Yet at 37, Benedict Cumberbatch is Britain’s newest global star, a sex symbol who can command multi-million dollar fees from the world’s top film-makers.
So why, with the world at his feet, is the Sherlock actor so desperately unsure of himself? And is his debilitating self-doubt in danger of derailing his progress to career superstardom — and his own personal happiness? Could it be that, in the past, his emotional intensity and his urgent yearning to become a father have scuppered relationships?
Women — especially the independent, career-minded women he finds attractive — seem to be scared off by him.
His see-sawing temperament is enough to deter any woman from marriage. To make matters worse, he’s highly cautious, even paranoid, about money.
For years he couldn’t bear to spend anything on clothes, and he never misses a chance to earn a penny — even working for minimum rates on the BBC radio drama Neverwhere recently, rather than be ‘between jobs’ for a moment.
And yet, just about every man in the country would eagerly swap places with the star whose devoted female fans call themselves his ‘Cumberbitches’.
As the ultimate detective, Sherlock Holmes, in the BBC’s worldwide hit or the leather-clad villain John Harrison in this summer’s blockbuster Star Trek: Into Darkness, he is unlike any other actor working in film or television today.
Now he is hotly tipped for an Oscar in a movie no one has even seen yet, playing Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.
In recent weeks he has sent the gossip columns into overdrive, after being photographed with two glamorous and very different women, leaving nightclubs in the small hours, officiating at a gay wedding and camping it up wildly as he revealed his crush on Hollywood A-lister Matt Damon. ‘Do you have Matt’s number?’ he demanded to a baffled interviewer for a web fansite. ‘My biggest wish is to hang out with him .
Benedict Cumberbatch and former girlfriend Olivia Poulet at The Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards 2010
This homoerotic tease, and his role as minister at a gay wedding in Ibiza between two male friends, seem alarmingly out of character.
Though his publicist says he has a ‘wicked, wicked sense of humour’, Cumberbatch is usually reticent to the point of mystery about his love life, which he guards as closely as his financial affairs.
They split up in 2010, though he admits: ‘I still love Olivia to bits.’
Since the break-up, Cumberbatch has been linked with several high-profile women, including Star Trek co-star Alice Eve and Lord Of The Rings actress Liv Tyler.
At 37, Benedict Cumberbatch is Britain's newest global star, a sex symbol who can command multi-million dollar fees from the world's top film-makers
He is also ferociously chivalrous, old-fashioned even. After BBC radio’s film reviewer Mark Kermode poked fun at Keira Knightley, Cumberbatch — her co-star in Atonement — punched the critic when they appeared together on air. Kermode was amazed, though he later insisted it was ‘a light tap on the arm’ and ‘playful’.
More recently, Cumberbatch has dated furniture designer Anna Jones, before apparently rekindling an old friendship with Russian model and actress Katia Elizarova.
Last month, the pair were photographed snuggling on a sun-lounger beside a pool at Ibiza’s Hotel Hacienda. She is wearing next to nothing, and he strokes her arm as she nuzzles his face with her blonde hair.
But Katia was apparently as surprised as anyone when Cumberbatch was snapped days later leaving his birthday party at the saucy London nightclub Cirque du Soir, which features fire-eaters and topless dancers, with red-haired actress Charlotte Asprey on his arm. She is another friend from theatre school days.
Benedict Cumberbatch and a mysterious woman as they leave Cirque Le Soir Night club at 3am in the morning
In recent weeks he has sent the gossip columns into overdrive, after being photographed with two glamorous and very different women, leaving nightclubs in the small hours
At first glance that claim seems improbable, even ridiculous. Cumberbatch has always been painfully awkward around women.
He has admitted that his first unspoken childhood crush was on a friend of his parents, the actress Emma Vansittart, who appeared in the Eighties TV soap Angels.
Cumberbatch was born in London in 1976. His parents were both jobbing actors. His father Tim Carlton (he dropped the family name Cumberbatch for career purposes) had appeared in Minder, Bergerac and The Professionals, while his mother Wanda Ventham was best known as Rodney’s mother-in-law in Only Fools And Horses.
They socialised with flamboyant theatre friends, including Julian Fellowes, who would go on to create Downton Abbey.
Young Benedict’s behaviour caused anxiety from the start. He was ungovernable, noisy, inexhaustible and constantly on the brink of raging boredom — still rampaging like a toddler when he was eight years old.
Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison in Star Trek: Into Darkness
He revelled in ‘inappropriate behaviour’. For a dare, he once dropped his trousers and flashed outside a church.
Though his parents were not rich, they managed to raise the cash to send him to a private prep school in West Sussex that took boarders from the age of eight.
But the boy remained a problem. During the school nativity play, where he was Joseph, he pushed Mary off the stage for hogging the limelight.
The headmaster recommended Harrow school, where strict discipline was combined with an emphasis on creativity. But the fees were far beyond anything the family could afford — more than £30,000 a year at today’s prices.
Benedict’s parents adored him. He was their only child, though Wanda had a daughter called Tracy, 15 years older, from a previous marriage. But even they didn’t expect what happened next. The boy not only passed Harrow’s entrance exam but won a scholarship.
He excelled in drama at school, starring in several productions of Shakespeare — including a role as Rosalind in As You Like It. Since Harrow was single-sex, Cumberbatch became adept at playing girl’s roles.
But when Oscar-nominated director Andrew Birkin came to the school to film Ian McEwan’s sex-fuelled novel The Cement Garden, a young Cumberbatch refused to audition.
‘I was really prudish at that age and I didn’t want to take my clothes off,’ he said. ‘I was terrified and I didn’t want anyone seeing what I looked like.’
He claims that when his hormones kicked in during his teens, his schoolwork suffered. Unable to concentrate in lessons, he says, his grades fell and his ambitions to study at Oxbridge were dashed.
Old Harrovian classmates are sceptical. ‘He wasn’t stupid, but, quite frankly, the girls excuse is weak,’ said one. ‘We all discovered girls at the same time — or boys in some cases — but that didn’t stop plenty of us from going to Oxford and Cambridge.
‘It’s pretty obvious why he didn’t do the same: he wasn’t quite clever enough. One suspects he might have a chip on his shoulder, actually, the way he goes on about it in interviews.’
As the ultimate detective, Sherlock Holmes, in the BBC's worldwide hit or the leather-clad villain John Harrison in this summer's blockbuster Star Trek: Into Darkness, he is unlike any other actor working in film or television today
Success didn’t come quickly. Though casting directors praised him, they warned he was a natural ‘character actor’, not a star, due to his unconventional rather than leading-man looks. He couldn’t even break into video games.
He once auditioned for a PlayStation version of James Bond, in a bow tie and tuxedo, but was rejected.
The stress made him ill. He tried to stay fit with Bikram yoga and a daily spoonful of organic honey, but succumbed first to glandular fever, then pneumonia.
It didn’t help that he was smoking heavily. On a bad day, it took half a dozen cigarettes and a drink before he could even face talking to an interviewer.
Then, at 33 he scooped a part in a National Theatre production, playing ‘a rich, alcoholic monster’ in Terence Rattigan’s After The Dance. His performance won sparkling reviews, but it was his parents’ approval that he craved.