Posh boys grab the bit by the teeth
Two young British actors add a touch of class to Spielberg's 'War Horse' movie, writes Evan Fanning
AT times, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston shout over one another to see which one can get his voice heard. At other moments they finish each other's sentences like they are an old married couple.
There is good reason why they seem so in tune with one another, as they are two of a new wave of young British actors who have graduated from television to silver screen and now seem to have Hollywood in the palm of their hands. And this new breed of British star is a little less kitchen-sink drama and more Rolls-Royce. They're unlikely to pop up in a Shane Meadows project anytime soon.
The BBC series Sherlock has catapulted Cumberbatch from being the posh-looking guy with the unusual surname playing bit parts in British films and TV dramas to a near household name that rolls off the tongue.
A year ago Hiddleston would have been known to few other than fans of the TV series Wallander, but roles in Joanna Hoggs's Archipelago, as the villain Loki in Kenneth Branagh's Thor, and as F Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, have changed all that.
Later this year he stars in The Avengers, in what is being billed as the biggest comic book movie of all time.
In short, a lot is being written about Cumberbatch and Hiddleston and most of it quickly mentions their so-called upper-class background. A curiosity around their upbringing is something they both seem acutely aware of, although they are not exactly able to hide it when, hours after we meet, Hiddleston will greet his old Eton buddy Prince William and Kate Middleton at the London premiere of his new film, Steven Spielberg's War Horse.
Not that a life of relative privilege makes things any easier when trying to forge a career in the movie business. "You come up against expectations of who you should be," Hiddleston says. "We're privately educated, we went to good universities, and we're seen to have had very nice lives."
Cumberbatch agrees, and feels the nature of the business and the audition process can be difficult to adapt to when you've spent a good deal of your life being told you can be anything that you want to be. "You're instilled with confidence from that and then you get rejection."
But any barriers that stood in either of their ways haven't been so much broken down as smashed to pieces with a sledgehammer as both Cumberbatch and Hiddleston seem to be near ubiquitous presences on the casting lists of every big project that comes along.
War Horse is perhaps the biggest of these to date. Spielberg has taken Michael Morpurgo's book and the hit play about a young man who goes in search of his beloved horse among the battlefields of the First World War, and has fashioned a piece of timeless cinema that looks as if it could have come from John Ford or David Lean. Cumberbatch and Hiddleston play two members of the British forces (officer class, naturally) and for each the project is as much a narrative about the Great War, as it is a tale of friendship and heroism between a man and his horse. "I felt a huge responsibility to give flesh to the doomed youth I'd always read about," the 29-year-old Hiddleston explains. "I grew up with an intense and strange fascination with the First World War. At the age of seven I wanted to know why everyone wore poppies in their lapels.
"This isn't the first time I've excavated First World War dramatic territory. I was in a play called Journey's End, which was one of the first things I did when I was 18 years old, and I kept wondering who I would have been. I remember feeling so grateful that I didn't have to endure the test of my character that they all endured. It turned innocent young men with all the hope of their lives ahead of them some into heroes, some into alcoholics, some into cowards, many into comedians. It's impossible really to imagine, but I felt a huge responsibility to represent them."
Having played a lead role on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of the films of 2011, Cumberbatch is fulfilling his promotional duties on War Horse before a two-week stint with Peter Jackson in a studio in Wellington shooting scenes for The Hobbit before he heads for the US to star in Lost creator JJ Abrams Star Trek sequel. Yes, these are exciting times for the 35-year-old.
"We're living through a very wonderful time and of course it won't last on quite the same level," Cumberbatch explains. "But what you have to do on every level of it is just treat each bit as a job and get the best out of those experiences. If you constantly walk around in a bubble of excitement you wouldn't be able to do any work. Working with Steven Spielberg? It would be utterly overwhelming.
"When someone has brought home such a large part of your cultural history that you've experienced it's very hard to be in a room with them without being a fan."
With all that's happening to him in such a short space of time, after many years of struggling to make a name for himself, surely Cumberbatch has to pinch himself to remind himself that all this is real?
"Endlessly," he says. "But for me it's very much about remaining grounded and making sure you've got something of yourself always to come back to after a job, because these are very heady times. When I get very antsy and when I say 'everyone can fuck off' and I turn the phone off is when it comes to intruding on me and my family, because I want to be around them as much as I can and want to share some of the joy of what is going on in my life with them."
For Hiddleston his success is all the more rewarding as he gave serious thought to a change of career as he struggled to establish himself.
"I've always been at one remove from things," he explains. "I've never been in cliques. I moved a lot, I was in boarding school, my parents were divorced. I think as an actor I was made to feel -- and I have to take responsibility for it -- I felt as if whatever I had to contribute wasn't what anyone wanted to see, hear or know. And so I was on the point of turning away from the whole thing because I thought whatever I had to offer was of no value.
"Being an actor at the beginning you face this daily torment of failure and rejection. I was constantly auditioning for things and being told 'you were great but this role isn't you'. I wasn't sure how long I could keep that up. I was constantly being told they needed a name. I thought 'well I'm not going to have a name until someone gives me a job'.
"And then suddenly I was lucky a few people started to believe in me and they are Joanna Hogg and Kenneth Branagh. They believed in me when nobody else would."
War Horse is currently in cinemas
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