Sherlockology with Benedict Cumberbatch
Indian television these days, is a hotch-potch. While desi serials cannot get out of the saas-bahu sagas and kitchen politics, myriad programmes from all genres from the West seem to have found a wide audience amongst people of all ages. One of the crime dramas to come from Britain in recent times is the fabulously popular Sherlock. This contemporary adaptation of the classic detective novel written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has caught the fancy of one and all, the world over. Presently, the Season 3 of Sherlock has been making one and all go ga-ga, as it is shown in India on the AXN channel. Benedict Cumberbatch as the very intelligent but quite brilliant private-eye has caught everyone’s eye and the appreciation still pours in, even as the BBC Crime Drama was launched in 2010. In a transcript interview provided to The Punekar courtesy BBC Worldwide, Cumberbatch speaks about playing Holmes.
Why do you think the show has been such a global hit?
People just love the relationship between Sherlock and John. They’re both very self-aware and affectionate, but also very truthful with one another. There are really a complimentary team. John humanises Sherlock, and Sherlock gives John a shot of adrenaline and adventure and the chance to live a life less ordinary. That’s a very potent combination.
What function does Watson play in the relationship?
Because of how brilliant Martin is as John, he’s a great way in for the audience. They can relate to him as someone of their own world and go on adventures with him. They both suffer and enjoy the intolerable person that is Sherlock Holmes. The relationship with Watson draws Holmes back to the human realm, from which he has been distanced for a big portion of his life. It makes him a better detective and a better human being. I don’t mean that Sherlock is suddenly interested in holding babies or eating frozen yoghurt. The great gift that Watson gives him is to make him more human. And if you’re a better human being, the more likely you are to empathise and therefore, be a more skilful detective.
Does Sherlock possess superpowers?
No. He’s actually very grounded as a human being. He doesn’t have a sonic screwdriver or superhuman capabilities. He is not born with these great gifts. It comes from his conditioning rather than his nature. It’s just that he has learned to curtail his appetite in order to perform at an exceptional level, whether it’s being in a state of near meditative concentration or the speed of his physicality or his ‘mind-palace-ing’ to make a deduction. So Sherlock is actually a lot more human than he ever lets on.
What are Sherlock’s weaknesses?
I think his biggest human weakness is not understanding the strengths of being human. He tries to outplay what it is to suffer under the human condition. He’s trying to be godlike, to be above the everyday and sometimes I think he misses out as a detective because of not being able to interact on a human level, and John stabilises that. I think he doesn’t have too many weaknesses apart from that. I think it’s the things he lacks in his humanity that are his weaknesses. He can’t engage with love, a family, otherness. He has to work on his own. It’s very solitary and hard but I do think he’s chosen to ignore those feelings for a long time. I don’t see those as failings, I see those as choices. I think we all judge him on a paradigm that is based on our own experience of what it is to be human. He’s trying to do something extraordinary with his time on earth that separates him, not because he thinks he’s better but because he realises that in order to do what he has to do he has to be separate from what the rest of us do. So I don’t think this is a failing. He is different, but nobody who is different has failed in this life; I think to say that he has failings would be to castigate anyone who does not live by the status quo and that would be a terrible, prejudiced thing to say.
Yes to an extent, but to talk about it anymore would be to give away what we’re doing. John marries in the books and I think it works. There’s obviously a change, as there should be. There’s still going to be a lot of John Watson at 221B Baker Street, a lot of them working together. It’s not suddenly going to be a show about John popping in occasionally for a cup of tea, they are a combined force. I’m very much enjoying the gear change, but I think you’ll see that it’s something that works out very nicely.
How difficult was it to play this new element of Sherlock?
It’s been a joy, actually. As an actor you crave a character to have a developmental arc and the wonderful thing about television is that it affords you that over a period of time as opposed to the contractions of the massive story arc of a novel in two hours of a film. But the writers are very alert to that and they know what our strengths are and wrote very much to them in the second season. With the new season they’re trying to test us and shift us in a new direction so yes, I’ve really enjoyed playing the differences and the challenges he faces.
Sherlock is a special role for an actor to slip into. Did you do anything special to prepare for it?
I always go back to the books because they are an endless goldmine of reference and character observation. Beyond that I start to try and memorise things, to try and be a little more alert to things, whether it’s short or long term memory. I look at my diet a little more specifically which is very helpful for clarity of mind and a sense of being in his skin, having his energy. Also (it ties in with) his relationship with food because he does fast in the books. He sees food as an obstacle because it slows down the metabolism, it reduces the ability to have a keen, hungry eye. There’s exercise as well, I try to meditate if I can. The rest of it is just collaboration, whether it be with the directors, with Martin or the rest of the cast and crew, just getting back into the swing of being in this family.
Are there a lot of similarities between you and Sherlock?
You’d best ask the people who know me, like my mother or my girlfriends of old! There probably are a few similarities. My mum says I can be very impatient when I’m playing Sherlock. He’s a very intense character, and I don’t want to carry that around me. One thing I have noticed is that my memory does sharpen when I play Sherlock because of the amount of text I have to learn. Also I find myself looking at people’s shoes and body language and trying to deduce things from them. I do that because I have a professional interest. But I’m afraid I’m rubbish at it!
How do you feel about the global success of the show?
It’s been incredible. The gob-smacking thing about it is people who have been icons to me forever have been coming up to me to say much they adore it. At the Golden Globes, for instance, Ted Danson from Cheers came running across the floor and said, “Oh my God, it’s Sherlock. You kill that!” and I’m thinking, “This is all the wrong way round!” It was the same when Meryl Streep told me, “I love Sherlock.” I thought, “That’s so wrong”. But I can get to right the balance by telling them how much I love their work and how they have been inspiring me and millions of others for years. But to have this meaningful interaction is amazing. Just to be afforded contact with the people who have inspired me is a very heady feeling.