The ones nearest the front have been camped out for hours, bodies wedged against barricades—a scrum of people ten rows deep, jockeying for position, climbing lampposts for better views, and rendering blocks of King Street, Toronto’s main downtown drag, impassable. “Denzel must be coming,” a middle-aged male passerby surmises, since this is a Toronto International Film Festival premiere. But no, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch, a movie star without a hit movie to his name and a made-for-meme, extreme-Brit sex symbol who plays his most notable roles (Sherlock Holmes, Julian Assange, Star Trek Into Darkness’s Khan) with a powerful whiff of sexlessness.
But neither logic nor common sense seems to apply to the seismic force of female hysteria that follows Cumberbatch wherever he goes. It happened at TIFF last year, too, when he was promoting his Assange movie, The Fifth Estate, which went on to become the biggest wide-release flop of 2013. And it’s certainly happening now, at the Toronto premiere of The Imitation Game, which is very much not a blockbuster but a World War II period piece about the antisocial British cryptographer (and gay martyr) Alan Turing. By festival’s end, it will have won TIFF’s People’s Choice Award, which has previously gone to The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave—a strong predictor that the math movie and its hot-nerd lead actor stand a good chance at the Oscars.
A black SUV approaches, and the shrieking begins. The crowd jostles forward, hundreds of arms with cell phones raised aloft, pointing through the cloud of homemade collages of Cumberbatch’s face. “He’s so dishy!” titters one frazzled redhead carrying crude drawings of Cumberbatch in the BBC’s Sherlock, with long curls and a trench coat, collar turned up. “I love his squinty eyes and just his face. My grandmother is in love with him, too, and she’s 75!” gasps a 20-something in a peacoat. Without warning, a tiny Japanese girl hurdles, impressively, from the back of the pack to the front, kicking a few heads on the way. The car door opens. The shrieking grows deafening. “Ben-e-dict! Ben-e-dict! Ben-e-dict!”
“I’ve known Ben for 15 years,” his Imitation Game co-star Matthew Goode will tell me the next day, “and yesterday was the first time I realized that he’s like a Beatle.”
No sooner has Cumberbatch sat down on the 31st floor of Toronto’s Trump Hotel and announced that he’d “fancy a pisco sour” than our preternaturally attentive waiter appears: “Two pisco sours, I hear?”
“Please!” shouts Cumberbatch.
“Singles or doubles? What kind of day was it today?”
“Doubles, motherfuckah!” says Cumberbatch, grinning and doing a seated dance. “Gotta be. Al-ways!”
He got hooked on pisco sours, he says, because he likes whiskey sours, and a friend who’d visited South America demanded he try one. He says he likes tequila, too, which starts a debate about whether pisco is made from cactus or grapes (it’s a brandy, so grapes), which prompts a discussion about Googling and books and Kindles and how nobody ever just knows anything or retains information anymore.
“Somebody probably told me when I was born what all of my life was for, but I kind of tend to forget information until it becomes immediately relevant,” Cumberbatch says. “Otherwise my head would spin off in a thousand directions, and it wouldn’t be pretty.” The highlight of his trip, he says, has been meeting Naomi Watts (“Man, I have such a crush on her. She’s just gorgeous. I know she’s married, and I’m very happy as well, but she—I think it’s her talent”). He’s been so slammed that he hasn’t seen any movies at the festival and is “desperate” to hear my review of all of them, particularly The Riot Club, a social satire about an elitist society of young wankers at Oxford that he’s familiar with from when it was a play called Posh, directed by Lyndsey Turner, who’s directing him as Hamlet at the Barbican next year. You might assume that Cumberbatch is an Oxford wanker, too, what with that ridiculously British name, that estimable vocabulary, that affinity for saying whilst, that silky posh accent, those piercing blue eyes, that chiseled face, that translucent skin suggesting overcast skies and manor-house libraries—all of which allows
him somehow to exude eroticism while resembling a 19th-century gentleman caller drained of blood and unfrozen by aliens. Or just an alien. Or perhaps a small amphibious mammal. He’s joked that his “weird face” might be indicative of inbreeding and “is something between an otter and something that people find vaguely attractive, or just an otter, which is vaguely attractive.”
(…) “I’m pretend clever. I’m not actually clever.” Phantogram is playing over the sound system, Cumberbatch pauses to notice. “Great band.”
How are our pisco sours, the waiter asks. “Pisssssco!” says Cumberbatch. “Good to drink in company when you’re getting pissed. It’s really nice, isn’t it?” We order another round.
I tell him that sometimes when I drink pisco, my face gets weird and tingly. “Okay, we’ll sort that out,” Cumberbatch says reassuringly. “Throw ice on you or something. It’ll be all right.” Then as soon as the waiter leaves, he jumps up. “Listen, I’m embarrassed, but I need the loo.”
“The Internet’s Boyfriend” is both an accurate descriptor of Cumberbatch’s current place in popular culture and the name of one of many Tumblrs dedicated to him, another of which is a name generator spitting out even more hilarious British-sounding names, like Tiddleywomp Vegemite and Wellington Comblyclomp. Members of his rabid thinking-women’s fan base call themselves the Cumberbitches, though some prefer Cumberbunnies or Benaddicts or Cumbercookies. (The object of their affection has said he thinks “Cumberbabes” is more feminist, or “the Cumbercollective.”) A survey of audience members at Cumberbatch’s Graham Norton Show appearance last year revealed fans who’d flown in from Japan or Hong Kong (he’s just as huge in Asia) or took a 20-hour bus ride from Germany. Since April 2013, an Indonesian baker named Vereen Tjoeng has been making elaborate Cumbercupcakes in his likeness. There’s also the hashtag #cumberwatch, which tracks his physical whereabouts; at The Imitation Game’s premiere, I overheard a group of girls who used it to locate the after-party and were planning to stalk him there.