EXCLUSIVE - Benedict Cumberbatch Star Trek Into Darkness Interview

You may have seen our exclusive interview with Benedict Cumberbatch in the latest issue of SFX (and if you haven't we'll charitably assume you were doing time on a Klingon prison world). Now, as an online exclusive, here's the complete transcript of that chat as the Sherlock star discusses shape-shifting, the geek gene and the fine art of "blowing apart" Star Trek Into Darkness...

Is it quite a strange position to be in, promoting a film while under a bit of a gagging order?

It’s a rare commodity, a little bit of enigma, a tiny little bit of mystique. And I think it goes a long way, because we do live in a world where everything is spoiled, everything is known, and it’s about oversaturating an already very volume-filled market with who can shout the loudest and stand the tallest. And I’m kind of grateful to JJ for creating it, in a way. I can understand how it must frustrate some people, but I think most of us, secretly, are quite glad of it, no matter what our job is, either side of this table, because as an audience I loved the first film, and I loved Super 8 , and I didn’t know that much about them, especially not the Star Trek film. I realised I was a latent Trekkie when I was watching the first film and getting a real kick out of the origin story and how everyone got together in that sequel/reboot that he created, and how apt and brilliant they all were in fulfilling those roles and the echoes of the great actors that had come before them and played them on the TV series initially. I was utterly in thrall to it as a movie, because I genuinely didn’t know what to expect – to be crying within the first five minutes at that extraordinary act of defiant bravery, the rescue sequence, the birth in the shuttle… And then every bit of bonding that happened after that, the immediate comedy of Kirk and Bones, was brilliant, I was laughing out loud. I was completely hooked in. And the same with Super 8 . I’m happy to sign up to that.

Did JJ and the guys have to brief you in the dark acts of subterfuge?

No, I’d already signed up – I must have drunk the Kool-aid when I first arrived. Which is a terrible metaphor. That is about being in a cult, right?

It’s a reference to the Jonestown massacre…

Yeah, exactly. And most people died. But I’m still alive and very healthy and very happy… What I mean is I don’t feel like I’m obeying orders. I feel like I’m obeying an artistic impulse to let people come to it with a little bit of mystery, and have a discovery when they’re sat in the cinema, because that’s such a rare commodity these days.

Did you follow the speculation online? All those photos of yourself slapped onto Ricardo Montalban’s torso?

Or Spock, or Klingons or Vulcans or any other of the speculations… no, I didn’t. I mean, I saw them, but I didn’t go searching for them. Maybe when I was in make-up someone would go "Look at that!" It’s great. It’s part of what’s brilliant about entering this universe. There’s such an incredible knowledge and possession and pride in this world that the fans hold. But I didn’t let that try and influence me too much because they’re rather like Sherlockies – as I’m going to have to call them now, since Trekkies have such a profound collective noun – people who are fans of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock, and then Brett and Rathbone’s Sherlock… I had big boots to fill [with Sherlock ], and I didn’t go into this with the same kind of confidence, but I did know I was entering a very treasured universe for its fans. But it’s about pleasing the man who’s entrusted me to do that. So if I’m crap in it it’s all JJ’s fault. Because he trusted me to do it [laughs]. I’m very, very happy if the fans go along with us and are happy with what we do. From the first film JJ’s managed to traverse that very difficult, fine tightrope-wire walk of proving that he can both make a good film and satisfy a massive world of fans.

Well, as anyone does in the first day at the office – and especially if it’s an office that’s already worked together before. It wasn’t because they weren’t familial and inviting, they really were, but I was just nervous because it was my first day. But they were probably nervous on their first day – their first days were a lot earlier than mine in this shoot because I was cast so late, so I had a little bit of leeway to get there.

But in terms of stepping into this universe, and the nature of the scrutiny that accompanies it – it’s not just another acting job…

That’s exactly how I view it. It is another acting job. That’s exactly how I view it. If you wake up every morning with the concern of all the preconceptions and all the needs of all the fans of this huge thing you would just be paralysed with indecision. You can’t please everyone. So I made a compact with my director, my writer, producer and fellow actors to deliver on a part that they had the promise and the respect to give to me after an audition process to prove that I could do the role. And the rest is just what we did together. So that was why I was joking about if I’m rubbish I blame it fully on JJ – he’s very happy with what I’ve done, so hopefully others will be and I feel primarily that my job as an actor is done. We’ll see, won’t we, but he was very, very enthused by what I did, so I’m excited to see it.

What sold you? Was it the chance to work with JJ, the opportunity to be a part of this or how impressive the script was?

It’s a huge, huge film and it’s a big part in a huge film. They wanted to up the ante with the villain, because you’ve established those characters – so much of the first Trek film is about that, and I thought Eric Bana did a phenomenal, unrecognisable job, he was brilliant as that Romulan. But this required something that was going to blow that incredible, beautifully cast and realised unit apart. So they really had to up the ante a little bit.

What kind of dynamic does your character bring?

He’s a homegrown terrorist. He’s someone who has an inordinate amount of skill with close-hand combat and weaponry but also as a psychological terrorist he’s someone who can plant an idea that’s as vicious as a bomb and explode loyalties and expose relationships and try and turn people against one another to do his bidding. He really disrupts the unity aboard the ship, both physically and mentally. And he’s a worthy adversary – there’s a lot of shadowplay going on with him and Kirk and Spock, Kirk primarily, but both of those characters - he knows how to manipulate them.

Is there something of Lucifer about him, whispering poison into someone’s ear?

At points yes, definitely. Terror can be as much about an idea as it can be an explosion. It’s about the idea of fear and what you should be fearing, who the real enemy is. And that can get very confusing for people who are fighting for a superpower. And that’s the parallel, I guess, that makes it unfortunately very relevant – the means may be disgusting and violent and destructive and abhorrent, but the intentions or at least the motivation is sort of honourable. Not that I’m condoning terrorism, but it’s a guy fighting for something that’s smaller than the thing he is fighting. And hopefully when the reasons are revealed you’ll have a certain amount of empathy for that, which makes him a little bit more than just an obstacle, just a cookie-cutter 2D villain.

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 Trek s 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

Nick Setchfield
Editor-at-Large, SFX Magazine

Nick Setchfield is the Editor-at-Large for SFX Magazine, writing features, reviews, interviews, and more for the monthly issues. However, he is also a freelance journalist and author with Titan Books. His original novels are called The War in the Dark, and The Spider Dance. He's also written a book on James Bond called Mission Statements.