone we can relate to. He wasn’t a brain in a jar. He wasn’t isolated in an ivory tower of intellectualism. He communicated and was in part really, desperately, sensitively responsive to the world and circumstances around him.
It’s heartbreaking in the film to see what happened to Turing. You can’t imagine that happening today…
To think that a society and a democracy—that Turing could save from fascism in the second World War—rewarded him with that (punishment) is the most sickening irony of all, really. Added to that, there had to be a political campaign to have him pardoned 100 years after his birth. He died at age 41. It was well after 41 years that he was pardoned. So it took longer than his life to pardon the man who did not need pardoning. The only pardon that should exist or come from anybody is Turing pardoning the people who did that to him.
I spoke to one of his colleagues who worked with him in Manchester, and I said, “Look, do you have any memories of how the (estrogen injections) affected him, how it changed his mentality or his physicality?” And he said, “No, not really.” Turing kept to himself. He was a very private man. He was very personable and kind and generous when he focused his attention on you and drew you in and collaborated with you, which he did; he had to. He worked with teams of technicians and mechanics. He wasn’t isolated, like I said, in an ivory tower. And at the same time, I do remember one story (the coworker) told me where, after the two-year sentence was up—so the course of estrogen was supposed to have finished—the doctor who had been giving Turing weekly estrogen injections said, “Why don’t I give you a slow-release device and implant it in your leg. That way, it’ll dose you according to your metabolism. So when you eat, you’ll get your dose of estrogen and will it stop after two years.” Turing had a slight off, humorous, incredibly repressed emotional response to it, trying to make it something light. That was an element of characterization that just blew me away. But Turing was the same person who, in another much darker moment, went into his kitchen, opened the drawer, pulled out a carving knife and gouged his leg open to try and remove the device. In the last moments of the film you’ll notice I give Turing a limp, and that’s a nod to that. To think that a man who was that rational, that athletic—his body was important to him as an active, sexual man—did that to himself leaves me no doubt that he was already looking at his end, and without doubt, it was a suicide.
Photograph and video of Benedict Cumberbatch taken by Mark Mann
Below, Cumberbatch describes some of the things about Alan Turing that he discovered in his research as he prepared for The Imitation Game: