Benedict Cumberbatch: Code Breaker Alan Turing Was A Puzzle Himself Cumberbatch stars in The Imitation Game, as the British mathematician who helped break German codes. "It's a war thriller, it's a love story and a tragic testament to a genius wronged," he says.
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Benedict Cumberbatch: Code Breaker Alan Turing Was A Puzzle Himself

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Benedict Cumberbatch: Code Breaker Alan Turing Was A Puzzle Himself

Benedict Cumberbatch: Code Breaker Alan Turing Was A Puzzle Himself

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The new movie "The Imitation Game" is the story of Alan Turing - British mathematician, wartime code breaker, seminal theoretician of computer science. It is a World War II drama, a psychological study, a thriller. In this scene, the war has begun, and the British are struggling with a German code called Enigma. The naval officer who is interviewing Turing - or trying to do that - is played by Charles Dance. Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, whom you may recall as Kahn in Star Trek and Sherlock on television. And, as Alan Turing, he talks his way into a job cracking Enigma.


BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) You need me a lot more than I need you. I like solving problems, commander. And Enigma is the most difficult problem in the world.

CHARLES DANCE: (As Commander Denniston) No. Enigma isn't difficult, it's impossible. The Americans, the Russians, the French, the Germans - everyone thinks Enigma is unbreakable.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Good. Let me try and we'll know for sure, won't we?

SIEGEL: Benedict Cumberbatch, welcome to the program.

CUMBERBATCH: Thank you very much for having me.

SIEGEL: You play a man, Alan Turing, who was brilliant. He was openly gay when homosexuality was a crime in Britain and he fell victim to that law. He's also often described as - and you know all these adjectives - eccentric, socially awkward, odd. What were the attributes that you picked up on as you try to play him?

CUMBERBATCH: Well, I mean, I think what's extraordinary about Graham Moore's first feature script is how you, layer by layer, sort of uncover this man at the same parallel time as the team he eventually does play a part of and with, cracks the Enigma code. And I think, you know, to be fair to Alan, what's beautiful about Graham's script and his introduction to him, which you've just heard part of there, is that it's utterly uncompromising. There's no vanity. You're not asked to like the character. You're introduced to him, warts and all. And he is - he's difficult, he's very stubborn and arrogant. But there's a sort naive guilelessness about the whole thing. He, you know, he doesn't come in with an abrasive attitude he just doesn't have the formal respect for authority that Dennis and Charles Dance's character is expecting from this newcomer applying for a job. And he is utterly brilliant and he knows it and he's been told it and he doesn't mind talking about it. But it's not to show off. It's just, for him, it's a statement of fact.

SIEGEL: "The Imitation Game" is a World War II movie. It's also a very contemporary political movie. But the political theme - it's not just defeating Nazis, it's about discrimination against gays. Even to the point of destroying the life of a man who had significantly helped win the war against Germany. To what degree was that the attraction of this project?

CUMBERBATCH: I was very angered. I mean, it's disgusting to think that within less than 100 years this was going on. That men - hundreds - thousands, in fact, of men were prosecuted and given the chance to choose simply between two years imprisonment or two years state sanctioned chemical castration through weekly estrogen injections. And Alan chose the latter in order to be able to continue his work. And not only did the drug ravage his body and affect his physicality, but it also started to slowly impinge on his faculty - on his mind, his ability to do that work. So he was denied the one door he still had left open to him for love, for freedom, for expressing who he was. And I found it incredibly moving and, on top of that, somebody who had invented - basically was the father of computer science - somebody who's part of an effort that saved, some estimate, 40 million lives by breaking a code that brought about a two-year early end to World War II. That man wasn't better known. I mean, why isn't he on banknotes with Darwin and Newton? Why isn't he on the front cover of history books as well as science books? And that really was a driving motivation for me to tell this story bring his legacy to a wider audience.

SIEGEL: I'd like to play a clip from the movie of one of - I think of as - one of your costars which illustrates another challenge you faced in making this story dramatic and accessible.


SIEGEL: It's a machine. It's a machine. It's...

CUMBERBATCH: It's more than a machine though. I mean, that machine takes on such a personality. It's interesting listening to it. It sounds almost like a loom, doesn't it? A mechanical loom. Which the - well a replica, is still at Bletchley Park, which I advise any of your listeners who are lucky enough to be in that part of the world to go and see it. It's the most extraordinary, chilling, amazing exhibit of all the work. And they have Enigma machines there and fantastic exhibits. But this machine is also there. And you can ask someone to give you a very patient explanation of it because it's quite complex. But basically, it was the machine that Alan adapted from a Polish machine to break the other machine - the Enigma machine, which was capable of 159 million-million-million possible variations every single day.

SIEGEL: But, you know, one of this wonderful things about this movie coming out in the year 2014 is that, rather than face an audience full of people in the 1960s who would have to try to wrap their minds around the idea do this big clunky computer - what does that do? Now you have audiences full of people who say - wow, that's - that's primitive compared to my old Apple II that I had when I was a child.

CUMBERBATCH: Where's the screen, is one thing a child said.

SIEGEL: Where's the screen? Yes.

CUMBERBATCH: Where the hell is the screen? That's no proper computer. Now that I've spotted that, can I have an extra frozen yogurt? It almost broke my heard when I heard that. But the same kid then went home and Googled using, probably, an algorithm very similar, in the search engines, that were used by Turing - invented by Turing to break code in the second World War. He used a Google search engine in order to look up and research more about Enigma. This is an 8-year-old. I mean, it's fantastic.

SIEGEL: Your father is an actor, Timothy Carlton.


SIEGEL: Who, I've read, is actually Timothy Colton Congdon Cumberbatch.

CUMBERBATCH: That's correct.

SIEGEL: Your given name is Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch, right?

CUMBERBATCH: That's correct.

SIEGEL: I assume that at some time you had a choice to act either as Benedict Carlton, as in your father, or as Benedict Cumberbatch.

CUMBERBATCH: That's right.

SIEGEL: When and how did you make that decision?

CUMBERBATCH: I'll tell you. I mean, it was - I started as Benedict Carlton. I think Carlton is a great name. It was my grandfather's first name and I never got to meet him. So that alone was a good reason. And I wasn't getting anywhere with my first agent and with that name. When I went to meet somebody at a new agency she said, why on earth don't you use your family name? It's the most fantastically extraordinary, unforgettable name.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) It was your agent is what you're telling me.

CUMBERBATCH: Well, sort of, yeah. It was Penny Weston. She's ultimately responsible for all the, sort of, spinoffs of my names as well I suppose, by proxy. But she rightfully said, look, it's pretty unforgettable once you get your head around it. And I said yeah, but even I can't say it early on a Monday morning. It just sounds like a fart in a bath. Or bath as I should say. It's just, sort of, a whole lot of bubbles. But, you know, it seems to - it seems to have worked out all right, doesn't it?

SIEGEL: Yes. Yes. It's certainly the more memorable name. The amazing is, it's the exact opposite of the historic, you know, Hollywood story. Which I guess your father experienced somehow. Which is, you're named Cumberbatch. OK, what are you going to use as a real name - as a stage name? And it's the reverse now.

CUMBERBATCH: It is the reverse. It's strange. But, then, I don't know. They seem to be - I seem to have reversed my way into this whole process anyway. I'm really - you know, obviously "Sherlock" was the first moment where I went, OK, well this is definitely, sort of, stepping into the limelight. And I know he's an iconic character so people will be paying attention I guess. But little did I know what would follow. None of us did.

SIEGEL: So what would follow is - you're not just an actor or a successful actor. You are - you are a movie star. You are a famous person. Is that fun or does that mean that you can't -


SIEGEL: It's fun.

CUMBERBATCH: It's fun. It's got to be fun. I think if you - you know, there are moments when, like all of us, you just get a bit self-conscious. And you'd rather not be living any of your day in public, which - those are the awkward times, but, you know, you've got to have fun with it.

SIEGEL: Well Benedict Cumberbatch, thank you very much for talking with us about...

CUMBERBATCH: My pleasure, really. My pleasure.

SIEGEL: "The Imitation Game" and much else.


SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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