Cumberbatch Saves His Best When It Comes To Real Life Roles

Abhishek Srivastava - 62 weeks ago

He’s best known for his work in Sherlock and Marvel’s Doctor Strange. But many of Benedict Cumberbatch’s best performances have resulted when he’s taken on real-life roles. It was his performance in BBC’s Hawking which exposed to the world his talent and later with films like The Imitation Game and Brexit ensured that when it comes to depiction of real life persona on screen, he has no equal. The stardom of Cumberbatch can easily be demarcated as pre and post-Sherlock. His post-Sherlock films and TV works are easily accessible but if one were to really witness what a dynamite of talent he is, one needs to watch his films and TV work which came before 2013. Films like Amazing Grace, Hawking, Van Gogh are all part of the phase when Cumberbatch was a relatively unknown name.

(A still from Hawking)

HAWKING (2004)

Hawking dealt with the life and work of physicist Stephen Hawking and how he conquered his motor neuron disease. It was Cumberbatch’s audition that made him stand apart from other actors. In the book Benedict Cumberbatch: London and Hollywood, he recalls, “The voice, funnily enough, I picked up very quickly and apparently I was the first in the audition to give it a crack.” As part of preparation for his role, he met Stephen Hawking twice and read almost all his books. He had mentioned in an earlier interview that the most difficult task which the role involved was writing equation on the board. One of Hawking’s pupil who was also part of the film production drew similar stuff and showed it to him before every shoot. Cumberbatch more than excelled in this role which was difficult to portray from any stretch of imagination. His wonderful performance fetched him a BAFTA nomination. 

(A still from Amazing Grace)


This was a biographical drama directed by Michael Apted in which Cumberbatch played the role of William Pitt (the younger William Wilberforce who led a campaign against the slave trade in British empire). The film saw its premier at TIFF in 2006 to a positive review. His performance in Amazing Grace was considered to be a breakthrough performance (as per The Telegraph) as he delivered a standout performance amidst some towering names from British films.

(Toby Jones, Paul Bettany and Benedict Cumberbatch is a still from Creation)


Creation was a British drama and was first broadcast in 2009. The drama is part biographical and part fiction and is centered around Charles Darwin’s relationship with his daughter as he tries to complete his book ‘On the Origin of Species’. While Paul Bettany played the role of Charles Darwin in the film, Benedict Cumberbatch was seen in the role of Darwin’s best friend Joseph Hooker.

(A still from Van Gogh: Painted with Words)


Van Gogh: Painted with Words was broadcast on BBC in 2010, few months before Sherlock’s launch. Cumberbatch covered, beautifully, the dynamics that Van Gogh’s career trajectory took. First as an art student, then as a clergyman and finally as an artist of importance. Cumberbatch could be seen virtually in every frame of this drama documentary. Cumberbatch brought Van Gogh to life with the help of his body language, especially his hands and fingers. “For the many who won’t have been able to squeeze in to see the exhibition of Van Gogh’s paintings and letters showing at the Royal Academy in London, this excellent documentary of Van Gogh’s life and work comes as a superb replacement” were published words in The Telegraph about Van Gogh: Painted with Word.

(Daniel Brühl and Benedict Cumberbatch in a still from The Fifth Estate)


For Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, Cumberbatch stepped into the shoes of Julian Assange. The film was more of a dramatic thriller and dealt with Assange’s exposé through WikiLeaks. Even before the shooting, Cumberbatch received a letter from Assange which asked him to pass on the role as the film portrayed WikiLeaks in a false light. The role required him to wear fake teeth, white wigs and contact lenses. In an interview to Vanity Fair, he had revealed that he ‘considered the movie a complex and important story on a person whom he did not want in any sense to vilify’. When released, the film failed to garner favorable reviews.

(A still from The Imitation Game)


The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum, dealt with the life of Alan Turing, the mathematician at Cambridge who helped British government during World War II by inventing the computing machine which helped crack the German code. Even Churchill realized his contribution and later credited him with making the single biggest contribution in the war against the Germans. For his role, Cumberbatch relied on inputs that he received from Turing’s contemporaries and his two nieces. Turing had a habit of not making eye contact and tilting his head to one side. Cumberbatch delivered a nuanced power-packed performance for this film. To make the performance authentic, Cumberbatch even wore dentures on his own volition. His performance in the film was ranked as number 1 in TIME magazine's list of Best Performances of 2014. The film also helped him land a Best Actor Oscar nomination apart from seven other nominations.

(A still from Brexit)

BREXIT (2019)

Helmed by Toby Haynes, Brexit was aired on HBO and revolved around the controversial campaign lead by political strategist Dominic Cummings for British voters to leave the EU. He had earlier disclosed in an interview that he was initially wary about the project as it was the most divisive issue in politics that he had seen in his lifetime. It took five weeks for him to transform into Dominic. The process included shaving the middle of his hair and keeping the sides normal. “I was very intrigued to find out who he (Dominic) was before the drama starts. I think that’s always key to playing a part, especially one written by James (Graham). It’s so thorough in its execution in the moment by moment and the piecing together of the unravelling of that campaign and the results,” Cumberbatch had told Awards Daily. The actor approached his character in a non-judgemental manner and spoke to people who were part of the campaign. But the best inputs came from the man himself when Cumberbatch visited his house. It was just conversation and more conversation over vegan meal and lots of drinks.

(A still from The Current War)


The Current War, scheduled to release in October will see him in the role of Thomas Edison. The film deals with the bitter rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to control the electrical system. The actor was not much aware about the life of Edison before he signed the film. To get into the skin of the character, Cumberbatch read an extract from Edison’s diary in which he had talked about his dreams, his diet and literature. The film was premiered at TIFF in 2017 but because of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct the release was postponed. 101 Studios have now the distribution rights to the film and the film is all set to hit theatres in October 2019.


Benedict Cumberbatch / Hawking / Amazing Grace / Creation / Van Gogh Painted with Words / The Fifth Estate / The Imitation Game / Brexit / The Current War / BBC

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