Sherlock and Watson are back with a bang

Published: 30 December, 2013 08:04 IST | Kanika Sharma |

It's been two years that Sherlock Holmes has been dead. But is he? Sherlock's third season might just be the most anticipated detective show on television in recent times. Kanika Sharma speaks to its leading men, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman where the latter indulges in an exclusive chat with MiDDAY

Benedict you are now called the "thinking woman's crumpet" and then there is this widespread group called the Cumberbitches. How comfortable are you with both the images though different that they are. Do you feel flattered to be taken as a 'sex symbol'.
It's flattering to get that kind of response and those compliments, but it's certainly something I never anticipated. I’m grateful for the opportunities I've had and that people seem to have enjoyed what I've done, but all this talk of being a sex symbol or a star is very alien to me."

Cumberbitches is flattering, though I worry about what it says for feminism, it's quite a pejorative term... I think it sets feminism back so many notches. You are... Cumberpeople.

(Right) Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in a still from Sherlock, Series 3. The show will be aired on AXN at 10 pm on January 3, 2014
(Right) Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in a still from Sherlock, Series 3. The show will be aired on AXN at 10 pm on January 3, 2014

You obviously owe your mainstream success to the Sherlock series. Did you ever anticipate that? Tell us about the time when you took on the role and the process through which you brought the character to life?
I am not an overnight success. My career hasn't seen instant fame but has involved a variety which is something I have been longing for since my childhood days when I happily switched between muddy rugby fields and the drama studio.

Sherlock is the most-played literary, fictional character. It’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for it. I follow in the footsteps of about 230-odd people, in many different languages, at different ages and different times. For any actor to play an iconic character, there’s a huge pressure that’s associated with delivering something that everyone knows cultural. So, it was quite nerve-wracking, but there is an element of a blank canvas because of this brilliant re-invention and re-invigoration of him being a 21st century hero.

I always go back to the books because they are an endless goldmine of reference and character observation. Watson, for all of Sherlock’s critique of him and their relationship, is a very keen observer from a normal person’s point of view and of what this extraordinary person is, whether it his physical movements, mercurial character or mood swings, all these aspects are very well detailed. 

Beyond that I start to try and memorize things, to try and be a little more alert to things, whether it’s short or long term memory. I look at my diet a little more specifically which is very helpful for clarity of mind and a sense of being in his skin, having his energy. Also (it ties in with) his relationship with food because he does fast in the books. He sees food as an obstacle because it slows down the metabolism, it reduces the ability to have a keen, hungry eye. There’s exercise as well, I try to meditate if I can. The rest of it is just collaboration, whether it be with the directors, with Martin or the rest of the cast and crew, just getting back into the swing of being in this family.

Are you a Sherlock Holmes fan yourself? Any characteristic similarities that you find with the literary detective?
Oh yes I am. As for similarities, you’d best ask the people who know me, like my mother or my girlfriends of old! The probably are a few similarities. My mum says I can be very impatient when I’m playing Sherlock. He’s a very intense character, and I don’t want to carry that around me. One thing I have noticed is that my memory does sharpen when I play Sherlock because of the amount of text I have to learn. Also I find myself looking at people’s shoes and body language and trying to deduce things from them. I do that because I have a professional interest. But I’m afraid I’m rubbish at it!

Tell us about Sherlock's speech tempo. You call it 'at the speed of thought'. Was it of your own devisement? Coincidentally so is Robert Downey Jr's reprising of the role — a character whose speech is also uttered in a single breath. What do you make of that?
I believe that the Sherlock’s speed of thought and quirky mannerisms have made him much loved by audiences. And no, it’s not my own devisement but it s really hard to be slightly ahead. It's hell, but it's very satisfying to get right. As for Robert Downey Jr, I am a huge fan. I love what Downey Jr. does with it. I think he’s reinvented it for a younger generation in the cinema and created a fantastic sort of action-thriller franchise out of the original stories in a way very true to the original, even as they’re updating it.

>> Tell us about Season 3. You are being confronted by a new villain, Charles Augustus Magnussen, you will be Watson's best man and this will be a series where you will truly not be in your element. How? 
I think it’s no secret that he’s going to be dealing with saying hello again to John Watson and also seeing his best friend getting married. Those are the two big adjustments — him coming back from a stint of going solo and becoming a team again and meeting this new person in Watson’s life.

>> There's talk of the Sherlock film happening. Tell us more...
We’re still off ground with the idea of a film.

The Reichenbach Fall has always had a speculative successor in India. And there was your gap year to teach in a Tibetan monastery. Tell us about your and Sherlock's relationship with the subcontinent. What allusions does Many Happy Returns have to India?
I really enjoyed my time in the in the subcontinent. I taught English to Tibetan monks . And the experience helped me become a cool, calm and collected person. I learnt a lot from being immersed in Buddhism. 

Many Happy Returns is a series of seemingly unconnected crimes stretching from Tibet to India to Germany series of seemingly unconnected crimes stretching from Tibet to India to Germany.

On a lighter note, what's with the dance off between you and Tom Hiddleston.
It was all in good fun.

Sherlock has been long dead, what is Dr Watson's take on this? How did you come to get attached to a 'cold' character like Sherlock in the first place?
Sherlock Holmes is the forerunner of what we now think of as the modern detective story. He set the blueprint. People are still fascinated by crime and how to solve it. Added to that, at the core of this is a fantastic relationship between two people, and their conflicts and their tensions and their differences. But ultimately they always come together to fight the bad guys.

Obviously there is redemption because Sherlock is not dead as we know. He joins John for series 3 at a very different time of his life and he has had to move on. As far as he is concerned his friend is gone, but then of course he finds out he isn’t gone and the adventures continue. John will have lost friends before so he’s used to death, but that was such an intense friendship — I don’t think he’s had a friend like Sherlock before, that’s for sure.

Its two years after the end of the last series, and he’s moved on. He’s fallen in love. He’s done his grieving and is probably a bit sadder, but is also very fulfilled because he’s met the woman he wants to marry.

How much are you like your character Dr Watson considering he is always behind Sherlock and as Stephen Moffat says, "Sherlock takes the piss out of Watson every time". What made you take on the role in the first place? What about the everyman tag?
Growing up in England, Sherlock Holmes is part of your DNA – even though I wouldn't classify myself as a fan I could probably answer a few questions. I’d always loved Sherlock Holmes. My first contact with Watson and Holmes — sorry, Holmes and Watson, I forget that he’s the main character! – was the films of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. When I first saw the script, I connected with Watson immediately. I thought, “This is my job!”

I love playing John — I probably wouldn't love it as much if it wasn't so well written, so well interpreted and if I wasn't playing with such a good Sherlock Holmes. I think this ticks all the boxes: it’s brilliantly written, Benedict is a brilliant Sherlock, it’s beautifully directed and I love the whole visual aesthetic. I like the fact that it’s updated and it doesn't feel as though you’re putting on a historical coat.

I based Watson on a few people I've met in the past, stoical people who are less flippant than I am. This Watson is also funny and vulnerable, he’s not macho. But ultimately there are similarities because something in every character has to come from you.

Your ability to play the 'everyman' is quite reputed. Why does that not hold well with you?
To be honest, if people thought my performance in The Office was the same as my performance in The Hobbit, it would tell me everything I needed to know about what they know about acting.

It's not the same performance and it's not the same performance in Sherlock and it's not going to be the same performance in Fargo so the risk is denying that and sounding defensive, or acknowledging that yes, there is a true line. Is there a true line in Robert De Niro's work? Yeah, there is.

Is there a single actor either of us could name where there isn't an overriding characteristic, no there isn't? Obviously I'm not saying I'm as good as De Niro! I think everyone has usable traits and they are used in that area.

You were an aspiring squash player but ended up as an actor. How did that happen?
My inspiration to become an actor came when I had joined a youth theatre at age of 15. Though my prior ambition was to be a professional squash player, I fell out of love with the sport. The turning point for me was when I was 17 and played in The Rose of Eyam, a true story on village. Usually people like audience appreciation, performing but I always like rehearsals that is how I found interest in it.

I do not prefer any type of genre, though I know fantasy, scifi, and comic book movies are very big. My only criterion is originality and whether the role will be something I haven’t done before. I try to treat characters with respect and avoid self-satirical and snarky performances. May be that is why I supposed to have a reputation for playing ‘extraordinary everymen’.

You are an incredibly private and a family person. A rarity these days. Why do you rank these qualities so
I’m a big believer that life changes as much as you want it to. If you invite in all the madness, it will. If you don’t, if you kind of let the world quietly know, No thanks, I still want to get on the train and live my own life, then somehow it doesn't have to.

To quote Moffat, "you are incredibly serious about acting", how has this character contributed to you as an actor and which are your memorable moments in the series till now.
I was sent the script and by about the end of the fourth page I just thought: 'This is genuinely brilliant'. It was probably the best script I'd read for ages, it's fantastically well written, regardless of when it's set.

In this version, Sherlock and Dr John Watson are both evenly weighed. John is not just a side-kick, he has a really good role to play. Every actor wants to play someone three dimensional and this is as close as you get.

Memorable moments
I have to say the ones that we have just filmed have been brilliant. Before that, probably Reichenbach was my favourite one to do because when we read it I was really, really excited and I thought the finished product was amazing. It was one of the best things that I’ve ever done and am likely to do for a while.

But then I found that about the episodes we have just done. It’s particularly important you end on a fantastic third one and the third episode in the third series is stellar. Everyone’s work on it is great and it’s a Steven Moffat (the director) special which is always good, but they are all so good! I was very, very excited when I read this one – it’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever read.

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