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Benedict Cumberbatch On Alan Turing's Awkwardness And Sherlock's Sex Appeal

The actor gained critical acclaim -- and a big following -- for his role in Sherlock. Now he's up for an Oscar for his portrayal of eccentric mathematician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.


Other segments from the episode on January 21, 2015

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 21, 2015: Interview with Benedict Cumberbatch; Review of the movies "Red Army" and "Leviathan"; Review of Sleater-Kinney's new album "No Cities to Love";


January 21, 2015

Guest: Benedict Cumberbatch

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. It's been a good year for Benedict Cumberbatch. The English actor earned an Oscar nomination for his starring role in the film, "The Imitation Game," and he's won critical acclaim and a big American following for his performance on the masterpiece TV series, "Sherlock." Its third season aired in 2014. He also starred in the HBO miniseries, "Parades End" and played WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the movie "The Fifth Estate." He also appeared in the films "War Horse," "12 Years A Slave," "August: Osage County" and in "The Hobbit" series, where he played the voice of Smaug the dragon. In "The Imitation Game," Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the brilliant, eccentric mathematician who led the team charged with breaking the sophisticated code called Enigma that Nazi forces in World War II used to encrypt their radio transmissions. I spoke to Benedict Cumberbatch last week, and we began with a clip from the film. It's 1939, and Cumberbatch, as Alan Turing, is being interviewed by Naval Commander Alastair Denniston, played by Charles Dance, about participating in a top-secret project. Turing, who's figured out that it must be an effort to break the Enigma code, speaks first.


BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Of course that's what you're working on. But you also haven't got anywhere with it. If you had, you wouldn't be hiring cryptographers out of university. You need me a lot more than I need you. I - I like solving problems, commander. And Enigma is the most difficult problem in the world.

CHARLES DANCE: (As Commander Alastair Denniston) Enigma isn't difficult. It's impossible. The Americans, the Russians, the French, the Germans - everyone thinks Enigma is unbreakable.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Good. Let me try, and we'll know for sure, won't we?

DAVIES: Benedict Cumberbatch, welcome to FRESH AIR. Alan Turing is an amazing man. It's an amazing story. How did you prepare for this role?

CUMBERBATCH: Through reading Andrew Hodges' biography after reading Graham Moore's superlative screen play. And I - that was - that is the only resource for an actor playing this really brilliant, but at times difficult and interesting, complex character, in the name of Alan Turing. I mean, there's no video. There's no audio recording. So it all had to come from written anecdote. And so Andrew's biography, Andrew Hodges' biography, was a bible for me. But the most sort of I would guess off-the-page preparation I did read was meeting some of his family and a colleague who worked with him in Manchester and speaking to another colleague as well who had worked with him.

DAVIES: What did they tell you about him?

CUMBERBATCH: Well, it was very revealing. I was very anxious to get his voice right. He had a very particular, high-pitched stammer and laugh and, you know, many other sort of peculiarities and eccentricities and sort of defining characteristics. But I - and I tried this voice on them. And they were like, yes, it's good - we'll sort of know it when it's right when we hear it sort of thing. And I thought, oh, crikey, well, that might be when you're sitting in the cinema with me sitting beside you, sweating nervously, thinking, God almighty, this could be a disaster. But they have actually seen the film. And they were very, very complementary about it. They said it was like being in the room with him and - which is a minor miracle but just a wonderful, wonderful thing to hear from them. But back to their conversation, what they opened for me was the idea that - well, so for example, the nieces I met, who were fantastically candid and had incredibly fond memories of this wondrous man and talked of him as somebody who made them feel equals. As children, they didn't feel the Victorian standard of treatment, which was being seen and not heard. They felt that they were being treated as human beings in their own right. They loved his company. They remember being very at ease. They don't remember being embarrassed or awkward about his stammer or him being embarrassed and awkward around them. And that told me a lot. That told me a lot about who this man was, the arrested development in him, the idea that he could sympathize with the innocence of children because of everything the world had done to throw at him to corrupt him, to, you know, destroy him, to sort of make him an outsider of every group he should've belonged to, whether it was the sort of aesthetic gay post, Bloomsbury Group at Cambridge, whether it was being a war hero, being a man of action as an athlete, being a sports guy or a member of the intellectual scientific community. He was always slightly on the periphery of every single one of those groups.

DAVIES: He was really a very historically significant scientist. I mean, he made advances in the digital revolution and, of course, breaking the Enigma code.

CUMBERBATCH: He is the father of modern computer science, which means, you know, he took what Ada Lovelace and Babbage did hundreds of years before into reality, a physical reality, away from loom machines and other kind of, you know, early, machinated calculating machines. He created the idea that we now hold of as the universal machine as well as the singular language that programs all computers. Any algorithm you use for a search engine to say - to put Alan Turing's name in, which embarrassingly now links up with mine - that search engine, that breaking down of the distance between Alan Turing and Benedict Cumberbatch, that has come about - that's same algorithm that was used to crack the code in the Second World War. I mean, it's -it's extraordinary how important he is.

DAVIES: It's clear you have a real attachment to this character. Was it hard to let him...

CUMBERBATCH: Yes, sorry. I keep on interrupting your questions to talk about him.

DAVIES: That's OK (laughter).

CUMBERBATCH: (Laughter) I'm sorry; I can't help it. It wasn't hard to let him go. But I - you know, I felt incredibly - I do still feel incredibly loyal to him. But I felt very close to him, yeah. I suppose in that way, it was difficult. We filmed the last scenes very near the end of my filming schedule. And the first couple of takes, those scenes with Kiera when she visits him in the '50s in Manchester after the treatment's well and truly underway, the chemical castration...

DAVIES: And let's just explain for the audience. We're talking about treatments. He was arrested for - what? - indecency because he was homosexual. And there were these - he agreed to take hormone treatments to, quote, "cure" him instead of going to jail. And that was, you know, the beginning of a very awful end for him.

CUMBERBATCH: That's exactly right. The choice then for men who were arrested and prosecuted for being gay was the choice between two years' imprisonment or two years chemical castration through weekly estrogen injections. This is less than 100 years ago in a country that had just been liberated from the threat of fascism by the very - by one of the very men that they then punished for his sexuality. I mean, it's barbaric. It's frightening. And sadly, it's not a history lesson. It's something that we need to be equally wary of in our current climate of intolerance, whether it's with fundamentalism, whether it's nationalism. But we see the same people, men and women, being scapegoated, the ridiculousness of transsexuals not being allowed to have a driver's license in Russia. I mean, that's just - it's comic, but actually it's not for people in Russia. It seems unfathomable to us, but that's a reality. And to think that - and that's the tip of the iceberg of what's going on still - very, very important part of his story. But what I was going to say was he, in that period, chose the estrogen injections rather than the imprisonment in order to be able to continue his work. And the estrogen injections not only corrupted his mind but started to eat away at his body. But it was a - ate away at his faculties and his mind - and he lost this athletic body. He also lost a mind that was attuned to the one thing he was left to love and to focus on, which was his work. And I think ultimately, that was the undoing of his strength and power to live.

DAVIES: Let's hear another scene from "The Imitation Game." This is a moment where you are working with a part of the team that's working to break the Enigma code. And some of your mates come and try and invite you to lunch. We're going to hear from the head of the team, who's played by Matthew Goode. Another intelligence officer, played by Allen Leech, speaks first.


ALLEN LEECH: (As John Cairncross) The boys, we're going to get some lunch. Alan?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Yes?

LEECH: (As John Cairncross) I said, we're going to get some lunch. Alan?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Yes.

LEECH: (As John Cairncross) Can you hear me?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Yes.

LEECH: (As John Cairncross) I said, we're off to get some - (laughter). This is starting to get a little bit repetitive.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) What is?

LEECH: (As John Cairncross) I had asked if you wanted to come to lunch with us.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) No, you didn't. You said you were going to get some lunch.

LEECH: (As John Cairncross) Have I offended you in some way?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Why would you think that?

LEECH: (As John Cairncross) Would you like to come to lunch with us?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) What time's lunchtime?

MATTHEW GOODE: (As Hugh Alexander) Christ, Alan, it's bleeding sandwich.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) What is?

GOODE: (As Hugh Alexander) Lunch.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Oh, I don't like sandwiches.

LEECH: (As John Cairncross) Never mind.

DAVIES: That's our guest, Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Alan Turing in the new film "The Imitation Game." You don't strike me as somebody who's particularly socially awkward. I mean...


DAVIES: Was it difficult to you to get into the mentality of this guy and come out of it?

CUMBERBATCH: No, no. You know, I've turned up to - I've turned up to costume parties in the wrong costume. I've made social faux pas aplenty. I've put one foot in front of the other and fallen over. I mean, you know, if you've ever experienced the idea of feeling slightly outside or that kind of - you know, the creeping paranoia of a teenager where you just feel that you don't quite fit into anything, where you're just finding out who you are and everyone else seems to have got it sorted... And only in your late 20s do you turn around and go, did you have weird thoughts about not quite knowing where you were, who you were, what you were when you were growing up? And you realize it's a universal human trait. But, you know, he - I think what formulated very early in his life was this incredible sensitiveness to the world and his environment and the way people treated him in it. And that was born out of having a stammer. For me, that was the key to understanding him as a child who didn't have the parental nourishment he needed. It was very normal in those days for parents to be absent. But his parents were absent for long stretches of time. They worked in the diplomatic in India. And one year they came back, probably after a whole year, to discover their - I think he was about 3 or 4 by then - old child had a stammer. And his mother was shocked. And I think what he's become as a younger man is very closed off, very single minded, very purposeful, acutely pedantic and accurate with language to a near-autistic level. But I think that word is banded around too much, both for this character and for people who do have autism. And I think, you know, you just see - you see what has happened to him thaw when he meets and trusts someone else who he loves, in the shape of Kiera's character, Joan Clarke. So, you know, yeah, I understood that. I understood it from my vague experiences of being an outsider. But I thought the map I got to understand through Andrew's biography and other reading and discussions I had with people who knew him really made that kind of journey and progression very clear my mind.

DAVIES: Benedict Cumberbatch stars in "The Imitation Game." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Benedict Cumberbatch. He stars in the new film "The Imitation Game." You grew up the child of two actors. Did they expose you to the business and did it have appeal?

CUMBERBATCH: You can't not be exposed to the business if you grow up a child of two actors. It's just - it's everywhere. From, you know, their social life to the peripatetic and ever the sort of chaotic calendar affair of their work life. So, yeah I was fully aware of the vagaries, pitfalls and the ups and downs basically, of a very unstable living.

DAVIES: How did they feel about you getting into it?

CUMBERBATCH: Awful. I mean, they worked incredibly hard to afford me an education where I would be privileged enough to have the choice of pursuing anything but being an actor. So, going into the law or medicine or teaching, or anything other than, you know, doing what they did. And that was their choice as very selfless parents to try and give me a shot at having a better life, but I just kept kicking it back. I kept on doing plays at school. I really enjoyed it. I pursued the idea of being a pastor for a while, but I met too many people along the road saying, turn back now, and giving me the same reasons as I'd heard for not being an actor. So I thought, well, why am I giving up on my primary dream for a backup that's equally risky? And, my God, you have to work hard to be a pastor, so I went back to my primary passion.

DAVIES: You wouldn't have been at the Golden Globes that way. I think that's fair to say.

CUMBERBATCH: Well, no, there were lawyers there last night. I'm sure some of them were frustrated actors.

DAVIES: There are lawyers everywhere.

CUMBERBATCH: (Laughter). Damn right, yeah.

DAVIES: The lore is that your acting debut at age 12 was as Titania, the queen of fairies, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream?"

CUMBERBATCH: No, way before that, sadly. It was at primary school, aged - dot-question mark-can't remember - but, I mean, I don't know, maybe 4 or 5, as a rather impatient Joseph who thought Mary was taking too long and apparently pushed her off the stage, much to the delight of the parents...


CUMBERBATCH: ...But probably not Mary. But that was a very sort of ungenerous and embarrassing beginning and especially for my poor parents, who obviously, you know, people recognized from the television and theater that they'd done. And to have their son pushing another child off stage must've been sort of funny but mortifying at the same time.

Titania was the first play I did at my second boarding school, Harrow, which is an all-male boarding school, quite sort of a machismo, Army and sports-deeming kind of environment. Very jock-y rather than academic, but it was an odd thing for someone who played flanker in the rugby team to do - by night to get dressed up in a wig and sort of pineapple-type paper crown that made me look like, you know, Cleo Laine on a bad day, swanning on, being the queen of the fairies.

DAVIES: You studied drama in Manchester and did a lot of work on theater and film and television, and best known to American audiences, I suppose, for "Sherlock," which we've got to talk about. I thought we would play a clip. This is from - I think this might even be the first episode, where you're examining the body of a woman on the floor. With you are a detective inspector played by Rupert Graves and of course, Dr. Watson, who is played by Martin Freeman. You've just briefly, as Sherlock, looked at the woman's body, but you have some observations. Let's listen.


CUMBERBATCH: (As Sherlock Holmes) Victim is in her late 30s. Professional person, going by her clothes. I'm guessing something in the media going by the frankly alarming shade of pink. Traveling from Cardiff today, intending to stay in London for one night. It's obvious from the size of her suitcase.

RUPERT GRAVES: (As DI Lestrade) Suitcase?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Sherlock Holmes) Suitcase, yes. She's been married for at least 10 years, but not happily. She's had a string of lovers, but none of them knew she was married.

GRAVES: (As DI Lestrade) Oh, for God's sake, you're just making this up.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Sherlock Holmes) A wedding ring, 10 years old at least. The rest of her jewelry has been regularly cleaned but not her wedding ring. State of her marriage - right there. The inside of the ring is shinier than the outside. That means it's regularly removed. The only polishing it gets is when she works it off her finger. So for work, look at her nails - she doesn't work with her hands. So what or, rather who, does she remove her rings for? Clearly not one lover - she'd never sustain the fiction of being single over that amount of time. So more likely, a string of them. Simple.

MARTIN FREEMAN: (As John Watson) It's brilliant. Sorry.

GRAVES: (As DI Lestrade) Cardiff?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Sherlock Holmes) It's obvious, isn't it?

FREEMAN: (As John Watson) It's not obvious to me.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Sherlock Holmes) Dear God, what is it like in your funny little brains? It must be so boring.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

CUMBERBATCH: What an ass[bleep].

DAVIES: (Laughter). That's Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.

OK, tell us about this Sherlock. What's your kind of psychological profile of this guy?

CUMBERBATCH: Well, the same as the books. You know, a very flamboyant, flawed, brilliant human being. Somebody who sacrificed a lot in order to gain an exceptional ability to interpret the world and the detail of the world around him. Someone who can look at the mundane and create pop-up adventure, potential outcomes and adventures. Somebody who is irascible, flamboyant, arrogant and bullish. Vicariously, pleasurably intolerant of mediocrity and the mundanity of bureaucracy. Somebody who underestimates the true value of kinship and friendship and being part of a world rather than just being the best in a field in the world, and gets his comeuppance and slowly matures into somebody with, you know, a humanized edge to his otherworldly brilliance.

DAVIES: Yeah, that's him. (Laughter).

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, that's in the books. (Laughter). That's the flyleaf cover.

DAVIES: You know, as I listened to you as Sherlock kind of just rippling off these observations about this dead woman's body, I'm picturing you...

CUMBERBATCH: And I speak faster than that in some moments. This is the craziest. I was listening back to that now going, it's quite slow really, by now's standards. I can do it a lot faster. It kind of - yeah, well because I was moving around probably, so I could only fit certain paragraphs in with just - bending over the body, getting up, looking under the collar - you know, there was all that stuff about Cardiff, the weather, the collar turned up against the rain - you know, and that was to come after, what is it like inside your tiny little brains it must be so boring. And it takes hours to learn. It takes one mistake for the whole house of cards to tumble and many sweaty takes, especially when it's, you know, a one-off shot or a single shot that Paul McGuigan in that episode, for example, wanted me to get it in. And a lot of very patient actors around me just waiting for me to get it right, I guess. But it's a great challenge.

DAVIES: It sounded to me like you were just doing it just now. I mean, you were just like, speeding your voice up another two ticks, no?

CUMBERBATCH: What, just by talking about - well, yeah, that happens. It does. It happens. It reminds me I can actually talk faster and I start talking faster. I also get told that I can be impatient and kind of - yeah, a little bit dismissive when I'm playing him. I think, you know, you risk taking a certain amount of your work home as an actor. And when you play strong characters like that, some of it rubs off on you.

DAVIES: His companion of course, Dr. Watson, is played by Martin Freeman, who is a terrific actor. We're just seeing more and more of him as time goes on. And I read that you described him as one of the few actors who actually raised your game. Is that true?

CUMBERBATCH: In the audition, yeah. The minute he came in to read - and we had some fantastic reads, brilliant actors, some of whom were a little bit too much in the vein of where I was going with Sherlock either because they were picking up on my energy, or because that's what they could've contributed, which made me a bit nervous. I thought, Christ, they'll get my job.

But, Martin stepped in and I felt myself complemented in a really good sort of word of chalk and cheese mismatch kind of way, which is our dynamic. And you know, he's such a fine craftsman. He's so specific. He works incredibly hard but make it look effortless. It's breathing to watch. It's just, you know, there's nothing of hard work that he shows off with, unlike me. Unlike, you know, the kind of flamboyance of that character who's very showy. There's this quiet kind of truth in everything Martin does. And he's painfully funny, a very wise man to be around. So yeah, he's a game-raiser for whoever is lucky enough to work with him. But the minute we met in the audition, I thought, this would be wonderful. And the door closed and I went, please, it's got to be him. And Steven Moffat, I think in the same breath, was saying, well, I think we just found our Watson.

DAVIES: Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the new film "The Imitation Game." He'll be back in the second half of the show. Here's another scene from the third season of "Sherlock." His partner Dr. Watson is getting married, and Sherlock, played by Cumberbatch, is the best man and is giving a toast at the wedding reception.


CUMBERBATCH: (As Sherlock Holmes) Let's talk about John.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Please.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Sherlock Holmes) If I burden myself with a little help mate during my adventures, it's not out of sentiment or caprice. It is that he has many fine qualities of his own that he has overlooked in his obsession with me. Indeed, any reputation that I have for mental acuity and sharpness comes in truth from the extraordinary contrast John so selflessly provides. It is a fact, I believe, that brides tend to favor exceptionally plain bridesmaids for their big day. There is a certain analogy there I feel. And contrast is, after all, God's own plan to enhance the beauty of his creation, or it would be, if God were not a ludicrous fantasy designed to provide a career opportunity for the family idiot.

The point I'm trying to make is that I am the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant and all-around obnoxious ass[bleep] anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet. I am dismissive of the virtuous, unaware of the beautiful and uncomprehending in the face of the happy.

So if I didn't understand I was being asked to be best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody's best friend, and certainly not the best friend of the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing.


DAVIES: We're speaking with Benedict Cumberbatch who's nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in the film "The Imitation Game." He's also appeared in "The Fifth Estate," "12 Years A Slave" and "The Hobbit" series where he played the voice of a fearsome dragon. He earned a big American following with his starring role in the Masterpiece TV series "Sherlock."

Now I have to ask you, do think this character, Sherlock - do you think of him as having sex appeal?

CUMBERBATCH: You're asking the wrong target audience really, so no I don't...

DAVIES: Well, I mean you're pretty insightful about characters.

CUMBERBATCH: ...But if I was a girl of a certain age.


CUMBERBATCH: Well, OK. All right - being really sort of hyper objective about it...


CUMBERBATCH: ...I kind of do. I do understand it because he's aloof. He's pretty cold and mean, but he's utterly brilliant, can be incredibly charming, incredibly capable and smart and funny but also floored. And I think - yeah, I think he's rather a thrilling person to spend time with.

DAVIES: Well, of course I asked because, you know, with this role, I mean, you became really popular in the United States and on all of these sexiest-man-alive lists. And I'm just - you know, this was, you know, many years into your career.

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, you've got it.

DAVIES: I'm just - what...

CUMBERBATCH: I mean that's the formula. It's a projection of work, and that's why you're right to ask that question about whether Sherlock is sexy because I sure as hell ain't. And, you know, I've been around for 10 or 15 years before this happened, and I wasn't on any lists of the millionth most attractive on the planet, you know, so...

DAVIES: Well, I can tell you two people ranging in ages 10 to 60 were just so excited and are totally in love with you. What does it do to your head to have these millions of women thinking of you that way?

CUMBERBATCH: It's just a very flattering, and I kind of - and it makes me giggle, as they know, because it just - it is. It's sort of silly. And where it is serious and where it is a compliment is that I do - because of what we just discussed - I think it is a reflection of the work, and hopefully how I come across when I'm talking about the work rather than what I actually have got as a physical object on itself of itself every morning in the mirror. You know, I kind of take it as a skewed compliment about - you know, it ain't what you got, it's the way that you do what you've got with - sort of thing.


CUMBERBATCH: You know what I mean? It's like...

DAVIES: It's Sherlock they love, huh? Not Benedict.

CUMBERBATCH: Well, yeah. I don't know. Ask them. It might be a mixture of both. And, you know, I do do other roles that they seem to watch me in as well. So while that may have been the first kind of platform for that attraction, I think - and I'm the first to acknowledge, you know, that is first and foremost in that kind of - in that field. Yeah, I think it travels. I think it's about more than that. I think it's about the work in general, and I'm very grateful.

DAVIES: It does mean that you are recognized now everywhere, and I've read that you kind of haven't changed your life that much. You still ride your bike around. You still take the tube - the subway in London. And I also read that you...

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, I mean I seem to be in the back of a car more than anything else because of work. But I do - well, I mean anyone who lives in a city will tell you it's nice to sort of propel yourself through it rather than be at the mercy of traffic and other people especially if you're on a motorbike or moped. But I - yeah, I tried to normalize my life as much as possible by sticking true to who I have been. And obviously there are certain changes and - but I - yeah. I don't see why that's impossible really.

You know, I was always really interested in that thing that Marilyn Monroe said to a friend who was perplexed walking, I think, down Fifth Avenue saying, Marylin, no one's spotting you. What's going on? And she went, oh, I haven't turned it on, or something to that effect, and then just threw her shoulders back, lifted her head and suddenly everyone was sort of seeing this extraordinary woman pop in their presence - this person that they knew or felt they knew because of pop photographs and films of her.

So I guess there is just a way you don't have to wear a wig and glasses or have a motorbike helmet on, all of which helps. But it's tiresome or inappropriate at times, especially if you're walking into a bank or security at an airport. I don't think you get very far with a bicycle helmet and a wig. But, you know, what I'm saying is yeah, it's an interesting thing. And I'm still getting used to all of that. I am getting used to all of that.

There are days when, you know, like everybody, you feel not your best and not yourself and uncomfortable with who you are and not in your own skin, and, you know, you'd rather be at home under a duvet just doing what you do at home. You know, you crave privacy basically, and you have to get on in the world and go and see your colleagues - go into the office with your cold or hangover or just whatever the thing is that's griping you. And, you know, that's the same with fame I guess. There are days when you wear it lightly and you don't mind that people you've never met before sort of recognize you when you walk in a room or there are days you just wish you were invisible. But what is interesting for me is how to find that thing which you need as an actor which is to be able to observe human nature - to be part of the thing that you're portraying as a storyteller.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Benedict Cumberbatch. He stars in the film "The Imitation Game."

You play the voice of Smaug, the dragon for "The Hobbit" films. And you know, when I heard the film, when I heard your voice - I mean, it's obviously not your speaking voice - and I thought well, this is highly processed. But then I heard you on a talk show, and you did the voice. And it was amazingly like that voice just plain. And I don't want to turn you into a parlor trick, here, but could you - I don't know - could you give us a little of Smaug like - I don't know - ordering lunch or a cocktail?

CUMBERBATCH: (Imitating Smaug) You're listening to NPR. I'm Smaug. And I just burnt the microphone. That sort of - that's a little bit of him. (Imitating Smaug) You can hear me, but you can't smell me or see me. I mean, that, you know, that's sort of what I did. That's sort of what I originally did, and I did it for a while. And my voice was going, and Peter said, look, we've got this great thing that Andy used for "King Kong." We call it the Kongolizer, and it'll just mean you'll be able to get more variation in pitch into your performance. But you will be able to get that effect without having to trash your voice to do it.

DAVIES: Is it painful to do that?

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, yeah, I mean, you know, listen to the normal pitch of my voice. It's not a natural thing to sort of switch to. It always leaves its sort of scars, but you know, how often do you get to play the dragon of all dragons? So it's something you commit to. It's just - it's endlessly dynamic and challenging, both to how you produce the sound and what the sound is. In crawling around on your belly, you know, it's - you're stretching - you're over-articulating your neck. So there were all sorts of sort of journeys of discovery with that which were great, you know? I was in a room much like this recording booth I'm in now, with kind of uninspiring gray carpet, gray walls, a bit of wooden cladding and these amazing sensors in the corners of the ceiling. And...

DAVIES: So you did the motion capture to portray the dragon, as well, crawling around...

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, and that's how the voice evolved, absolutely. And they did a lot of facial recognition motion capture, as well as full body. And if you see the DVD extras from "The Desolation Of Smaug," the second in the trilogy, you've got some footage of me doing all of that. And, yeah, there is quite parity before - and that was before we used the Kongolizer. And you're a child. You're playing again. You're utterly free. There are no restrictions, no hair and makeup, continuity, you know, marks, camera lens sizes. There's just - there aren't even any other actors. I mean, you can just - you're free falling. It's great, great, great fun. And, you know, you get Peter Jackson all to yourself, which is a rarity on a production of that scale. But to have the man in the room...

DAVIES: You played Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, in the film "The Fifth Estate" - a fascinating story and a fascinating guy...


DAVIES: ...And presents a lot of issues. And I know that when you were preparing for the role, you had some communication with Assange himself, and this has been written about. Do you want to just give us an idea of what that was like?

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, no, Julian wrote me a very thorough, charming, intelligent email, pleading with me to walk from the project the day before we started shooting. I tried to contact him to not only reassure him that we weren't out to assassinate his character - that we weren't - under no circumstances, did we want to denigrate the good that WikiLeaks had done - and the fact that as, you know, a fan of human rights, of freedom of information, of the right to be able to publish and the right to be able to express an opinion and not fear censorship - that I completely and utterly championed his cause and him, and was under no way a kind of puppet to the forces that he thought were at work to create a sort of anti-WikiLeaks film and an anti-Julian Assange film. That wasn't what I was after at all.

However, I did want to point out that, you know, like myself, the frailties of the human ego - of the fact that relationships soured or things went wrong over great ideal - also needed to be examined, as well as celebrated. So it was a balanced, rather than a one-way weighted, kind of bit of State Department propaganda, which he feared it would be. And I said as much in a reply to him, and the rest is private between us. But, you know, I'm full of respect for him and what WikiLeaks achieved in that era. It was an extraordinary moment in time.

DAVIES: You dyed your hair white, and I guess - were there some prosthetics...

CUMBERBATCH: (Laughter) I did.

DAVIES: ...Or some kind of latex or no?

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, no latex, no. I had a set of teeth in. I had endless sessions with a dialect coach to get his particular Australian twang right, and I dyed my hair. And I had two or three weeks that we changed - and also contact lenses, which is how I discovered I was shortsighted. I had an insurance test for them.

DAVIES: Really?

CUMBERBATCH: So everyone keeps on saying, oh, we like your hipster glasses, but they're not real. I'm like no, I'm shortsighted. They help me see. And, yeah, that was when I discovered that. But, yeah, I had to wear contact lenses to try and dull - my eyes are a little bit too sort of bright. His are a much sort of deeper, darker, rich kind of gray-blue color.

DAVIES: So what was it like to look in the mirror and see yourself as Julian Assange?

CUMBERBATCH: The first couple of times, it was really spooky. I mean, I literally had my headphones on. I was listening to his voice. I was in the makeup chair for a test, and I sort of looked up, had most of my costume on - wig, eyes put in - and then looked in the mirror, and it was spooky. And I went downstairs, and people were like you've escaped the embassy.


CUMBERBATCH: It was a lovely moment. It was a lovely moment of a lot of departments coming together and doing a brilliant, brilliant job to create the look.

DAVIES: We're in awards season, and you and your films are very much in the mix. What's it like?

CUMBERBATCH: Great fun. It's just fun, you know? And you know, we were at the Golden Globes, and George Clooney got the sort of Lifetime Achievement Award or honor. And he got up there, and he said look, 80 percent of us, tonight, will lose. I've been in this room a lot of times, and you know - and I have, too. I've been lucky enough to be a bridesmaid - bride a couple of times, but I've been many more times a bridesmaid at these things. And you just look around at your colleagues, and you think, my God, I'm being counted amongst the quality of the work of these men and women. And I get to call them my peers, rather than heroes, and - which is extraordinary. It's an amazing compliment. And then it just should be fun.

DAVIES: Benedict Cumberbatch, thanks so much for spending some time with.

CUMBERBATCH: Thank you, lovely to be here.

DAVIES: Benedict Cumberbatch is nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in the film "The Imitation Game." Coming up, John Powers reviews two new movies about Russia. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Over the last three decades, Russia has gone through enormous transformations from a communist police state to a capitalist oligarchy run by Vladimir Putin. Two new movies explore that transformation. Gabe Polsky's documentary "Red Army" takes a look at the Red Army hockey team which was the pride of the Soviet Union until that regime collapsed in 1991. And "Leviathan" tells the fictional story of one man trying to find justice in today's Russia. Our critic-at-large John Powers has seen them both and says they capture the strangeness of contemporary Russian history.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Russia is an enormous lunatic asylum, the writer Tatyana Tolstaya once remarked. There's a heavy padlock on the door, but no walls. You catch a glance of what she means in two new movies that combine to form a fascinating history of that ill-starred country over the last half-century.

The terrific new documentary "Red Army" takes us back to the Soviet Union of the '70s and '80s to tell the story of the Red Army hockey team, probably the greatest hockey squad of all time. We see things through the eyes of its captain, the smart, articulate, hardheaded Slava Fetisov. As a boy, Fetisov was recruited by the Red Army team and molded by its coach, Anatoli Tarasov, a visionary who lifted techniques from the Bolshoi Ballet and taught his players a whole new approach to the game. Tarasov's teams did for hockey what the Brazilians did for soccer. They made it a beautiful game to watch and to play. To this day, Fetisov and his teammates say their lives' happiest moments came on the ice together.

Yet Red Army is about more than just hockey. Filmmaker Gabe Polsky is the American son of Russian immigrants. And without belaboring it, he transforms a sports saga into a novelistic metaphor for the promise and failure of the whole Soviet system. You see, in its harmonious blend of the group and the individual, the Red Army team was perhaps the closest Soviet life ever came to the radiant future promised by socialism. Even as the players formed a collective unit bound in solidarity, they played with such creativity and imagination, they could express themselves on the ice. Small wonder that Fetisov and other commentators still rave about Tarasov's approach.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hockey is an aggressive game. It's not like tennis, right? So I wouldn't say that the north - the Americans, the Canadians are more aggressive than the Russians. I wouldn't say that. But I do think that there was a different concept of how you play the game. Tarasov, who was an extremely creative man, he saw hockey as this amazingly intricate game of passing the puck.

POWERS: So given Tarasov's genius, what did the control-freak party do? It replaced him with a new coach, Viktor Tikhonov from the KGB. This joyless disciplinarian became a cross between a slave driver and a prison guard, forcing his players to live in barracks 11 months a year. Naturally, they hated him. No longer happy, they yearned to get out of Russia and play in the West, where they could make good money and do what they wanted in their spare time.

Polsky provides "Red Army" with an unexpected ending - unexpected by me anyway. I won't say what happens, but Fetisov's story ends in a post-communist Russia run by another KGB alumnus - Vladimir Putin. His reign is the theme of an even better movie, "Leviathan" by Andrey Zvyagintsev.

Dark, oddly funny and exquisitely shot, it's as good as anything that's come out in the last year. Set in a small city on the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia, "Leviathan" is a classic story of a man fighting the system. The man's name is Kolya, played by Aleksey Serebryakov. And he's a volatile, not-so-bright mechanic with a frustrated second wife and a disaffected teenage son. Kolya's goes kerflooey when his corrupt mayor uses eminent domain to claim Kolya's house for his own purposes.

An honest man, Kolya seeks justice from the courts, even bringing in his own old army pal Dmitriy, now a hotshot Moscow lawyer.

But this is Putin's money-mad Russia, a land in which all social bonds have snapped. Cops expect Kolya to repair their cars for free, courts are joke, rubberstamping the decisions of the powerful. Politicians are essentially gangsters who'll do anything to get what they want. Orthodox priests work hand in hand with oligarchs. And even friendships can't be trusted.

Kolya's buddy Dmitriy is not the man he thought he was. Then again, Kolya's not the man he wants to be. Like the mayor, he spends a ludicrous amount of his time plastered. I've never seen a movie where so many actors play drunk so convincingly.

Now, like many Russian filmmakers before him, Zvyagintsev's imagination runs to the religious. He gives his story a biblical dimension, hinted at in its title. As Kolya's situation goes from bad to worse, he becomes a modern Job - an ordinary man besieged by the universe. Still, what makes the movie sting is its savage political portrait of a present-day Russian culture that, like "Leviathan," threatens to swallow up everyone in its path. Conjuring a supposedly democratic country that's lost all its values, the film's almost enough to make you sentimental for the bad, old days when Russians at least had a great hockey team to cheer for.

DAVIES: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the comeback album by the band Sleater-Kinney. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Sleater-Kinney is one of the most widely praised rock bands of the last 20 years. The band formed in the mid '90s in Olympia, Washington, and went on to record seven albums. The group split up in 2006 but have reunited to release a new album called the "No Cities To Love." Rock critic Ken Tucker says it's a strong comeback.


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) Hey darling, you're not home. This is your phone though, right? Explanations are thin, but I feel it's time. You want to know where I've been for such a long time. Disappearing act right before your eyes. It seems to me the only thing that comes from fame's mediocrity. How could you steal the thing I love and keep it from me just out of touch? Hey darling, the situation was justified.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The only thing that comes from fame is mediocrity, sings Corin Tucker on that song, "Hey Darling." That assertion is debatable. I can think of quite a few other things that can come from fame, but Sleater-Kinney doesn't have to worry about mediocrity. Famous within a nexus of cult stardom and critical acclaim, the band has come roaring back with a confident urgency that is exhilarating to hear.


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) The bells go off. The buzzer calls. The traffic starts to buzz. The clothes are stiff. The fabrics itch. The fit's a little rough. But I suck it in to every stitch trying to fit inside the glow. I scrambled eggs for little legs. The day's off in a rush. It's 9 AM. We must clock in. The system waits for us. I stock the shelves. I work the rows. The product's all I - if I could flip the switch, the system fix, I could move us to the top. The numbers roll. It's time to go, but never fast enough.

TUCKER: That's "Price Tag," a song whose lyric is about people working low-paying jobs in our dodgy economy. The words tell the details. Corin Tucker's voice communicates the frustration and pain. Tucker has always been an extraordinary vocalist. She has a huge voice that cuts across the guitars and drums like a scraper chipping away ice on a car's windshield. Words frequently disappear when they emerge from Tucker's throat. It helps to hunt down lyrics if you want to know what a song is about, although most of the time the song is really about the sound of Corin Tucker's voice, whatever bold or agonized or joyous sound it's making.


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) Throw me a rope. Get me line. I haven't seen daylight in what must be days. Took the long way down, lost track of myself. Confidence fell down the steepest of slopes. If you get me line, let me know. (Unintelligible). I feel so much stronger now that you're here. We've got so much to do. Let me make that clear. We win. We lose. Only together do we break the rules. We win. We lose. Only together do we break the rules. I'm breaking the surface.

TUCKER: We win, we lose, only together do we break the rules, goes the chorus of that song, "Surface Envy." The second line makes a crucial shift, changing break to make the rules. Powered by Brownstein's guitar and Weiss's drumming, Sleater-Kinney forms a three-person collective that makes its own rules about how a song is constructed, how much of a structure it needs to work as rock 'n roll and how little it takes to explode that structure. On their best songs - and there are quite a few here - Sleater-Kinney music consists of irreducible chunks of melody, riffs and noise. Few bands reform with their power as intact as Sleater-Kinney have. Fewer still brag about their power and make their claim something more than a brag.


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) A low hiss telling you something's amiss. Can you hear the sound? I whisper I could do it better when I look around. I'm the siren self beaming from the highest shelf. You should really look down. There is a roadblock that I couldn't unlock. I really get around. Seduction, pure function - it's how I learned to speak. Steal your power in my hour. I will change most everything.

TUCKER: In the years since Sleater-Kinney disbanded in 2006, its members have done other projects. Brownstein cocreated the TV comedy "Portlandia" with Fred Armisen. Weiss was the drummer in, among others, the band Wild Flag. And there's been a good group called the Corin Tucker Band. But with an album like "No Cities To Love," it seems as though there's no work these women do that is more important, more enjoyable and more challenging than the music they create as Sleater-Kinney. I'm really looking forward to seeing them when they start their tour.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed the new album from Sleater-Kinney, "No Cities To Love."

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Myers, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Therese Madden. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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