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.”