EXCLUSIVE – Benedict Cumberbatch Star Trek Into Darkness Interview

Is it hard to conjure empathy for the character given the sheer carnage?

Always, always… whenever you play a character when you’re in the middle of it you have to go there, otherwise I don’t know how it would work. I’ve never been on the side of the character judging it. I know what you’re saying, but then a lot of this is extraordinarily fun because it’s live action, it’s real jeopardy, you actually see us fighting in real places. And yes, there’s some wire work but there’s also a hell of a lot of real action, real jumps, real kicks, real fighting, real running, real explosions, real jumping through exploding glass windows, all that shit… – sorry, I keep swearing – which is really exciting, because the jeopardy feels closer, because it’s not just in space or SFX, although there is some wonderful spectacle. When I saw some clips, my jaw was on the floor… I went fuck, this is a very angry, violent man! But hopefully people will come to understand why he does what he does, and maybe have not a forgiveness but an understanding of it, at least.

In the same way that the 60s Star Treks were all snapshots of the cultural concerns of the 60s?

Yeah, yeah, without a doubt. And I think that’s another thing that JJ’s brought to the franchise – a currency that’s highly relevant. And I say that outside of being a fanboy who knows all the details of all of the films, but certainly within the early TV series I saw that, and I felt it in this as well. It would be impossible not to draw parallels to the modern world, sadly, the political landscape that we live in and the general upheaval of certain parts of this world. It’s kind of brave filmmaking. It’s a mainstream film that has a lot to say about mainstream politics, and yet it’s cloaked in this extraordinary action adventure that is Star Trek.

No great villain ever believes they are a villain…

Of course I appreciate that. A bit like no one playing a hero believes he’s playing someone faultless. We can go round in circles with the generalisations and say how every one of us is particular and what we bring to a role to make it sound more enticing or to keep people interested without being bored by not being told more, but I genuinely believe… well, I know, because I’ve been offered other things in the past that haven’t intrigued me, because there’s no dilemma… There’s a massive dilemma with this character, and it should test the audience’s loyalties.

But is there a part of you that feels that this character you’re playing is the actual hero of this film?

Like I said, arguably in his own mind, of course. Whether the audience goes that far, I don’t know. We’ll see. And I haven’t seen it all, so genuinely this isn’t me just trying to be vague – I don’t know how JJ’s framed it yet. I really don’t.

So he’s very much a cerebral villain, but at the same time…

A highly capable warrior, yeah. It’s a great toolkit to have. It’s exciting. I’m thinking of people like Loki in Thor – Tom [Hiddleston]’s a friend of mine, and in any description you give of a villain you can always find a crossover. But I think there’s enough that’s original and enough that’s intriguing about this one.

Was it a first for you to play that kind of physical side?

Physical side, yes…

I know Sherlock gets into a few fights…

Yeah, he does, and I’ve done stunts and swordwork and horseriding, a cavalry charge, stagefights that I’ve done, night after night, stuntwork in Frankenstein… I’ve been quite physical all my life. I played Stephen Hawking when I was about 26… There have been elements that have been physical or stunt oriented in all my work, but this was the most intense work I’ve done. To go up from a 38 to a 42, eating 4000 calories a day and training sometimes two hours a day in that period, at least, as well as all the stunt rehearsals and fight choreography rehearsals,.. Yes, that was the most physical demand ever made of me for screen. The hardest it’s ever been was probably Frankenstein, the test of time of running that two hours, both parts, but especially the Creature. I genuinely really enjoyed it. The overeating isn’t fun at all – it’s kind of unethical apart from anything else. But it got results. I was doing it for a reason and it got results. And the exercise was terrific – I loved the oxygenated blood that was just flying around in me. And I just enjoyed having a bit more heft on me. Yeah, Sherlock’s quite lean, he doesn’t have very broad shoulders. I think I was quite thick-necked because of all the stuff I’d been doing as the Creature at the National, but then I lost weight again doing Sherlock and then I had to try and put it on again doing Parade’s End, but there was a lot of padding, there was stuff in my mouth, these things called plumpers that fill out like braces, sort of Marlon Brandon effect in The Godfather but not cotton wool, so there’s a bit of that going on. I really had to up the ante with a really carefully structured diet. But it was fun – it was the first time I’d really intensely shape-shifted.

How much of the geek gene do you actually have?

Not very much. I’m not very geeky. I’m quite homespun. I would say I’m more modern rustic than gadget-orientated. I like woollen things and log fires and whiskey…

But in terms of old Star Trek, how much of a fan are you?

Like I said, I obviously have a latent fan fixation with it because of how thrilled I was when everyone got together in the first reboot of it. I never was obssessive about anything I watched when I was a kid, except maybe The A-Team. And I loved Airwolf and I loved Knight Rider and then later Baywatch. I would always try and get near a TV to watch one of those, but I was never obsessed.

Do you comprehend the fan gene?

Yeah, I think I do. I completely understand. I’ve just not had that singular focus on anything in my life. I like to be able to move from one world to another. I guess that means I travel lighter. I completely get it, though – it’s like having a team, being a supporter, all the travails and ups and downs, that similar sense of a tribal belonging.

Nick Setchfield

Star Trek Into Darkness opens in the UK 9 May from Paramount Pictures

For more of SFX’s Star Trek Into Darkness coverage – including interviews with JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Christopher Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana and Karl Urban – pick up a copy of our latest issue, on sale now. You can also order it online here and download a digital copy here