DETROIT — Benedict Cumberbatch’s mission at the moment is to boldly go into a conversation by phone from London about “Star Trek Into Darkness.”
“They’ve let me off for a few days to have some fun with my ‘Trek’ family and say hello to the world awaiting the film and talk about it,” says the 36-year-old British actor, who’s in the midst of shooting the third season of “Sherlock,” the popular “Masterpiece Mystery!” series on PBS. “Then I’m back to sleuthing tomorrow in Cardiff.”
The man with the deep, melodious voice has been the subject of a thousand jokes about his name, mostly from Americans. There was a viral moment last year when the Web wrongly assumed the Washington Post had called him Bandersnatch Cummerbund by accident.
Starting this weekend, he’ll likely have a new moniker: blockbuster star. In “Star Trek Into Darkness,” he plays John Harrison, a man of mysterious motivations and an imposing combination of imperturbable calm and destructive capability.
The Web has been burning up with speculation about John Harrison that equals the overall anticipation for the movie, the second installment from director J.J. Abrams, who rejuvenated the franchise with 2009’s origin story “Star Trek.”
This one is shot in 3-D and bursting with summer popcorn goodness like breathtaking action scenes, fun asides and the ominous threat posed by Cumberbatch’s character, an intergalactic terrorist.
“The phrase I’ve been using is that he’s a one-man weapon of mass destruction. He both uses mind and body to great devastating effect, with an incredibly empathizable cause and reasoning behind his devastating, terrifying actions,” says Cumberbatch. “I think that was the great complexity that I just loved playing, whether it was in psychologically trying to manipulate Spock and Kirk to my point of view and to help me achieve my ends, or whether it was the amount of physical working out and muscle gain I had to get literally overnight.”
Up to now, Cumberbatch hasn’t had to bulk up for work. As the famous detective Sherlock Holmes and in cinematic dramas like “War Horse” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” he’s been more involved in cerebral battles than physical ones.
For the “Star Trek” role, the stage and screen actor went to great lengths to build menacing muscle mass. That involved eating 4,000 calories a day, a rigorous workout schedule and lengthy training in the art of stunts and onscreen fighting.
“I went up four suit sizes in just over a month,” he describes. “The actual physical thing of eating that much food in a day is hard work. You hardly finish swallowing the last portion of ham wrapped around cheese before you’re then going for a boiled egg and more protein-based shakes or, thank God, maybe a salad or an apple in the middle of it all.”
The process was good preparation both mentally and physically, according to Cumberbatch, who says he’s “still pretty cut, but I’m more lean” these days.
“It does make you feel very present in your body. You have a lot of oxygenated blood running around your system. It’s great for the mind as well as being comfortable in your own skin, if you will. It really did feed into that character. If I’m at all convincing in the role, it’s in no small part down to that.”
Cumberbatch is the latest Brit to land a major role in a superhero / sci-fi movie, a group that includes Tom Hiddleston (Loki in “The Avengers”), Henry Cavill (Superman in “Man of Steel”) and Andrew Garfield (“The Amazing Spider-Man”). But he doesn’t bite at the suggestion that British actors are nabbing such roles because they bring Shakespearean depth.
“It could be just a moment of synchronicity and chance,” he says, adding that it’s thrilling to see so many of his contemporaries doing so well.
Cumberbatch is also modest about his heartthrob status among dedicated fans who swoon for his literate characters, otherworldly cheekbones and confident presence, as outlined in a Huffington Post essay on “the Benedict Cumberbatch situation.” In it, the female author writes of creating a “Cumbernest” of wine, water and British chocolate at home to watch one of his movies.
But he seems ready for the attention that a “Star Trek” movie could bring. His parents are both actors (his father, Timothy Carlton, played the judge in the trial of Mr. Bates on “Downton Abbey” recently) and his mother, Wanda Ventham, especially, has experience with acting in cult hits. The stunning Ventham has played roles in the long-running fan favorite “Doctor Who” in three separate decades.
Cumberbatch talks enthusiastically about his mother’s status as a cult star. He recalls how “Sherlock” creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat “were clapping their hands with glee” when they realized that she was his mother. And some of the compliments he hears about her from strangers are slightly uncomfortable for a son.
“I’ve been stuck in lifts and all sorts of odd places, slightly too close to people of a certain age, men” who’ve confessed their early crushes on his mother, he says with amusement. “Did I really need to know that, about what you thought about my mum in that way?”
Cumberbatch will costar with Meryl Streep in “August: Osage County,” director John Wells’ adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning play. But his serious dramatic credentials, or the fact that he was more of a “Star Wars” kid growing up, don’t get in the way of his appreciation for the “Trek” franchise.
“It’s so clear to me why it’s still successful. They’re brilliant morality plays that explore what it is to be human and the human condition on such a universal level,” he says of the groundbreaking TV series that used an outer space metaphor to fight prejudice and intolerance and has continued to tackle important themes in subsequent spinoffs.
“At its heart, it’s about inclusivity and that’s a really positive thing to be a part of,” says Cumberbatch.
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