Sherlock: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman interview

In the second of our Sherlock interviews, we chat to its stars, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman about playing such iconic roles…

We’re one day closer to the first episode of Sherlock (Sunday at 9pm on BBC One, if you’re lagging behind!), so we’re treating you to more material gathered from our set visit back in March.

Today, we have a group interview with the series’ stars, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (Holmes and Watson, respectively). The chaps gave us a sizeable chunk of their time between takes on the A Study In Pink shoot, and kindly chatted about their approach to the characters, their appreciation of the Conan Doyle stories, and how Sherlock fits in with a more modern style of policing.

Were you fans of the book before you landed the roles in Sherlock? Did you go back to the books to prepare, or did you avoid that?

Benedict Cumberbatch: No, very much I’ve been reading the books. It’s the origination, it’s the primary source. You should always go back to the books. I don’t think what we’re doing requires that, in particular, because it’s a modern interpretation. But, you have to bring what is unique about his character to a modern context, and to do that you have to understand his original self.

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Especially because we’re telling his story from the very beginning, the inception, it’s very important to know that we are, with A Study In Pink, replicating what happens in A Study In Scarlet.

It’s the first time, I think, ever, that it’s been dramatised, their meeting. Over 72 different versions… it’s a truly international thing.

So, to go back to the original books now, it’s so entertaining, really well thought out, and they’re beautifully drawn characters. Martin’s illiterate. He can’t read.

Martin Freeman: I’m a deaf mute! He reads them out to me.

You mention being a fan of the original, how did you react to the update, bringing the characters into the 21st century?

MF: I immediately felt that that would be a bad idea, initially. And I was mindful of it, just because of in everyday, normal telly land, there’s a lot of anachronism, a lot of self-congratulatory telly that thinks it’s cool. 

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I don’t like ‘cool telly’. I like genuinely cool telly, but if it thinks it’s being really cool, if it’s being all ‘look at what we’re doing, we’re fucking with the form’, I don’t care.

But by the time I got to page two, I thought that this was genuinely brilliant, regardless of when it’s set, or when it is. It is fantastically written, really gripping, as Ben says. And I think it stands.

I always preface it by saying, if it was described to me as ‘we’re doing Sherlock Holmes, but we’ve updated it’, part of me wants to hate it. Why? You’re really thinking you’re doing something cool? But I think it really stands.

I think it was Steven who said that all of Ian Fleming’s books have been updated with Bond, so why not this? And I think you don’t see a line where we think we’re being clever.  It’s just a really, really gripping – and I think fantastically told – story.

BC: I’d be thrilled if part of the effect is children wanting to read the original stories. I think because we have two people who are high authorities and are brilliant at their craft is great – the writers – you’ve got a brilliant rendering of something, but with real faith in the books.

Are you braced for any hard-line response from fans of the books?

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BC: I’ve had some kind of a blessing, apparently. I had a letter from a society that said that my abilities are apt enough to step into the big shoes. And I am probably the 73rd, so I can’t really be that nervous about it. And we have a few things on our side.

This is a modern day adaptation, so as far as rendering that perfect Holmes… part of it is a blank canvas, part of it is something new. But, that’s not to contradict what I said about being true to the original.

So, I don’t think that stalwart fans will be anything other than thrilled.

MF: And we have two genuinely fantastic writers helming it, who are big, big, big Doyle heads.

Most of the preconceptions about Sherlock Holmes are very much linked to the period. How did you shape your modern Sherlock? Did you look back at old adaptations?

MF: I’ve not looked at anything, but I’ve acclimatised myself with the books. I never read them growing up. I loved watching Basil Rathbone, and watching the old televisual ones. But I never read any of the stories, until we were doing this.

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So, I really enjoyed getting into those, and having them on my iPod, and having audio books. All we can do is play the script. So the script is modern, that’s what our job is. I don’t think we have to adjust, we’re just playing the script.

BC: I did see quite a few of them. I saw them when I was growing up. Jeremy Brett was wonderful. He was someone who I very much remember watching play Holmes. Since then I’ve seen Basil Rathbone, I’ve seen the film as well, Downey Jr. But it doesn’t put me off at all, and again, blank canvas.

We’re moving away from that period, so it’s a great scope for freedom of reinterpretation. It wouldn’t have appealed to me as much to play an original Holmes, because I feel that it has been done in so many ways superlatively well by Rathbone in black-and-white and by Brett in colour.

You mention the Guy Ritchie film version. What did you think of that?

MF: We went to see it together, with Mark as well.

BC: I was quite frightened. I was, genuinely. I thought, “If I watch this, and I’m completely blown away…” but then, again, it belongs to its period, it’s a different time in their relationship, they’re older. Jude Law’s a lot older than Martin…!

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It was great. It’s a good film. But it wasn’t particularly to do with what I have in mind as the original Holmes and Watson.

That version was very action packed. Is yours similar, or more downbeat?

BC: We have massive chase scenes, we have gun fights. I have kung fu sequences. I have quite a few stunts. He does as well. I have a fight with a Chinese warlord. I shoot at a Golem, a human giant who strangles people with his bare hands. I run after a taxi cab through the streets of London.

I’m not at all jealous of what they had to do in the film. It looks like a lot of fun. It’s terribly filmic, what we’ve done. We’re doing stuff for a lot less money under a lot more pressure, with a lot less time. But it’s looking extraordinary. We are doing three films, that’s what’s really exciting.

There’s always a danger with Watson that he’s just portrayed as the light relief. Is that the case here?

MF: No. I wouldn’t have done it if it was that. Part of what attracted me to it is that, as with the stories, Watson is the teller of the stories. So, you are reading these adventures through Watson’s eyes. And the first person you see is Watson in the films. And why he’s back in London, which is the same reason as in the original stories, because he’s invalided back from Afghanistan. He’s quite serious. But I think he definitely has moments of levity.

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BC: But he’s a man of action and great purpose. He’s not a bumbling fool, or the butt of jokes, either. He’s nearer the audience than he is Holmes.

MF: Because Holmes is a one-off. So, the way that you see John deal with Holmes, and dealing with the situation of being with a man like this. So, all of your uncertainties and all your questions are being channelled through Watson.

Watson’s also a bit of a lady’s man in the books…

MF: That’s why they cast me! They’re not stupid…

How does Holmes fit into the modern world of policing?

BC: Very frustratingly, for Lestrade. His mode of operation is aided by technology. His speciality is deducing the facts, which means pulling together a huge, vast amalgam of information into a coherent structure. So, he can understand what he sees, and experience what the story might be, what’s not apparent to everybody.

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Sometimes that catches him out. He can pre-empt things, and that can get him into trouble.

He can go down blind alleys. He still, humanly, gets things wrong when he first meets Watson. He is fallible, but he completely fits in with the modern world of high tech, modern policing. He’s a man who assimilates all that information, and builds a bigger picture out of it. And that’s a very human thing to do. No machine can do that.

Messrs Freeman and Cumberbatch, thank you for your time.

Tune in tomorrow for more Sherlock coverage. The first episode, A Study In Pink, airs on BBC One on Sunday 25th at 9pm.