In this month's Creative Conversation, Fast Company spoke to actor and Internet phenomenon Benedict Cumberbatch, who held forth on recent movie roles (he plays Alan Turing in The Imitation Game) and how he stays sane with an insanely busy schedule.
Fast Company: Harvey Weinstein, whose company is distributing The Imitation Game, has said that you captured the "vulnerability, genius, and arrogance" of Alan Turing, a war hero and tech pioneer. Those three qualities also defined WikiLeaks' Julian Assange—
Cumberbatch: And therefore, are they present in me as well?
I wasn't going to ask that, but are you volunteering?
Well, I think in any actor you have to have a certain amount of arrogance—confidence, which often comes off as arrogance. Obviously, that's taken to a little bit of an extreme with those two characters. But what was your question?
Well, both of these men transformed how we understand our world, and they share qualities with many titans of Silicon Valley. Do you think those are the three key elements to being a changemaker?
You've hit it on the head. If you are different and you have a different outlook and you have something to celebrate that is different, all of those things have to come into play.
You and Assange had a debate before you filmed The Fifth Estate: You said it's important for people to understand him, but he didn't want to distract from the story of WikiLeaks' work. As a public figure, do you think it's worth trying to control your own narrative?
Oh, I have huge sympathy for that—you want your work to be sufficient. I can't judge him on it. And I can empathize with wanting to remain anonymous, even though your job may be about making some things public. But people make themselves vulnerable to attack the minute they say, "No, you need to know this." Then the argument can be turned: "Well, then we need to know about you." By being in a public profession, you are toying with being owned by the public. The difference is too subtle for a culture to deal with, especially in an age when everyone is a walking publisher. No one sees a barrier of privacy, because if I'm on the cover of a magazine, why can't they pick up a phone and take a photograph? I get it. It's important for me to remember that people are taking photos of me because they like something I did on the telly. It still means something in a positive way.
You're not on Twitter, and interviewers often ask you why. Are you surprised at the assumption—that it's always desirable to live a more public life?
Yeah. Look, I get accused of being overhyped, overexposed, over here and there and everywhere. The truth is [doing press] is part of my job and I work a lot, so I'm going to be talking about my work a lot. Beyond that, I want to live my life and not be in people's faces. There's quite enough of me out there.
When you do participate in social media, you go big—like with a long Ask Me Anything on Reddit and an ice-bucket challenge video in which you get dumped on six times. How do you pick your moments?
Slightly out of necessity. The ice-bucket challenge was to raise awareness for charity, and I had been nominated about five times. Reddit is obviously an extraordinary thing. It was so nice to have direct contact in one moment with a group of fans. I just regret so many things that I don't have enough time for—picking up a musical instrument, painting, drawing, reading outside of fields of work, being on holiday, being in nature. Brilliant though the immediate outreach of social media is, I'm very, very happy to walk away.
I imagine your time constraints have become more severe in the past few years, as your profile has risen. Did you learn time management on the fly?
I have people who are on the verge of a nervous breakdown all the time, managing my day. I started to delegate about a year and a half ago. It was the best thing I've ever done. I thought I was capable of running the whole circus, and I'm really not.
Was there a point when you realized you needed help?
Oh my God. I was about to go on this ridiculous weekend with this guy with a private jet and other friends, kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and then I got a call literally on the tarmac going, "Umm, so where are you? We're about to do the photo shoot." I was like, "Oh, fuck!"
What have you learned since then?
Delegate! And also [gestures to his iPhone and iPad], if I need to concentrate on learning lines or doing research, I have to push all of this away. I give them to my assistant and say, "I'm sorry, deal with what you can, and I'm just going to walk away for two hours." I'd realized that I had spent more and more time answering all the demands and thinking that if my inbox is empty, then I can start work. It's like any diversion tactic—like cleaning, which I used to do a lot when I was supposed to be working. Although I do get a panic attack when I look at other people's phones and they have 1,200 emails. It really makes me go, "How do you swallow your food? I don't understand how your body actually functions."
Do you achieve inbox zero?
Pretty much. I've done this thing recently of flagging a lot of emails, and so I've built up this count that is, to me, like, Uh-oh, it's in that territory of panic, like 120. But what I realized is that those things can carry on without me sometimes. It's a weird balance because I do enjoy parts of this, what we're doing now. But increasingly, I view it as the thing that I'm actually paid for. Because I do love my job. Don't tell any producer this, but I'd almost do it for free, I love it so much. I've got a lot on my plate. I've got to go on a plane tonight and go straight home, hopefully with some sleep, straight into a car, straight into a read-through of three Shakespeare plays in which I'm playing Richard III. Normally I'd be reading through the plays, just making sure I was on my game.
Do you worry about giving up that preparation time? You're famously very engrossed in the subject matter you work on.
If you looked at my desk upstairs in my hotel room, there are not one, not two, but four books on the plays I'm about to do. There are two Turing biographies. There is just a shitload of other stuff on that on my Kindle. Because, of course, I've got time to sit down and fucking read everything! It's ridiculous. But when push comes to shove, I'm getting slightly better now, as I say, because of having help with time management, with prioritizing. It's really important, because you can't be a good student by trying to do it all.
I imagine the hardest part is deciding which things you don't need to know.
You just have to go for what's really necessary first, and then, God willing, there's time to get lost in stuff that's just a diversion but as illuminating as the stuff you need to know. I'm not a math PhD, I'm not a programmer or cryptographer of any sort. The science that I try to understand is often about sense memory. Even if it's something as simple as copying what the art department has done. I'm an okay drawer and craftsman, and their work is always so ridiculously involved. With Turing, I just asked how they copied his schematics and they showed me, and then I copied their copy, so it was two removes from him. But even doing that, before takes, in between takes, and then obviously during takes, made me have some entitlement to pretending to be this intellect, because I was at least creating something that he'd done. That's really satisfying.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2014 / January 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.