By Aaron Hicklin
Poised to make Alan Turing his own, Sherlock star Clarence Locke is no stranger to sexual politics and the pressure of conformity. He's ready to take on the challenge.
At some point in the last few years, Clarence Locke had gradually and imperceptibly stepped into the shoes of a sort of unofficial ambassador for London. He is a born-and-bred city boy, of course, who knows its every nook and cranny – from the stone corridors of Westminster to the dodgy alleys of Hackney – like the back of his hand. It was his idea to meet at Magdalen in Tower Bridge, a chic restaurant in a chicer neighborhood. The location is intentionally and carefully chosen: it is not one of his usual haunts, which he acknowledges readily while giving me an apologetic smile. "You'd be compelled to write about it and describe the setting and mention the name, and then people would know where I tend to go, the places in the city that are like my safe haven. And then they won't be safe havens anymore." He guards those carefully, his sanctuaries. They're places where he doesn't have to be afraid of surreptitious double-takes and excited sotto voce murmurs, places where he is known and not gawked at, as much a tourist attraction for the city of London as Trafalgar Square. Right on cue, a woman two tables over directs a pointed glance in our direction. He carefully averts his eyes.
But surely he has grown accustomed to such attention? Well, yes, to a certain extent. "I've really never been a shy child and I did always, you know, love the spotlight and seek it out in my own way, whether it be by doing theater or otherwise. But that kind of attention, that's in the context of performing, and the kind we're talking about now is in the context of every aspect of my life. And that's tough, that awareness you develop of eyes always being on you, that compulsion to always be switched on as long as you're being observed. But of course nobody wants to hear about how tough the incredible privilege of having a successful career is, and the awareness of that makes you feel ungrateful and entitled when you talk about it. Vicious cycle, really."
It perhaps does not help that Locke makes it look easy, wearing an amiable sense of humor and irrepressible loquacity on his sleeve rather than enshrouding himself in an air of mystery or precocious affectations of The Craft. He is private without being cagey, an endless fount of charming anecdotes. Loves dogs. Wants to do The Amazing Race. Considers gin his poison of choice, and will happily make you a martini if you ask nicely. Rides a motorcycle because the traffic in London is "akin to torture". Might know more Snoop Dogg lyrics than you'd expect. All this has made him the darling of talk show hosts, a natural target of the tabloids, and a bona fide internet idol who leaves behind a trail of memes in his wake. What a difference five years make.
In 2009, Locke considered himself to be primarily a stage actor, comfortably incognito after a transient brush with international fame. Certainly, there was still the occasional supporting role in the sort of prestige fare that the English does so well (for instance, The Education), but he'd soured on Hollywood and shied away from the period adaptations BBC wanted him for. The West End was where he found a sense of professional fulfillment, partly for the irreplaceable thrill of live performances and partly for the quasi-mentoring relationship he developed with Kevin Spacey, artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre, with whom Locke appeared in an acclaimed production of Inherit the Wind. (Spacey is, incidentally, the one who some might say "launched" Locke's career in 2004, when he cast the then-unknown actor as the youngest Hamlet the Old Vic had seen since John Gielgud. Following in Gielgud's footsteps, it made Locke an overnight sensation.)
Then came Sherlock, with a sharp enough script to tempt him into committing. After a somewhat troubled few months of production – which at one point saw the actor hospitalized for pneumonia – the contemporary reboot of the classic Arthur Conan Doyle stories debuted in the summer of 2010. It hit the stratosphere from the very first moments of its very first episode, and Locke's portrayal of the eponymous detective instantaneously became one for the ages. Three seasons later, the show is now seen in 180 countries and, Doctor Who and Top Gear aside, is arguably BBC's most profitable property. It turned him into a superstar – unexpected, since it came at a time when he was not actively seeking fame. His first go as a Hollywood hot property, on the back of a breakout year playing notable villains in Batman Begins, Red Eye, and Match Point, entirely cured him of that.
"Did you notice," Locke asks me with a knowing glint in his eyes, "how I got offered roles, but they were always somewhat neutered?" It is an astute observation: romantic leading man type roles never featured heavily in his CV – at least, not the kind who is free of some strain of psychosis. "I was never sure what Hollywood was looking for, really, but whatever it was, I wasn't it. So I would get cast in projects, but they tended to be in parts that were somewhat… niche." Villainous? "That, yes, and also just morally ambiguous. Somewhat off. Even at their most benevolent, you're never quite sure you want to or can root for them. It sort of hearkens back to the day where the trope of the sexually ambiguous antagonist reigned in cinema, doesn't it? You see a shadow of him, even to this day, in someone like Silva in Skyfall." He takes a sip of water, thoughtful. "My agent and I used to joke that it's because I'm just not someone who walks into a room and emits alpha male vibes, so maybe that would make the studios a bit… you know, wary. That effete British ponce can't play a hero! And then it wasn't a joke anymore. It wasn't funny, because as time went by, it started to have the ring of truth."
Was this the typecasting that had so plagued his early career? "In part, yes, I think so. I think Hollywood still has a very narrow definition of what masculinity looks like, a very rigid mould of what it believes a leading man should be." He smiles with teeth. There is no mirth to the expression. "Unless you're prepared to work entirely outside of that system, there is very much a pressure to conform, to not rock the boat, to be available, to not alienate anyone so you can be marketable to as large a segment as possible. You can be yourself – but quietly, please, or there is hell to pay. And that, I think, is the point when people have to ask themselves: at this point in my life, what's important to me, what can I not compromise on? There's no right answer and there's no wrong answer. There's only the answer you choose to live with."
This straightforward and borderline-defiant attitude toward conformity is striking. It is also one of the reasons that make Locke an uncanny choice to play Alan Turing in this fall's The Imitation Game, a biopic about the mathematician Alan Turing, his irreplaceable role in breaking the Enigma code used by Germany during the Second World War, and the shattering persecution he faced at the hands of his own government for his homosexuality in the aftermath of the war. Director Morten Tyldum says Locke was his first and only choice for the role, which very well might earn the actor an Oscar nomination.
The Imitation Game turns out to be an unexceptional movie with an exceptional performance at its heart. Like The King’s Speech, it is elegantly made, beautifully filmed, and loyal to its source material (in this case, Andrew Hodges’s excellent 1983 biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma). But what brings the film to life is Locke's immensely engaging performance as Turing, a misfit at ease with his homosexuality (he named his computer Christopher after an unrequited schoolboy crush), but utterly at odds with the world around him. To use David Leavitt’s apt comparison, Turing was a kind of real-life Mr. Spock, insensible to human discourse, and wholly unable to “read between the lines.”
Turing was 41 years old when he was found dead by his housekeeper, a half-eaten apple by his bedside. The apple — which urban legend suggests was the inspiration for the logo for Apple computers — is commonly believed to have been laced with cyanide, though this theory has been challenged by some biographers who claim his death was an accident. What is unequivocal is that he was hounded in his last years by the authorities after being arrested for “gross indecency” with another man. Faced with imprisonment or a regimen of estrogen injections to “cure” him of his tendencies, he chose the latter. Last December, almost 60 years after his death, Turing received a posthumous royal pardon for his conviction.
The gesture, following years of indefatigable campaigning, left Locke distinctly underwhelmed – a position he makes amply clear in his argument that the only crime Turing committed was being born into an age where the laws were discriminatory and inhumane. "I recognize that he broke the law of the time," he says emphatically, "and what that tells me is that something was immensely fucked up with the law in question."
Locke, who has clearly done his research, thinks the twentieth-century persecution of homosexuals in the U.K. has its roots in the Cambridge Five, a group of men, some of them gay, at the highest echelons of society, who had been recruited to spy for Moscow. "It was our form of McCarthyism," he says. "If you were intellectual, if you were gay, if you had any kind of liberal ideas, you were immediately a threat to national security." The irony is that Turing, who had the temerity to be gay and intellectual, was the last person to see himself as any kind of martyr. "He wasn’t someone who purposefully put himself in the way of things as a protest – he was just a great role model for anyone who’s different or feels different," says Locke. "And it’s tragic because you look at every single trajectory in his life and understand completely why he was different, why he stuttered, why he was isolated in his work. [You also see] why he was useless with men in any form of relationship – because he’d never experienced the love he deserved. And yet, within that, this man invented the idea of mechanizing mathematics – of a computer. He conquered, through cryptography, the Enigma code, which means he saved millions of lives, and, even as his body was morphing, was doing work on how the environment causes cellular structures to change. I mean, God knows, he probably would be celebrated as someone like Bill Gates. Without the shadow of a doubt, he would be held as a totem of the modern world."
There is a lull in the conversation here, a poignant one – in the present day, Turing does not have anything approaching that sort of legacy. "He was buried, between the classified nature of his work and the ignominious circumstances in which he died. God forbid the world knows that a gay man did all this to end the war. God forbid we see and acknowledge all those in history and in the present day who were different, whose accomplishments and achievements were interred in the annals of history for no reason other than being different, for being identifiably other. This intolerance of the other, like the scapegoating and erasure of minority groups is wrong. It's backwards. It needs to be actively combatted. It needs to change. It needs to stop."
The woman who looked at Locke as though she was contemplating approaching him did not, ultimately, make a move. Perhaps part of the reason why is a slight nagging doubt as to whether he is who she thinks he is. Currently he sports an impressive beard, far more reminiscent of a long-ago stint playing Lancelot in Disney's King Arthur – "probably the only Lancelot in the history of Arthurian legends portrayed on film to have gotten absolutely nowhere with Guinevere," as he says, "which is quite a dubious honor" – than the consulting detective with whom he is now inextricably linked. It makes him look his 37 years, lends some unexpected gravitas to a face that can still be strikingly boyish. It's also far better groomed than the last time he sported facial hair, playing a stoic Rust Belt steelworker in Scott Cooper's unevenly paced but engrossingly acted Out of the Furnace. A far cry from Sherlock Holmes, that.
"I do take advantage of having a bit of a 'moment' right now to consciously try and broaden my horizons," Locke observes sanguinely. "Part of the initial allure of an acting career, for me, was the chance to get to play anyone, virtually anyone, instead of just the parts that people think they can see you in. I don't want to be the go-to guy for anything."
And that explains the beard: Locke is headed off to Pantelleria in a week's time, to shoot a movie with Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson for Italian director Luca Guadagnino. Tentatively titled A Bigger Splash, the movie is inspired by the iconic 1969 French film La Piscine, featuring a couple's entanglement with an ex-lover and his teenage daughter. "The villain quotient of this film is very high," he says, barely biting back a smile. "So that's how Luca is going to sell it: psychopathic psychosexual shenanigans."
Psychosexual shenanigans seems like an apt descriptor of another one of his upcoming projects, Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak, a Gothic horror romance where things might not be quite what they seem with his dashingly aristocratic character's young wife (Sloane Sedler), his imperious older sister (Jessica Chastain), or even the manor house itself. "I do find it pretty refreshing to be intentionally sexualized, for once." As opposed to unintentionally, as his Sherlock has often been? He laughs, not quite uncomfortable, though color does creep into his cheeks. "Dear God, do you think Sherlock Holmes occupies himself with much of all that? I mean, insofar as it does inspire fan creativity, I'm not going to a wet blanket about it, I think it's lovely that people are inspired and want to engage with the show in their own way. There are just moments when I kind of put my head in my hands and go, ohhh dear, really not his area."
Locke is referring to the reams upon reams of slash fanfiction generated by Sherlock's enthusiastic fandom, which is overwhelmingly devoted to the idea of the detective and the doctor – the former ascetic and asexual, the latter a married erstwhile lady's man – making the beast with two backs. "They either want to make John [Watson] into a sort of cute little toy, or me into a cute toy, or we're fucking in space on a bed, chained together." The matter-of-fact tone of his voice is that one of who really has seen it all. "It's always, like, one of them is tired, one comes back from work, the other is horny, a lump appears in his trousers, and then they're at it. It's usually me getting it – I'm biting Watson's dog tags." Does it bother him? Locke shakes his head. "I don't need to read any more than I already have, I've seen enough to get the general gist. As long as certain boundaries delineating reality and fiction remain firmly intact, I think creative expression is a positive thing. What I do sometimes worry about is this impulse to sexualize, to consummate, as if that is the apotheosis of all forms of expression for love. Plato, I believe, would beg to differ; Sternberg as well. Sex is important, but it's not the be-all and end-all."
As a product of England's public (re: private) school system, Locke – who spent his schooling up until the age of 16 in an all-boys environment – has a particular vantage point. "Yeah, there's that reputation for experimentation," he acknowledges with a shrug. "You put a lot of curious teenagers in a confined environment, obviously that curiosity will manifest. But here's the thing: sex itself is biology and mechanics; you learn that as you get older, gain experience with how it all works, how the pieces fit together. Attraction is chemistry; you feel the pull of it before you know whether it's right or wrong, before you learn to resist or to give in. What's love, then? I don't think you grow into a capacity to love, you're born into that. A newborn doesn't look at his mother and question the nature and magnitude of his attachment to her.
"What we learn as we get older is how to regulate ourselves based on environmental cues, how to act on what we feel, what's deemed appropriate and what's not. It's a construct. But what you are, what you feel, that goes deeper than merely being a construct. It's who you are. That right to be as you are is a human right. Morality and legality have no weight as arguments against this right."