Nice shirt, Sherlock — Q&A with Benedict Cumberbatch

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Not content with wowing the critics in the current revival of Terrence Rattigan's play After The Dance, actor Benedict Cumberbatch will soon be treating television audiences to a maverick interpretation of the world's most famous fictional detective (with a little help from co-creators Stephen Moffat and Mark Gattis). Sherlock starts this Sunday and, Cumberbatch assures us, there won't be a deerstalker in sight.

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ESQUIRE: So Benedict, weird question, but is that your natural hair colour?

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: No, it's been dyed quite a bit darker. I'm auburn and that's just not right for Sherlock. He's a creature of the night. He's got a dark, sociopathic side to him. The archetypal image of him is that he's a slick-looking, dark-haired gentleman with aquiline features. The first thing my mum said when I mentioned to her that I'd got the part was "You don't have the right nose."

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ESQ: How do you feel about following on so soon from Robert Downey Jr's take on Sherlock Holmes?

BC: I know, but 72 other people have played him. He's the most played fictional character. So when people say, "How do you feel going into competition with Robert Downey Jr?" I don't feel any competition at all. [This version is set in the] modern day, and I'm a younger Sherlock. I've got 10 years on most of the ones that have been done before. It's also the first time the meeting between Sherlock and Watson has ever been dramatised.

ESQ: So Sherlock goes right to the beginning of the story?

BC: The first book, Study In Scarlet, is when they meet. Our first story is called "Study In Pink", and there's an awful lot of the original story in it, it's just something that's never been brought out dramatically. They were two men looking for a flat-share. Two very, very different men. Watson was coming back from a military campaign in Kandahar and Afghanistan, as he is in this version, set in 2009 and 2010.  It's extraordinary where the joins fit and it completely makes sense.

ESQ: How much of the original Conan-Doyle details are still there? Do they still live in Baker Street?

BC: Of course! There's still Mrs Hudson and Lestrade. [Sherlock Holmes] may not use a magnifying glass and he's quite handy with a PDA, but he is still the man who collates all that information. He's the human side of CSI Miami and The Wire. He'll be able to read, in the tiniest of details, everything from [people's] background, to their emotional happiness, whether they're having an affair, how much sleep they've had. He's a human x-ray machine.

ESQ: So this version of Sherlock Holmes owes more to CSI than to Miss Marple?

BC: Yes, he sits in a modern context. But Morse, Marple, Poirot and Cracker — they've all got their hang-ups, personality disorders and their drink or other dependencies. It's all familiar territory when you look at the original stories, and he is the most famous and I think most loved of fictional detectives.

ESQ: Does your Sherlock take drugs?

BC: You'll have to watch it!

ESQ: A bit of crack maybe?

BC: Cocaine's a difficult one. Whatever he may or may not do, cocaine's a different drug than it was then. You used to inject cocaine. People say, "But wasn't he a morphine addict?" He did that from time to time, but actually he injected solutions of cocaine.

ESQ: How did you research the part?

BC: I read the books. They're fantastic for body language, for Holmesian traits of cadence in his voice, the look in his eye, the lack of manners, the brutality of his quest for "the game", as he puts it. He has a very cold unhumanistic outlook on things; everybody's just an ingredient in his world of mystery, pieces in a puzzle. He can be very cold about that.

ESQ: How did you get on with your Watson, Martin Freeman?

BC:It was an immediate fit. He had a pace and temperament about him which was utterly different to Sherlock. He grounds the show in reality for the audience. He's the blogger, he's the guy who writes. All the books are written by Watson.

ESQ: Watson's a blogger?!

BC: Yeah. Without giving too much away, he's back from Afghanistan so his therapist tries to keep him busy,  saying "you should write about your daily life". He doesn't really have much to write about, but then he meets Sherlock Holmes and before the end of their first 24 hours together they've fled crime scenes, had bullets shot at them, car chases, the works. They're utterly joined at the hip by the end of the episode and you realised that what Holmes lacks, Watson provides in spades.

ESQ: You've played very different characters over the course of your career — Stephen Hawking, William Pit the Younger, Vicent Van Gogh — but they do share some characteristics in that they're often authoritative and/or otherworldly. Why do you think that might be?

BC: This face. It's kind of long. Horsey. Not as in "rah" but as in equestrian... It's very period, is what I'm trying to say. I'm a bit of an oddity in a modern context. It'd be really nice to wake up looking like, I don't know, Jake Gyllenhaal and think "Let's try this on for a day and see how it feels". But I've tried very hard not to be typecast as the posh character in period dramas. That's the thing I've been kicking against — to try and shift class and period and perception all the time.

ESQ: You also had a memorable cameo as the inept hostage negotiator in Chris Morris's Four Lions. How did that come about?

BC: I did Nathan Barley. I had drunk blokes coming up to me in the street all the time going, "You're the fucking Barley man!" No one comes up to me saying "You're Stephen Hawking!" None of that. Chris Morris is just extraordinary. He's very fucking gentlemanly, incredibly smart and quicksilver-witted. He said, "It's a really small part, mate" but I said "I don't care." I'd sweep the fucking floor for him.

Sherlock: A Study In Pink is on Sunday at 9pm on BBC One