They share the face and the brandy-hued baritone, but you could never mistake Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch for the prickly savant of the BBC’s Baker Street — not only is the actor relentlessly polite he’s also never clubbed a cadaver in the name of scientific inquiry. The sleuth may have shined through for a moment last summer though when Cumberbatch showed a Holmesian impatience for unanswered questions and state secrets. “It’s achingly irritating,” Cumberbatch said when asked about the secrecy surrounding his role in this May’s Star Trek Into Darkness. “Believe me, I’d rather talk about the role and the fantastic story and all the things J.J. [Abrams] has come up with. And then everyone would be as excited about the film as I am. But then of course I think I would be on a phone call coming from J.J.’s office…”
Abrams directed the eleventh film in a Starfleet series, 2009’s well-reviewed Star Trek, which beamed up $258 million in domestic box office to set the 30-year-old franchise’s new record ($110 million by Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in 1986 dropped to second). At Paramount Pictures, all of that and the film’s strong showing in home-video sales and rentals has stoked expectations for the sequel — which has only intensified the already notorious Abrams zeal for script and set secrecy.
At the top of the Top Secret list is the role played by Cumberbatch, who was announced as the movie’s mystery villain one year ago last week. Abrams will never attain his ideal — that every fan is in the dark (literally and figuratively) as they sit down on opening night — but Cumberbatch endorses the effort despite its impositions.
“Mystique is rare now, isn’t it? There aren’t that many enigmas in this modern world,” Cumberbatch said. “Myself, I quite enjoyed seeing Super 8 and not knowing the story and then being mesmerized by it … [but] we live in the modern world, which is a place of oversaturation and now people, especially Trekkies, want to know everything before they witness it themselves. It’s strange to me. I think of it as a kid having a box of chocolates and not knowing what’s good for them. They eat three and they keep eating as they get sick… and the candy is gone.”
Cumberbatch meanwhile is gobbling up opportunities. Consider his December to remember: The Hobbit (featuring the first look at the motion-capture dragon Smaug that he’ll voice in the sequels) arrived at theaters with a special IMAX preview of Star Trek Into Darkness—the day after the actor earned a Golden Globe nomination for Sherlock.
The actor (whose mother and father put together long careers in television and on the stage) also appeared in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and War Horse, movies that co-starred Tom Hardy and Tom Hiddleston, respectively, two British actors close in age who have heeded the call to Hollywood villainy: Hardy played Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Hiddleston played Loki in The Avengers.
“There’s a long tradition of British actors playing villains, I’m not sure what to say about that,” a grinning Cumberbatch said in another interview, this one in December at a rooftop party at Abrams’ company, Bad Robot. “It’s not the thing I will be doing each time out, but I’m thrilled it worked out with this one.”
It’s a role that the actor got through a last-minute audition video that was recorded and sent by iPhone and staged in a friend’s kitchen with two chairs and a lamp. The shoestring spirit fits the heritage of the Trek brand, which started with the 1960s series that was heavy on concept and thin on special effects budget.
Cumberbatch’s unspecified “iconic” villain will ultimately come from a fairly short list. Unlike Gotham City, Trek villainy is defined factions, e.g.: the Klingons, Romulans, Borg, etc. The fans have their money on Khan, the genetically upgraded tyrant portrayed by Ricardo Montalbán in a February 1967 episode of the original television series. Montalbán reprised the role in the 1982 feature film, Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, routinely picked in fan polls as the best of Enterprise adventures on the big screen.
There are other options — Gary Mitchell, a Starfleet officer driven mad after acquiring great mental abilities, for instance — and there are plenty of mixed signals coming from people involved in the production. (The IMAX preview footage showed Cumberbatch as an emotionally flat but intensely focused figure of suspicion named John Harrison but also leaves the implication that the name is an alias.)
No matter who Cumberbatch portrays, Abrams and his creative team say the actor will own the part. Damon Lindleof, cowriter of Prometheus and a key member of Abrams’ Lost team, said Cumberbatch in person manages to top even his reputation. “Benedict has his own gravity, both as an actor and a human being,” Lindeloff says. “He pulls you in and you are powerless to escape.” (Perhaps feeling a bit reserved in his appraisal, Lindelof added: “I never knew whether to cry out in fear or weep in his arms.”)
Before the new film opens, Cumberbatch will be on the job as Sherlock when the third season begins in March, reteaming with The Hobbit costar Martin Freeman, who plays James Watson on the show. Some fans hear hints in recent comments by show co-creator Steven Moffat suggesting this will be the final season. Cumberbatch says he loves the complex weave of a character who is as slippery as his mind is nimble. “You look at the second season and he’s more formidable, but you see he’s also more vulnerable, learning and changing, too,” the actor said. “He is a dangerous man and dangerous to know. He is — despite being on the side of the angels — not one of them.”
The blurring and nuance carry over to the mystery Trek role, too, Cumberbatch said. There’s no doubt of his menace however: “He is a one-man weapon of mass destruction, a terrorist with a cause.” Cumberbatch joins an interesting rogue’s gallery of Trek villains, too, if you consider the film series has featured Hardy, Christopher Plummer, F. Murray Abraham, Eric Bana, Christopher Lloyd and, one of Cumberbatch’s idols, Malcolm McDowell. In 1994, McDowell played Dr. Tolian Soran the unhinged genius who killed off Capt. James T. Kirk in Star Trek: Generations, the last film in which the role belonged to William Shatner.
“What actors like [McDowell] do is resist the mustache twirling,” Cumberbatch said. “It’s very easy to come off as just crazy [in the villain role] and I tried with this role to look for something unsettling and investigative. He is a great story, my character. I can’t say who the guy is but his story has some amazing — and starkly modern — parables. And best of all, it’s been so much fun. Playing the not-good-guy is really fun. But that’s all I can say.”