Benedict Cumberbatch on His Villainous ‘Star Trek’ Role: “I was terrified by what I was doing”

If you haven’t yet heard of Benedict Cumberbatch— and I do mean “heard” because of his instantly recognizable voice — get ready to see (and hear) a lot more of him.  First, he stars as the villainous John Harrison (doesn’t that name sound like the most alias-y of aliases?) in Star Trek Into Darkness and voices the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy.  In a conversation with The Wall Street Journal, Cumberbatch talks about this major shift in his career and what he thinks about his Star Trek character.

Cumberbatch admits that while he had empathy for the character, his own performance scared him when he saw it in IMAX.  He explains, “I think with any characterization there’s a point where you empathize, no matter how much of a deviance his or her actions may be from your understanding of humanity. You have to empathize, and that can go for the people who perform despicable acts. Having said that, when I sit in my own audience now—which is a very weird thing to do for an actor on any given day, especially with a film this big, in an IMAX theater, in New York—I was terrified by what I was doing. I don’t have kids but I’m quite glad at this stage that I don’t have to go, ‘Just look away, dad’s not like that.'”

Though he isn’t known for physically demanding roles, Cumberbatch was very particular about all the physical aspects of Harrison.  He says, “It was very fast, the casting, so I had to go into a really quick exploration of his exterior first. Costume [and] makeup played a huge part in that. J.J. and I tried stuff and I was like, ‘I don’t want to have long hair,’ ‘I don’t want to have big, flowy jackets.’ I want to be quite naked in this. The physicality for me was very much about having incredible, sudden violence. The containment of emotions wasn’t like brute strength, like Bane [in The Dark Knight Rises] or kind of a bulldozer, but someone who was like a spearheaded arrow who would just carve his way through people. I wanted there to be a real suddenness to his motions, absolute ruthlessness, and then in repose I wanted it almost to be like sleep mode for that body. The physicality can just lay to rest and become more reptilian and very cold-blooded. I wanted it to be something still enough so that Kirk, everyone in the audience, would lean in and examine him.”

Cumberbatch finds himself in a very different place as an actor than he was a few years ago being that he is now in blockbusters.  He admits that he hopes this isn’t completely where his career is going, pointing out, “It’s difficult because nothing’s preordained by plan and you can’t control it. That’s one of those joys and thrills and nerve-racking realities of being an actor. A lot has to do with luck, no matter what your talent or contribution can be. I would say they came to me, which is kind of the way I always wanted to work anything on this scale. Not because I’m dubious about big films in Hollywood as such, but because I’ve enjoyed the sort of privileged, rich mixture that actors in London—who are lucky enough to work in the first place—get between theater, television, radio and film.”