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Sherlock – How star Benedict Cumberbatch updated the role

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Sherlock Season 1 - Benedict Cumberbatch
Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) © BBC

Benedict Cumberbatch seemed destined to star in a mystery series – his father, Timothy Carlton, has played characters on Poirot and Inspector Lewis, and his mother, Wanda Ventham, has also appeared on Inspector Lewis and had a recurring role on Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. So it seems natural that their son Benedict should take on the role of the greatest ‘consulting detective’ of them all, Sherlock Holmes.

But this is Holmes with a twist. Instead of setting it in the 1800s, co-creators and producers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have updated it to 2010. The series Sherlock premieres this month on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery!

We spoke with Benedict about the challenges of playing the iconic role in modern day Britain.

How does one go about playing someone as iconic as Holmes?

Sherlock 1.01 - Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch
Episode 1.01 A Study in Pink - Dr John Watson (Martin Freeman) and Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) © BBC

It is the most played literary fictional character (in history). It’s in the Guinness Book of Records for it. I follow in the footsteps of about 230-odd people, in many different languages, different ages, different times as well

I think for any actor to play an iconic character there’s a huge pressure that’s associated with delivering something that everyone knows culturally, especially in my country.

So playing Holmes was quite nerve-racking, but there is an element of a blank canvas, because of this brilliant reinvention and reinvigoration of him being a 21st century hero. And while it maintains the integrity of Conan Doyle’s original, much to the enjoyment, I hope, of die-hard fans of the books, I hope we can turn new people and kids onto the books.

Did you do much research as far as watching any other actor’s interpretation of Holmes?

I didn’t watch a lot of interpretations before filming, specifically. But I had over time seen Jeremy Brett, seen Basil Rahtbone, who, I think, are my two ultimate late-Victorian Holmeses. But I did read the books.

When you watched the other actors’ portrayals of Sherlock, did you think to yourself, ‘I really have to do this differently’?

Sherlock 1.02 The Blind Banker - Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman © BBC
Episode 1.02 The Blind Banker - Behind the scenes with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman © BBC

Yeah, of course. I would be much more concerned about doing a late-Victorian Holmes, that’s been superlatively portrayed by Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone. They are very big shoes to fill, but when you know you’re going to be stepping into (modern clothes) you don’t have to worry about the traditional silhouette. You don’t have to worry about the deerstalker (hat) and the pipe.

Modernizations can often be an excuse for reinvigorating a franchise just to make money and it can be really dire. But I knew Steven and Mark were huge Holmes fans, so I knew it would be very true to the original. And the minute I started reading the script I felt it was going to be a lot of fun. Then I met with them and we read it and all laughed and we talked about what the Watson/Holmes relationship would be and there they’d go, and I felt it would be terrific fun.

Can you talk about your relationship with Martin Freeman who plays Dr. Watson?

He did a superb audition and he was my primary choice. We immediately sparked off. He’s an adorable man and a very supportive man in real life as well. We’ve had tremendous fun doing this series.

Can you go back to the very first time you picked up a Sherlock Holmes story? Were you a school boy?

Yeah. I would have been about 12 years old then I first read it.

What did you feel like as you turned each page as the story unfolded?

Sherlock 1.03 - Benedict Cumberbatch
Episode 1.03 The Great Game - Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) © BBC

Hungry for more. It’s just very addictive reading, and it’s an utterly absorbing world. It’s thrilling as a child to read those books. You get drawn into a London which suddenly becomes alive like a pop-up book, but brilliant in the other era, and this incredible ‘Dickensian’ rich tapestry of characters and extraordinary adventures.

When kids pick up a Harry Potter book these days, the little boys imagine themselves as Harry, the girls as Hermione. When you were reading the Sherlock Holmes story, did you imagine yourself as him?

No. I just really enjoyed reading them. I enjoyed being in their company, but I didn’t aspire to have their adventures.

I think the great brilliance of writing the Harry Potter books is that there are generations growing up in the timeline with those characters. So you can very easily imagine yourself at Hogwarts. I went to Harrow School. So I can imagine myself at Hogwarts! That’s a dead joke to an American. Harrow is like Eton, but it’s on a hill and it looks like Hogwarts.

Are there any characters you might want to see if you do more of these?

I’d love Hound of the Baskervilles, there are all sorts of things I would love to do, or characters that I’d like to be involved. It’s a mixture of the new and the old, so some of the plots, the characters and the relationships and the details of their lives are very much drawn from the original.

Both of your parents are distinguished actors. Was there a time when you were a kid that you aspired to be something else, or did you always want to act too?

They worked incredibly hard to give me a very privileged education, so I could do anything but be as stupid as them and become an actor. But unfortunately, I didn’t pay any notice, like a lot of children, to their parents’ wise words.

For awhile I toyed with being a criminal barrister in a ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ thing. I had a romantic notion of that requiring a bit of acting and dissimilation and audience influencing and I thought that would be quite fun.

Are your parents happy with your choice?

You’d have to ask them, but yes, I can tell you they are very endearing (and proud).