Filed in Eric Interviews

Benedict Cumberbatch talks ‘Eric’ and fatherhood in new interview for The Sunday Times

We’ve got a brand new interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, this time for The Sunday Times, in which the actor talks candidly about ‘Eric’, his upbringing and his own experience as a father of three. You can read the entire article below:

Benedict Cumberbatch: My father, fame and every parent’s worst nightmare

Playing a father in Netflix’s Eric has made the star reflect on his own upbringing. He talks about the price of success — and a defining message from his dad.

When did Benedict Cumberbatch go from aspiring actor to a star with the world at his feet? For some it was Sherlock, which started in 2010 and won him an ardent following of “Cumberbitches”. For others it was his Marvel films, including Doctor Strange, which was when the money started to roll in. But for his father, also an actor, it was a play his son did while at Manchester University.

“After Dad saw me in Amadeus at university, he put his arm around me and said, ‘You’re better at this than I ever was. I cannot wait to support your career. I’m so proud of you,’” Cumberbatch tells me. There’s a pause as he gathers himself, touched by the memory. “For a man to say that to his son is absolutely huge.” He grins. “And it’s not necessarily true … But the generosity to go, ‘Your turn now.’”

In previous interviews, for Sherlock and his Sky drama Patrick Melrose, I found Cumberbatch chatty, amusing and curious. Today, wearing a T-shirt, grey hoodie and cream cords, he is in a more sombre mood. He is prone to embarking on long trains of thought that sound as if he’s debating his answer as he delivers it. Perhaps it’s because he’s very tired, he says. When we last met, in 2018, his second son was barely a year old. Now he is a 47-year-old father of three boys, aged eight to four, with his wife, the theatre and opera director Sophie Hunter.

In his new television series, Eric, he plays Vincent, a dad in 1980s New York who loses his son, aged nine, near a dodgy disco with a history of child prostitution. He wasn’t sure about taking the job at first — filming was in Budapest and he worried about time away from his family, but he found the script compelling so flew back and forth.

Lucy Forbes, the director of Eric, says Cumberbatch drew on his own experience of fatherhood for the role. “We were filming a scene where he’s standing outside the school, he’s been drinking, and a single tear falls from his eye,” she says. “Five minutes before that he’d been kicking a football around. He stepped on set and wept. I said, ‘How did you manage that?’ He said, ‘Because I have three boys.’”

I relay this to Cumberbatch and he stirs uneasily. “I think drama can teach you an awful lot about yourself. If they knew where my mind was going in that scene, good luck, because even I don’t know. And I don’t need to play a bad father to realise my shortcomings as a dad.” He gives a brief laugh and shrugs. “I can’t escape myself completely. There’s always going to be elements of me at play.”

This may be why he loved the puppet work he had to do in Eric. His character is a puppeteer who runs a Sesame Street-style show called Good Morning Sunshine and Cumberbatch performs song and dance numbers with the aid of a marionette (he can sing well). “Puppets are like masks, they say the things that we can’t,” he explains. “They’re like jesters in a medieval court able to expose truths, lies, hypocrisies and idiocies. And they can risk things that we can’t.”

Cumberbatch is guarded about his family — “and this is where we come to my privacy”, he says to deflect any questions about his personal life. It’s something he has been careful about since becoming a father, and with good reason. He has been the subject of intense attention since he broke through as Sherlock Holmes — the former chef Jack Bissell was given a three-year restraining order in 2023 after he attacked and vandalised the Cumberbatch home while the family were inside.

Stephen Moffat, the co-creator of Sherlock, says Cumberbatch has always been conflicted about stardom and the attention that comes with it. “Stars need talent, appearance, the right role at the right age but also ambition,” Stephen Moffat, who was a writer on Sherlock, explains over the phone. “Benedict is not ruthless — but he wanted it. He was getting impatient. Everyone was saying he was the coming man in his mid-thirties. At the time we cast him, Martin Freeman was the show’s big name. And [Benedict] became a star in one night. He was on a motorcycle coming over to my house as the first episode went out and by the time he arrived he was a celebrity. Our phones were jumping off the table.”

Cumberbatch’s mid-thirties impatience was understandable. He’s from a family of actors — his father, Timothy Carlton, has a long career on stage and small screen while his mother, Wanda Ventham, converted early roles in Carry On films into regular comedy work in Minder and Only Fools and Horses. They played his parents in the third series of Sherlock.

Since Sherlock, however, his career has outstripped his parents’. He’s played Doctor Strange in six Marvel films, voiced Smaug and the Necromancer in three Hobbit movies, the Grinch in two and Shere Khan in Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. He was never entirely of that blockbuster world, though, also playing Dominic Cummings in Brexit: The Uncivil War and Henry Sugar in Wes Anderson’s version of Roald Dahl’s story. As the superhero franchise world falters, his Eric performance delivers with the intensity of The Power of the Dog or Patrick Melrose, his 2018 drama about a posh Englishman struggling with addiction after his father abused him.

Eric is an emotional thriller written by the screenwriter and playwright Abi Morgan, whose previous work includes The Split and Suffragette. She was inspired by her time as a teenage nanny in New York and wrote it with just one actor in mind. “I thought [Cumberbatch] has got to be an asshole,” she says. “The surprise for me was that he genuinely wasn’t.” It co-stars Gaby Hoffmann (who played Adam’s sister Caroline in Girls), superb as Vincent’s increasingly estranged wife, and McKinley Belcher III as Detective Ledroit, a gay cop in a homophobic force investigating the boy’s disappearance.

The longer his son is missing, the more Vincent loses his hold on reality. He conjures up an imaginary giant puppet, Eric, to help him to find his son. Cumberbatch provides the voice for the beast and there’s rich, dark comedy in his battles with the plodding fluff monster, who trails him through the city offering dumb plans or mean critiques.

The New York we see is beset by problems, grappling with the Aids epidemic and widespread homelessness, which Cumberbatch got his teeth into.

“Mental health, homelessness, racism, sexism and a host of prejudices.” He ticks them off on his fingers. “We’re always told to arc away from that, or pivot is the term, I think, in PR talk. But drama should always have relevance, however sad.

“It has to speak to the world and have resonance. It doesn’t have to be worthy, but it has to be worthwhile.

“We may not have an Aids pandemic today, but we’ve had Covid, which created fear, it created isolation and created intolerance,” he points out, noting the battles over masks and vaccines. What’s unique to the here and now is the disconnect between us all as people welded to our phones, says Cumberbatch, who has said he subscribes to Buddhist philosophy. He sighs as he speaks about “the electric babysitter we carry around in our hands, which feeds a disconnect through the promise of connection. I mean, that’s a whole other conversation.”

Morgan based the show on her time as a teenage nanny in the city when New York looked just like it did in the movies — and the production captures that era’s look with precision. She wrote her story of “two little boys lost in the city” with just one actor in mind.

“We were pretty far down the line in terms of the scripts, and I knew Benedict had range,” she says. “He can do Doctor StrangeThe Imitation GameThe Power of the DogPatrick Melrose. But I thought he has got to be an asshole, hasn’t he? The surprise for me is that he genuinely wasn’t. I suddenly understood why those actors get the big bucks they do because they get on stage or camera and there’s an alchemy.”

Cumberbatch has his pick of parts but says, “You gravitate towards things that mean something to you or the zeitgeist. It has to speak to the world and have resonance. It doesn’t have to be worthy, but it has to be worthwhile.”

He adds, “If there is a choice …” but he’s at that rare stage in an actor’s career where he can not only pick the roles he wants, but studios will wait for him. The Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson recently revealed that Marvel postponed the movie’s release date from the profitable summer to the less bankable autumn to ensure they could cast Cumberbatch as the eponymous lead.

Eric shows Cumberbatch slowly collapsing from arrogant artist to hopeless bum in a grinding, catastrophic arc. He passes through so many states in the six episodes — does Vincent encompass themes from his entire career?

There’s the New York heroin addict of Melrose, homelessness as in Stuart: A Life Backwards (2007), where he plays a writer creating a memoir of a homeless alcoholic, and with the complex and unlikely solving of clues from a map scrawled on a wall, Vincent even resembles Sherlock Holmes.

“I see where you’re going,” he says. “But look, at one point I was the clever outsider scientist with problems communicating. The next, I was the know-it-all arrogant lead. Next, men wrestling with homosexuality, then posh people. Around the Oscar campaign for The Power of the Dog I was giving an interview at a film festival and somebody said, ‘You’ve played over a hundred characters on film alone.’ I was like, ‘Bloody hell!’ So there’s bound to be crossover.”

Many of his roles — including Vincent — are also troubled men with unsupportive parents, but he’s keen to stress his loving upbringing.

He muses for a moment and concludes: “I suppose that’s one of the best things about my career … I love that I make my parents proud.”

Eric is on Netflix from May 30