“I’ve cracked on with it since we last spoke, haven’t I?”
Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent achievements are quite dazzling when spoken out loud.
Saving (or potentially destroying) half the universe as Doctor Strange in Marvel’s record-breaking box office smash Avengers: Infinity War, finishing Sherlock – for now at least, getting an Oscar nomination for The Imitation Game, starring in a sell-out run of Hamlet at the Barbican, being made a CBE, performing on stage with Pink Floyd, marrying theatre director Sophie Hunter and becoming a parent. And now he’s playing his most extreme character to date – damaged, drug-addicted, debauched high-society playboy Patrick Melrose, in a TV adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s high-octane novel series.
“I have squeezed quite a bit of life in, you are right. Who would have known?” he says. “It is extraordinary. I’ve been a very lucky man. I have a lot of people to thank, because it has been a wonderful time. It really has.”
It’s not all luck, though, right, Benedict? You’re allowed to take a bit of the credit.
“Of course. Of course it takes hard work and all of it is the result of something, but I often just stand back and go: ‘How? Why?’ It is extraordinary that all this stuff keeps happening to me,” he splutters.
“And yeah. It reminds me, every step, how lucky I am.”
Visiting Comic-Con last year, where he signed thousands of autographs and posed for pictures with hardcore fans, was, he says, a reminder of how far he’s come.
“People dress up as all sorts of things. There is a lot of Star Trek and Strange and Sherlock, of course,” says the 41-year-old, who recently defended the hardcore fandom, describing Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman’s comments about them taking the joy out of the show as “pathetic”.
“What I love about what I get to do is that I don’t have to sit in a role for long. But then you put your arm round someone to pose for a photo and they go: ‘I really loved you in Stuart: A Life Backwards’. That is lovely. There is a huge amount of emotion attached to so many of these roles for me and I am quite sentimental about some of them.”
But where is he going next? Well, having launched production company SunnyMarch – the brains behind BBC One’s The Child In Time which aired last September, for thefirst time Cumberbatch is in full control of his own artistic destiny.
So far, most of the films and TV shows SunnyMarch has announced will star Cumberbatch. But how does it feel to be involved in the creative process from page to screen, using his star power to shape the culture?
“Oh, god, that sounds terrible,” he says. “Like I’m deciding what TV or movie you watch.”
Well, next up he’s making us watch Patrick Melrose, which explores issues around class, addiction, abuse and survival. It’s fear and loathing in the aristocratic set – and Cumberbatch is perfect for the role.
He describes the series as offering a “scalpel-like post-mortem of an upper-class system that’s crumbling”.
And Melrose himself, whom Cumberbatch will play in his early twenties in the opening episode right through to his late forties in the finale? “He’s addicted to drugs and near suicidal, but also incredibly funny and brilliant,” he says.
It’s not all money and debauchery and damage and destruction
For the role, he spent time with the Liverpool-based 3D Research Bureau to learn more about addiction and abuse.
“Most important was the drive behond the appetite, the addiction, the psychological need these destructive drugs create,” he explains. “What are they replacing? With heroin, pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to says it’s about the warm embrace you never got from your mother. The relief from the suffering of existence.
“The type of person who struggles with addiction, the type of person who has experienced abuse, sadly ranges across all class divides and so there is a universality to this that I think will translate.”
It’s not all money and debauchery and damage and destruction, says Cumberbatch (although some might dispute this after watching episode one). “This story is about how the true wealth is love, and how true, pure, good, innocent love can win through. But boy does it struggle to get there.”
Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.
The actor lists Big Little Lies and Twin Peaks among his own recent television highlights, plus Al Pacino in The Panic In Needle Park, which he watched as part of the mood music for Melrose.
But it’s the role as executive producer that has captured his imagination just as much as the on-screen hijinks.
“It has been a big learning curve, and a blissfully happy experience for all concerned. It really worked. It really is a people business and if you get that alchemy right, and choose a good, industrious, challenging and kind team, you make for a really good working environment which is very productive,” he says.
“What is exhilarating is the chance to be creative in different ways. We are making the kind of content I would like to see and I am proud of – that is really thrilling.”
He speaks at length of wanting his company to work differently. To create a positive and happy creative environment. Without mentioning names, he talks of productions he has worked on that he fears have been a nightmare for some members of the crew. Cumberbatch repeatedly comes back to the word “kindness”.
“As a culture and as a town we’ve had a really bruising time,” he says, when pressed on why kindness is so important now.
“But the thing that has triumphed over all of the atrocity, whether it is the horror of Grenfell or the [terror] attacks is kindness. The extraordinary heroism and kindness, the stories where you hear of human nature prevailing. And you have to hold on to that in dark and difficult times.
“And even before that, it was something I wanted to set up as an ethos in general. From my experience, really good stuff comes from it. We are making entertainment. Of course it can be educational or socially motivated to make change but you have to go into it enjoying it. Good work made under terrible conditions is still good work. But you don’t get much repeat business and it sours it for those that are part of it.
“It is blatantly possible to do good work and have a good time. So why not foster that ethos?”
If SunnyMarch is founded on kindness, it feels important to press Cumberbatch on its commitment to diversity and representation. Not least because the actor has come to be the poster boy for the wave of privately educated British stars taking over the increasingly global acting industry.
Will he make sure on and off-screen diversity and representation are at the forefront of his work as a producer?
“Absolutely,” he says quickly. “One of our missions is to create far more important, challenging, interesting positions for women in our industry.
“We are doing that with how we staff our company as well as what focus we have in our work. I’m very aware of saying all this, but at the moment it is boring old white, male, public school, whatever-you-want-to-call-me me beginning this – because I can bring money and attention to projects.
“But our company is also establishing its own credentials from the quality of that work and how it comes to fruition,” he continues. “And that is when we can really set sail with some of those goals, which includes diversity across the board – gender, racial, sexual orientation.”
Once SunnyMarch is an established part of the culture industry, what can we expect?
“Every kind of storyteller telling every kind of story,” he says. “We are not going to be doing cookie-cutter, homemade-jam drama. We are going to be doing in-your-face everything.”
He doesn’t leave it there. It is a subject he has thought long and hard about. And he seems at pains to explain himself and leave no possibility of being misunderstood or misquoted – particularly in the face of criticism on more than one occasion, either for his role in projects that are overwhelmingly male and pale, or for agreeing to play a Romany bare-knuckle boxer in Gypsy Boy.
“The problem is I really want to talk about it but I can’t as it is not good producing practice to talk about projects that are in development – because if for one reason or another they don’t survive or work, it looks like hot air,” he says, before laughing, and adding. “Which, equally, I realise, not telling you what the projects are also sounds like!
“It is a great question and I would much rather answer it with the proof of our slate in a year’s time, with what we have managed to achieve and what is known to be going into production. I can’t. It is a Trojan Horse and not good politics.”
11 down. 3 still to go. I gave a lovely gent near Charing Cross the rest of the day off by buying him out. When I said I wanted 14, he asked if I was having a laugh. I said no, Benedict has fans everywhere. He said, HIM? And then kissed his picture! 😂😂😂 @BigIssue pic.twitter.com/XeACOUXfzr
— Sandy (@armorcats) May 7, 2018
With his new producer hat comes new headaches, then.
“It is not just plot spoilers as an actor,” he says. “As a producer, you can’t even talk about projects. But there is good stuff happening.
“There will be other times when that conversation can be had and backed up with hard facts rather than just good intentions.
“Look, I started this because of certain moments that shall remain nameless when I went, ‘God, I think this can be better for the crew’. I think people should really want to do this job, not just to have it on their CV but also because they will do good work and have a good memory of the job – not just hours of torture when they don’t get to see their family.”
Patrick Melrose begins on May 13, 9pm, Sky Atlantic and Now TV