Last updated: October 11. 2013 7:12PM - 2383 Views
AMY LONGSDORF For The Times Leader

Benedict Cumberbatch, star of 'The Fifth Estate,' says there's no one method to his acting.
Benedict Cumberbatch, star of 'The Fifth Estate,' says there's no one method to his acting.
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Suddenly Benedict Cumberbatch is everywhere.

Just a couple of years ago, the British actor was best known for his small supporting roles in “Atonement” and “The Other Boleyn Girl.” Then in 2010 he took on the mantle of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective in the BBC-TV hit “Sherlock,” and almost overnight he became the toast of London and eventually Hollywood.

He began 2013 with a juicy role as the dastardly villain in J.J. Abrams’ summer hit “Star Trek Into Darkness.” And over the course of the next four months, he’ll pop up in supporting parts in three of the season’s most anticipated entries.

He plays a slave owner in “12 Years a Slave” (opening Oct. 25), the fact-based account of a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 1840s New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Cumberbatch voices Smaug in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (Dec. 13) and portrays a member of Meryl Streep’s messed-up clan in “August: Osage County” (Dec. 25), a family-dysfunction drama sure to rack up awards come Oscar time.

And that’s not all. There’s also Cumberbatch’s first leading role in “The Fifth Estate,” opening Friday. In the Bill Condon-directed drama, he plays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Does Cumberbatch ever take a break?

“Apparently, I had 10 days off in the summer, but they went by in a bit of a blur,” he says with a laugh. “It’s been a busy, busy year but it’s an embarrassment of riches that I’m loathe to complain about. I’m really enjoying it. As my character Sherlock says, “A new job is as good as a change.’ Change is as good as a rest.

“It’s been an amazing time, and I’m really enjoying it.”

Cumberbatch is so popular at the moment he even has a rabid fan club who call themselves the Cumberbitches.

“I didn’t ask (them to use the name),” explains the actor, who has been single since his 2011 break-up with his girlfriend of 12 years, actress Olivia Poulet (“The Thick of It”).

“But they’ve said, ‘Oh, no, it’s only a joke.’ Look, that’s one of the least offensive nicknames I have on the Internet. There’s all sorts of nonsense (I’ve heard about my name) ever since I was in school.”

In 2014, the Cumberbitches will have plenty to cheer about. Reportedly, their man is the first choice to play the villain in J.J. Abrams’ upcoming “Stars Wars VII.”

“No, no it’s all rumor,” the actor, 37, insists. “It’s all gossip. Nobody’s been offered anything. I’d like to do it, and I’ve said many times that I’d like to do it. J.J. knows where I live.”

While Cumberbatch awaits Abrams’ call, the actor has been busy promoting “The Fifth Estate” at various film festivals around the world.

The biopic, which begins in 2008 when Assange was still an unknown computer whiz, chronicles the WikiLeaks founder’s transformation into — take your pick — a daring hacktivist or a dangerous terrorist.

At the center of the movie is the tortured friendship between Assange and his former spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl). The pair had a falling-out over the so-called “The Iraq War Logs” in 2010. At the moment, Assange lives as a fugitive in Ecuador’s London Embassy.

Earlier this year, Assange reportedly got a hold of an early draft of the “Fifth Estate” screenplay and contacted Cumberbatch to express his displeasure.

“I tried to justify my reasons for doing the project, and that was where that ended,” the actor says. “It mattered to me a lot that he felt so passionately, but I wanted to persuade him that it wasn’t necessarily going to be as bad as he feared … from the script he’d had leaked to him. That was a very old draft.”

Cumberbatch insists “The Fifth Estate” is anything but an attack on Assange.

“It was important for me to portray him as a three-dimensional human being and not get into a slugging match about whether he was good or bad,” the actor says. “I wanted to portray the human characteristics of this man at the forefront of this incredible media revolution.”

To play Assange, Cumberbatch not only wore what he calls a “skunky badger thing” of a white wig, but he donned contacts and a prosthetic device that changed the shape of his teeth and bottom lip.

It all helps, says Cumberbatch, the son of British actors Tim Carlton and Wanda Ventham. “The time I put on the wig and came into the room, people were like, ‘Wow,’ and that’s a great thrill when you (know) something’s working.”

Before he shot “The Fifth Estate,” Cumberbatch traveled to Bartlesville, Okla., to play the son of Chris Cooper in “August: Osage County.” The film, based on Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, pivots on Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), a woman dying of cancer whose husband (Sam Shepard) mysteriously disappears.

Back to Osage County come Violet’s daughters (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson), but the family reunion, which includes appearances by Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale and Cumberbatch, is far from a happy one.

“I play Little Charles, who is this adorable lost soul trying to find a place in a world which has cut him out,” the actor says. “He’s in love with someone who is very close to him, but it has to remain a secret, and that tears him apart.

“He’s constantly being belittled by a sort of destructively loving and protective mother because of the secret surrounding who he really is. He’s a pretty tragic figure but a rather beautiful soul.”

“I loved that job. I loved the play. When I read they were making the movie, I thought, ‘I’ve got to audition; I’d kill to play that part.’ “

Cumberbatch says sharing scenes with Streep was a career highlight.

“Sitting around and watching Meryl was amazing. … All of us just forgot to act in character because we were all in audience-mode. It was stunning.”

While hanging out with Streep one day, Cumberbatch asked her for some advice on nailing Assange’s Aussie accent.

“I was about to do Assange, and I asked her, ‘Where do you start?’ because obviously with Julian, I’m not Australian. I don’t have the same speech pattern as he has, nor do I have his other physical attributes, like the way he holds himself and his gestures, all that sort of thing.

“So I said to her, because she was just doing this incredible tour-de-force playing someone who has cancer and who’s high on drugs and who … is vulnerable and in attack (mode) and who’s lost and vampy. … I was just wondering how she was playing this orchestra of a performance.

“And she said, ‘I don’t really know. This (role) was different. It all came at once.’ And she said, ‘How about you?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t have a method.’ “

“I wasn’t schooled in a method. I have tools that I carry around really gratefully from my time in drama school, and I have tools I’ve learned from working with people like Meryl and great directors like Bill Condon and Danny Boyle and Thomas Alfredson.

“But both Meryl and I agreed that if you have one way of approaching (acting), it can limit what you do and what other people can do with you. It was reassuring and a really nice moment with Meryl.”

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