He’s the latest in a long line of Brits playing baddies for Hollywood, but, as Shereen Low discovered, Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t going to make a habit of it.
He has worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest names, so it’s surprsising to learn that Benedict Cumberbatch still gets star-struck.
The latest incident came during a recent script reading session. “We had one scene around the table with Meryl Streep and I just couldn’t act. I was in awe of her,” he admits.
The Sherlock actor stars opposite the Oscar-winning actress in the upcoming big-screen adaptation of the play August: Osage County, which is being produced by George Clooney.
“I’m only at the beginning of the fame game,” he says. “So I still get star-struck all the time. Meryl is spellbinding to watch. She really is extraordinary.”
It’s a perfect demonstration of why Cumberbatch remains one of the UK’s most loveable exports. He’s open, frank and has a wicked sense of humour.
The 36-year-old is also currently promoting his role as John Harrison, a villain in JJ Abrams’ sci-fi sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, which sees him join a cast which includes Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Simon Pegg.
Harrison, an intergalactic terrorist with unclear motives, is targeted by Captain James Kirk (Pine) after a bombing at one of the Star Fleet offices in London.
Cumberbatch was chosen after director Abrams watched episodes of BBC series, Sherlock, in which the actor plays a modern version of the famous detective. (He’s currently back in London to film the next series.)
He auditioned on his iPhone, filming a clip and sending it over. “It had taken a day to compress this little file so once that had been done, I sat back and waited,” he says.
“Then I got a note back saying JJ’s on holiday, which is fine because he has to have a rest sometime. I just didn’t get the tape in before the Christmas holidays.”
Once the film-maker replied, Cumberbatch admitted it took a while for the news to sink in.
“I got an email and I didn’t pick up on the signals. The email said, ‘Do you want to come and play?’ and I thought, ‘What - squash or tennis or some kind of racquet-based activity?’ Then the penny slowly dropped,” he recalls.
Cumberbatch has only praise for Abrams, whom he describes as “ridiculously talented”.
“He’s fantastic. I love him to bits,” he says. “Anything he turns his hand to, he seems to conquer. And he’s ridiculously charming and smart too.”
Cumberbatch, whose career started on the stage, considers it an honour that he was picked to portray a baddie.
“I’m following in the hallowed footsteps of (Jeremy) Irons, (Alan) Rickman and Tom Hiddleston, my great friend in Avengers Assemble. There are a few of us who have done it before, it stretches back as old as time,” he says.
“I think it could have fallen into stereotype though. There’s a grey area. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter but I think you can empathise with his cause, maybe not his means of going about getting his ends. He has a moral core - he just has a method which is pretty brutal and abhorrent.”
But fans shouldn’t get their hopes up about him stepping into the baddie’s shoes again. “It’s hugely flattering but you’re not going to see me do a raft of villains after this,” he says.
Throwing himself into the action is a far cry from the period parts Cumberbatch normally plays, and he relished every moment of it.
“I loved all that. The amount of live action this man JJ lets us do and wants us to do is part of the visual thrill”.
For the physically demanding role, Cumberbatch had to go on a strict exercise routine and change his diet.
“That was the hardest thing in all honesty because it meant an awful lot of eating and a lot of working out in a very short space of time,” he explains.
“But fortunately, I had a fantastic trainer in the shape of Mr (Patrick) P-Nut Munroe, who also trained Tom Hardy. It was a lot of work and yet I really enjoyed it.
“I’ve never been asked to before, and it was integral to the character, who had to have a strong physical shape and presence and be able to move at the same time.”
Chicken became a staple of his new diet. “I didn’t go the junk food way. For two weeks I was eating chicken, potatoes, broccoli and protein shakes.
“There was one stage where I ate about 4,000 calories a day. Now I know how girls feel. Diets are horrible,” he says.
It’s more than 13 years since Cumberbatch first appeared on screens with a cameo in ITV drama Heartbeat, but it’s only in the past four years that he’s become a household name, with roles in BBC shows Sherlock and Parade’s End, and films like Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Adjusting to his fame has taken some time, and he insists he still doesn’t understand why he’s seen as a heart-throb.
“I’m still processing this strange misperception. I enjoy being considered handsome, even though I think it’s hysterical. And I always try to avoid going on the internet,” he says.
Still, his rising star status shows no signs of abating, with forthcoming roles in Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit sequel The Desolation Of Smaug, August: Osage County and The Fifth Estate, in which he plays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
“My 10-year-old self would have been pretty chuffed [at what I’ve achieved]. He wouldn’t have quite believed it. And he still doesn’t,” he admits.
Star Trek Into Darkness is on general release across the country now.