Benedict Cumberbatch was practically a horse riding novice when he signed on for Steven Spielberg’s epic World War I drama War Horse.
“I’d had maybe three lessons when I was a kid,” says the fast-rising British actor, best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s update of the crime classic.
“It’s one of those things – like tap dancing – that are considered useful for children.
“I was a very outward bound and very gregarious young boy and I think it was just another activity that could stop me from getting into trouble.”
In the splendidly-named Cumberbatch’s case, the plan wasn’t entirely successful.
“I used to slide off their necks when they grazed,” he recalls. “I used to know they weren’t listening to me and I would transfer that lack of power to the animal. If you do that with a horse, they know.”
Clearly, Spielberg didn’t hire Cumberbatch for his horsemanship. But after six weeks taking lessons from some of the best horsemen in the business, the 35-year-old was able to wear the uniform of a cavalry officer with confidence.
“It was a huge learning curve for me,” he says. “You do it in gradual stages.”
By the time Spielberg called action on one of War Horse’s climactic charge sequences, in which the British cavalry launches a dawn attack on the Germans, Cumberbatch and his mount were one.
“I cannot describe the feeling of riding that day. A jockey can tell you what it’s like to gallop the final furlong, when you know you are coming in to win, but there is no other place on Earth for you to ride with 80 men and 80 horses. It was a real privilege to have been trained up to that level.” Cumberbatch’s profile has been steadily building since his breakthrough performance as Stephen Hawking in a 2004 BBC TV drama.
Standout film roles include the 2006 historical anti-slave drama Amazing Grace and his creepy turn as a family friend in 2007’s Atonement. But by all accounts, 2012 is shaping up as his year.
As well as the second series of Sherlock, Cumberbatch plays a key role in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, the acclaimed John Le Carre spy story starring Gary Oldman, John Hurt and Colin Firth. “It’s a really grown-up film – a modern classic. I have to pinch myself to realise I have been involved with a cast of that calibre,” he enthuses.
His horse skills also came in handy on the set of his latest project, Parade’s End – Tom Stoppard’s five-part adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s novels, co-starring Rebecca Hall and Adelaide Clemens. “I’m completely in love with the world of it. It’s an epic story spanning 10 years, through World War I and beyond,” Cumberbatch says.
“There’s a parallel between (Parade’s End) and War Horse, between the fox hunting set and the cavalry set.”
Next month, Cumberbatch heads to New Zealand to start work on The Hobbit.
The theatre-trained thespian has been cast as the dragon Smaug in Peter Jackson’s return to the world of J.R.R. Tolkein – which coincidentally features Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes co-star Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins.
“It’s different to anything I have ever done,” Cumberbatch says of the two-part blockbuster. “I mean, I’ve never played a reptile before.”
It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch after Danny Boyle’s triumphant London stage production of Frankenstein, in which Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternated playing Frankenstein and the creature. “That was very much a full-on physical performance,” Cumberbatch says.
“It’s not something I shy away from, but I guess I am seen as more of a brain than brawn. It’s getting to the point now, though, where I can have a bit of choice in the matter.”