Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have become global stars thanks to the success of their detective show, ''Sherlock''; EW visits London to investigate the new season -- and to find out how much longer they intend to carry on playing Holmes and Watson

By Clark Collis
Updated January 17, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST

Benedict Cumberbatch is a terrible Sherlock Holmes. Wait! Before fans of the Cumberbatch-starring TV series Sherlock start plotting to throw this writer from the top of the Reichenbach Falls, allow me to elaborate. At a London hotel on a sunny morning last August, the actor is chatting with EW about the third season of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle update (premiering Jan. 19, 10 p.m., on PBS’ Masterpiece). As Cumberbatch is in full Sherlockian mode, shooting the new season’s finale, I have asked him to locate his inner Victorian detective and tell me what he is able to deduce from my appearance. “Uh, you’ve been in the sun,” says Cumberbatch, 37, hesitantly, “but you’ve not been on holiday because your face is a lot redder than your arms. Or maybe you just like wearing long-sleeved things on holiday. Who knows? No, I don’t have that skill. I’m not a magician. Nor am I Sherlock Holmes.”

Many would disagree with that assessment. Dozens of actors have played Conan Doyle’s creation down the years: Most recently, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law portrayed the detective and his sidekick Dr. Watson in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes and its 2011 sequel, while Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu are midway through the second season of CBS’ own update, the New York City-set Elementary. Yet to Sherlock devotees, Benedict Cumberbatch is Holmes — and a youthful, heartthrob-handsome Holmes at that — just as his costar Martin Freeman is Watson. The brainchild of Doctor Who‘s current showrunner Steven Moffat and actor-writer Mark Gatiss (who plays Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft), the show was an immediate hit in the U.K. when it debuted on the BBC in 2010 and has been sold to more than 200 territories.

Here, the premiere of season 2 — which, like all of the Sherlock seasons, consisted of three movie-length episodes — attracted a healthy 3.2 million viewers when it was broadcast in May 2012. PBS has good reason to hope the third season will improve upon that, thanks to Cumberbatch’s recent spate of high-profile movie roles (Star Trek Into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave) and Sherlock’s very viewer-rich new lead-in, Downton Abbey.

While Cumberbatch may not be able to tell whether this writer has been on vacation (which he has not), EW has other queries that the Sherlock team is equipped to ruminate on. Questions such as, How was Holmes able to return from the grave following a season 2 finale that saw him forced to leap to his apparent death by Andrew Scott’s villain, the now-late Moriarty? What else can fans expect from the new season? And, perhaps most important, how much longer will Cumberbatch carry on playing the man from 221B Baker Street?

Come, readers, come! To quote Conan Doyle’s iconic mystery-solver, “The game is afoot!”

As in many of Conan Doyle’s original Holmes tales, the beginning of Sherlock involves a train journey. Back in the mid-aughts, Moffat and Gatiss were working as writers on Doctor Who and frequently traveled together via train to the Welsh capital, Cardiff, where the BBC time-travel show is based. Along the way, the pair discovered they shared a love for both Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories and the series of big-screen adaptations from the ’40s starring Basil Rathbone that reset the yarns in a contemporary milieu. “We kept saying, ‘Someone is going to update Sherlock Holmes again and it’s going to be a huge hit,'” recounts Moffat, “‘and we’ll be really cross because we should have done it.'” Moffat eventually pitched the idea to Sue Vertue, a TV producer and also, conveniently, his wife. “Sue, who doesn’t leap at all my ideas, really leapt at that one,” he explains.

The Sherlock team asked Cumberbatch to audition for the role of Holmes after they saw the 2007 war drama Atonement and his portrayal of Paul Marshall, whom the actor succinctly describes as “a child-raping chocolate millionaire.” Notes Cumberbatch, “I don’t really equate that with how I characterize Sherlock Holmes. But they did somehow, and I’m very grateful for it.” Moffat says Cumberbatch was regarded as “the critic’s choice, a great actor rather than a star.” Few believed the angular-featured thespian possessed hunk potential. “When we first cast him, people were saying, ‘You promised us a sexy one!'” says Vertue. “People weren’t thinking of Benedict in that light at all.” Another hurdle they faced when selling Benedict Cumberbatch as the star? The fact that he was called Benedict Cumberbatch. “When people said, ‘Who’s playing Sherlock Holmes?’ and we’d say, ‘Benedict Cumberbatch,’ everyone looked very vague,” recalls Vertue. “Then we’d always have to spell his name.”

Freeman, 42, was more famous than Cumberbatch due to his roles in Love Actually and on the original U.K. version of The Office — but the actor underwhelmed at his audition. “By all accounts I was a bit lackluster,” says Freeman. “My agent said, ‘They wanted you to come in and f—ing do it, and they didn’t seem to get much from you.'” Freeman’s agent got him another audition, this time with Cumberbatch. “It instantly worked,” says Freeman. “There’s something about our rhythms that complemented each other.”

Sherlock debuted in the U.K. in July 2010 with an episode called “A Study in Pink.” Penned by Moffat, the adventure showcased both the chemistry between its leads and its writer’s contemporary yet spiritually authentic revisiting of Conan Doyle’s prose. Still, Cumberbatch had doubts about Sherlock‘s chances when he joined Vertue and Moffat at their home to watch the broadcast. “For me, it is a winter show,” says the actor. “It’s not something you watch when you’ve got the dying light on the hottest day. So I was a bit despondent.” Cumberbatch realized his fears were unfounded when Twitter lit up with talk of the show. “The immediate response was exciting,” he says. “My name: trending, trending, trending. I didn’t even know what ‘trending’ was before that night. I literally thought searchlights were going to find us in Sue and Steve’s garden and that there was going to be this bank of paparazzi when we walked out.” The paparazzi would come in time (more on that later), but the show’s hit status was confirmed with the announcement that 7.5 million folks in the U.K. had tuned in to watch the premiere. “After the first episode,” says Vertue, “we never had to spell his name.”

Cumberbatch admits he found the instant success of the show a somewhat disorienting experience — one made more surreal still by his subsequent appearances in the high-profile films War Horse and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — and that he had trouble returning to the part of Holmes when the time came to shoot the second season in 2011. “Going back to him, it just took a little bit of time,” he says. Yet the second season was even more popular in the U.K. than the first and cemented Cumberbatch’s reputation as, to use a British phrase, “the thinking woman’s crumpet.” Contends Moffat: “He has got progressively more handsome. Fame does make you more handsome. It’s a fact!”

By this point Hollywood wasn’t so much calling Cumberbatch as shouting at him through a megaphone. In the period after season 2 was filmed, the actor racked up a staggering number of credits: Star Trek Into Darkness, the HBO miniseries Parade’s End, The Fifth Estate, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, and a February 2013 episode of The Simpsons in which he voiced both the British prime minister and Severus Snape. One wonders what it must have been like for Freeman, the man who stood next to him for so much of the time. “I try not to stand next to him,” says the actor with a laugh. “I’ve got my own s— to deal with!” That’s a fact. While Freeman’s work schedule over the past couple of years has not been as varied as his costar’s, he’s been exceptionally busy, shuttling between London and New Zealand to play Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s trilogy of Hobbit films (a franchise whose dragon Smaug is voiced by — anyone? anyone? — that’s right, Benedict Cumberbatch). Freeman says he is taking the newfound superfame gifted to him by Sherlock and The Hobbit with a veritable bucketful of salt. “It’s essentially horses—,” he snorts. “Because yesterday they didn’t know someone and today they’re going mad over them — and if you’re telling me that’s not horses— I’d like to know what it is!”

How difficult is it to schedule the shooting of Sherlock, given the full diaries of its two leading men? That’s not a question Cumberbatch loses much sleep over. “I just swan about and live my life and get the work I get,” he says. “You should ask [the producers] that question.” In fact, according to Vertue and Moffat, their stars’ extra-Sherlockular activities have proved both a curse and, at times, a blessing, given Moffat’s own workload since he became showrunner and head writer of Doctor Who in 2008. Last summer, production on Sherlock had to be put on hold after the first two episodes of season 3 had been shot so Freeman could wrap The Hobbit — which in turn gave Moffat time to write the season’s concluding installment. “I think The Hobbit saved my life,” he says. “Don’t tell Peter Jackson! He apologized and I was just thinking, ‘That’s fine, mate.'”

One thing is certain: The popularity of Sherlock — and of its stars — has made filming in public much more difficult since the first season. Moffat recalls Nick Hurran, director of the season 3 finale “His Last Vow,” expressing bewilderment while watching one of the early episodes and seeing Cumberbatch and Freeman walk through London’s Trafalgar Square without turning heads. “He was like, ‘How the hell did you shoot that? Why isn’t anyone looking at them?'” Moffat says. “And then he remembered: because no one knew who they were! Now when we turn up, well, we’ve got crash barriers.”

It is midafternoon, and Cumberbatch and Freeman are shooting a scene outside the terraced house on North Gower Street in London’s Bloomsbury that doubles as the exterior of Holmes’ 221B Baker Street abode. Across the road, around 500 people stand behind the aforementioned crash barriers, patiently keeping quiet while the actors shoot and then exploding with screams the moment they finish. The vast majority of the crowd are teenagers and early twentysomethings, and the vast, vast majority are female. “If you look very carefully you might be able to see a man,” chuckles Gatiss. It is tempting to describe the gathered throng as “Cumberbitches,” a term Cumberbatch himself used last year when asked by EW if he was worried that Julian Assange might come after him for his portrayal of the WikiLeaks founder in The Fifth Estate (“The Cumberbitches have got my back, so I’ll be fine”). Since then the actor has encouraged his fans to rebrand themselves in a more politically correct fashion. “They’re called the Cumber Collective,” he explains. Moreover, when EW talks to a random sampling of the crowd, Freeman’s name comes up almost as much as his costar’s. “It would be crazy to suppose there wasn’t a sexual element in the attraction of the show,” says Freeman with a disbelieving laugh. “Otherwise [the fans] would always be 46-year-old men and women.”

Also present today are a number of paparazzi, a breed with whom Cumberbatch has evinced growing exasperation. Just days before EW meets the actor, he is “papped” while holding a handwritten note that reads, “Go photograph Egypt and show the world something important,” a reference to attacks on antigovernment protesters in Cairo. Cumberbatch is alive to the irony that this photograph then appeared on countless websites around the world. “I know, isn’t that funny?” he laughs. “He still took a photograph of me, which kind of proves the point. I don’t get emotional about it. That was just a statement of what I thought should be a priority.”

One of Cumberbatch’s current priorities should be whetting the appetites of Sherlock fans with teasing tidbits about the new season. But the man who stayed resolutely silent about the fact that he was playing Khan in last year’s Star Trek sequel — a marketing ploy that irritated some Trekkers — is almost equally tight-lipped about the forthcoming Sherlock episodes, and for similar reasons. “The whole thing about Star Trek and Khan, I couldn’t believe it really pissed people off, to be honest,” he says. “But I still believe people — even if they were like, ‘I knew it!’ — had a moment [of excitement] in the cinema when I revealed who I was playing. So I’m cagey about giving too much away because it is a really, really lovely treat for people if you just like to sit around the telly on a Sunday night and go, ‘Aha!'”

The biggest “Aha!” moment is likely to come in the first episode and the detailing of Holmes’ Lazarus-like return. Freeman says that in addition to showing us how Holmes faked his death, the premiere will deal with the emotional effect his unexpected reemergence has on Watson. “Because it’s 2013, John just can’t faint, as he does in Conan Doyle, and then all is forgiven,” says Freeman. “There has to be a different fallout.” Holmes, meanwhile, discovers that during his two-year absence Watson got himself a girlfriend, Mary Morstan, played by Freeman’s real-life partner, Amanda Abbington. “Mary and Sherlock get on very well,” explains Cumberbatch. “Irritatingly well for John. The adventures are still centered around Holmes and Watson, but there’s obviously a domestic element which is completely different.” Indeed, the second episode of the season, which is called “The Sign of Three,” features the wedding of Watson and Mary.

The good doctor’s marriage, which Gatiss describes as a “100-year spoiler,” follows the Conan Doyle canon. But Gatiss and Moffat decided to depart from the stories by both depicting the wedding and having the reliably eccentric Holmes act as best man. “As a kid, I always thought since Dr. Watson has only got one friend in the whole world, his best man must have been Sherlock Holmes,” says Moffat. “What was that like? What kind of fascinating, genius car crash was it, to have that sociopath trying to get through compering a wedding day? And now we’ve had a chance to bring that to life.” What does the groom have to say about all this? “Sherlock makes a brilliant best man’s speech,” explains Freeman. “The episode is slightly lighter in tone, maybe, than people are used to — but with a payoff that I think is going to hit people where they live.”

The season finale will showcase the evil doings of the villainous Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen of the original Danish The Killing), who is based on the titular character from the Conan Doyle tale “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” “What’s fascinating with the story is that it’s about the only time where Sherlock Holmes actually hates someone,” says Moffat. “Here’s a villain that Sherlock Holmes simply cannot bear, and that is interesting.” Cumberbatch is similarly enthusiastic about his new onscreen opponent. “It’s a very different tonality than Moriarty’s chaotic, anarchic joker,” says the actor. “He has a different temperament, and it’s quite chilling — and that’s all that I will say about that!” Of course it is.

The good news for Sherlock fans is that both of the show’s stars seem more than happy to continue with the series for the foreseeable future. “My feeling is, as long as we’re all enjoying it, why not?” says Freeman. Cumberbatch agrees. “Of course! Of course!” says the actor. “We’re not beholden to do this. It’s because we enjoy it.” And Moffat says he and Gatiss have already discussed another season. “We know what we want to do,” says the executive producer. “We’ve got a set of developments and twists and turns that will be quite shocking. We’re really excited about where we’re going with it, actually.” But here’s the catch: “Doesn’t mean it will happen straightaway — and actually we don’t think that’s the right thing to do. You’ll have your burst of Sherlock and then you can bloody well wait!”

If Sherlock fans have a problem with that, Steven Moffat suggests they write a letter — but not to Steven Moffat. “Guy Ritchie’s made two in the time we’ve made nine,” he says, “so you can take your complaints to him!”

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Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman star in the celebrated U.K. series

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