Benedict and the Cumberbitches: What Fame Looks Like From Inside a Meme

Photo: Art Streiber
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What fame looks like from inside a meme.
Photographs by Art Streiber

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.”

But he is, he insists, the people’s otter: He went to the public University of Manchester and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, after boarding at Harrow for secondary school—which, okay, is possibly a little wankerish (Winston Churchill was an alumnus), but keep in mind Cumberbatch was the only son of actors who he says “worked very hard to afford me that education, because it was one of the most expensive educations you could buy a child then. I’ll put it this way: I went to school with princes and kings and people who, you know, owned oil fields, or who were able to buy buildings for the school.” The awful secret, he says, is that despite having played ­Stephen Hawking and physicist Werner Heisenberg and Vincent van Gogh, not to mention math genius Turing and the No. 1 consulting detective of 221B Baker Street, “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 last time Cumberbatch made a public declaration about needing to pee, it went viral. “I drank a lot. I need the loo!” he said in September while accepting GQ’s Actor of the Year Award. (Google “Benedict Cumberbatch drunk.”) “I had drunk a lot of stuff, but I actually wasn’t that drunk,” says Cumberbatch. What happened was he’d been told his speech would be at the top of the night, so he went to town on beverages, but it took ages to get called to the podium, and by the time he did, he says, “my bladder was up to my nostrils. I literally thought if I went like that”—he moves ever so slightly—“urine would pour out of my nose!”

“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.

Pretty much everything he does explodes on social media. See: BuzzFeed’s 16-part “Benedict Cumberbatch Makes One Lucky Umbrella’s Dreams Come True,” based on his holding said accessory at The Imitation Game’s rainy London Film Festival premiere, or that single photo of him dancing with his 12 Years a Slave co-star Michael Fassbender at the Golden Globes. “Everyone’s called that a dance-off,” says Cumberbatch. “We were dancing together, as grown men should. There’s no ‘off’ about it. We were dancing ‘on.’ We were together, in perfect male harmony.”

“I flirt with it. I have fun with it,” Cumberbatch says of participating in his own meme generation. (When a fan asked, during a Reddit Ask Me Anything Q&A, if he and his fellow angular Brits Tom Hiddleston and Matt Smith have cheekbone-polishing parties, Cumberbatch replied: “We like nothing better than buffing our Zygoma. And imagining a horny time traveling long overcoat purple scarf wearing super sleuth nordic legend fuck fantasy. Get to work on that, internet.”) “I think if you take it too seriously, you’re dead in the water, and if you ignore it, then it’s kind of an insult because it’s a reality. So I engage with it on my own terms, and people seem to really respond to that because it’s me being me, rather than me going”—he switches to a high-pitched voice—“‘Hi, internet, thank you so much! I love you so much, all the feels, squidgies, LOL! Awkward!’ ”

Up until four years ago, Cumberbatch was known mainly for his work on the London stage (Shakespeare, Ibsen) and in BBC movies like 2004’s Hawking, which earned him his first of four BAFTA nominations. (He’s won an Olivier for playing both man and creature in an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and a 2014 Emmy for Sherlock.) And so he has vivid memories of watching his life change not just very quickly but literally over the course of Sherlock’s first 88-minute episode in 2010. “I sort of knew I’d be stepping into the limelight, because it’s such an iconic character,” he says. “But none of us had any idea about what kind of success we’d have on our hands, and it shocked all of us. That first night it aired in England, my God! I wasn’t really aware of this internet TV culture, because I hadn’t really dabbled in a series or something with a potential cult following, like a Doctor Who or a Downton Abbey. But when the internet exploded with this live, immediate audience reaction, it was like being in a theater of millions of people.” He left a viewing party hosted by Sherlock ­creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss with his then-girlfriend of about a decade, actress Olivia Poulet, half-expecting that they’d be “jumped by journos in the bushes,” he says. “That they’d fucking be HALO-­dropping out of the back of Hercules aircraft with a microphone, you know, at the ready. It was so immediate, the response, that it was sort of terrifying. And this thing of trending on Twitter, I didn’t really know what Twitter was until that night! So I suddenly went from being my dad to being at the sort of forefront of this new thing.”

Sherlock really is the whole key to the Cumberbitches, and he thinks, over time, he’s figured out the appeal of the character to women (and gay men—the internet is crawling with slash fiction imagining Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and ­Martin Freeman’s John Watson blowing off steam back at the flat after a hard day of detecting, usually with Watson as the top). “Sherlock’s a sociopath,” Cumberbatch says of his Holmes, whose default mode in interacting with a member of the opposite sex is to intuit in seconds the thing that will destroy her most at her core, then tell her, in the most withering way possible. But in the BBC series he’s also an extremely intelligent and competent modern man, adept with technology in a way that speaks to audiences who are tweeting as they watch. “It’s like, ‘Ah, one of us, great!’ ” says Cumberbatch. “Someone who is tech-savvy, who is fed up with mediocrity and wants to carve his way through the world and be purposeful and asexual and just get on with things and is sort of a little bit cruel, which is kind of sexy, but adorable because he’s not really complete as a human being.” Contrast that onscreen acerbity with the immediate warmth and playfulness Cumberbatch emanates in person, and it’s enough to rip all the world’s knickers asunder, including those of a lesbian who claims on the Cumberbitches Reddit forum to be “straight for BMFC (Benedict Mother Fucking Cumberbatch).”

His acting is the gateway drug. Each ’bitch on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr has her own story of having discovered Cumberbatch via some role—the earlier the discovery the greater the pride and sense of ownership—and having gone into a hole of binge-watching everything he’d ever done (yes, he was that slightly familiar face in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and War Horse). It comes down to character, writes Jana Prikryl, a senior editor of the New York Review of Books, who published a long free-verse poem about him in the London Review of Books imagining the two of them leaving a party together and praising “his quips and winning / earnest wish to answer / every question, / and be very very nice.” When he speaks, it’s with passion, one Reddit user wrote; “that’s when you notice the bright twinkle in his eyes, the huge grin, the crinkles that span his cheeks.” Another Reddit user, who first attached the phrase “the thinking women’s crumpet” to Cumberbatch, wrote: “You could simply watch any one of his many performances where he could make your jaw (and panties) drop with a simple look or gesture.” They also talk about his arms, his torso (there’s a six-pack under there, albeit a pale one), his adorable difficulty saying the word penguin (he called them “pengwings” and “penglings” in an unearthed nature documentary), and his ability to be “both masculine and sensitive at the same time, beautiful without being the least bit effeminate.” And of course there’s his voice—“the best remedy when you’re having a bad day or you just want to close your eyes and relax,” one Cumberbitch tells me. Says another, “The raw power behind it leaves you in awe and you wish he could read a book to you.” Cumberbatch is the boyfriend you want to wake up next to while Holmes is the man you hope will ravage you.

“The sex appeal of Benedict’s Sherlock is something I’ve discussed greatly with a couple of friends,” says Zadie O’Neill, a cute redheaded Australian I found on Facebook. It comes down to Sherlock’s single-minded focus on crime “to the exclusion of everything else,” she’s concluded. “What makes him sexy is the idea that if you could harness that intensity and focus on sex instead … well …”

That fan reaction “bemuses me still,” Cumberbatch says. “It’s utterly the most inept superpower you could possibly imagine: ‘You’re really famous, and you’re a sex symbol. Go!’ ” He pretends to puzzle his way through it. “ ‘So, uh, everyone—no, not everyone finds me attractive. So certain people find me attractive? Well, certain people are obsessed with my work. But I’m not all about my work, so what do I do with that? Are they trustworthy?’ I mean, what would you do with that?’ There’s nothing you can do with that, other than be amused. Which I am. It makes me giggle.” He goes on. “It’s fun, but I’m old enough to realize it’s not to be taken seriously. But it does make me twinkle.”

"Nooooooooooo.” “the worst day of my life has arrived.” “#brokenhearted #feellikecrying.” “Wait what Benedict cumberbatch is engaged I have a lump in my throat this is terrible terrible news I hate everything im so sad.” ­“BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IS ENGAGED AND MY LIFE IS OVER.”

What you heard this November 5 was the sound of hundreds of thousands of hearts breaking, as “Mr. B. T. Cumberbatch” thwarted the tabloids and his internet girlfriends alike by announcing his engagement to actress and acclaimed avant-garde theater and opera director Sophie Hunter in the classiest way possible: a one-­sentence blurb in the Times of London. The couple’s courtship had been equally discreet. They’d met while working opposite one another in the 2009 thriller Burlesque Fairytales and, admirably and miraculously, have been ­photographed together exactly once, in the stands of this summer’s French Open. Cumberbatch reportedly flew to Edinburgh to ask her mother’s permission to propose. It was all, to quote a Cumberbitches Reddit poster, “smooth as fuck.” His fan base seems to be moving on by preparing to be obsessed with his Cumberwedding and Cumberbabies. 

If you gaze deep into his résumé, though, you’ll discover that Cumberbatch has broken few, if any, hearts onscreen. And that certainly won’t change with Turing, who lived his life in secrecy about both who he was and what he did—who in his lifetime never received recognition for his invaluable work breaking an “unbreakable” Nazi code to help bring an early end to the war and who invented the machine we now know as the computer before the government essentially tortured him to death, at 41, for being gay. “It’s sickeningly ironic that the man who brought about victory for a democracy and a government that defeated Fascism was then rewarded by that government in a time of ­McCarthyist paranoia and intolerance by being killed basically slowly for what his sexual orientation was,” says Cumberbatch. Turing was charged with gross indecency after admitting to a gay affair and sentenced to chemical castration before committing suicide. “I mean, it’s just disastrous.”

The closest he’s come to playing a romantic lead, Cumberbatch jokes, was as a wolf in this year’s Penguins of Madagascar, when he danced with another animal “and seduced them and brought out all their kind of worst Bond minds.” (The scene wound up on the cutting-room floor.) This is a man who has yet to prove he can open a movie, and while the art-house Imitation Game might not be the best test of whether that can change, this year could still be a meme-to-superstardom turning point for Cumberbatch. In what is both a massive leap of faith and a testament to his talent and appeal, he is rumored to have landed his first lead in a Marvel movie. Fittingly, it’s as Dr. Strange.

“I’ve never had a Gosling moment as a character. I’ve never been the kind of guy who’s made all the girls go gooey,” he says, then puffs up his chest, mockingly. “I think it’s about time I did.” Instead, Cumberbatch’s parts have tended toward tortured genius, though he bristles at the reductive labeling. “I have played stupid people as well! If anyone’s got any other stupid people I can play, let me know.” He also takes issue with people asking him where Turing and Sherlock fall on the autism spectrum. “I think they are both utterly conditioned by their circumstance,” he says. With Turing especially, “I think it’s a really quick shorthand to go ‘autistic, Asperger’s, learning difficulties, slightly dyslexic,’ or some kind of devaluing way of labeling him.” Turing’s stammer, Cumberbatch points out, was developed from being brought up by foster parents and worsened through being bullied at school and by the death of an early love. “He was born into a really intolerant world.”

Sherlock is similarly stymied, he says—definitely abstinent, though, Cumberbatch says, not asexual. He’s convinced Sherlock did consummate his relationship with the whip-smart dominatrix Irene Adler: “Yeah, I think they were definitely at it after he ­rescued her from the beheading in Pakistan,” says Cumberbatch. “I’m sure they were. I’m convinced of that.” But “I think he’s been burnt in the past. I think he also realizes he can’t beat female intuition. He can read women if he’s not attracted to them or involved with them, and he knows that he’ll get very confused if he’s starting to feel something for someone. So to embroil himself where he might be enslaved through adoration or sexual desire or any kind of power or chemistry to do with love is too big a risk for him, for what he wants to achieve. That doesn’t make him gay, and it doesn’t make him asexual; it means, you know, he’s purposely abstaining for the sake of his craft. Not something I do.”

Excuse me?

“Not something I do.” Cumberbatch laughs. “That’ll probably be the headline: “Benedict Cumberbatch Doesn’t Abstain From Sex for the Sake of His Acting.” Wouldn’t it be great? Should I just say that?”

He did, however, have dental plates made based on Turing’s teeth to get into character for The Imitation Game—a rather ingenious way to mimic Turing’s stammering speech patterns, since there are no recordings of his voice. “I said, ‘Nobody will know, because nobody knows how his teeth were. If it’s uncomfortable, you don’t have to wear them,’” says The ­Imitation Game director Morten Tyldum. Cumberbatch wore them anyway. He’d also wake up at five every morning before coming to set to go for a run and clear his mind, just as Turing did. Cumberbatch says he loved the way Turing saw his body as a vessel for his mind, and tends to approach his own roles with an athlete’s physicality. At Harrow, he played rugby; these days, he gets his thrills riding horses and motorcycles, as well as snowboarding and skydiving.

We are either two or three double pisco sours deep when Adam Ackland, Cumberbatch’s “bessie mate” and partner in their production company, SunnyMarch, comes over. Ackland’s been taking meetings on their behalf all day. “He’s been out a-­hunting whilst I’ve been in a-talking,” says Cumberbatch, who orders more pisco sours and some fried chicken. “Sing it!” he sings. He also takes a messy bite of ahi tuna that flies onto my phone. “Oh, no!” he says. “I’ve got a bit of ceviche splat on your fucking Samsung. I’m so sorry! Oh, Jesus!”

I tell him it’s fine. Now the phone is worth something. “Exactly,” he says, laughing. “I was going to say, ‘Go and frame the phone and sell it on eBay or something.’ Though it’s not my splat. It’s not a Cumbersplat. It’s a ceviche splat.”

Cumberbatch started SunnyMarch because “selfishly,” he says, “I want to make films that I want to see, basically.” The second hope is to find a new way of doing business and to do away with the dreaded full days of back-to-back three-minute junket interviews he’s been enduring in Toronto. His objection isn’t to having to do the interviews—“I don’t mind the slog”—but how short they are, because how is a man who won’t join Twitter because he’s too verbose for 140 characters supposed to talk in brevity about a movie that, he says, is “about communication, about love, about conditioning, about society, about war, about peace, about science and what it is to be human, how to be heroic, while being normal or different”? And the guilt he says he has about not giving reporters what they need and anxiety over not doing Alan Turing justice will only increase as Harvey Weinstein tries to make an Oscar push for The Imitation Game, which Cumberbatch says “is enormously exciting for me and for the film. But, you know, in all honesty, I can’t actually do that thing,” meaning the months-long campaign. “I don’t have the time to commit to it.” He’s shooting Richard III for the BBC until Christmas, then a Sherlock special in January (and season four by the end of the year), then playing a motion-capture Shere Khan in Andy Serkis’s Jungle Book: Origins, and he will spend his summer as Hamlet—in a production that sold out within a day, the fastest-selling theater ticket in London history. With his own company, he says, “I want to see if there are other ways of doing this. I might be crashingly disappointing. Or I might realize that Harvey is actually a really decent guy and it’s just the only way of doing things.”

Our waiter approaches one last time. “The gentlemen at the bar are fans and wanted to send over a glass of Champagne. This is Billecart-Salmon Brut.”

Cumberbatch’s whole affect grows tense, as if he’s trying to tamp down annoyance. “Well, thank you,” he says with a little sigh, and waves back to the very enthusiastically waving distant figures at the bar—it turns out they’re his Imitation Game co-stars and good friends Matthew Goode (a.k.a. Finn on The Good Wife) and Allen Leech (a.k.a. Tom on Downton Abbey).

“Matthew and Allen!” says Cumberbatch, cracking up. “Jesus Christ. Send it back! Can you send it back and say I’ve got an allergy?” he asks the waiter. “Thank you very much.” Then, for good measure, he shouts, loud enough so they can hear him: “And it’s not good enough!”

A minute or so later, the waiter is back. “They want to know if the allergy is to the Champagne or to them.”

“Both. Just say I’ve got an allergy to cheap Champagne. Tell them exactly that. I have acid reflux, and unless it’s really good bubbles, I’m not going to take that!” He shakes his head and laughs. “But please don’t sell that too well. Make sure they know it’s a joke. They’ll really think I’m an asshole.” 

*This article appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

*This article has been corrected to show that Jana Prikryl is the senior editor of the New York Review of Books, not the London Review of Books. It has also been corrected to show that Cumberbatch will be shooting a Sherlock special in January, not the show's fifth season. A previous version of this article misstated the circumstances around Turing’s arrest.

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