Elementary appeal

Fans swoon over Benedict Cumberbatch, icon ‘Sherlock’ role

  • Film-Review-Star-Trek-Into-Darkness

    Zachary Quinto, as Spock, Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, and Chris Pine as Kirk, in a scene in the movie, "Star Trek Into Darkness."

  • Zachary Quinto, as Spock, Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, and Chris Pine as Kirk, in a scene in the movie,
    Zachary Quinto, as Spock, Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, and Chris Pine as Kirk, in a scene in the movie, "Star Trek Into Darkness."

    Cumberbatch portrays Sherlock Holmes in
    Cumberbatch portrays Sherlock Holmes in "Sherlock."

    PASADENA, Calif. — Fans of PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! series Sherlock are dedicated. So dedicated that they stood outside a hotel in a recent Monday waiting for star Benedict Cumberbatch to arrive at and then later emerge from a PBS news conference.

    How long did they stay? For Claire Sakai, 34, of Orange County, Calif., who arrived at the hotel at 6 a.m., it was a 10-hour wait. But she’s waited longer: 16 hours on one occasion. (She tries to show up at any Los Angeles premieres of Cumberbatch’s films or get tickets to his local talk show appearances.)

    Cumberbatch appreciates the fan devotion, but it comes with some strings.

    “[I feel] guilt, first of all, because I was late and I had to run past them saying, ‘I’m on a tight schedule. I’ve got to come back and see you later,’ ” he said during the conference. “They have to wait another three odd hours, so forgive me.”

    He’s quick to say he doesn’t think the fandom is all about him but about the iconic Sherlock character, who returned from the dead, much to the surprise of best friend John Watson (Martin Freeman), in the third-season premiere. The episode followed the path of the character’s revival by Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle in his short story, Adventure of the Empty House.

    In 2012 viewers took to the Internet after the second-season finale to theorize how Sherlock survived a fall from a building rooftop, knowing full well that the character would not be killed off so soon. Executive producer and co-creator Steven Moffat said he always knew how he’d explain away the cliffhanger.

    “We painted ourselves into a corner and made sure there was a bald patch for us to get through,” he said. “I think I can now say this after all this time, what were you all thinking? John couldn’t see the point of impact. It was obvious the only way to avoid dying from hitting a sidewalk at speed is not to hit it. That’s it. There has to be something in the way. It was never going to be the Tardis, so it had to be a big blue cushion of the right color.”

    Despite airing opposite the highest-rated-ever episode of Fox’s The Following on Jan. 19, Sherlock was viewed by an average audience of 4 million viewers, a 25 percent increase from the 3.2 million viewers who tuned in for the season-two premiere.

    The series — and it is only a three-episode season; No. 2 aired Sunday — came back after an almost two-year absence due in part to its stars’ newfound popularity. Cumberbatch was off making Star Trek Into Darkness, The Fifth Estate, and voicing the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit movies. Co-star Martin Freeman has also been busy filming his role as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit — the two actors faced off in December’s Hobbit release, The Desolation of Smaug.

    This latest season of Sherlock not only reunites the show’s stars, supporting players and producers, but it also turned into a family affair.

    Freeman’s partner, actress Amanda Abbington, joined Sherlock as Mary Morstan, John Watson’s girlfriend who became his wife in Sunday’s episode. And Cumberbatch’s real-life parents, actors Timothy Carlton (Parade’s End) and Wanda Ventham (Doctor Who), played Sherlock’s parents in the season premiere.

    “Those are their stage names. They’re both obviously Cumberbatches,” he said. “It was the first day on set, so everyone was nervous. They were really nervous, but I did, at certain points, try to manage their nerves as well as mine, and it was a glorious thing.”

    Abbington said she and Freeman “have quite nice chemistry,” which helped her land the part.

    “I’d always wanted to be in it, and they wrote Mary Morstan and said, ‘Would you like to do it?’ And I jumped on them and said, ‘Yes, please,’ ” she said. Viewers should expect to see Mary sticking around.

    “There’s not an awful lot of women in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and what ones are there are not necessarily the most vivid characters,” Moffat said. “One of the things that happens best in ‘Sherlock,’ which [co-creator] Mark [Gattis] and I have discovered, is if you put a female perspective on those two men, it’s very, very funny and very illuminating, because [all the women] see through Sherlock so fast. They deconstruct him instantly. John is still bamboozled by Sherlock. He’s still amazed by him. Mary is saying, ‘No, you looked it up in YouTube.’ All the women get him instantly, and they know when he’s showboating and when he’s at it a bit.”

    Cumberbatch is, of course, the latest in a long line of actors to play the Holmes character, and until CBS’s “Elementary” came along — after the second season of “Sherlock” — he was notable as a younger-than-usual Sherlock. That may help extend the show’s longevity, and Cumberbatch is game for season four.

    “I’m going to keep going with it, and it’s a schedule providing thing,” he said.

    “It will continue until Benedict gets too famous and he’ll refuse,” Moffat teased.

    “He’ll get so precious and just says, ‘I’m not going to do it,’ ” Ms. Abbington added.

    “Why is it always on me?” Cumberbatch said, noting he finds the role invigorating. “I can step away from him, although … one of the funny things about having my parents in it were the responses. … They were absolutely appalled at how accurate the relationship is between Sherlock and his parents and me and mine. Shoving them out of the door like a terrible teenager embarrassed of them. I’m not. I love them to bits, but I can be quite short. And mom does say every now and again that I bring my work home and she saw me while we were filming it, and she went, ‘Hmm, careful, darling. Just be careful.’ ”

    Cumberbatch’s mother once told an interviewer a story of him in a Nativity play as a child.

    “I pushed the actress playing Mary off stage,” he said. “What a twit I must have been. I really don’t have a memory of it.”

    “Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton asked if he was playing Jesus.

    “Yeah, I came out of the crib and pushed my own mom off the stage,” Cumberbatch said, laughing at the preposterousness. “Now, that would have been a baby video that should have gone viral. The Antichrist.”

    Despite the fame, Cumberbatch said he still takes public transportation — “When I go shopping, I don’t send minions out and sit at home at the top of a tall ivory tower with guns pointed at the street” — and although he doesn’t love the paparazzi thrusting cameras in his face, he said fans are generally polite.

    Besides, he can relate.

    “I still get completely starstruck. I was talking to some of the cast of ‘Homeland’ — not Damian Lewis, because he’s old hat,” Cumberbatch said, teasing his fellow British actor and friend. “But the others that were there, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m such a huge fan.’ ”

    When he met “Breaking Bad” stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, Cumberbatch said he was nearly speechless.

    “I’m not even a girl, but I completely had a meltdown,” he said. “I completely get the kind of dry mouth thing and not quite knowing what to say.”

    Last week Freeman said, without missing a beat, fans of “Sherlock” are more exuberant in expressing their devotion than “Hobbit” fans. Seeing the two-dozen fans gathered outside the Langham Huntington Hotel waiting hours to catch a glimpse of Cumberbatch, it’s not difficult to see that devotion at work.

    “It’s kind of extraordinary and a little bit unnerving,” Cumberbatch said of his devotees. “I feel — not an onerous sense of responsibility — but I do feel that that has to be acknowledged, and I know that feeds the thing itself, but at the same time, I’m a human being. … I’ve got to acknowledge with gratitude the fact that they are so supportive, loyal and, by and large, intelligent, and some of them normal, and committed to something that I really love doing and a character that I like playing, and other characters as well. It means a lot to me. It means a hell of a lot to me.”

    Shortly after 4 p.m. Monday, after his press conference and other promotional work on behalf of “Sherlock,” Cumberbatch emerged from the Langham and made good on his press conference promise. He made a beeline for fans waiting along the rope line, signing autographs and posing for photos for 15 minutes or more before departing.

    A portion of this column originally appeared online in the Tuned In Journal blog. Post-Gazette TV writer Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour. Follow RobOwenTV at Twitter or Facebook. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.