The Sherlock Emmy winner is back in the awards mix in a fantastic biopic on Alan Turing, the British codebreaker who helped win WWII—only to be imprisoned for being gay.
“Did you know that it was an openly gay Englishman who’s responsible for winning World War II?” asks a distraught Ned Weeks, an openly gay crusader in the HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart. “Why don’t they teach any of that in schools?”
His name was Alan Turing, and during World War II, the math prodigy led a team of cryptanalysts and codebreakers at Hut 8—a sector of the UK’s Government Code and Cypher School. Turing’s team was ultimately responsible for cracking the German Enigma code, thereby granting the Allied Forces access to once-indecipherable Nazi dispatches detailing the location and activities of the Germany navy. The intercepted messages helped the Allied troops defeat Germany, and Winston Churchill would later confess that Turing made the single biggest contribution to the war effort.
You won’t find him in many history books because, in 1952, Turing was convicted of “indecency” for being a homosexual—then a crime in the UK. He was given the choice of two years in prison or oestrogen injections, tantamount to chemical castration. He chose the latter. Two years later, at the age of 41, the war hero ended his own life with cyanide.
Turing is brought to thrilling, devastating life by Benedict Cumberbatch in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, which will make its premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. It’s a worthy tribute to one of history’s forgotten heroes, and should spell more awards glory for the ever-versatile Cumberbatch, who’s fresh off an Emmy win for the BBC miniseries Sherlock. Tyldum’s film chronicles Turing’s life, from his early days as a bullied schoolboy to his heroism during World War II and the horrifying witch hunt that broke his spirit.
The Daily Beast sat down with Cumberbatch at the TIFF for a wide-ranging discussion on the legacy of Turing, a homophobic incident that left the actor scarred, and much more.
Alan Turing is someone who has, by and large, not been entirely scrubbed from the history books, but certainly doesn’t have a prominent place in them.
He’s not as prominent as he should be. That’s the tragedy isn’t it, really? You have a guy whose life he cut off himself at 41.
There are different schools of debate on that though, right? Some conspiracy theorists believe he might have been offed due to the confidential knowledge he possessed, while others, like his mother, believe it was accidental.
This is my penny’s worth about that. Obviously, he was involved with very, very important, secretive work at Bletchley Park at the time of his death, and like Mark Strong’s character Mingus says in the film, “There will be other wars,” and the fact that we cracked this code this time, if people knew about that, we’d have to destroy almost everything. With all of the secretiveness, of course there’s potential for a conspiracy theory, because MI6 thought he might be dangerous, but I think that’s pooey. The only thing that’s in contention, really, is whether he died by accident or on purpose. His suicide note is framed to make it look like an accident. His coroner’s report said that it was a solution of cyanide and water, and then there was a bite of the apple. I think he made it look like it could potentially look like an accident so his mother wasn’t disgraced by the idea that her son committed suicide. She was already in denial about his sexuality.
He would’ve definitely played a larger role in the history books if the crazy homophobic witch hunt after hadn’t happened. And the fact that Turing was only posthumously pardoned by the Queen late last year is pretty insane.
It’s disgusting. It gets me very, very angry.
The petition to pardon Turing was actually shot down in 2012 by Lord McNally, then Justice Minister.
Who’s Lord McNally? Well, he’s probably gay. They’re always the biggest homophobes. That’s shocking, but sadly not in ways that still have echoes of what that period was about—this deluded paranoia that everyone who was homosexual was immediately a communist. It was the same witch hunt with us. Being homosexual was a massive red flag—no pun intended, but pun intended. That world of men living in secret about their sexuality was an incredibly clandestine place, which made it a very rich and fertile ground to accrue spies from—because their entire lives were held in secret. It’s like the radicalization of young Muslims now—things work in close proximity, and it spreads by word of mouth. If you have people of the same ilk side-by-side, that’s the best way to spread a secret. You don’t want it publicized, and you have to do a great deal of subterfuge. Being a homosexual in that era was considered morally repugnant, punishable, and curable.
The scenes of Turing undergoing the chemical castration are really gut wrenching.
And it’s still going on in North America with the Christian far right! There are courses and doctors and meds handed out to “cure” people of their homosexuality, and it’s shocking that it still goes on. It’s also shocking that any time there’s any kind of hardship, the minorities are immediately scapegoated—and that includes homosexuals in Russia, the Golden Dawn in Greece. The Golden Dawn came out of a financial crisis and people wanted answers, and the minute you start stirring up nationalistic feelings, minorities are the first people to get it because they’re the easiest to scapegoat. It’s terrifying.
There’s still a lot of homophobia in the U.S., as well.
Oh, the Christian far right? Yes. Very homophobic. You need to have a female president next, and then after that, a gay president. That’s the full journey from Obama’s legacy onwards. There’s a great Morrissey lyric from “America Is Not the World” from You Are the Quarry that goes, “In America, the land of the free, they said / And of opportunity, in a just and truthful way / But where the president is never black, female or gay, and until that day / You’ve got nothing to say to me, to help me believe.” It’s quite an old song from before Obama took office, but you’ve done black, then you need to do female, then the next, gay.
Did you ever have any experiences with homophobia? Bearing witness to it?
In an all-male boarding school, in the olden days, it was seen as being something that “just happened” since there were no girls, so you had a bit of an experience. But there was incredible homophobia at my school, to the point where two boys who were caught doing something were literally chased down the street.
I was 18. Two boys who were just discovered in bed together doing something, and it was shocking. I was just finishing an essay in the school dining hall at breakfast, and I looked out the window and heard a commotion, a pair of feet scampering by, and then a horde just charging after shouting, “Wankers! Faggots!” and I thought, “What the fuck is going on?” I asked these kids coming back from the house who were breathless from the hunt, “What are you doing, you insane idiots? What the fuck?” They explained it, and I said, “And you’re a Sikh, you’re Jewish, and you’re from Kenya. Do you want to just sit down and talk about the strife that your people have suffered because of your religion, race, creed, or color? I mean, fuck me! You’ve really got to wake up to the fact that the world is full of disgusting prejudice because we are all different from one another. You have to learn acceptance at this school, and you have to go into the world as a better person, and you have to try and embrace the fact that people are different rather than defining yourself by not being like them. Who cares that they’re gay? You have to coexist.
That’s also a good song—“Coexist” by The xx. But another way this film is very relevant to today, in addition to gay rights, is the idea of the hacker, or “disrupter,” as outsider. Two of the biggest of those, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, are currently persona non grata in much of the Western world.
True. In exile in Russia, poor Edward Snowden. It’s interesting: Outsiders are becoming mainstream. That’s the truth. You see it in culture, as well. Bryan Singer’s X-Men series is an entire celebration of what oppressed minorities are capable of. I think that’s a really healthy thing that’s happening in our culture. We have a lot more unlikely heroes now. It’s not just the guy with guns—it’s the guy with brains.
Well, the powers that be have never liked “disrupters.” Hell, Jesus was a disrupter. They’re all about social order and maintaining the status quo.
There are some sides of it that are really bad.
Like all this hacking going on.
Yeah. I think invasions of privacy are not to be tolerated. At the same time, that’s a much more complicated question because sometimes, by revealing truths, we understand better what truths are being kept from us and therefore how undemocratic our seeming democracy is. It’s a balancing act. You have to respect certain rules of law and progressive means of facilitating change from other avenues. If you rebel and throw all principles out the window, you lose traction. Intelligence-gathering isn’t always the bad thing to do, and if you’ve got people on the ground who are part the movement who could help us understand ISIS better instead of…
…just saying “Let’s bomb the shit out of them.”
Yeah. A retired intelligence officer was talking today about how we should let returning jihadis regain entrance into the UK. Why wouldn’t we want to learn from them what the hell is going on over there? What made them want to do it? Who recruited them, and how to stop the recruiting? What, we just shut the problem out? Yes, I understand that it stems from a security concern that one of those returning radicals could then carry a bomb onto public transport, but if it’s managed—and I think with those who are known, how could it not be managed?—how would we not benefit from them being reabsorbed back into our culture?
You mentioned ISIS, and you’ve done some work with the Stop the War Coalition in the UK, which protested against the Iraq War. ISIS is it seems, to a degree, a byproduct of the crap job we did in Iraq.
It really is. The usual means of showing your prowess and strength just won’t work with this. You can’t kill an idea with bombs—in fact, you often strengthen ideas with bombs. To really understand [ISIS] is how we’re going to be able to start combating it, and changing it. Although, I think there’s nothing else in the world that would make any right-minded person want to be totally opposed. If there was conscription and I was asked, I would go, because it’s fundamental to every person’s ideology on this planet, no matter what race or creed you are. It’s their way, or death. That’s as clear-cut a divide in morality and principles as we’ve faced with fascism in the Second World War, and we haven’t really had a uniting common understanding in something that’s so the polar opposite to what’s sacred in life than that, really. It’s a form of ethical and moral genocide, as well as the idea of race. It’s about killing everyone who doesn’t believe—even Muslims who don’t believe in the same extremity of what they believe in. It’s astonishing, and terrifying, and needs to be opposed. But, I do think the smart way of doing it is to understand it totally first.
The two performances everyone’s talking about at the festival are you as Alan Turing, and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. There’s an interesting connection there because Hawking was one of the bigger celebrities that lent his name to a Telegraph op-ed demanding that Turing be pardoned posthumously.
And I played Stephen, as well. Eddie even texted me from Harrow, my old school, underneath a chalkboard with my name on it while he was dressed as Stephen Hawking. It was one of the most surreal, hall-of-mirrors experiences I’ve had of the past year.