Benedict Cumberbatch on the Importance of Building a Character’s Backstory
“It’s important to understand the who, what, where, why of the character before you meet him” – Benedict Cumberbatch
Considering his roles in Sherlock, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hobbit, and Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch has had quite the fanboy-friendly career in addition to all of his other extraordinary credits. He recently participated in a webchat for The Guardian and was asked by a fan about whether or not he builds backstories for his characters. Cumberbatch revealed that he did, and then spoke at length about why he does so and the methods of his development process:
Yes, I do build up a backstory in my head even if it’s just for me. I remember asking Steven Moffatt what his backstory was for Sherlock – “Oh, he’s just brilliant!” was his response. That’s lasted until this series, where you’ll find out a lot more about his backstory. As far as preparation goes, it’s important to understand the who, what, where, why of the character before you meet him.
That helps the character employ those tactics for whatever action they’re trying to perform, which can necessitate a limit of choice as well as a discovery of new things to be learned as an actor to portray the character with. For example, a character I played in a Martin Crimp play called The City at the Royal Court, was describing an incident where he was humiliated in his new job to his wife, and I began to characterise the voices in his story when Katie Mitchell [director] pointed out that it was unlikely he would have the confidence to do that as opposed to me, because I could. Those differentiations are vital, but often (and this really ain’t no humblebrag) I’m chasing the tailcoats of my character’s abilities, whether it’s their intelligence or professional excellence, or even their ability to sing/play piano/ride a horse/paint some of the great works of modern art! All these things require a heavy tutoring in new skill sets, one of the many privileges of our job, ie getting to learn new stuff and continuing with a form of further education, I suppose. And the results, while varied, sometimes work, but it’s all smoke and mirrors, and I often feel like a horrible fraudster. I think the worst is when I played violin as Sherlock – a skill that takes years of childhood and adolescent practice time.
…But just to finish, vocal and physical differences, prep of any sort, work on a backstory, learning a skill, all has to be given time and when it isn’t you run into generalising, and I’m fully aware I’ve done that on occasion, and so aim to create enough space around my work so there is enough space between roles and I have enough time to honour the tasks each present me with.