Benedict Cumberbatch’s Long, Hard Road to Decadence, Depravity and ‘Patrick Melrose’

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Star of Showtime series about a drug-addicted, damaged Englishman talks being kidnapped, wild nights, crying at the movies and more

Earlier today, in Malibu, CA, not far from the water, a few hours after first light, naked in bed because his jammies were in the wash, Benedict Cumberbatch, 41, came to life. He would have risen earlier but the night before he’d been in Las Vegas, plumping his voice-over work for Mowgli, Warner Bros.’s new feral-child take on The Jungle Book, and the night before that, after the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War, featuring him as stalk-like wizard-like Dr. Strange, he and his brown-velvet Armani suit had stayed up nearly until dawn drinking tequila and looking dapper. And even now, he thought he’d like to get a bit more sleep. But his kids beckoned – he has two, Christopher, 3, and Hal, 1, by wife Sophie Hunter – and so, perhaps even more so, did the sea. As he once said, “I’m a sucker for the sea.”

That being the case, up he got and off he ran, storming into the Pacific without preamble, sharks only a minor worry, settling into it the way he does: “I’m present. I’m thinking myself into my surroundings. I am bobbing there. I am with the tide.”

For a while, then, he was free from the confines and complexities of his existence as a major motion picture and TV star. From the ceaseless musings on his “elfin” looks, and “oh, yes, those orbs,” and “his incomparable cheekbones,” and “the things he can do with his mouth [that] are quite amazing,” and his “brandy-hued baritone,” and his “relentlessly polite” manners. From the continued breathless marvelings over his far-flung acting skills and his nifty specializations in the all-too-human-and-off-kilter – Stephen Hawking, Dr. Frankenstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Alan Turing, Vincent van Gogh, Dr. Strange, platinum-brained Julian Assange. And from the controversies to which he must respond, most recently arising when his Sherlock costar Martin Freeman said that being in the obsessed-over BBC show, 2010-2017, four seasons in (fifth-season possibilities as yet unknown), was “a mini-Beatles thing … It’s not a thing to be enjoyed, it’s a thing of: ‘You better fucking do this, otherwise, you’re a cunt.’ That’s not fun anymore,” which led Cumberbatch to call Freeman’s remarks “pathetic.” He will later say, fumblingly, “Everything was taken out of context. It’s fabricated. It’s bullshit created by the media in order to sell the media.”

But of course, as always, nature must soon be left behind. So, on a falling tide, out he wades and back home he runs, where he decides that black trousers seem to fit the day best of all, along with a blue dress shirt properly pressed and left untucked, the usual sunglasses, and flip flops, which on him look entirely A-ok inside the lux black-windowed vehicle that ushers him into Beverley Hills. Shortly thereafter, he winds up on a hotel balcony, sitting directly in the mid-morning brilliance despite the obvious dangers to one so fair skinned (“By all rights, I should be slathered in SPF 15 and stuck in a darkened room all day”), twiddling his bare toes and waxing on about his starring role in Showtime’s new series, Patrick Melrose (premiering May 26th), which is a distillation of Edward St. Aubyn’s five semi-autobiographical novels. It involves lots of coke and heroin, copious amounts of self loathing, plenty of black wit and humor, untold shots of Cumberbatch looking British snooty-class dissolute, much grand scenery chewing and a father who fuels everything with repeated incestuous brutalities during Melrose’s early childhood.

Today, in the sun, Cumberbatch leans forwards to declaim with typical high-minded rhetorical precision on his approach to the part. “What’s key to me,” he says, “is the psychology of the need, the hunger, the appetite, the want of chaos, the want of a mother’s embrace, the embrace of heroin, the want of pushing himself to the edge of injecting cocaine, that jet engine rush of citadels of glass shattering as you’re speeding through at 100 miles an hour, and how that’s a near seizure for your body to deal with.”

And does he know this from personal experience, his performance being unnerving enough to suggest as much, especially when he’s melting across walls while on Quaaludes?

“God, no,” he says. “I’ve smoked a bit of weed in my time, but that’s about it. No Quaaludes, no coke, no heroin. Yes, a little booze, a little coffee. I’ve always been about moderation. I’m not a binger and nothing is habitual with me. So the idea of what an addict goes through is something I really had to come to understand.”

He glares at the sun, stands, re-situates where it’s not so bright, crosses his legs, uncrosses them, thrusts his left foot back out of the shadows and looks perfectly at ease with himself. It’s been eight years since Sherlock arrived on the scene and along with it the international pandemic known as Cumbermania, which has driven many of his female fans, who are rabidly legion and like to call themselves Cumberbitches, to faint, weep and shriek upon the mention of his name. He’s won numerous acting awards (BAFTAs, Emmys), secured one Oscar nomination (for 2015’s The Imitation Game), been awarded various titles (he holds the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, given for chivalry), and is a high-ranking fixture on People‘s annual Sexiest Man Alive list. In 2014, Time designated him one of the top 100 Most Influential People in the world. That same year, a wax figure of him went on display at Madame Tussaud’s London, a sure sign of permanence in the world.

He’s been cyberstalked by a neighbor who tweeted his every move. He’s had a play written about his popularity titled Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die. He’s not minced too many words about what went on with him during his years at boarding schools: “While there was experimentation … it had never occurred to me as, ‘Oh, this is that!’ It was just boys and their penises, the same way with girls and vaginas and boobs. It wasn’t out of a desire.” And from the start, his attitude toward it all has been decidedly loose limbed and louche, often compounded by the raffish way his thin ribboned lips can pull back into the most unusual of smiles, half decadence, half innocence, both seemingly decanted from something he once said: “I just swan about and live my life and get the work I get.” He’s breezy like that.

But now he’s looking at his feet (“They’re tree-climbing feet”) and wiggling his toes.

“My tootsies, they never see the light of day, so this is a real novelty for them,” he says, brightly. He considers his digits from several more angles, then reaches down to pluck at the pointer toe.

But enough of the trivial when imponderables impend; for instance, right now, in the broadest sense, what’s the most important thing one should know about him?

His last name [has] led to a good number of name-twisting taunts by friends: Cumby, Cumbers, Cumbersome, Cumbercrotch. “But the best one I ever had was Bendy-Dick Cum-on-My-Baps.”

Momentarily, an answer seems to avoid his grasp. “I wish I knew,” he says. “I wouldn’t know. I mean, self knowledge is something we spend our whole lives trying to achieve.” A long silence follows. But then, finally, he comes out with it. “The most important thing to know about me is that my second toe is bigger than my big toe.” And he’s right, it’s big, as in long, so overwhelmingly long it’s worthy of a photograph. “Oh, no, that’d be too freaky,” he says, apparently fearing that such a pic might find its way onto the Internet and lead to further cross examination and less time spent in the sea, being with the tide and all.

You want to talk about lucky, Cumberbatch has been nothing if not. In fact, until he was kidnapped at the age of 29, he suffered from no hardships whatsoever, no family traumas, no schooling traumas, no sports traumas. “Nothing, you know, thank god.” His parents, Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, are journeymen actors who worked in British theater and sitcoms, earning enough to allow their son to go to boarding schools starting at the age of eight, ending at Harrow, one of England’s more elite institutions, where he spent his first two years playing rugby and cricket, which made him popular, and the last two in the theater department, which gave him direction.

About the worst it ever got came after graduating from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, in 2000, taking a degree in Classical Acting, when an agent considered his last name – it was still Carlton then, his father’s middle name – and said, “Why the hell are you not using your surname? Cumberbatch is spectacular!” So he changed it, which led to a good number of name-twisting taunts by friends that, him being him, do not haunt him to this day one bit. Among them: Cumby, Cumbers, Cumbersome, Cumbercrotch. “But the best one I ever had was Bendy-Dick Cum-on-My-Baps.” Baps is vulgar English slang for breasts. He smiles.

More to the point, the new name got him work. “It made everything fall into place.” Starting in 2001, Shakespeare led to Ibsen led to Frankenstein led to the Theater of the Absurd led to smaller then bigger parts in various BBC TV shows led to the year 2010 and the arrival of Sherlock, followed by, among 25 other movies, 12 Years a Slave, The Fifth Estate, The Imitation Game, Doctor Strange and Avengers: Infinity War, the notices for him in particular never less than honeyed bordering on spectacular.

But back to the kidnapping. It was early in his career. He was 29, driving along the Swaziland border in South Africa with two friends, a man and a woman, to the set of a miniseries called To the Ends of the Earth, when their car blew its front-right tire. They had the spare out when six men with guns surrounded them, shouting, “Look down! Look down! Put your hands on your heads!” One of the first thing Cumberbatch says he did was to start begging. “Look, whatever you want to do, just do it quickly, don’t hurt us, please don’t kill us, please don’t kill us.” They trussed him up with his own shoelaces, shoved him into the car’s trunk and took off, him not knowing if he was about to get raped, murdered, tortured or what. At one point, the kidnappers got everyone out of the car and forced them onto their knees execution style. Cumberbatch thought he was a goner. He could feel the nose of a pistol parting his hair from behind. After a visit to an ATM, however, the kidnappers let the trio go. And just like that the two-hour ordeal was over.

Looking back on it from the vantage point of a Beverley Hills hotel-room balcony, Cumberbatch says that the kidnapping episode, along with the post-Harrow gap-year at age 19 he spent in Tibet teaching English to monks, were, to date, his two biggest “life experiences, definitely.” He left the latter with his mind expanded by lessons in meditation and other Buddhist pursuits, which he immediately tried to reverse by “staying out late, having fun, drinking spirits more than beer, clubbing … and that’s all I’ll say about that,” a period that lasted until he developed glandular fever (“It’s like mono”) and crashed, vowing never again to return to such Melrose-like depths.

Similarly, in the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping, he spent the night drinking, downing sedatives and smoking weed, trying to calm the adrenaline spike. The next morning, he popped open a beer and greeted the new dawn “sort of crying,” he says, “because I thought I’d never feel the sun on my skin again. Later on, it pushed me to do things to extremes, to go out for dangerous activities: sky jumping, swimming with sharks without cages, taking flips in Micro-Lites and dune buggies … just not really caring about my safety. It’s actually a rebellion against your safety, by taking control of your mortality, even though it’s just an illusion, and pushing yourself to the edge.”

Still, he’d emerged from the kidnapping intact. And with his pride intact, too. “We’d been drinking water in the car, and I had a really full bladder and I really wanted to go, but there’s no way you’re going to say, ‘Hey, sorry, I know you’re kidnapping us, but do you mind if I go for a quick whizz?’ But, honestly, one of the things I came out of the night relieved about – I was like, ‘Thank fuck I didn’t wet myself.’ I mean, there’s no shame in that, but I didn’t. None of us did. We were all grateful for that.”

But do you see what this says about Cumberbatch? As regards the tale’s no-pee coda and his fellow kidnapees, he could have left their fate unremarked upon. But that’s not his way. They did not pee themselves, either, he took pains to point out. He’s magnanimous. On the other hand, his mostly British-based Internet detractors could care less, especially those huddled around is-a-cunt.com, where Cumby (as his close friends call him) is known as Benzedrine Cuntflaps and has been put “at the top of the cunt list for being a complete arsehole of a privileged molly coddled dorm fagging twat … His life appears to be taken up supporting fringe charities, mindfulness and whinging on about trying to avoid awkward questions about his public school knob gazing. This quote sums the self-obsessed cunt up perfectly – ‘It taught me that you come into this world as you leave it, on your own. It’s made me want to live a life less ordinary,’ said after he’d been abducted in [South] Africa.”

Self obsessed or not, though, he has done what he says he wanted to do; in spite of all that knob gazing or perhaps because of it, one will never know for sure.

Right now, he’s looking beyond the hotel balcony, past another hotel, at a grassy field where a bunch of kids are roughhousing and a chubby one has dropped to his knees and begun flopping around. Alarum. Cumberbatch sits up straight. “Oh, my god!” he says. “That kid’s having an epileptic fit!” Pause. “I think he is.” Pause. “He is!” Suddenly, Cumberbatch is Sherlock, a model of perspicacity, as observant and wise as an owl. Even his eyes have gotten in on the act, changing in color from pale green to medium plumbago blue. But then there’s no need. The kid hops to his feet and walks around, not looking dazed and confused so much as fine and dandy. Cumberbatch breaths a big sigh of relief. “Okay. He must be alright. He was playing. Had me fooled.” But had the kid really been having a fit, would Cumberbatch have come to his rescue? He snorts. “What am I?” he says. “I’m not a doctor, am I?” And that is that, said with finality. There would have been no heroics today.

The sun has moved, exposing him once again, so he moves once again, back into shade. He stretches his legs out and looks like he always does, prepared for anything that might come on his way.

Does he use the word “cunt” with the same frequency as so many of his fellow countrymen do?

He’s wearing his sunglasses, of course, which further protect him from unwanted incursions of light, but right now you can almost see through them, to behind them, to eyes rapidly blinking.

“Oh, my god. I mean, do I use it much at all anymore, understanding how truly offensive it is for women?” He goes on, “But it is a very satisfying thing to say, isn’t it? But it’s more about the crunch of the word than what it refers to.” He continues, “But the answer is no, I don’t use it much at all.”

And from there to a few more random findings gleaned from a short while spent in his exceedingly pleasant and unflappable company. He can burp with the best of them. “Of course I can. I’m Benedict Cumberbatch. But, I mean, it amuses children, but, no, it’s not particularly sociable.” While on the subject of sounds, he says that his stomach has been known to produce some weird ones. “People say, ‘Did you just fart?’ ‘No, no, that was just an inner noise. You don’t believe me? Stick around for the no-smell.'” More noises. He cries easily, especially while watching movies on a plane, a recent big weeper being Philomena. “I was just like screaming into these napkins.” Lest you think he’s a complete ponce, however: “Apparently, crying like that is a thing of the altitude.”

He once said, “I don’t go look in the mirror and go, ‘Yeah, absolutely! I see what they’re saying!’ I see all my faults and everything I’ve always seen as my faults.”

Would he care to point some of them out?

As the sun spreads its midday warmth, he nods, shrugs, smiles, rises up, rounds inside the hotel room to a full length mirror, is suddenly faced with the full lanky length and slender breadth of himself, and says, “Jesus. No hiding.”

Nor does he attempt to. He leans in.

The first flaw he finds is on his forehead, near the hairline. “Sun damage,” he says. Then: “Moles, a bit of gray, a nose that is retrousse but I’m 41 and it drops with age, and I don’t care.” He turns sideways and says, with a bit more concern, “I’ve got a long head. And in acting, when I’m in profile, there’s not much readable stuff going on, because it’s just a big slab of face.” He squares himself to his reflection again, bares his teeth, smiles, does not mention how oddly wide-set his eyes are, does say, “This is more interesting,” and goes on, “I didn’t have these cheekbones until I had to do loads of cardiovascular stuff for Sherlock and suddenly they were like, bonggg. They just appeared, as if by magic.” He steps back, spreading his hands as if to suggest that awesome things like that happen to him all the time, which they do, because he’s Benedict Cumberbatch, and that about says it all, too.

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