Read below a great interview Benedict gave to Physics World, the British Institute of Physics magazine, featured on this month’s issue but also available online.
Benedict Cumberbatch: the imitation game
By Andrew Glaster
Over the years I have spoken to scientists and actors alike for my podcast The Cosmic Shed, where we explore science and science fiction in equal measure. One actor I’ve interviewed who has portrayed several different scientists is Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s starred in three science-themed movies – first as the botanist Joseph Hooker in Creation (2009), then as the mathematician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014), and most recently as the inventor Thomas Edison in The Current War (2019). He’s also played Stephen Hawking in the 2004 TV film Hawking and Werner Heisenberg in a BBC radio adaptation of Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen (2013).
“I do like my scientists!” Cumberbatch laughed when I asked him how he had come to be cast in these roles. “I think it’s partly because of the way I look. I could never achieve anything like what these men [I’ve played] have achieved but I think what I can do is portray the thing about them which enabled them to achieve these things – that is their humanity.”
It’s the great stories that most attract Cumberbatch to these parts. For his role in Creation, it was the intimate friendship between Charles Darwin and Hooker that grabbed him, with the pair having exchanged more than 1200 letters over a period of almost 40 years. In one, for example, Darwin revealed how he was “particularly glad of our discussion after dinner; fighting a battle with you always clears my mind wonderfully”.
“That story about how Darwin and Hooker struggled with their friendship to get [Darwin] to publish On the Origin of Species…Hooker’s love for Darwin and his family and trying to help this brilliant but difficult man bridge the gap…I just found that fascinating,” Cumberbatch says.
Despite not being a scientist – he studied drama at university – Cumberbatch has long had a passion for science. “I’ve always loved botany, loved biology,” he says “I love flowers. Love the prints of flowers. The old drawings that Hooker and people like him did and the conditions they did them in. I just think these people were astonishing and if you can shine a light on their story and examine them a little then that’s just great fun.”
Physicists may best remember Cumberbatch for his appearance in Hawking, which was nominated for a BAFTA TV award for best single drama in 2005. “[Hawking was] trying to tackle the biggest questions we face. How did we get here? Is it just us? The most profound questions about existence. Tied to that is a man with an extraordinary biographical story. To bring the beauty of his science and his personal battle, I mean what a joy. What a joy!” Cumberbatch also voiced Hawking’s words for the 2010 documentary series Into the Universe, written by Hawking himself, and even gave a reading at the late physicist’s memorial.
Cumberbatch is famous for putting a lot of research into the roles he plays. “It’s one of the great privileges of this ridiculous privileged job I have. While I cannot hold on to some of the pure mathematics at the centre of those theories, some of the principles are beautifully simple and poetic. You live your life as prose but you think of it as poetry and that’s what art can bring to science. It can extract the image and the idea and turn it into something abstract which can be more easily absorbed.”
“That said, [films] can only ever be adverts for these ideas – the brilliant work of these men and women.” Indeed, he says that the biggest kick he got from starring as Sherlock Holmes in the TV series Sherlock (2010–2017) was when sales of the original books soared. “People are looking beyond this to something they can get to grips with and understand for themselves,” he says. “We can help to galvanize an interest in that. Films are great trailers for the real event. Selling the stories and science beneath.”
As a fan of cinema as well as a star of the medium, Cumberbatch firmly believes that film, as an artform, can play a useful role in science communication. “It’s wonderful that science can be explored with everything that cinema has to offer as an artform because you can make ideas real in a way that the written word often cannot,” he says. “You can help kickstart the imagination.”
Cumberbatch also thinks science fiction can help attract people into science in the first place. “There are kids who go to watch the movies and think ‘oh well a black hole probably won’t open up at the end of my garden’ but they can become fascinated by the science,” he says. “If you can transfix children through the art of cinema then you are doing a great service for science.” Indeed, Cumberbatch says his own interest in science probably came from science fiction, and he has recently played scientists in the genre – most notably Stephen Strange in the Marvel films Doctor Strange (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018).
“Science and cinema will forever be bound because there is so much science in the art of making cinema as well. The people who cut, grade, edit and operate the machinery and light on the day of shooting – these are very smart people with very scientific minds. Even within itself, cinema has a loop which needs science. It needs science to shine light through whatever you are projecting onto a screen to see an image which bounces into your retina and plays tricks with your brain.”