Don't try to lump Benedict Cumberbatch's characters together under the heading "eccentric geniuses." He won't like it. His display of displeasure will be subtle. He will glance away from you and emit a brief, exasperated sniff through his aristocratic nose. But you will feel it.
Because his schedule at the Toronto International Film Festival is overstuffed, you enter his hotel suite two hours later than your appointed time. The room is dotted with exhausted-looking people in various states of lounge, but he is the only one you see: Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch, his name crying out to be an A.A. Milne verse, his slender, six-foot frame balanced (approximately) on two legs of a chair, his lower limbs stretched out straight before him like twin felled trees. "Best not," he says, straightening up. "This chair feels like it's going to split at any point."
Quickly, you suss out that the man sitting in it feels much the same. Yes, Cumberbatch has played a brace of geniuses: physicists Stephen Hawking and Werner Heisenberg, painter Vincent van Gogh, spy Guy Burgess, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Sherlock Holmes. Yes, he's currently starring as Alan Turing – the father of the computer, the leader of the covert British team that broke Germany's Enigma code and shortened the Second World War, the gay man who was prosecuted in postwar England and is only now being recognized for his heroism – in the elegant yet passionate period drama The Imitation Game, which opens in Canada next week. (The film won the coveted audience prize at TIFF, and it and Cumberbatch are both Oscar front-runners.) Yes, he supposes Turing could be called eccentric.
"I just don't like these labels," he says. "The differentiation [among my characters] is massive. I've played a dragon [Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy], I've played William Ford in 12 Years a Slave, I've played Charles Aiken in August: Osage County, I've played psychotics like Khan [in Star Trek into Darkness] and Shere Khan [in the upcoming The Jungle Book: Origins]. All were conditioned by the events of their lives, and have a purpose and reason to be who they are. So I always balk at this kind of" – here he flips into an American accent that is at once flat, dimwitted and overenthusiastic – "'You're really good at sexual deviants.' I've done some other stuff as well." The greatest actor of his generation is cranky. At you.
Still, there is something undeniable about Cumberbatch, 38, that renders believable his portrayal of men of unusual intelligence. It's some ineluctable combination of his talent (which is huge, and was evident from his debut, at age 12, as Titania in a school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream), his breeding (posh: He grew up in Kensington, attended Harrow, and is the great-grandson of a British diplomat and consul-general), his voice (which calls to mind a lynx, if that lynx were drinking whisky and eating dark chocolate) and his looks (just off-handsome enough to be both infinitely mutable on screen and the object of female fantasies).
"As soon as I knew Ben was doing this part, I thought, 'It's perfect casting,'" says Keira Knightley, who plays Turing's associate – and briefly, his fiancée – in The Imitation Game, in a separate interview. (The two also co-starred in Atonement.) "He's got this ability to dive into characters, and not be frightened of their complexity. He wants to pull out every nuance. With an incredible amount of sensitivity. Somebody else might have made Turing into a machine, or made him far too soft. But Ben's internal mapping of a character is brilliant."
He's just one of those people – not unlike Meryl Streep, his co-star in August: Osage County – whose brilliance is palpable, and who seems to live a life worthy of it. He once taught English at a Tibetan monastery in Darjeeling, India. Travelling through South Africa with friends in 2005, he was kidnapped at gunpoint, held overnight and then released without explanation. He played both Dr. Frankenstein and his creation on alternate nights at London's Royal National Theatre, and was showered with awards for it. He is an ambassador of the Prince's Trust. He meditates. He's been on Sesame Street. He narrates documentaries and audio books. Fresh episodes of Sherlock routinely paralyze Britain. He played John Mortimer's beloved Rumpole in a series of BBC radio plays, and recorded a song for the August: Osage County soundtrack. During his recent appearance on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart asked to marry him. He actually did become engaged this year, to the English theatre and opera director Sophie Hunter. He's named on every list that deems a person Powerful, Influential, Sexy or Connected. And he's pals with a who's-who of rollicking London thesps, including Tom Hardy, Jonny Lee Miller and Matthew Goode (who also co-stars in The Imitation Game).
"I'm not saying we're [Richard] Harris and [Richard] Burton, but we've had our moments," Goode says in a separate interview. "When Ben and I were starting out, there were many occasions where we'd practically be in the pub together, waiting to see which of us was getting the job. But he quickly went from up-and-coming to – well, he's come a long time ago, hasn't he?" He cackles. "He's wiped his [cough] on the curtains."
"It feels like an embarrassment of riches at times, it really does," Cumberbatch says. "I just try and focus on what's in front of me. But it is true that the odd moments where one can plan and strategize are getting interesting now."
Late last year, he and his best friend Adam Ackland launched a production company called SunnyMarch Ltd.; its first project, a 30-minute, crowdfunded action-thriller called Little Favour, is available on iTunes. "That's really exciting to me, because we're getting to make things, to bring them from that first evolution of ideas to reality," Cumberbatch says. "We want to make good, varied, beautiful, intriguing films of different scales. We'll work with extraordinary people, and try to cross-fertilize from different disciplines. So that writers from a theatrical background can tackle subject matters they've never versed themselves in before, or female directors can tackle male subjects, or visual artists can have a go at cinematography or directing. I'm really interested in what's happening with the synergy between art forms – moving between television and film so fluidly, and film being used as a medium on stage as well. I think it's happening across the board, with new artists and with professionals who've grown and delivered all their lives. It's exciting times to do this kind of work.
"So yes," he concludes, "things are really wonderful. I'm having a lovely run of it."
And if journalists ask tiresomely reductive questions, well, Cumberbatch can simply channel his ambivalence into his upcoming theatre run – as Hamlet. Twelve weeks at London's Barbican, beginning in August. Get your tickets now.