As many of you already know, I traveled down to the film festival in Gent on October 11th for the screening of Parade’s End. I had arranged for an interview with Benedict Cumberbatch the next day, thanks to my internship for a magazine/website. They only gave me 15 minutes with him but we had a very relaxed yet meaningful and interesting conversation about Sherlock and Parade’s End.
Many of you have been waiting anxiously for the final version of this interview, so here it is. I hope you enjoy it - I had an amazing time interviewing Benedict :)
So please do read on (press the “read more” button) and don’t be afraid to let me know what you think, I appreciate any kind of constructive criticism!
You’ve played Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, now Christopher Tietjens - all of these characters are based on novels. Does that make it easier to play them or harder because it limits your creative freedom as an actor?
It definitely makes it easier because you have the most fantastic templates by large, unless you are doing something radically different. You have wonderful literature as a – no pun intended – back story and characterization. In the case of Sherlock, everything is written from the point of view of John Watson; he is the audience and the audience always weighs in. The books contain such a detailed analysis of physicality and psychology. Sherlock’s mood changes, his temperament, the light in his eyes, the gleam, the troublesomeness about him… Everything, every quirk, every detail, every change of pace. And it is all there: the blueprint for every characterization of Sherlock Holmes. That is why I am very close to the books, even though we deviate from them a little bit. As opposed to Elementary, I guess we are much more focused on delivering a modern version of the stories. It still makes a lot of sense to bring a Victorian hero to the modern times. Because even in the books, Sherlock was always a modern man; he was always in his lab, just not with multi-media technology.
How was this specifically the case for Parade’s End?
The same goes for Parade’s End; the books are a huge insight. It is a non-linear, modernist novel, so there are quite some complexities that do not occur in Sir Conan Doyle’s work. I had to deal with streams of consciousness, with one scenario having multiple points of view, time jumps… But a stream of consciousness is a great way to look inside the soul of a human being, so it’s wonderful. Playing a character that is based on a book does not at all limit the creative liberty – it humanizes things. I think it is very good to read about a character; it all comes down to imagination when you are engaging with that fictional world and the words of that world. As a character, it’s always a challenge to convince people to go in with you and be part of that world. So the communication of that does not limit you, it just helps you.
If you compare Sherlock Holmes to Christopher Tietjens, do you believe there are certain similarities between these two characters or not?
Not at all. They are both intelligent, fast thinking, and they don’t suffer fools gladly. There is a sort of level of mediocrity they have to endure in the world and, in Parade’s End, Christopher is utterly crucified by this over time. I am wary of playing characters who are intelligent, slightly atypical, and antisocial. But Sherlock is not why I got the job for Parade’s End. Tom Stoppard and Susanna White wanted me to do this years before there was ever even talk of Sherlock. Apart from the limited palette – or whatever you would like to call it – I have as an actor, I don’t see too many similarities between Sherlock and Tietjens.
So according to you, Sherlock and Christopher are not at all the same?
You could draw some similarities but that would be stretching the point. Tietjens is a man who is out of his time and thoroughly modern, like Sherlock. But at the same time, he is a proto-liberal, even though he is ascribed to Toryism. Christopher’s version of Toryism never came about in the modern world. He was someone who believed in a pyramidal structure of a society and that the responsibility was as much to kick up as to trickle down. That is what modern Toryism is all about; it is an excuse for rampancy, for free-market capitalism, and for entrepreneurialism at the cost of everything else. Because “oh well, if the economy is strong and everything at the top is strong, i.e. bankers, businessmen, traders, property developers, then everybody else – small businesses, the middle workers, the white-collars and blue-collars – will be alright.” They will be taken care of because things are good and will trickle down. But that is exactly what is happening now and it is bullshit. There is a growing disparity between rich and poor, and Tietjens spots that. He sees where the world is heading. And his great care and love of his men, of animals, and his unsentimentality about those things as well… He’s a pragmatist, the same as Sherlock. Because Sherlock is not soulless; he doesn’t not care for people, as is proof by the strangle hold Moriarty thinks he has over him at the end of Reichenbach Fall. Moriarty knows where Sherlock’s Achilles heels are, and they lie in Sherlock’s affection and his for people. Just because he doesn’t go around giving out Christmas cards doesn’t mean he doesn’t love them. I think Tietjens is far more sentimental, far more heart-on-sleeve, which is why I think he is not comparable to Sherlock at all. Yeah, he is smart; he can come up with a scan of a sonnet. Christopher is just intelligent. But if characters could be compared like that, then we could lose very quickly any kind of ground of enriching cultural experiences. Because I think that all the best characters are intelligent. They all have a level of intelligence, anyway.
Could you give an example of another intelligent character in Parade’s End?
Look at Sylvia (Rebecca Hall). She is intelligent as well but she is frustrated with the level of Christopher’s intelligence because she is not well educated. She married above her intellectual equal and that is very frustrating for her. But, look at her! She is brilliant, and there is a huge pain and suffering to that. Sylvia is not all a Cruella de Vil, pressing all the buttons. She is a deep well of unhappiness. Basically, she is bipolar and manic depressive, without a doubt. She would have been sat in a chair, prescribed up to the eyeballs, and “fixed”. I believe Sylvia and Christopher are two people who are utterly in love with each other, up until the end. They are very much in love with each other, but they are utterly wrong for one another.
For Sherlock you had to learn how to play the violin, and for War Horse you had to learn how to ride a horse. Was there anything in particular that you had to learn for Parade’s End?
Tom Stoppard’s script. (laughs) It was mainly the military discipline. Parade’s End gives an obscure look at the war as well, and that is what gives it that whiff of authenticity. You know it was written by a man who experienced the war when the mundanities are at the forefront of the drama. It is not about the romance of the frontlines that we know from Wilson or Sassoon. Parade’s End is much more about the cruel accidents of heroism, about casualty, violence, and mundanity. It is exactly that, and the tragicomedy on top of it. Especially when you get see the bureaucracy of World War I. The whole thing was based on a whole cat’s cradle web of ill-advised compacts, gentlemen’s agreements over glasses of wine, and people cutting up Europe, which didn’t even belong to them half of the time. But it is these absurdities that meant that everybody fell in; no one was going to escape this war. World War I was ironic because two deaths resulted in millions of deaths. And in Parade’s End, those little things allow you to see it through the personal, because that war was very personal.
How would you describe Christopher?
Christopher Tietjens is very grateful and he loves his men. That is why it is so painful to read the book - I completely fell in love with his character. He is a very good human being; his values and virtues are those I would love to live by. Like why he does not accept the pace of modern change until the very end, until he’s forced to… There is a lot of what he says that I hold to be true. And there is that one prophetic moment in the first episode that he has with his father; Christopher says: “it’s all coming.” And the thing about Tom’s script is that all of ir was sort of headline, all of it was so rich in meaning and purpose. I still revelled in it while I was watching it yesterday, even as an audience member.
Yesterday you saw the final two episodes of Parade’s End for the first time. How do you feel when you watch yourself on the big screen?
Strange. You can’t process it. It is very odd, an almost out-of-body experience. You are in your own audience, and it is peculiar. I am just so very self-critical, for example about my physique. I just think: “fuck, why does one nostril do this and one nostril does that?” (laughs) There all sorts of things you notice about yourself at that moment. Although, what was particularly nice about Christopher was any lack of vanity. I didn’t have to worry about his looks because of anything he was going through. In the novels, he is described as a baggy bolster, a meal sack of a human being, with skin at the back of his neck that people want to dig claws into until it bleeds. He is a podgy punch bag of a man, so I didn’t have to worry about any sense of vanity for the character. So when I watch him and he goes (bends his head backwards) and I’ve got three chins, I don’t have to worry about it. (laughs)
Was it a special experience to watch Parade’s End as a part of the audience?
It is always lovely to watch it from the audience but it is nerve-wracking. But it was the first time I had seen the last episode of Parade’s End, and the first time that I saw the structure of it. I know that last episode was a bit of a battle for the crew, and I know that Susanna had many discussions with HBO, BBC and VRT about how to end the story. I was sat in the middle of that yesterday, trying to digest the whole shape of it, and at the same time noticing myself on screen. I had done it before, though. I got a really big kick when I went to New York and I saw from behind the scene how people were watching the second season of Sherlock. By that point, I had already seen the episodes a few times myself, and I got real kicks out of what the audience got out of it. It was fantastic. But the first time I had seen the second season of Sherlock myself, we had a screening for it in London, and the audience were laughing and cheering at plot points and relationships. It is very good when you see the currency of something you care about being exercised, and I think that is the real value of it. That screening was very thrilling, especially for Mark (Gatiss) and Stephen (Moffat). They were saying: “it’s never going to be this good again.”