Q&A: Benedict Cumberbatch on 'Star Trek,' 'Sherlock' and Julian Assange

'Star Trek is about the nature of existence, what it means to belong and what future democracy could be,' says the English actor

Benedict Cumberbatch   star trek
Zade Rosenthal/Paramount Pictures
Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison in 'Star Trek Into Darkness'
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Benedict Cumberbatch hits Hollywood at warp speed this summer, armed with a space suit and a name that would make even Charles Dickens blush. The English actor is best known as the titular character on BBC America's Sherlock, but this weekend, Americans will meet him as the vengeful terrorist John Harrison in Star Trek Into Darkness. Cumberbatch spoke with Rolling Stone about his natural state (ramshackle), intense fan following (@cumberbitches) and his next role (code-cracker Alan Turing).

Summer Movie Preview 2013: Star Trek Into Darkness

I read that you weren't a Trek fan growing up.
When you're a kid, Star Trek is a slower burn. It's funny, it's entertaining, but it also has a maturity about it – which is its universal appeal, I think. It's about the nature of existence, what it means to belong and what future democracy could be.

How would you describe your character, John Harrison?
He's a one-man weapon of mass destruction, driven by super-human levels of emotion. The care he has for his people, his crew and his family is a complete parallel to Kirk.

What did you mean when you called him a "home grown terrorist?"
Well, sadly, it's all too relevant – one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. He's someone that's activated and manufactured in a way by Star Fleet, and it's a scene that has come back to haunt him. And you don't have to look far into the daily news cycle to see, whether it's U.S. foreign policy or the actions of some terrorists, how this is a modern day truth that we sadly have to live with.

At The Movies With Peter Travers: Star Trek

Chris Pine said you bring a "scalpel-like precision" to the performance. Is that true for your other roles?
I think some things are much more organic or ramshackle. I played the wonderful role of Little Charles for the film version of August Osage County, with Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep at the helm. Little Charles is anything but scalpel like – he's this lost soul, this thirty-something kid who's just purposeless. It's a modern tragedy, the opposite of the kind of entertainment in Star Trek. And of course, people might draw comparisons between Harrison and Sherlock, too, but I do try to mix it up. I had to work really hard at that position, actually. I'm not that much like Sherlock. It's not something that comes easily to me. I'm much more of a ramshackle. I know I speak fast, but I don't have a good memory and I'm not half as intelligent as he is.

You have an incredible fan following. What has been your weirdest experience?
Oh God – I've had a few. I got live tweeted once by someone who was opposite my home in some rented accommodation. He was actually describing on twitter what I was doing. 'I took a shirt off, I went to the window, I put a shirt back on. . . ' And I've got blinds in my flat! I'm not walking around going, "Hi everybody." So that was quite weird. I get odd presents, too. I get strange letters where people. . .  I won't go into details actually, because I think to air the weirdness is also to give it life and breath, and I think it's better that it kind of walks away.

You tried to meet with Julian Assange for your next project, The 5th Estate, but he refused. Why do you think he did that?
That's definitely a question that Julian should answer. My instinct would be that he thought it would mean he was condoning a project that he doesn't give his support to – and that's no secret. A lot of the film will address WikiLeaks, which achieved an extraordinary revolution in modern media, the transparency of information. And that's not a bad thing: we need to look at how these structures and the hypocrisies evolved. They tell us what to do, they take our tax money and do with it what they please, and then behave immorally. The good work that was done by that organization is celebrated as much as examined in the film. Hopefully he'll get to see it somehow. I don't think he'll jump up and down and give it his full support, because I don't think he wants any film being made about him right now.

If given any opportunity, what role would you play next?
Alan Turing. That's the person I'm playing after Sherlock's third season finishes. Turing is one of the biggest unsung heroes of our day – he basically built the origins of the computer. His homosexuality was exposed in the fifties, a horrendously intolerant time in our history. But his intelligence was how we won the second World War, it is as simple as that. He did it. He cracked the enigma code. This is going to be an exploration of his quiet, unique and difficult personality, sure, but mainly it'll introduce this man to a new generation who haven't heard about his exploits before.