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'The Imitation Game': Benedict Cumberbatch couldn't 'bear the tragedy' of Alan Turing

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Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game."
Jack English

The actor talks about how much he knew about the WWII codebreaker before taking the role, whether or not motion capture is "real" acting, and more.

"The Imitation Game" tells the story of the British mathematician, crypto-analyst and code breaker Alan Turing. He's best known as the man who cracked the German Enigma code during World War II and is considered the father of the modern computer.

One could say the man was an enigma himself. 

Turing was also openly gay — though quietly so — at a time when homosexuality was a crime in England. Despite his accomplishments, which helped end the war two years early and saved millions of lives, he was tragically persecuted for his sexual orientation. Today, Turing still remains largely unknown throughout the world.   

He's played in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch. When we recently caught up with the actor, we asked how much he knew about Turing before taking the role, how he embodied the role of Smaug in "The Hobbit," and whether or not motion capture is real acting. 

Interview Highlights:

How did this role land on your desk?

I was over here in L.A. filming "Star Trek" and there was this Blacklist script that everyone was talking about called "The Imitation Game," and a few friends and businessfolk of mine said, "You really should read this, we think you'd be great in it." I started to read it and was completely drawn in. I just kept reading and reading, it was a page turner, it was a thriller, it was a love story and it was this extraordinary exploration of this man who is far more complex than a bluff, arrogant, distant academic.

He was somebody who was incredibly, intensely sensitive and alive to the world he was in — not somebody who worked in isolation or in some kind of ivory tower or a brain in a glass jar. He was physically part of his world — and also as a gay man in a time of intolerance when that was deemed illegal. I just couldn't bear the tragedy of his story that for me was compounded by the fact of how unknown he is in comparison to his achievements. 

This is a man who almost singlehandedly broke the Enigma code, probably ended World War II a couple years early, saved millions of lives. 

Fourteen million lives people estimate. And also the man who was — still, now, by the kings of Silicon Valley — rightfully held as a true icon of the computer age. A man who is seen as the father of the computing age. This man who was then punished for his sexuality and also because of quietly admitting to his nature, a gay icon. So why the hell haven't I known more about him? That really compounded the emotional impact of the end of his life, the end of his story and his tragic suicide. 

It almost sounds as if you felt compelled to play this part. I'm curious, is that generally true, partially true, occasionally true when you decide to play something?

This one was utterly driven by a real need to tell this story and to travel his legacy further than it had traveled before. I feel it's really urgent and ... telling this story now is a needed thing — again, not just because of his legacy, not just his story and the injustice that he was served, but [because of] the injustice that minorities are still served around the world wherever prejudice exists. However it's borne through fear, through nationalism, through any kind of dark political maneuverings. We've seen it in Russia, we've seen it in Turkey, we've seen it in Greece, we've seen it in the Middle East — the treatment of gay men and women being scapegoated as people who are different. Those people are destroyed by that environment. 

You've said about acting: "I'm determined to manufacture at least the appearance of mastering whatever it is the character has to master, because otherwise there is no point."

I think so, to be specific about it, there are activities you do as an actor when you are performing thought or intelligence, and it's always handy to be active, physically active. The art department had created this incredible replica of the machine [Turing] builds at Bletchley Park, the bomb, which he called "Christopher" in the movie. I was intrigued to know how they built that. What I could do to interact with it. How I could understand the way it worked from what I understood of the real machine, which was on a good day quite a lot. On a bad day it could lose me at the first sentence of explanation.

It was really important within the activity of how I moved around that machine — treated it, what I was fixing — that I understood what I was doing. The same with the schematics, the drawings, the designs of the machine that you see me making and pinning to a board. If somebody said, "What is that? Is that a transistor or is that another bit of circuitry?" I would have gone, "Well, I, err...," if put on the spot. But when in the act of doing it and in that specific moment, I could have told you — and that's important to me.

How do you replicate that kind of preparation or that intensity when you're doing a role like Smaug in "The Hobbit"?

He was a character that existed in my imagination, thanks to my father who was an actor and read that book to me as a bedtime treat. Then I expanded on that and I really insisted to [director] Peter [Jackson] that we do motion capture for the creature because I wanted to explore the physicality, to establish the vocal qualities. And I also wanted to perform it in a visual context and give the animators and incredible digital wizards at WETA in New Zealand a template to work off that was my face and they did — remarkable as that may seem for a scaly, 400-odd-foot, fire-breathing, bad-breathed, flying dragon. There are moments, especially when I'm facing off to Thoreon and Bilbo, you can see sort of certain eyebrow movements and kind of things that are of me. 

There's a rift in the community in Hollywood about whether or not motion capture is acting or not...

It's acting. It's acting, pure and simple. It's a really pure form of acting, it's play. People I think are very wary of calling it acting. It was so freeing, wonderful and I felt completely uninhibited. It helps that you look like a complete tit at the beginning of your working day. But when you see someone like Andy Serkis, as I was fortunate enough to see when I went to New Zealand to first start working on this with Peter ... He was really excited to show me a cut of the riddle scene, and there he is, Gollum, and it's complete, and Martin [Freeman], both of them being utterly brilliant in that scene.

Then about half-way through the scene, suddenly all the animation and digital wizardry that goes on top of Andy just disappeared and he was there in his suit doing his thing. About three seconds later you forget that. Every physical movement, every detail of expression, but also every believable intention behind the line, examination of character — it's flawless acting, it's the most superb performance, and I think the more people see how it's put together, when you see it afterwards ... those are towering achievements. Really special moments in cinema history. So, yeah it's acting alright.

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