What do you do if you wake up to discover your colleagues implying that you have it easy? If you’re Benedict Cumberbatch, you just stick to your Star Trek script and carry on trying to destroy the world.
Benedict Cumberbatch (educated at Harrow) was in the crossfire when Downton Abbey’s Rob James-Collier (Stockport working class and proud) implied that actors from public schools have it easy and suck up all the best jobs. James-Collier reckons you need a rich family behind you if you’re to survive the early years and stick it out until some decent-paying jobs come along. And James-Collier isn’t sure that rich kids make devoted actors. ‘If I’d had a comfort blanket I wouldn’t have been as passionate and driven,’ he said.
Having spent the first part of this year examining all things Cumberbatch for a new Behind the Scenes biography, I’ve got to say that The Batch is about as passionate and driven as they come. Yes, Downton’s Julian Fellowes is a pal of his actor parents. Yes, he admits he’s the ultimate ‘posh bloke with a silly name’. But that’s not stopped the new Star Trek baddie from paying his dues.
Agents and casting directors I spoke to say Benedict surprises everyone by the number – and the variety – of jobs he takes on. If there’s an overlap of dates he’ll try to juggle things so he can take as many roles as possible. If there’s a choice between a holiday and a job – even something as low-paying as a Radio 4 comedy show – then he always takes the job.
Why the ferocious work ethic? It’s partly because he wants to prove himself to the world, and to his peers. It’s also because he’s terrified of being type-cast. For years the man The Sun calls ‘the brooding brainbox’ worried that he would be forever cast as ‘slightly asexual, sociopathic intellectuals’. And there are less of those on telly than you might think, especially in drama.
That’s why he still reads radio scripts and won’t rule out a return to live theatre. That’s why he is going back to Wales this year to film the third series of Sherlock – even though you might expect him to be kicking back in Hollywood. After the madness of Star Trek we’ll see him act alongside Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and Laura Linney in a trio of big films before Christmas.
He’s certainly hoovering up a lot of great jobs. But that’s not because he had posh parents. It’s not because his posh school gave him an unfair head-start. In fact, when Harrow old-boy Andrew Birkin tried to give Benedict the lead in The Cement Garden, the teenager turned him down.
The work Benedict does for The Prince’s Trust suggests he knows he’s been lucky and he wants to give something back because it’s not been a bad result for someone who admits he was ‘a hyperactive nightmare’ and a ‘tearaway’ as a boy. Benedict had a gun held to his head in a car-jacking in South Africa; he was a boy in a hurry and he’s not a man to slow down. His story’s not a bad lesson for anyone who wants to hit similar heights.
Benedict Cumberbatch: Behind the Scenes is out now as an e-book from Endeavour Press (£1.99).