‘I’m not confident in social situations; just going up to someone in a bar and saying ‘Hi’ going to be even more difficult because they won’t know the real me. They will just know me as a fictional person I play on the screen.’
After ‘Downton Abbey’ tux, Dan Stevens tries on modern American roles
It’s been almost two years since Dan Stevens’ beloved “Downton Abbey” character, Matthew Crawley, met with an untimely end, and some die-hard fans of the PBS costume drama still may not quite be over it. But for the 31-year-old British actor, Crawley’s tragic death marked a kind of rebirth — or at least a chance to strike out in some very different directions as an actor.It’s been almost two years since Dan Stevens’ beloved “Downton Abbey” character, Matthew Crawley, met with an untimely end, and some die-hard fans of the PBS costume drama still may not quite be over it. But for the 31-year-old British actor, Crawley’s tragic death marked a kind of rebirth — or at least a chance to strike out in some very different directions as an actor.
Stevens, who costarred with Jessica Chastain in last year’s Broadway production of “The Heiress,” stars in two films opening this week, playing characters who would never be mistaken for the kind, noble Crawley. In the thriller “The Guest,” in theaters Sept. 17, Stevens is a steely-eyed, possibly homicidal American soldier who upends the lives of a family when he mysteriously shows up on their doorstep. In the crime drama “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” opening Sept. 19, he stars opposite Liam Neeson as a hardened New York drug trafficker seeking vengeance against the men who kidnapped and murdered his wife.
When you were doing “Downton,” you said you sometimes felt like Matthew Crawley was “too gentle.” Were you looking for a way to explode any notion of typecasting you as “slightly repressed period English guy”?
Well, there was no guarantee that it would explode anything, but from a personal artistic sense, it just felt good to explore some other avenues. I guess part of the appeal of [“Downton”] was that you had this sort of milquetoast guy with this very strong woman by his side. It’s been fun the last couple of years getting to expand that range a bit. That’s all I’ve ever dreamed of, really, is that opportunity to just try another accent or put on another suit and see how it feels.
“Downton” fans were shocked by your sudden exit from the show at the end of the third season, and some seemed to feel a bit betrayed. Were you surprised by how intense the reaction was?
I guess I was. In a funny way, it was a curious compliment to the character that people missed him so much and couldn’t bear to see him go. What’s been heartening recently is that now people are starting to see a few of the things that I’ve been up to since and are beginning to understand the desire to go try different things.
Benedict Cumberbatch said in an interview that he thought the second season of “Downton” was “atrocious” — and soon after that you guys worked together on the film “The Fifth Estate.” Did you give him a hard time about that?
Yeah, but just for fun. It’s great to have a few ways to tease Benedict. He was mortified by that quote. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I think it was one of those out-of-context things that got spun into something silly.
For “The Guest,” you had to transform yourself physically into a buff special-ops soldier. How did you pull that off?
It was a great challenge. I trained seven days a week, four hours a day with a guy who had previously been a world taekwondo champion. It was a lot of circuits, weights, martial arts — basically just not stopping at the point where I normally would stop, the point where it hurts.
I’ve always wondered if it alters your personality temporarily to get ripped for a role like that.
I don’t know — you’d have to ask my wife. [Laughs] I certainly haven’t kept up that kind of regimen since because, apart from everything else, it’s very time consuming. But it did have an extraordinary effect mentally and emotionally in terms of preparing for the kind of man that character is.
On top of acting, you studied literature at Cambridge, you co-founded a literary journal, you’ve been a columnist for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, and you play the violin and cricket. Have you always been this annoyingly well-rounded?
Well, I don’t play the violin very well, and I don’t play cricket well at all. But I just like challenging myself in new ways. Now I’m trying to focus that more toward my acting, so that each role has a different element to it.
In 2012, you served as a judge for the Man Booker literary prize. How many novels did you have to read?
I think it was 147 novels in seven months.
I don’t know if I could read 147 novels in seven years, let alone seven months.
Well, I haven’t done it since. It was quite a stressful time. I was also producing [the film] “Summer in February,” my wife was pregnant with our second child, and I was shooting the second series of “Downton.” I’ve been trying not to be that busy again, but I seem to be failing.
You’ve also got a couple of comedies coming up: “The Cobbler,” with Adam Sandler, and “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” in which you play Sir Lancelot.
Yeah, if you had told my 16-year-old self that I would someday work with Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller within six months of each other, I think I would have fainted.
What’s been your most surreal encounter with someone you admired who turned out to be a “Downton” fan?
Ben Stiller. One night when we were shooting [“Night at the Museum”], he was like, “I really have to ask you some 'Downton’ questions.” I said, “OK, as long as I’m allowed to ask you some 'Zoolander’ questions.” We still challenge each other back and forth with “Downton” questions on the [mobile game] QuizUp. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the show. But he has yet to beat me.
Benedict Cumberbatch on Alan Turing: 'He should be on banknotes'
There is, at first, a moment of confusion. Benedict Cumberbatchis filming Richard III for the BBC’s Hollow Crown series, and yesterday, or so the publicist from the film company tells me, he fell off a horse. He’s feeling stiff and has needed a massage. Things are running a little late.
It is Saturday lunchtime at a grand London hotel, and I am parked in a suite waiting to talk to Cumberbatch about his latest film, The Imitation Game, in which he plays the code-breaker Alan Turing. When he comes in – tall and rangy, dressed in a checked shirt and a quilted leather jacket – he moves and talks quickly, a fistful of nervous energy. Shades of Sherlock.
I hear, I say, that you’ve had an accident and fallen off your horse. He looks puzzled. ‘Oh no, that’s picking up fag ends…’ Fag ends? ‘That thing of going, “He’s had an accident…”’ He rolls his eyes. ‘I haven’t had an accident.I’m playing Richard III.’ Nor, it turns out, had he fallen off a horse. He can do all his own sword-fighting, but falling off horses is forbidden under insurance provisions: he just fell into shot, as if he’d fallen off a horse.
‘I was running round in the mud having a lot of fun. I mean proper mud, with men in real armour with real swords, fighting to the death. It was incredible – one of those moments where I had to pinch myself.’
Cumberbatch is not classically handsome: rather, the long, angled planes of his face and his small, far-apart eyes lend him a slightly odd, other-worldly, cerebral appearance. He is an actor who is particularly good at giving the impression of thinking, which has served him well playing roles such as Stephen Hawking, Sherlock and, indeed, Turing. So not quite handsome, yet that curious, transmogrifying power of stardom seems to have conferred handsomeness upon him.
He has an army of adoring female fans that style themselves as ‘Cumberbitches’ – a term to which Cumberbatch himself has taken vocal exception in the past. ‘It sets feminism back so many notches.’ He apparently would prefer the term ‘Cumberpeople’.
The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing, the Cambridge mathematician who, working at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, invented the early computing machine that cracked the German Enigma code. Winston Churchill, a huge admirer of Turing, credited him with making the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany. This alone makes Turing a heroic figure, but it is what happened later that makes him equally a tragic one.
Homosexual, in 1952 Turing was prosecuted for ‘gross indecency’ with a 19-year-old man. As an alternative to prison, he was ordered to receive treatment with oestrogen injections – chemical castration. In 1954, 16 days before his 42nd birthday, Turing died from cyanide poisoning. An inquest ruled that his death was suicide. In 2009, following an internet campaign, Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the government for ‘the appalling way’ Turing had been treated. And in 2013 he was granted a posthumous pardon by the Queen.
The Imitation Game covers the span of Turing’s life: his faltering, adolescent love for a fellow student at Sherborne school, Christopher Morcom, who was to die at 18 from the long-term effects of the bovine tuberculosis he contracted as a child; his struggle at Bletchley Park to build his ‘Turing machine’ in the face of official obduracy and incomprehension; his short, and ill-starred, engagement to his colleague Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley); and his tragic death.
It is the sort of film the British film industry does so well. Highly polished, with a sterling cast including Charles Dance and Matthew Goode, and an impressive attention to period detail, it is also deeply moving. One comes away seething with anger at the attitudes and the events – ‘the persecution’ in Cumberbatch’s words – that destroyed Turing.
‘I miss him…’ Cumberbatch settles back on to the sofa, dispatching an espresso in a single gulp. ‘And it’s not just from playing him. I miss the fact that he’s not with us and should be with us. It’s a massive injustice, of course, but it’s also thinking about what he should have enjoyed of his life as well, and the amount of sadness in it.’
‘Mother says I’m just an odd fish,’ an adolescent Turing tells Morcom. And he was certainly that: socially awkward, scornful of convention, a man more interested in ideas than people, who believed the only authority worth respecting was reason.
It is a role that might have been tailor-made for Cumberbatch, and which he captures beautifully. Photographs show Turing as shorter and stockier, but Cumberbatch’s performance, one thinks, is surely exactly how he sounded and behaved – although, surprisingly perhaps, there is no existing film or audio recording to confirm it.
To build the character, Cumberbatch was obliged to draw on written descriptions and the memories of Turing’s contemporaries. ‘He was described as having his head down to one side and not making eye contact,’ Cumberbatch says, tipping his head. ‘When he did turn and talk to you he had a wonderful smile and was charismatic and encouraging – and polite and fast – but slowed by this pronounced speech impediment that went…’ – his voice begins to rise – ‘very high in pitch, as well as getting stuck on w-w-words.’
He has, for an instant, become Turing, and just as quickly turned back into Cumberbatch. ‘So it’s about building the elements of that into the storytelling. Of course, you have to compromise because it’s only two hours long. If the stammer was as severe as it actually was in any given moment, it would have been a longer film. And that’s not supposed to be a joke; it’s just a fact.’
‘I spoke to his two nieces,’ he adds. ‘Even though they were very young, what they remembered clearly was feeling confident when he was around because he treated them as human beings – not as things to be seen and not heard; he wasn’t Victorian. And that was a huge eye-opener – oh yes, because he doesn’t differentiate, does he? He doesn’t think gay, straight, child, older, stupid, less stupid. He’s not making those judgments.’
Turing’s sexuality is central to the film. In an age when to be homosexual was to court certain social opprobrium, Turing was necessarily discreet but never apologetic. The police officer who arrested him would later note that he made no attempt to conceal what he had done, instead volunteering a five-page statement outlining his activities – written ‘in a flowing style, almost like prose’. Turing, he concluded, was ‘a very honourable man’.
As the film makes clear, his brief engagement to Joan Clarke was based, at least on Turing’s part, on intellectual compatibility rather than any physical attraction. Turing broke it off when he realised that it was impossible to maintain such a relationship, telling Clarke that he was homosexual.
Turing’s biographer, Andrew Hodges, on whose book The Imitation Game is loosely based, has been reported as saying the film exaggerates Clarke’s role in Turing’s life. And some critics have taken it to task for not being ‘sexually explicit’ enough, on the grounds that there are no scenes of Turing sexually involved with another man. His feelings for Morcom are conveyed by no more than longing glances.
Cumberbatch is mystified by the criticism. ‘For me there’s explicit love in the film, and the fact of his sexuality being homosexual doesn’t make any difference. If it would have added to the film, we’d have done it. I’d have no qualms about filming those scenes, expressing that side of a character’s relationship to his body. It’s partly to do with the logical loop of the film, the poetical loop. It’s about what’s not seen, it’s about secrets, what’s repressed – and his sexuality was. This is a man who’s never going to be allowed to love, and that’s really his tragedy and the tragedy of the film.’
Andrew Hodges has noted that the field in which Turing was a pioneer was ‘not “science”, not “applied mathematics”, but a sort of applied logic, something that had no name’. There is always a danger in any film attempting to depict genius that the complexity of their work will be lost on a general audience – a pitfall that The Imitation Game avoids by demonstrating that Turing’s genius was of a rarefied kind, and that his invention for mechanically decoding messages was a revolutionary breakthrough, without belabouring us with the details of exactly how.
Cumberbatch achieved a B in GCSE maths – not quite enough, he acknowledges, to ‘even handle a quadratic equation’. But he devoted a good deal of time – ‘probably more than I should have done’ – to trying to understand Turing’s work. ‘I’m determined to manufacture at least the appearance of mastering whatever it is the character has to master, because otherwise there’s no point. But also, just as a layman, I’m fascinated by it. He was making a massive leap forward in the idea of anything computable being mechanised. It was the beginning of the binary coding of computers. Within that, he wrote some of the most extraordinary algorithms, which were used to break the Enigma code, and which are still used in web-search programs like Google today.’
Turing is the second real person Cumberbatch has tackled as an actor in almost as many years – he played Julian Assange in the 2013 film The Fifth Estate. ‘I learnt my lesson with Assange that you cannot get too involved in the subject matter; that you have to focus on the character,’ he says. ‘But at the same time that was such a current story I wanted to do him justice; I didn’t want to serve him up as being some kind of two-dimensional villain. I wanted to make him into a flawed hero basically.’
Is that how he sees Assange? He stiffens slightly. ‘I’ve talked a lot about how I see him. You can dig up a quote from before and use that if you like.’
It’s a sore point. Assange objected to Cumberbatch playing him in the film, to the point of writing him a letter (which Wikileaks published, along with a copy of the script) begging him to withdraw – ‘which was incredibly beautiful, charming, polite, very persuasive, charismatic…’ Cumberbatch rattles off the adjectives.
Really? I thought it was deeply creepy, a mixture of flattery and veiled threat. For instance, ‘I believe you are a good person, but I do not believe that this film is a good film… If the film reaches distribution we will forever be correlated in the public imagination. Our paths will be forever entwined…’
Cumberbatch raises his eyebrows, cups his hand over his mouth and whispers, ‘I know.’
‘There was a huge amount of passive aggression in that. I’m not stupid. I knew what he was doing; I knew that he was blindsiding me with praise, thinking my ego would be massaged by some fat, fictitious pay cheque or the idea of being “a movie star” by playing him, and that would persuade me to be some talking piece for the State Department. I wrote back a very strong email that, unless he shows it, will never see the light of day. It’s one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever done, I’m proud to say, and he was very polite in response. But I don’t feel the need to publish that correspondence, and I’m not going to talk about it.’
None the less it is interesting that, like The Fifth Estate, The Imitation Game should be dealing with the question of secrets, particularly given the revelations last year about the surveillance programmes of GCHQ, the government spy centre that grew out of Bletchley Park.
‘It sort of is, but more important is the idea that the man at the centre of it, who was persecuted for being different, still stands sadly for a lot of persecution that goes on around the world today. That’s what terrifies me – that it’s as prevalent now, and that this is how we treated one of our war heroes, and a great scientist, someone who’s up there with Charles Darwin; he should be on banknotes. I don’t think Alan set himself up as a martyr, but he sure as hell was treated as one in a sense.’
Cumberbatch’s voice rises in indignation. ‘This was 60 years ago – here, in this country! Giving a man injections to turn him into something desexualised, that ruined his brain. He was being given weekly oestrogen doses and at one point the doctor said, this is a bit embarrassing for both us; why don’t I give you an implant so you don’t have to keep coming back for these appointments every week. He was given the implant in his thigh. It was supposed to stop after two years, and it didn’t.
‘A colleague of his whom I spoke to told me Turing had said, “It’s not really cricket, is it” – being wry and humorous about it. But then one night he pulled out a carving knife from the kitchen drawer and tried to gouge it out of his body.’ Cumberbatch sighs deeply. ‘To reach that state of mind… The only thing he had left to love – that he was legally allowed to love – was his work, and even that was denied him, to the extent that he took his own life by swallowing cyanide.’
Both of Cumberbatch’s parents are actors, on stage and in television. His father works under the name Timothy Carlton; his mother, Wanda Ventham, was a familiar figure on television for her roles in such programmes as Heartbeat and Only Fools and Horses. The couple actually made a cameo appearance in one episode of Sherlock, playing the detective’s parents.
Cumberbatch has a stepsister who is 18 years older than him, by his mother’s first marriage – ‘She baby-sat me’ – but admits that he was as spoilt as if he were an only child. ‘Although “spoilt” implies that you’re ruined… I didn’t have to fight for my proportion of love, attention and food or the things you have to do in larger families. All of their resources were poured into me for my education [Cumberbatch went to Harrow]. But I was aware of that. I would have loved to have had brothers or sisters, or so I thought at the time. I was always very gregarious, and I don’t think they would have sent me to boarding school if I wasn’t confident with stepping away from the nest. I love them, and I always returned to the nest with great joy.’
As a student Cumberbatch taught English to young monks in a Tibetan monastery in Darjeeling. It instilled an interest in Buddhism that has carried on to this day. He describes himself as ‘vaguely’ Buddhist, and he meditates whenever possible. He rattles through the procedure: ‘Concentrating on your breath, the sensations from tip to toe, taking in sounds from outside and letting them pass; the same thing with thoughts.’
It was almost inevitable that he should act. He remembers as a child watching his mother on stage from the wings – ‘whichever Ray Cooney farce it was, probably Run for Your Wife’ – and being transported. ‘The bright lights, and the scenery looking something like a hotel room – just these flimsy things, and feeling this heat come off the stage, and looking out and seeing the enjoyment of the audience and the actors completely absorbed in this world that was paper thin. It was like looking behind the curtain and seeing how a magician does his tricks – and it thrilled me.’
At Harrow he acted in school productions, often taking the female role. His performance in As You Like It, one observer was moved to note, was ‘the best Rosalind since Vanessa Redgrave’.
He went on to study at the University of Manchester and then the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art. The step to working actor was relatively easy: two seasons of Shakespeare at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre; small parts in television series such as Heartbeat and Silent Witness. For 10 years Cumberbatch was a highly regarded actor, but by no measure a star.
Then, in 2010, came Sherlock. Now he seems to be everywhere, in everthing: a kindly slave-owner in 12 Years a Slave, a Star Trek villain, the voice of Smaug in The Hobbit.
How does he judge his new-found standing? By the number of roles he’s offered? The scale of the film? The size of the fee? He interrupts each question. ‘No… No… No…’
‘What matters to me is the quality and the variety of the work. I’m in it for the long game. I’m interested in working in 40 years’ time, and turning round and talking to an actor on set and telling them stories about working with Judi Dench and Michael Gambon. So any talk of “man of the moment” hype, heat, whatever, I just smile wryly. It’s the same shit with “sexiest whatever” – I was around 10 years before that as an actor and no one took the same face seriously.’ He shrugs. ‘It’s all projection.’
His life, I suggest, must have changed enormously over the past couple of years. ‘Yes, as anyone’s would with the high level of over-exposure at times and that sort of popularity, yeah definitely. But I think the way to normalise is to try to adhere to who and what you did before as much as you can. People have this idea that you’re immediately bubble-wrapped and surrounded by security. I’m not. I get on the Tube and I get on my motorbike. I go to galleries and restaurants and museums and I see people, and they take photographs and I say, “Please don’t,” or whatever seems the appropriate response.
‘The strange thing is walking into a room and knowing that people recognise you, and you don’t know who they are. That’s a different energy that you have to get used to, and some days I’m good at that and some days I’m not. And when I’m not I feel self-conscious. But I still plough on with my day. I don’t scuttle home. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to build high walls.’
He will be back on location tomorrow, up to his eyes in mud. Then there’s the Christmas special of Sherlock, a film project, Hamlet at the Barbican, another series of Sherlock. His energy, I suggest, is inexhaustible.
‘No, I’m human. I’m getting older. I’m 38.’ He catches me rolling my eyes. ‘Yes, you should tell me to f*** off, I’m sure. But I’m acting with people who are half my age, people who are young enough to be my children.’ He pauses, as if this is the first time that has occurred to him. ‘Actually, that’s quite sobering…’