Benedict Cumberbatch: A Strange Link to TimeBy Tom Chamberlin
Benedict Cumberbatch has established himself as Britain’s nonpareil actor in a career spanning theatre, television, radio and film. Within a chamber troupe of young British actors, including Eddie Redmayne and James McAvoy, Cumberbatch has always had an X factor that has kept his trajectory more or less vertical. He possesses a potent mix of highly tuned talent and looks that can be dashing, frightening, mysterious and even androgynous (think Zoolander 2) – and all this before taking into account his mellifluous baritone timbre, which has contributed so well to mollifying and menacing animated characters alike. And he has always shown extracurricular interest in matters such as charity work, music and even letter writing. So, when we discovered that Benedict had shown a pronounced rakish streak, in the form of a partnership with the haute horlogerie giant Jaeger-LeCoultre, we jumped at the opportunity to discover what makes him tick.
As of January 2018, you are a Jaeger-LeCoultre ambassador. Have you always loved watches?
I do have an eye for watches, although not in an obsessive sense – I just like what I see when I see it. Beyond that, I love the idea of timepieces being artefacts and heirlooms. I can’t help but be in awe of the depth of experience and design of the great maisons and Jaeger-LeCoultre is right up there with the very best.
How did you discover Jaeger-LeCoultre?
It was an aesthetical choice I made for the role of Doctor Strange in 2016. I played the title character, a man who is trapped in a gilded cage and has an entire drawer of watches on automatic winders. As both a neurosurgeon and a superhero, he is inextricably linked to time and all its vast themes. This runs from the physical in the time it takes to perform an operation with great delicacy and accuracy, to the metaphysical where, as his alter ego, he is the guardian of the time stone – a theme that is going to keep playing out in the next chapters of the Avengers films.
At the beginning of the film, Strange is this materialistic egotist who is lost in a very cold and lonely prison of his own making. He has a collection of watches, but the timepiece that matters most to him is one that was given to him by someone who he really cares about. It has an emotional link and, at the same time, the physical watch is just “him”. Of course, Marvel and the costume designers always have their say, but as an actor going through his props, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Perpetual that Strange loves just spoke to me and that was the beginning of a personal association.
It felt right, then, that Jaeger-LeCoultre would be Strange’s chosen brand and yours, too?
As an actor, I have a lot of exposure, so I am often gifted or loaned things. But I think I am pretty savvy to all of that and I don’t do it unless it’s something I can talk about and be proud of. I try to lead with British-made goods, but sometimes I choose to wear something just because it is so goddamn beautiful. I try to make it personal, so watches are very high up on that list as I don’t tend to wear much jewellery other than my wedding ring. The Jaeger-LeCoultre style suits me – jewel-encrusted isn’t my deal, I am much more about the simple, elegant watches.
Going back to Doctor Strange, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Perpetual acts as a symbol for Strange’s emotional state throughout the movie and it is actually the watch that brings Strange to superhero status after his near-mugging and subsequent rescue lead him to the Ancient One.
It is incredibly significant throughout the film. It is a gift of significant value from someone who loves him and wants him to have it. Christina is the person he loves most in the world, but his ego irretrievably breaks the relationship, just like the watch becomes smashed in a car crash. Strange keeps the broken timepiece and when he is searching for an answer to his problems in Kathmandu, he holds on to the watch.
In one of the last scenes of the film, he looks at the watch and puts it back on his wrist – it is broken and unreadable, time has lost all concept, it becomes abstract. So, the fact that it is cracked is a metaphor for what time actually is and has become for Strange – one of his powers is time manipulation and we have seen examples where he has frozen, slowed, and travelled through time. It is also an artefact that he holds on to because of its beauty; despite it being broken, it isn’t ruined for him as it is a symbol of the woman he loves and the one thing that links him to his old life – a life that will never be the same again, like his broken hands.
And that is really the meaning of luxury, something that creates emotion and has longevity.
I think so. I am very much one of those slow foods, slow thinking, manufacture-based people, rather than being a fan of the artificial and synthetic. I am analogue rather than digital, I guess – although I do dabble. I carry both a book and a Kindle with me. I see the dazzling possibilities of technology, but I also love the tactile relationship to objects of old.
Have you visited the Jaeger-LeCoultre manufacture?
Yes. I don’t want to just be a model for a brand, I really want to know what goes into making something, because that is what has always fascinated me. I remember the first watch mechanism I really understood was an old fob watch I found in a market, a long time ago. I was on holiday in France and I had this fantasy that I had learnt the watchmaking craft. I always loved building things – taking them apart and then putting them back together again, just understanding how they worked. You open a car bonnet now and it’s like a computer, you can’t go near it. Whereas I like the idea of having an MG or an old Jaguar and being able to tinker with it. So, visiting Jaeger-LeCoultre was extraordinary. My wife Sophie and I both went around the manufacture and we were absolutely flabbergasted – not only by the heritage and craftsmanship, but also the fact that people had worked there for so long, entire lifetimes.
What made you want to visit the manufacture?
As an ambassador, it was important for me to understand what it was I actually had on my wrist, rather than it just being a superficial luxury brand. To understand the great synchronicity that I didn’t even know existed. The whole ethos of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s stand at SIHH – which I visited this year – was understanding craftsmanship and the people working on everything from the straps to the watch complications. There were diagrams of technical components and people to explain how it all works between the engineering developments and the final product we wear on our wrists. To be that close to it all, to see something operate on that small a scale, it was just phenomenal. For example, the balance wheels move so fast and so delicately. The pulse looks utterly organic, it is extraordinary.
The art of watchmaking – as well as so many other hand-made crafts – is a much rarer skill today than in days gone by. Do you think this and the accompanying costs make beautiful watches less accessible?
I did feel slightly uncomfortable about this and spoke to the people in the boutique about it when I visited. But they explained to me that, when it comes to price, there is a huge sliding scale and that, no matter what end of the scale people are looking at, there is the same level of excitement because they know that the watch they are buying is going to be in their family for generations to come.
So, in a way, acting and watchmaking have a similar legacy with all the work behind the scenes, creating a performance or object that can – and often does – outlive the creator?
Completely – it’s weird isn’t it? As an actor, the investment you put into creating a character pays off because, if you play it well, this is what will be left behind for future generations to appreciate and remember – your work, which has longevity, not like fleeting moments in your personal life. Buying a high-end watch is not just about wanting an accessory to match an outfit: it is an investment in the future and this connects the effort that goes into making it and the pleasure in buying and owning one.