HE might have three films The Imitation Game, Penguins Of Madagascar and the final Hobbit chapter - vying for your box office dollar, but there’s something deliciously old school about man-of-the-moment Benedict Cumberbatch.
Take, for instance, the method by which the 38-year-old actor chose to announce his betrothal to director and actor Sophie Hunter.
“The engagement is announced between Benedict, son of Wanda and Timothy Cumberbatch of London, and Sophie, daughter of Katharine Hunter of Edinburgh and Charles Hunter of London,” read a small advertisement in the Forthcoming Marriages section on page 57 of the print edition of The Times.
Cumberbatch, who is being widely tipped for an Oscar nomination for his heart-rending performance as WWII codebreaker Alan Turning in The Imitation Game, is similarly traditionally-minded on the subject of children.
“I have always been very broody,’’ he says, revealing that he is already a godparent five times over.
“It’s a role I take very seriously. And it’s a lovely relationship to have. You get part of the kick of parenting with hardly any of the headache. You win on every level. I can’t wait to have children of my own. I am really excited about that — someday.’’
With that “someday”, Cumberbatch manages to politely suggest that any further exploration of this subject would be, well, rather indiscreet.
And he has a point.
In interviews, the actor comes across as gracious, well-mannered and ever-so-slightly bemused by the intensity of interest that has followed his breakthrough performance in Sherlock, the hugely successful BBC reboot of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective novels co-starring Martin Freeman.
He is least comfortable when called upon to discuss subjects such as his Oscar chances — “I am the worst person to ask about that,” he says awkwardly — and his unconventional sex appeal, championed by fansites such as the 180,000-strong Twitter account @Cumberbitches.
“How weird is my life? Here I am talking about my own attractiveness,’’ says the actor, who has said that he prefers the term Cumberpeople because Cumberbitches “sets feminism back so many notches”.
“I think making other people feel smart and good about themselves is pretty sexy,’’ he offers, with a valiant attempt to redirect the emphasis somewhere a little less superficial.
Cumberbatch is more comfortable with the observation that he isn’t conventional pin-up material.
“Thanks,’’ he quips. “I wouldn’t say I was classically good looking either. I don’t know who is. George Clooney I suppose. But you could probably pick fault. I mean, I have seen the man up close and trust me his skin is not that good. And he’s kind of squidgy.”
At this point, Cumberbatch’s alarmed publicist starts waving her arms to signal to her wayward charge that he is venturing into dangerous territory.
“He’s a friend of mine. Am I not allowed to do that?” the actor deadpans, clearly inclined to maintain a healthy appreciation of the more absurd aspects of his burgeoning celebrity.
The only time Cumberbatch, currently in the middle of an awards season promotional tour for The Imitation Game, gets even close to testiness is the continued focus on his ability to portray intellectual brilliance — from Steven Hawking to Sherlock Holmes, Julian Assange and most recently Turing.
“It’s about approximation and being blessed with my mother’s eyes, I guess, that seem to show something of thought going on behind them,’’ he says, suppressing a sigh.
“I do think deeply but definitely not with the abilities of the characters I portray. It’s acting. Because I play clever people doesn’t mean I can explain necessarily what happens if you reverse the principle of a black hole. I couldn’t write you an algorithm if you put a gun to my head.’’ Further, he admits that he is nearly numerically dyslexic.
It’s not so much that Cumberbatch minds being thought of as intelligent, more a frustration at the limitations of such creative pigeonholing in a career that has spanned supervillains (Star Trek Into Darkness), motion capture (The Hobbit’s evil dragon Smaug and the voice of The Necromancer, aka Sauron) and family rejects (August: Osage County).
“I like being in my body as an actor. There used to be this old cliche that from their neck down, northern hemisphere actors were dead, which I think is a very lazy, generic thing to say.”
While no one is doubting Alan Turing’s mathematical credentials, The Imitation Game, for which Cumberbatch has already been nominated for a Golden Globe, focuses more on the man himself.
When the father of modern computers was prosecuted for homosexuality, he was given two choices: jail or a chemical castration by way of a series of oestrogen injections that ruined his health and rendered him unable to work.
Cumberbatch’s out-of-body experience as the pompous, four-legged superspy Agent Classified in DreamWorks’ Penguins of Madagascar — which funnily enough opens today, the same day as The Imitation Game — might help dumb down his image a little bit.
The spin-off feature is his first animation project.
“I am rolling the dice on this one. The intrigue of how it works was part of the attraction for me,’’ he says.
“The real freedom of acting is to lose yourself in it and you can do that in any medium.”
Next year, the actor will perform his version of Hamlet at London’s Barbican Centre in an already sold-out season from August 5 to October 31.
Before that, he is to film Marvel’s Dr Strange at Pinewood-Shepperton studios in the UK.
A fourth series of Sherlock has already been confirmed, as well as a Christmas special: “Our aim is to better ourselves every time.”
Of moviegoers’ appetite for the sort of one-off characters with whom he seems to have a natural affinity, Cumberbatch observes: “People who seem to be at odds with normality shake us up a bit in our day-to-day drudgery and make us realise that there are alternatives.”
The same could be said for Cumberbatch himself, an unlikely hearthrob who employed intelligent choices to break the sixpack celebrity mould.
THE IMITATION GAME AND PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR OPEN TODAY. THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES IS NOW SHOWING.
All I remember is we were walking along in a field [right] and she was wearing shorts with a coat and I was very concerned that her legs must be freezing. Also, I was focusing my energy on trying to grow four inches- she was so tall! Hugh Dancy