Benedict Cumberbatch sums up To The Ends of the Earth
very succinctly: "It is a sort of rock and roll 1812 period drama
about a young man's gap year. It's full of filth, dirt, discovery, sex,
drugs, dancing, love, spiritual awakenings and massive sweeping changes!"
Taking on the role of Edmund Talbot was a huge undertaking for Cumberbatch,
who received enormous critical acclaim for his performance last year as
cosmologist Stephen Hawking in Hawking, and a well-deserved Best Actor
Bafta nomination in the process.
He appears in virtually every scene in To The Ends of the Earth, and
was on set every day, throughout the whole four-month shoot, on location
in South Africa.
"Every day was so different and ultimately that was the greatest gift
of this job. The hours were exhausting but each day was a new challenge.
I loved hurling myself round that boat on ropes, bits of rigging falling
around me in flames, with the contrast of filming the intimacy of the
"Edmund Talbot has a massive learning curve throughout the three books.
The scripts are fantastic and I always brought the books on set as a reference
point. Edmund is incredibly confident, a little bit arrogant, vulnerable
and always open to learning.
"He's very much a product of his time and class. An establishment
figure, he has all the airs and graces of his social position. He's full
of ambition, wilful, always thinks he's in control and he's permanently
confounded. He's moody, neurotic but he's got a good sense of humour."
Edmund Talbot's social position is something that Cumberbatch can readily
identify with, having been sent to Harrow, one of the most prestigious
boarding schools in the UK.
"The upbringing I had was a privileged one, but by default. My grandmother
paid for two thirds of my fee, so I was a very middle class kid by most
standards. I was surrounded by Lord Rothschild's son, Prince Hussein's
son, dignitaries, princes and peers left right and centre.
"That is not to be critical of it, but the assumption of authority
and position that these people are born into was something I immediately
identified in Edmund.
"But I was very keen to make him sympathetic. I didn't want him to be
just someone who was a product of his class, but more a fully rounded
three-dimensional human being. Golding's books expose him at every single
level as a fallible young man."
Golding's books provided invaluable source material for Cumberbatch to
get under the skin of his character, to the degree that by the end of
the shoot his fellow cast members were calling him Edmund and not Ben.
One great challenge he had to face during filming was the shooting of
his first-ever on screen sex scene, with actress Paula Jennings,
playing the luscious Zenobia.
"My on-screen sex technique is not perfected but I hope it worked! In
the book, Edmund knows what he's doing and maybe that's him writing himself
up in his journal as a bit of a lothario, but I imagine that rather like
others of his ilk his father had probably given him a chambermaid or prostitute
to initiate him.
"He behaves with Zenobia like a sexual animal: he's very avaricious
and knowing. He's charming and flirts with her from the first day he sees
her and he goes straight for the kill."
Filming in South Africa proved to be as much of a Boy's Own adventure
for Cumberbatch, as life was for Edmund on his way to the new world.
"Outside of the filming we had the most extraordinary time. I promised
myself on New Year's Eve in 2003 that I had to take things up rather than
give them up."
The African continent provided plenty of opportunities. "The cast had
great fun together. We had poker nights, beach parties, dune buggying,
horseback safaris. One weekend we went to a game reserve called Phinda,
where we were treated like royalty and had our own cook.
"It was really posh, and the most expensive treat I gave myself
during filming. I then learnt to scuba dive in one of the most beautiful
places on God's earth, about a three-hour drive from where we were filming.
"I'd already been whale watching, but on my second dive I swam with
a whale, who was about ten feet away from me. It was magical, the most
beautiful sight and it had a baby whale swimming by its head.
"When I finished filming in Cape Town I went swimming with great white
sharks. I was in a cage and they were fed just beside us. It was terrifying
and wonderful - they are such a potent force of nature."
After filming he headed for Namibia, wanting to be in a dry hot and arid
climate after four months on a boat. The airport for remote Windhoek,
where he ventured, was literally marked out with pebbles. Half an hour
after arriving, Cumberbatch was back up in a plane, this time with one
propeller, about to do his first sky dive.
"When you freefall for 7,000 feet it doesn't feel like you're falling:
it feels like you're floating, a bit like scuba diving. I was strapped
to an instructor and when we took off out of the plane I thought, 'I'm
either going to be landing very softly or hurtling towards my death'.
I couldn't stop screaming - it was an incredible experience.
"I did a really touristy thing and I got a video made of my jump.
There is an unflattering film of me, double chin flapping around my ears,
going through the G-Force and going 'oh-my-God' - and a lot worse!
"It was the most exquisite sensation and when I landed on the ground
I wanted to do it again. I felt incredibly horny as well, because it's
such an extreme thing. You think, 'God, I've just had the most massive
bite out of life and I'm really hungry for more'."
After a night sleeping under the stars amongst the red sand dunes, he
did do another jump and then took the Namibian equivalent of the Orient
"I've been kayaking and white water rafting when I was in India. This
really re-awakened my sense of just having fun with your body in nature."
As with Edmund Talbot, when Ben was at school he enjoyed his own gap-year
experience. "I was very lucky. Even though I wasn't as rich as other people,
there were loads of boys in similar positions to me at Harrow.
"There were those who were super rich and went off on their holidays
to Aspen, and I'd go and see my grandmother in Brighton. There was a disparity
in what we could afford to do on our holidays.
"I had a real yearning to make use of the opportunities I had at school.
When I heard about the gap year of teaching English at a Tibetan monastery,
I knew I had to do something about it really quickly otherwise it was
going to get allocated.
"I was very decisive. I worked for six months to drum up the finance
as it was voluntary - there was no income. I worked in Penhaligon's the
perfumery for almost five months and I did waiting jobs.
"The monastery was a fantastic experience; you lived your life by
very limited means, although you were given board and lodgings. While
I was there some of us went to Nepal for two weeks and did white water
rafting and we camped out under the stars."
Following his spectacular gap year, Cumberbatch went to Manchester University,
where he began a long-term relationship with a fellow student. Just prior
to Benedict going on the four-month shoot to South Africa last July, his
girlfriend delivered a bombshell.
"My break-up was completely out of the blue" he says. "I had been very
nervous for us because of where we were in our relationship and because
I was going away for such a long time. It was a cause for anxiety but
the actual break-up itself was a big surprise. That heartbroken feeling
was painful and I thought 'I have to be resourceful'. I was so buoyed
up by the people around me in South Africa - they were family."
Family is very important to Cumberbatch. His parents, actors Tim Carlton
and Wanda Ventham, were not keen on their only son following in their
"They said, 'Don't do it because of us'," says Cumberbatch. "I was lucky
to see the best and worst of the world, how it wasn't a secure profession,
how it depended very much on age, sex, and fashion.
"I did lots of acting at school. My first part was as Titania, queen
of the fairies, which, being at an all-boys boarding school was a bit
embarrassing. Luckily I was in the rugby team, so I was macho at the same
A turning point came for the Cumberbatch family when Tim went to see
his son in the play Glengary Glen Ross while he was at university. "My
dad said, 'I think you could do better at this than I've ever done and
I'd really love you to do this.' We were both crying; it was an incredible
thing to say."
Hailed as a rising talent and with one Bafta nomination under his belt,
Cumberbatch's star looks set to rise and rise.
"I've been very lucky at what's happened in my career to date, but playing
something as far from me as possible is an ambition of mine - anything
from a mutated baddy in a comic book action thriller, to a detective.
If anything, I'd like Gary Oldman's career: he's the perfect example of
it. I've love to have a really broad sweep of characters - to be able
to do something edgy, surprising and unfashionable."
Next for Ben, following his current success in the critically acclaimed
production of Hedda Gabler, which has just transferred from the Almeida
Theatre to London's West End, he is developing a film with a friend, in
which he will play a pair of twins.