is Professor Stephen Hawking
Benedict Cumberbatch gazes out over the capital from
the 15th floor of a London hotel and muses on how it felt to play a
"Every single element of this role appealed, although
it was daunting as well," he confides.
"Hawking is an iconic figure and very well-known
in the public conscience, although not at this stage of his life.
"That was another attractive side to it because,
in a way, it's carte blanche.
"This was a very rich and fascinating period because
of the three strands of his life which are coming together, and those
are the things which are interesting to play: this incredible brain
finding a subject and having a moment of great realisation and inspiration;
finding love and the most extraordinary relationship with the woman
he would spend 25 years of his life with; and coming to terms with an
illness which, at the time of diagnosis, would basically restrict his
life to being of two years' duration."
During the moving and inspirational film, Hawking's
physical abilities his walk, speech and manual dexterity - become
painfully restricted and Benedict pays tribute to the Motor Neurone
Disease Association, which introduced him to two people who had MND
at very different stages, and who allowed Benedict to film them.
He continues: "They were remarkably brave in their
frankness and honesty about how it started and what they'd felt emotionally
Benedict, 28, also worked with a movement instructor
from LAMDA, where he had trained for a year after studying drama at
the University of Manchester.
There was just one week of rehearsal before shooting
Says Benedict, who also had to master some of the complexities
of science: "It was tricky knowing what to concentrate on because
great though the challenges of the role were, there was a lot to get
right and a lot that could actually go very wrong, so it took me a while
to prioritise and it was a gradual learning process.
"Every day, there'd be something else I'd get a
bit more right and feel more confident about."
During one scene in Hawking, Benedict is feverishly
chalking scientific symbols on a blackboard.
"That had to be right as well," he says.
"The people who know them work in split seconds
and even on TV screens, they'll pick up an inconsistency. It was very,
"There were a couple of equations that I learned
and there were other ways of cheating," he confesses.
"I'm not a mathematician or a scientist by any
stretch. I've got a layman's popular interest in the subject but it
was just like coming into an Egyptian tomb and seeing hieroglyphics
for the first time.
"It doesn't make any sense it looks like
someone's trying to communicate from an outer planetary orbit!
"There were certain symbols which mean a lot, like
the infinity symbol, and we had someone on board who is a fantastic
pupil of Stephen's.
"He was great, and drew stuff out for me to have
a look at the night before."
Benedict adds: "Probably one of the hardest bits
was concentrating on a man with a disability finding it increasingly
difficult, over a long period of work, to physically put chalk on a
Benedict had two meetings with Professor Hawking.
"One was before filming, which was terrifying,"
"He's such a presence and you have to really know
what you want to say to him or ask him because it takes such a huge,
phenomenal effort for him to communicate with you; you think, 'I really
don't want to waste this man's time'.
"It was a script-editing meeting and we were both
looking at each other from opposite ends of the table, then we just
caught each other's eye and smiled.
"It was really nice. At the end of the meeting,
he said, 'I think it's going to be great, good luck' and we all
walked out on air."
The second meeting was when Professor Hawking came on
set during filming at Cambridge.
"I was dressed up as him as a young man, so there
was lots of joking and I felt much more at ease with him," explains
"I was myself rather than thinking: 'I'm a stupid
actor, how on earth can I impress someone like this? I don't know what
to say to make me feel worthy of playing this man'.
"He was so accommodating and really sweet and he
teased me. He said: 'You're better looking than me; I was more scruffy
"I've seen the photographs and it's not true,"
"But he was very funny and made me laugh. He's
got a good sense of humour. It takes a long time for a one-liner to
come out, but when they do, they're fantastic!"
Professor Hawking saw the film and declared he liked
it. He added: "It captured the spirit of the time."
Benedict says: "I was thrilled when I heard that,
absolutely over the moon.
"That to me from him, knowing him and how he operates,
is the biggest validation we can get and it was hugely important to
me that he liked it."
Benedict believes Hawking is a balanced film.
"This isn't someone who's lost in his own self-pity
and depression about something which is extraordinarily catastrophic
in a young man's life," he declares.
"At the same time, he turns that situation around
and, in a way, partly uses it as a motivational springboard into his
work and his life with Jane.
"Time, which he's studying, suddenly becomes essentially
finite to himself, and yet he's looking at infinite periods of time.
It's a perverse irony.
"But it's a story of hope,
without a doubt, and a story of grace under pressure, how to conquer
adversity and how a situation like that can be used for the positive.
"He's a small person with an incredible brain in
a very fragile body, thinking incredibly huge thoughts."