Benedict Cumberbatch on Cracking 'Imitation Game''s Code

Oscar-nominated actor talks about playing the man who ended WWII, fame and his rabid fans

Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game.' Credit: Jack English/Weinstein Company

Campaigning...isn't that what politicians do?" Benedict Cumberbatch has been on the phone for less than a minute, and it's already obvious he's in a bit of a playful mood. The British actor — who you either know from his starmaking turn on the BBC import Sherlock, as a villain in projects as varied as 12 Years a Slave and Star Trek Into Darkness, or as the subject of endless fawning memes — is en route to the Palm Springs Film Festival, where he'll pick up the Ensemble Award alongside other cast members of his latest movie, The Imitation Game. In a few weeks, the 38-year-old star will add "Oscar nominee" to his resumé and, per the endless predictions of seasonal industry drum-beaters, will be one of the five men up for the Best Actor Academy Award. But for now, Cumberbatch is in a car, calling to chat about the reason for all this buzz and jokingly questioning an interviewer's use of the word "campaigning."

"It suggests that what I'm doing falls under the category of 'work,'" he says, "when, if I'm being honest, what I'm doing with you right now — talking about a man whom I could not admire more — feels more like a privilege on my part. I have to go back to London in a few days to shoot the Sherlock Christmas special — that's work! This is practically like a holiday."

The gentleman he's referring to is Alan Turing, the subject of The Imitation Game and, until recently, a somewhat controversial figure in the U.K. Hired by the government's intelligence agency in the 1940s, Turing was a cryptanalyst who ended up pioneering computer programming and helped the Allies win the war by cracking the enigma code. He was also a homosexual during a time in Britain when such things were deemed a felony, however, and as the film recounts, he was forced to endure "chemical castration" treatments after being arrested in 1952. Despite the fact that Turing's formerly classified work during WWII had been made public in the Eighties, the government did not publicly acknowledge and apologize for the barbaric treatment he received until 2009; he wasn't officially pardoned for his "crime" until 2013.

The film is, in a way, both a celebration of Turing's achievements and a correction to the fact that he's never truly been given his due — something that continues to irk Cumberbatch. "Why is he not on bank notes?" the actor asks, his voice rising. "Why is he not on the covers of textbooks? Going into this, I knew a little bit about him. After I'd finished the film, I thought it was the criminal the whole world didn't know everything about him." When Cumberbatch received the script while shooting the Star Trek sequel ("It was like, 'Ah, English period war drama...this should be a nice change of pace from playing a genetically engineered, super-warrior baddie bad guy!'"), he remembered Turing's name from the Hugh Whitemore play Breaking the Code, in which Derek Jacobi played the logician. He quickly learned, however, that there was more to him than simply cracking Enigma. "The man was funny, he was acerbic, he was awkward, he had an interesting early life that I'd had no idea about. From the moment I read that interview scene with Denniston [Charles Dance’s character], I thought okay, I’m in. I'd have done anything. If they hadn't have cast me, I'd been willing to have just served tea on set."

"It's not every actor who can play a genius," director Morten Tyldum says, and the Norwegian filmmaker (best known for his 2011 adaptation of Jo Nesbo's Nordic-noir novel Headhunters) admits that Cumberbatch was essentially his only choice for the role. "Watch his eyes: You can always see something going on behind them. He always had questions, like 'How does a mind that’s going in 1o different directions at once work? How does one have a conversation with somebody and show that it’s engaged while figuring out how to crack a code at the same time?'" Once Benedict started researching Turing, poring through writings on him and talking to his colleagues and relatives, he claims that two anecdotes helped him get him handle on who Turing was.

"His nieces told me that Alan used to play chess with his back to the board," Cumberbatch says, laughing. "An opponent would go 'Bishop to Rook Four' or whatever, and he could countermove without having to look. He kept the entire game in his head! The other bit came from something a coworker said, after Alan had been in 'treatment' for longer than he should have been. The court had never taken the implant in his hip out, and his response was, 'Well, that's not really cricket, is it?' He'd had this horrible injustice done to him, and he just made a joke of it. Then, later that day, Alan apparently went home and tried to remove the thing himself with a knife and was found passed out in his apartment." There's a momentary silence on the other end of the line. "The man started to come into focus for me after that."

You think someone recognizes you when, in fact, they don't. I've made that mistake more than once.

Though Cumberbatch has played his share of real-life figures, from The Fifth Estate's Julian Assange to Stephen Hawking (in the 2004 TV movie Hawking, a fact that's delighted Oscar pundits as the actor competes against The Theory of Everything's Eddie Redmayne for a statuette), he says its no more or less of a challenge than taking on an iconic role — like Sherlock Holmes or, as he's slated to do in the near future, the Marvel superhero Dr. Strange. "You certainly feel a responsibility for protecting someone's legacy," he admits. "But I also feel a responsibility to those who have expectations that go beyond what you bring to a role. You’re delivering something to a fan base that comes to something with preconceived notions, and you know you can’t satisfy everyone — you’d go mad if you tried. It will never be the Sherlock or the Khan they have in their head. So you do what you can do."

As for those rapid fans — the ones known by a certain nickname — who come to his work for less than prurient reasons, he says finds the attention "completely flattering" even if the seemingly overnight success of it all initially struck him as somewhat bewildering. "The trickiest thing about navigating fame, for lack of a better word," Cumberbatch says, "is not being able to give everybody the time and interaction they want. I've always been sensitive to social situations, and you never want to feel like you're letting anyone down. Or that you don't seem to be grateful for all the attention you're getting." What sounds like a giggle suddenly materializes over the phone. "Or that you think someone recognizes you when, in fact, they don't. I've made that mistake more than once. When that happens, no matter how many people are yelling your name, it's humbling, believe me."

Suddenly, a publicist is telling Benedict he has to go, as his car pulls up at his destination. "Well, time to 'campaign,' as you say," he proclaims, laughing, and then he's off.