Benedict Cumberbatch is the quintessential English gentleman: Eloquent, well-dressed and sophisticated. Incidentally, he’s also one of the most brilliant actors of his generation. But there’s more to him than thespian talent and impeccable manners, as we learn from a thought-provoking interview.
From the stage to the big screen, Benedict Cumberbatch has treated us to some of the most memorable and brilliant performances in recent years: A cape-donning master of mystic arts, a gifted, sociopathic detective, a closeted mathematical genius, and one of Shakespeare’s agonisingly conflicted protagonists, to name but a few.
When Cumberbatch isn’t dazzling us with his methodically brilliant performances, or indulging us with his charmingly self-deprecating ways, he meditates and dives – as we learn from a short film he’s made in collaboration with Jaeger-LeCoultre, called In A Breath.
Shot off the coast of Auckland, New Zealand at the magical Rakino Island, it depicts Cumberbatch as he comes to terms with the parallels between meditation and free-diving, and the impact both have on our sense of time. As the stunning film reveals, in the otherworldly realm under water, all forms of external distractions disappear, and one loses all sense of the temporal world – a somewhat jarring yet cathartic experience.
In the midst of preparing to reprise his role as Dr Strange, Cumberbatch is taking the time to sit down and speak with a select group of media from around world about this life-changing, first-time free dive and how, at this unsettling time of Covid, making value of your time is ever crucial.
What was the impetus for In a Breath?
It was the idea of what time means in the context of when things are slowing down. And this was right at the beginning of Covid, when we didn’t even know when this film would be released and the appropriateness of everything. We discussed it as a team, and they felt strongly that it should be around something that’s personal to me, and had something to do with time. And diving is a very interesting sport and its use of time. Of course, there’s a fixed amount time and still obeys the same rules as time in general – of our planet and our universe. Not necessarily the Marvel universe, but there you go!
But seriously, it’s both a fixed period of time, but within the experience, something odd shifts and you move into a way of experiencing time that makes it stretch – it feels longer. So, we decided to do something related to diving. I was in the middle of filming with Jane Campion, doing the fantastic film The Power of the Dog in New Zealand, and we managed to find a break in the schedule where we could do this film.
The film seems rather apt, given what’s going on today.
The project was conceived in a moment when we realised we were right at the precipice of when things were about to stop. We were about to go into lockdown while lots of countries had already gone into lockdown. It was a very weird moment, sort of in the brink of what we all experienced, and are still experiencing, I should say, with Covid. We realise how important taking a moment to breathe and calming yourself is; being in a meditative state, absorbing a sense of present tense rather than worrying about an uncertain future or being distracted by thoughts of the past.
And all of that feeds into this, even though it’s advertising a diving watch of a luxury brand, there’s a sort of message that’s quite wholesome for our time and which I endorse. And this disease happened, with which people were dying because of lack of breath. It’s all around this time on how breath is…how valuable it is, how precious it is.
Tell us about Rakino island.
It’s a remarkable sea to dive in, it’s a remarkable coastline. It’s just off the coast of Auckland, an island without any facilities. It’s a community, but they all commute from the mainland or another island where there’s a drop of goods or medicine, or anything needed for the community to thrive. The islanders fish, they plant, they work the land.
The magical thing about this place is its biodiversity. It’s just extraordinary. The amount of flora and fauna – the animal life, in particular the birds, it’s just incredible. The water is so warm, calm and clean. This was quite a warm bath compared to swimming in the English Channel!
I think it’s all right to admit that there was a slight miscommunication. I thought they’d meant “scuba diving”! Although I like and know how to scuba dive, I’ve never done free diving! So I learned on the day how to properly free dive. I’ve got a little bit of experience from it, having watched some people do it. And I’m a big fan of the Wim Hof breathing technique, which is all about increasing your oxygen capacity for holding your breath, which is, of course, the key to free diving, to make that dive as long as possible.
I had a safety instructor to guide me through the day, which meant it was the first time I ever did free diving and I absolutely loved it!
You were wearing the Polaris Mariner Memovox in this dive. What features did you find most impressive?
As far as this watch goes, it’s the safety gauge, which means you can’t overestimate, you can only underestimate the time should the worst happen and it comes loose – in my hands it’s pretty difficult to make that happen, but you can touch against things or hit it on a diving belt. But the watch prevents you from having a false sense of security as to how much time you have in a dive.
It has the best illumination, so that you can tell very specifically where the second, hour and minute hands are, so it’s very easy to navigate the watch in the dark waters when you’re diving.
And it’s light, it’s incredibly durable. I love that feature and the fact that they’ve engineered it such that you can see the mechanism at the back – it’s the geek in me. I love to see the mechanisms that they manage to produce for these watches. It’s a mightily impressive bit of engineering and it’s incredibly sleek for a diving watch. It doesn’t carry a massive chunk of weight on it. It doesn’t feel overbearing on a wrist if you’re wearing it casually, as well as for its purpose: Diving.
Are there parallels between acting and watchmaking?
It takes a long time to make a few seconds worth of film, so as with a play. To do background research on any engagement takes time, before you do the actual acting.
There’s artistry in both and there’s also a large amount of technical ability, where you have to make your mark, you have to time whether it’s comedic beat or an action sequence – there’s a sort of precision to the dance we do in the physical space we perform at. It’s not down to scientific precision to watchmaking, as acting allows us a bit more room to be a bit messy but yes, there are parallels definitely.
What do you think are the essential characteristics to being a modern gentleman?
It’s about passing that platform unto others – to women, to people of diverse ethnicities, to younger and older people. It’s about gentleness, kindness and inclusivity. Whereas before it was more like a style – a bit of stubble and a nice suit in a magazine cover – I think it runs a lot deeper than that now. And the words, “gentle” and “man”, I think that’s what it should be about, and leading by example, as well as questioning the status quo.
You’ve played a variety of roles. What would you like to challenge yourself with next?
It’s interesting, the older I get, it’s more about the people I work with – and I mean that in terms of wanting to challenge myself with what I feel I’ve achieved and not achieved; really pushing myself towards a direction that’s new, whether it’s a process or an approach or the specifics and context of the role. It’s more about working with brilliant artists who inspire me and less now about proving anything to myself or others.