In the world of SHERLOCK, a good man is hard to keep down and it seems the same could be said of Sherlock Holmes’ arch-nemesis Moriarty. In an effort to suss out a few clues as to what game is afoot in Season 4, we had the chance to ask stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Amanda Abbington, Mark Gatiss, as well as producers Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue at last summer’s San Diego Comic-Con during press interviews.
It must be a joy to be able to revisit the character of Sherlock Holmes every few years.
BENEDICT: It’s lovely. You’ve sort of hit the nail on the head with that. It’s familiar and yet we wouldn’t do it if it was just the same steps, and that’s what’s brilliant about the writing. They keep challenging us and it keeps evolving. And you can go quite far with a character that started off as amorally, sociopathically, obsessively work-based. You can perfect genius because genius is not perfection. It’s almost — well, on his level and his practice, his methodology — it’s almost inhuman. So that’s been a fantastic arc to play and boy does it go some in this series. You’re right. To be able to come back to that and reunite the band and it be familiar but different, it’s great. It is great.
Why do you think Moriarity is still somebody who is weighing on him even though he’s not there? I mean, clearly it’s still affecting him.
BENEDICT: You know, I think it’s the first time he really meets his match and it scars him. It’s a dent to his confidence and it’s a nemesis — and nemesis play large in your psychology. They’re not just physical entities who are actually present. It’s about the fear of them and I think that’s why Moriarity really succeeds. He’s terrorized Sherlock’s mind. So it’s fear, I think.
Do you think Sherlock has a certain like strange respect for Moriarty too?
BENEDICT: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I think they’re kind of different sides of the same coin and he recognizes that. There’s a parity and yet [Sherlock’s] on the side of the angels — but don’t think he’s one of them. I mean, he uses similar means but it seems to be for a better purpose, one would hope.
Can you talk about the evolution of Sherlock Holmes, about how different the character was in the first season and the Sherlock that we are going to meet now in the fourth season?
BENEDICT: I think I have with the first answer: because he has moved from being someone who is sociopathic and self-possessed and slightly amoral and not a creature of the flesh. Not someone who’s not sure of our sensory world into being someone who has a certain degree of a private life. I mean very, very private with The Woman. And in his interactions with people, he understands. Actually, to be better at what he does, he has to understand the world. So that’s very much John’s influence on him. But I think it’s like a lot of the friendships and relationships in that world, it’s born out of necessity. It makes him better. So there’s a pragmatism to it. It’s not whimsical or sentimental, like we were saying “we’re pals.” It’s born out of necessity.
If Sherlock were to describe the doctor that you are playing in “Doctor Strange,” what would he say about him?
BENEDICT: That’s a very good question. I think rather like the Ancient One, Sherlock would see quite a few of the missing links in Strange’s life. And I think he’d be able to expose his motivations and flaws very quickly, as he can with anybody he meets. Whether he be that interested in Doctor Strange, I don’t know. I mean, as we meet him at the beginning of the origin story that is. As far as defending the world as know it from other dimensional threats, I don’t think Sherlock would really know about that. That’s where that stops. That interaction.
Steven [Moffat] and Mark [Gatiss] have a particularly joyful relationship with Sherlock. What’s it like to step into their joy?
BENEDICT: It’s great because not only is there a very strong reference point for any detail for keeping yourself in check with the canon, they have done a lot of heavy lifting for me. I mean, I go back to the books for specific references, for illusions. We do all that. They are there in the literature, not just in our series. And yet at the same time, I know that they have not overlooked that and I also feel it just comes across in every aspect of the writing. I’m not against how funny it is, how rich the characterizations and relationships are. The joy of it is the audience’s joy and therefore our joy playing them. And it gives you a good day at the office.
This season is described as maybe the darkest season. How dark does it get?
BENEDICT: Without a doubt, yes. Myopically, I mean. Like you’re talking about the end of the universe darkness. You can’t see what’s in front of you. You would walk into everything dark.
You’ve been getting busier and busier since this show started, as has everyone involved with this show. So how long can this keep going? Do you want the show to keep going?
BENEDICT: We’ll see. We’ll see. I mean, we’ll see where this series ends and how it all ends. It’s been great fun to come back and do it. How it will continue in the future? Who knows. I mean, it’s not just about what any of us wants. It’s about what’s actually right for the show and that has to be judged very carefully. If you think about the classic British output of certain shows and there aren’t that many of them. It’s not for me to say. But maybe in series form, this is it. Who knows. I don’t know. And I don’t want to say this is it because we have too much fun doing it. But genuinely, we have to just see how this lands. The actors and Mark and Steve are pretty tight. Other than Mark, as well as a producer and writer. So it’s all of us being stretched into different directions. Also this has run longer than most American series that have come through, even though the output has been let’s say bijou in the usual kind of volume of an American series. But do we want to compromise that by continually doing it, just because you could carry it on? So there’s lots of stuff the way up. It’s not just about what we want to do. It’s about what’s right, I think. So we’ll see. Really, we’ll have to see. No one’s decided on it so there’s “yes” or “no” to an end or a beginning.
Everybody’s kind of talking about how much darker this season is so can you talk about just how dark it is? Why it’s gone that way? What it’s like to shoot something so dark?
AMANDA: I don’t think there’s degrees of darkness, I just think it’s the tone isn’t it?
SUE: It’s tone. There’s still obviously a lot of dark cases.
AMANDA: It was definitely a roller coaster. This series is definitely a roller coaster in terms of just the schedule and getting everything in and just the content. It’s a roller coaster. It’s quite exhausting, this series.
SUE: It is. I’ve been doing some behind the scenes filming and quite often Mark and I kind of talk about the scene that we’re doing for the day. And it just looks like we’re just having the nicest time. We’re down by a beach. We’re in a lovely countryside.
AMANDA: We’ve been to some fantastic places. We’ve been abroad. It’s been brilliant isn’t it? I’ve had a blast. I’ve had a great time in this series. It’s been brilliant. . . We went to Morocco. It was in Marrakesh, which was beautiful. I think I really recommend it. . . [Laughs] The boys were really annoyed. They were like: “Why are you going to Morocco?” And I’m like. “I can’t say.” It was great.
It seems like in the midst of all this darkness for the new season, there’s also a joy with the new child around. There’s a wonderful balance, but I don’t know how Sherlock is going to balance that part of it — John and Maru having a young child now.
AMANDA: But that’s what’s beautiful about this series is that like you say juxtaposed with the darkness there’s a lot of humor in it and a lot of love and a lot of joy.
SUE: And a dog!
AMANDA: Yeah, and a dog. The brilliantly, well-behaved dog. [Laughs] But the joy makes the darkness even bleaker, which is great because you’ve got these huge set pieces and roller coasters. And when you watch it, you’ll go, “Oh yeah, of course, that’s brilliant.”
Everything is set up emotionally taxing for the characters a little bit. They’re going from such peaks and valleys.
AMANDA: But they always have in SHERLOCK. I mean there’s always been mayhem. It’s been crazy. They’re always has.
SUE: And I think also for the actors, I think, it’s so nice. It’s amazing what they can play, because you don’t want to keep doing the same thing. You always want to keep people confused when they’re on a case. You’ve got to go a bit deeper. So you want the same, you want the things that everyone enjoys and then you want some more.
What can you say about where Mary’s at this season and where things are at between her and John?
AMANDA: She’s still pregnant. And then she has the baby. And then you sort of see their family life and you see the Watsons being a family, which is lovely. It’s really lovely, and you see how Sherlock becomes part of that family and you find Mary in a very strong happy place and John as well, and they’re expecting a beautiful baby.
Before Mary arrived, the show was very masculine. So how was it to come and play with a strong character in this “boy’s world”?
AMANDA: [Laughs] Well, it’s called SHERLOCK,so it’s going to be about Sherlock and John. Steven and Mark have done a fantastic job with Irene and Mrs. Hudson and Molly and Marry. They’re all incredibly strong very different characters who don’t actually facilitate the males at all. They’re not there for them, they are there as their own characters. But coming in as Mary – I mean Mary is a wonderful character I think. I love the fact that she’s flawed but also she’s very lovable and I think she’s charming. She has to be charming for who she is.
SUE: And it was not important that Sherlock liked her. I think there’s another way you can do it, where somebody comes in and you think you’re sucking all the fun now because [Mary] wants [John] to stay at home.
AMANDA: I always remember that lovely scene in the back of the cab, when John has punched Sherlock, and [Mary] just says to him, “I like him. I like him.” And that just sets her up, as a kind of like: “You get beyond this, because I know you two have got this bond.”
SUE: You like him — and then you shoot him! [Laughs] She’s a complex character. She harks back to her own thing if things get a little bit too heated; like “I’ll just pull a gun and that will do it.”
AMANDA: [Laughs] “Shoot my mate.”
SUE: Yeah. “Shoot might mate. He’ll be fine.”
Maybe you can talk about Mycroft, really quickly, and about why he feels this obsession to watch over his brother. His concern for his brother and he feels the need to spy on him and watch over him and hover, what’s driving that?
MARK: It’s love, it’s affection, it’s a big family bond. They’re a strange family who explicitly wanted the parents to — rather than what you might expect then to be sort of rarefied co-geniuses — they’re actually lovely people who have suddenly discovered they’ve got these two very odd children who are like Niles and Frasier Crane. They’ve come from a very warm family environment. So even though he doesn’t really express it very well and uses the machinery of the state to monitor him, [Mycroft] comes from a place of love. What he wants to do is to gather [Sherlock] into the embrace of the establishment because Sherlock is a loose cannon. It drives him nuts.
When you’re dealing with the evolution of the character along the seasons how do you avoid the point that Sherlock is not Sherlock anymore? What are the things that your character cannot change?
MARK: His coat. His underwear. What is immutable about Sherlock Holmes?
STEVEN: He favors reason over emotion. But actually underneath that there is a lot of emotional going on. You can’t suddenly make him ordinary because he would hate that. He’s not suddenly going to be somebody else. I don’t know that he precisely softens, [Sherlock] becomes more human and more adept at fitting in with other people — but he remains separate from the human race because he finds that a better place to observe them from. He stays on the mountaintop because there he can see clearly.
MARK: That’s what makes characters interesting. If Sherlock had started out being a straightforward man, we could never be talking about him. If he became one, but you have to give him somewhere to go, as [Arthur Conan] Doyle did. But the rather rarefied strange young man that Dr. Watson meets right at the beginning is not the same man who counts John Watson as his only friend, but is a much more clubbable figure who can do things much better. But he can never become one of us, otherwise he’s not Sherlock Holmes.
STEVEN: He can be wise and funny. He wasn’t at the beginning, but later on he’s got this bantering relationship with loads of people and he’s got a wisdom that he doesn’t have in the early stage. But he stays on the mountaintop. And he will die up there. He’s not going to change that.
How much darker is this season?
MARK: We turned the lights off to save money so you can’t really see it. [Laughs] It’s the same show. Hopefully lots of laughs, lots of great personal stuff. But it is explicitly a darker season so you’ll have to wait and see.
How different is Toby Jones’ villain is from the villains and adversaries we’ve seen until now?
STEVEN: He’s completely different. I mean, it’s a completely different character. Just to keep using the word, he’s the darkest villain we’ve had. I mean there was always something sort of charming and engaging about Moriarty. There’s something fascinating and actually a moral rather than immoral about Charles Augustus Magnusson. This guy is the purest — I mean actually Sherlock is appalled by him. He calls him — I won’t say what we called him, but he says he is evil. He is the most beautiful one we’ve had. And I don’t think when I say that and you see it that you disagree. He is horrifically evil.
MARK: It’s an interesting thing to chart. We’ve always talked about this because we made our Moriarty very different to Doyle’s. He’s Irish, which is the first properly Irish Moriarty, an Irish name, but Andrew brings all his charm and his twinkle and his humor to it. He’s also terrifying. But that’s a very particular kind of portrayal. Magnuson was a very short blank rather chilly businessman doesn’t see what he’s doing is evil. Toby is doing something very interesting. He’s a avuncular, rather funny seeming man with terrible teeth. We’ve given him terrible teeth. It’s like symbolic of the rot inside him. But it’s a great I think great complex shaded character and you’re not quite sure where you are and also what our relationship is with him as will become clear.
Would you like to do another Victorian episode?
STEVEN: No. I don’t think so. I think that was the idea. I don’t think it’s pick a time zone.
MARK: Only other one we would do is a black-and-white one where they fight the Nazi’s. But the Victorian special was just something – there was a space for a special instead of a series. We couldn’t do it anywhere else. We actually said to Benedict Martin if we don’t do this now we won’t be able to do this story and we’d love to do this story because it’s a great big saggy dog story. We tell everybody it was just a one off and then it was actually part of the narrative.
STEVEN: But it was really just this wonderful excuse to indulge ourselves and to let them do this very rare thing, which is to play Holmes and Watson in modern day and the original period. It was a really interesting process because we had to sort of retro engineer some of the things we’d done originally, go back to some of the things but also think it absolutely has to be the same show. We can’t suddenly find it’s become this very stately slow moving period drama. And everyone seemed to like it and we said, “Yeah.”
Do you have a plan for the future for Season 5 already established?
STEVEN: We have to take it one season at a time. We don’t know what the future would be and it’s not entirely down to us, let’s be clear. So hopefully we’ll do more. I find it hard to be imagining that won’t. But in terms of a specific plan, our ideas we haven’t got to yet. We’ve got our ideas we haven’t got to yet.
MARK: We’ve been percolating a few things but we haven’t had our favorite part of the process, which is just basically us going somewhere and going ooh. We haven’t done that yet, but for the future. We’ve got some ideas.
So it doesn’t feel like you’re done then?
STEVEN: I don’t know that it ever does. If you get to the point in the show when you feel like you’re done, you’ve probably gone passed the point you should have stopped. You should stop at full speed as it were, leap off the train as it’s still going rather than letting it grind to a halt. So we won’t do that. I mean we would never do a series of this without having – it has to pass our inspection first. We have to be so excited first before we start talking to the others. As Mark says, there are ideas.
To see what remarkable wide journey and crazy cases Sherlock Holmes, John Watson and John’s wife Mary encounter in Season 4, tune for the premiere of SHERLOCK on Sunday, January 1st at 9:00 p.m. on PBS Masterpiece.