'I was frightened,' Benedict Cumberbatch says in a soft, thoughtful voice Over lunch on a rainy afternoon in New York City. He's not talking about the terrible act of violence he survived on a trip to South Africa a few years ago. Nor the daunting prospect of playing some of the world's most recognizable figures: Stephen Hawking, in a 2004 BBC movie that served as one of his early breaks, or notorious WikiLeaker Julian Assange in Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate, opening Oct. 18.
He's talking about privacy. "I was worried about being exposed," he says. It began in 2010, when his reinvention of Sherlock Holmes besotted legions of his countrymen and, famously, the groups of countrywomen who called themselves "Cumberbitches" until he told INSTYLE U.K. that he was concerned "about what it says for feminism ... Cumberbabes might be better." When Sherlock's second season premiered on PBS, its ratings beat recent numbers of cult favorites like Mad Men, with Cumberbatch as its cerebral pinup. "Stepping into the populist limelight," he says, "has been quite crazy."
Sometimes an actor captures a cultural moment in a film. Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, for example, embodied the fever dreams of the feminist backlash in a single sociopath, a woman whose sexual power threatened to destroy all it touched. And sometimes an actor's body of work provides a kind of historical shorthand: Dennis Hopper's shift from Easy Rider's wide-eyed radical to the shell-shocked journalist in Apocalypse Now to the suburban, Reagan-era rot of Blue Velvet captures almost 20 years in under seven hours.
In a single year's clutch of performances, Cumberbatch has channeled half a dozen shades of zeitgeist. Here's 2013 for the 37-year-old British actor: In a world where the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist can change hour to hour, he portrayed the enigmatic villain Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, a popcorn-with-politics sequel to J.J. Abrams' franchise refurbishment. As battles over health care shut down the U.S. government, he'll appear with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in the all-star ensemble August: Osage County, in which cancer burns a path of ruin through an extended heartland family. We hardly need another movie to show how the ghosts of slavery haunt the U.S., but Cumberbatch's poignant turn as a softhearted slave owner in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, with Chiwetel Ejiofor as a freeman sold into slavery, emphasizes once again how racism wounds everyone it touches. And there's his chameleonic, bravura performance as Assange in The Fifth Estate, which was almost kiboshed by Assange himself and is a test case for the tension between privacy and technology that's unfolding in real time.
Cumberbatch is seizing his moment. He responded to an e-mail Assange released as a critique of the film with his own thoughtful discourse on what journalism and democracy should be and not just in the press but in e-mails to Assange. That began a feedback loop culminating in Assange's claim on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos that Cumberbatch "tried to ameliorate some of the worst elements of the script but unfortunately with limited success, though I'm pleased he tried." Assange went on to blast the project as "a big cashing-in" by "a rich organization ... that's intending to make a lot of money from this process." (The film was co-produced by DreamWorks, which has a distribution deal with Disney.) Cumberbatch has, so far, let that be the last word.
On a lighter note, Cumberbatch basically broke the Internet one recent afternoon by offering new ideas for erotic fan fiction on a Reddit AMA (an online "ask me anything" session). When asked if he ever has "cheekbone-polishing parties" with fellow Brit and Doctor Who lead Matt Smith and Thor's Loki, Tom Hiddleston, Cumberbatch wrote, "We like nothing better than buffing our Zygoma. And imagining a horny time traveling long overcoat purple scarf wearing super-sleuth nordic legend f - fantasy. Get to work on that, internet." It surely did.
Despite those vertiginous cheekbones and his utterly distinctive face, Cumberbatch is fully able to transform on film. As the warrior Khan he's a ferocious, furrowed mix of calculation and pure id. In a climactic speech, swells of rage and disgust look ready to burst through his forehead. His Sherlock, on the other hand, sometimes appears as little more than two eyes and two hands while he commands a restricted palette of gestures that conveys more inner life than most actors' entire bodies. Sherlock's trick of "speaking at the speed of thought," as Cumberbatch describes it, seems to come naturally to the actor, as does his propensity for close observation. "A kind of frightening thing happened," says Cumberbatch's Fifth Estate co-star Daniel Brühl, who plays Daniel Domscheit-Berg, WikiLeaks' former spokesman under the nom de Web Daniel Schmitt and the author of one of the books that were adapted for the movie's screenplay. "The first time I met him in London for rehearsal, he took one look at me and told me what I had had for breakfast." Brühl laughs. "I said, 'Hi, Sherlock, nice to meet you.' And he said, 'Sorry, sorry, I just can't let go of that part.'"