LOS ANGELES — If the title character of television’s “Sherlock” ever went looking for Hollywood’s Holmes, it would be the quickest case in the history of scenery-chewing sleuths.
That’s because Benedict Cumberbatch — who plays a modern-day version of fiction’s greatest detective on the British import now airing Sundays on PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!” — lives in a vintage L.A. wood-frame house that sits less than two blocks from the sleek offices of Robert Downey Jr., the American movie star who keeps it Victorian on the big screen.
“It’s just right over there,” Cumberbatch said with a nod of his chin as he sat at his dining-room table. “I should go throw eggs or do something. I’ve never met him. I think he got a few (press) questions and then after a few more he was like ‘Who is this kid Cumberbatch?’”
You won’t hear that question in the United Kingdom, where “Sherlock” is a full-tilt prime-time sensation and, with its brilliant but quirky misanthrope, can be thought of as the metric conversion of “House,” although the detective’s caseload concerns the newly dead of England instead of the recently sick in New Jersey.
The show, created by “Doctor Who” veterans Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (and, working separately, Arthur Conan Doyle), costars Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson, an army doctor who was injured in Afghanistan and finds himself as the only true friend to the eccentric “consulting detective.”
The show is playful (there’s much humor, for instance, about the perception that Holmes and Watson are a gay couple) but it’s not as proudly daft as “Doctor Who.” Holmes also doesn’t spend as much time smiling at people.
“If he’s charismatic, it’s an accident of who he is,” Cumberbatch said. “He’s an odd entity. He’s sociopathic and there is a vicarious thrill you get watching someone who carves his way through bureaucracy and mediocrity like a hot knife through butter.”
The second season finds Holmes himself under the magnifying glass, Cumberbatch says.
“He’s a deconstructed and more vulnerable character who is easier to relate to and care about,” the 35-year-old actor said. “But it’s a slow learning curve. He’s still staggeringly smart, violent, physically capable, irreverent, comically rude — to idiots or anyone vaguely in his way — and dangerous.”
Americans are getting clued into “Sherlock” — more than 3 million viewers tuned in to the second season premiere that aired on PBS last weekend — but the import’s strongest domestic endorsement has come from CBS executives with their announced plans to film a pilot called “Elementary” that also puts Holmes in the here and now. Except the “here” is Manhattan, not Westminster.
Word of that new show sent Moffat into a tizzy (he had met CBS about an official stateside adaptation), but Cumberbatch projects only mild interest in the topic and has nothing but warm wishes for star Jonny Lee Miller (who costars in Tim Burton’s new “Dark Shadows”) as he looks for clues on American television.
In a way, Cumberbatch is accustomed to seeing Miller as sort of his British-lit doppelgänger: The two actors starred in Danny Boyle’s stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” at the National Theatre and alternated roles each night, taking turns as the heretical scientist and the patchwork monster.
“I view it like any of the classical characters in the canon of Shakespeare or Chekhov, there will always be new interpretations,” Cumberbatch said. “I think Holmes is the fictional character who has been (in screen incarnations) the most. I’m 76th or something? People compare you to others and that’s fine, I can deal with that.”
Yes, but how long will this Sherlock stay at the scene of the crime? More and more, the actor is hearing the siren call of larger screens and a wider world.
There was, for instance, the call Cumberbatch received out of the blue from Steven Spielberg, who had seen the actor’s television work and wanted him for “War Horse.” That job led to a surreal moment on an awards red carpet when Spielberg introduced the actor to Clint Eastwood.
Cumberbatch got strong reviews for his work in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” which featured the deepest British cast this side of Hogwarts, and it added to a film resume that already included “Amazing Grace” and “Atonement.” Cumberbatch turned heads with the 2004 BBC drama “Hawking” too, finding the cosmic but also the connectible in the role of Stephen Hawking.
Moffatt says that Cumberbatch — whose mother and father put together long careers in television and onstage — was a star just waiting for a spotlight when he arrived at his “Sherlock” audition.
“He was already one of the most admired actors of his generation and, within the industry, universally tipped for stardom,” Moffat said. “We were the lucky ones who gave him the breakthrough part. The challenge of Sherlock Holmes is to play a show-off, self-obsessed egotist and yet still be loved, and actually very few people have pulled it off. I may be prejudiced, but I don’t think anyone has pulled it off as well as Benedict.”
The next phase of Cumberbatch’s career will take him into Federation space and Middle-earth — in other words, he’s going to Planet Comic-Con.
Later this year, Cumberbatch will reteam with Freeman in New Zealand on the set of “The Hobbit: There and Back Again,” the concluding half of Peter Jackson’s two-film adaptation of the Tolkien fantasy classic. It may be a bit tricky to recognize Holmes in this disguise, though; he will be voicing the Necromancer of Dol Guldur and then doing the voice and motion-capture performance for Smaug the Golden, the great dragon who serves the story as both its Darth Vader and its Death Star.
Cumberbatch is also at work on a project that could transform his career with warp-speed whiplash — he’s playing the villain in the new “Star Trek” feature film, adding his name to a considerable list of British actors that includes Tom Hardy and Malcolm McDowell.
The notoriously secretive director J.J. Abrams is keeping the film beneath a cloaking device, but the Internet is certain that Cumberbatch’s role is the tyrannical Khan — Ricardo Montalban’s famed role on 1960s TV and the 1982 feature film “The Wrath of Khan” — but Cumberbatch flinched at the topic, as if he isn’t allowed to hear the question, much less utter an answer.
Cumberbatch won the role based on an audition video that was shot and sent with an iPhone. According to Bryan Burk, Abrams’ producing partner on “Trek” as well as “Lost,” it was all about the scale of the talent, not the size of the screen.
“Benedict has an incredible presence and brooding intensity,” Burk said last week. “To say he’s a welcome addition to the ‘Star Trek’ cast is an understatement; he’s an actor that truly captivates his audience.”
Time will tell if Cumberbatch cracks the mystery of true Hollywood stardom. He’s gotten used to the uncomfortable attentions of a personal trainer and a nutritionist that helped him add the sinew necessary for Starfleet duty. His face grew dark, though, while talking about gossip pages back home that have portrayed him as a posh sellout living in the decadent sunshine and pounced on the end of a decade-long relationship with a college girlfriend.
Looking ahead, he said his goal is to steer away from typecasting and repeating himself (“I want to be able to play trailer-bound fatties in a Judd Apatow comedy”) and keep a balance in his own life and clear recollections of his path and past. He flipped up the locks of hair on his forehead where the skin is mottled in patches — a remnant of his days as a laboratory creation in “Frankenstein” and the makeup process that burned and ripped at his skin.
“I have actual acting scars,” he said. “That’s what they are ... and the sunshine here just makes it worse if I’m not careful.”