WE’VE got so used to Benedict Cumberbatch whirling words and ideas about with dizzying abandon in Sherlock — and striding across the screen in Hollywood blockbusters — that it’s easy to forget that, behind the bravado, there lurks an actor of marked sensitivity.
The Child In Time, the first TV adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel and a project close to the actor’s heart (he’s also the producer), is a heart-rending reminder of the other side of Cumberbatch. His character Stephen, a self-effacing children’s author, is at the other end of the flamboyant spectrum from Sherlock.
The story of a couple wrenched apart by the disappearance of their young daughter, The Child In Time starts out with all the ingredients of a thriller but soon evolves into a study of the fallout from grief. As Stephen’s hunt for the daughter he blames himself for losing turns into his obsession, he drives a wedge between himself and wife Julie, played by Kelly Macdonald.
‘It’s about dealing with the loss of a child and what we focus on when that happens. How do we react? How do we survive?’ observes Cumberbatch, folding himself into an armchair in the BBC lounge where we meet.
You can tell The Child In Time, which is directed by Marvellous and Entourage Bafta-winner Julian Farino, is his passion project: he dives into its nuances with a burning-eyed enthusiasm born from being a lifelong McEwan fan.
‘What McEwan does so acutely is plumb the depths of Stephen’s internal life and the challenge is to bring that to your performance,’ he says. ‘The truth of it lies in his thoughts and emotions, and it’s a gift to play such a character.’
Given that Cumberbatch has two young sons himself with wife Sophie Hunter — cue much weeping from the hordes of Cumberbabes — it’s tempting to suggest that taking on the character of Stephen must have been given an extra edge by his own experiences of fatherhood.
‘I couldn’t help but be affected by that, of course,’ he concedes graciously before discounting the idea. ‘To lose a child in the way that Stephen does is every parent’s nightmare. But even though I have the perspective of a parent, the desire to play him goes a long way back before I had my own kids. It’s a story that I think will resonate with everyone: it’s about childhood and what we want from our relationships and grief. It feels very, very current.’
Being current is something Cumberbatch himself is actually struggling with. Because he’s now one of the world’s most in-demand actors, his impressive range leading to his name being linked with playing everyone from, intriguingly, Nigel Farage — a rumour dismissed by his agent — to inventor Thomas Edison in The Current War, he’s been so busy he’s only now coming up for air.
That means he’s playing catch-up with the rest of the world on the likes of Game Of Thrones — and shuts me down politely but firmly when I start to discuss the recent season.
‘Stop! I’m only on season one,’ he says. ‘Mind you, it’s hard to avoid what’s happened — I was at a convention this year and I found out by mistake that Sean Bean’s character died. I mean, come on, spoiler alert!’
Cumberbatch likes a laugh but what you get most of all from a meeting with him is a sense of a deeply driven talent a little at odds with the star machine he’s caught up in. He’s at his happiest when his work is at the forefront.
‘The hardest stuff tests us the most. The dark times are when we discover most about ourselves,’ he muses at one point. He’s talking about his role in McEwan’s book but it could also be a clue as to where his true ambitions lie. Will the Cumberbabes follow him to the dark side? He couldn’t give a hoot.
The Child In Time is on BBC1 on Sunday at 9pm then iPlayer after transmission