Benedict Cumberbatch is talking Edwardian manners, the brutishness of croquet and a million other things that segue rapidly into each other while my brain struggles feebly to keep up. He is making me a cup of Earl Grey, and a single question – shall we share a teabag? – has triggered this rush of inspiration, from tea ceremonies to post-colonial theory. It’s fair to say that Cumberbatch is both a thinker and a talker.
His features – the huge almond eyes, the sweeping Cupid’s bow, the acute tapering from cheekbones to chin – can, in repose, hint at something extra-terrestrial; lit with animation, however, they’re charmingly boyish. He’s soon to begin shooting a TV adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s First World War novel Parade’s End, hence the current obsession with Edwardian England – Cumberbatch prepares meticulously for each new role with a welter of study and likes to immerse himself in the relevant historical and cultural detail. So what, I wonder, did he do for his part in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, his latest film? Learn Russian? Write ciphers?
He says he did go on a secret solo mission – to kite surf in Morocco. “It was the first time I’d gone on holiday on my own,” he says, looking, as he says it, much younger than his 35 years. “I was in Essaouira and because my character was a spy originally stationed in North Africa, I walked the streets alone at night imagining what it was like for him – the oppressive doorways, the dark alleys.”
Cumberbatch has recently had his pick of roles: starring alongside Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s sold-out Frankenstein, directed by Steven Spielberg in War Horse and cast by Peter Jackson in The Hobbit. But he has, he admits, always wanted to play a spy – “any actor worth their salt would jump at the chance”, he says, “because it’s all about mask shifting”. His opportunity finally came thanks to Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish director of Let The Right One In, who cast him in his adaptation of John Le Carré’s celebrated MI6 thriller – a film that is already being talked about in the industry in hushed, Oscar-worthy tones.