Cumberbatch used to take on demanding roles to avoid being pigeonholed. For “The Power of the Dog,” the impulse was different.
Over the past decade, one that has found Benedict Cumberbatch catapulting from global stardom as Sherlock Holmes to Doctor Strange, his personal edict has changed.
“It used to be just about challenging expectations and trying to do something unconventional to keep myself fresh, because of the amount of exposure I’ve had,” he said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I didn’t want to keep turning up as fast-talking posh English people. That used to be the main driver. But now it’s much more about the people I get to work with.”
One of those people is Jane Campion, the director of “The Power of the Dog.” In the role of hardened Montana rancher owner Phil Burbank, who bullies the young wife (Kirsten Dunst) of his soft-spoken brother (Jesse Plemons), Cumberbatch channels the clash of outward nastiness and emotional fragility that Campion has probed ever since her 1989 debut “Sweetie,” especially as his character’s mean-spirited behavior gives way to hints of sexual frustration and loneliness. “It was just taking different roots into understanding the psychology of the character, where the layers were shifting internally,” he said.
Yes, the layered, gutsy turn has made him a justifiable Oscar contender for Best Actor — and a likely frontrunner at that — but it’s also the latest window into Cumberbatch’s ability to elude the baggage of stardom with a talent that’s unclassifiable, and embedded within the nature of the projects he chooses to embrace.
In the midst of “The Power of the Dog” receiving acclaim out of Venice and Telluride, Cumberbatch was also making the rounds with “The Electric Life of Louis Wain,” the melancholic biopic of the famed cat portrait artist that Cumberbatch spent years trying to get made. It’s a world apart from Phil, but viewed together, they showcase a performer attuned to unearthing empathy in unusual places.
In “The Power of the Dog,” “Louis Wain,” and “Doctor Strange” alike, Cumberbatch is so visibly tapped into the specific needs of the project that he merges with its intentions, rather than adding emphasis with his own actorly ticks. That’s especially true for “The Power of the Dog,” in which he’s forced to suppress the bulk of his emotions. “One of the appeals of the job,” he said, “was the idea that in this world with this character, there was a lot that cinema itself could reveal that was private. That, to me, is a gift — the idea that closeup can contain multitudes.”
By the time the veteran filmmaker offered Cumberbatch the role of the hardened Montana rancher two years ago, Cumberbatch had survived the blinding exposure of fame that led to his own channel of stardom, the cult-like adoration of a fan base self-identified as “Cumberbitches,” and followed it up with a key role in the largest ongoing movie franchise in history. At the same time, he’d started his own production company, SunnyMarch, with his friend and fellow actor Adam Ackland, and felt comfortable with juggling of blockbusters and lower-budget undertakings by maintaining equal investment in both.
“They’re completely different muscles and different experiences,” he said. “At the same time, you’re after the same integrity.”
That much is apparent in the work. In “Doctor Strange,” Cumberbatch’s snarky, reality-bending sorcerer has stood out in part because he works against the mad scientist cliché. The vast CGI-laced production process, which has followed him through several other Marvel movies, including two more around the corner, has yielded far different physical challenges than working in the sprawling desert landscape of New Zealand with Campion, who insisted he remain in character for the three-month shoot.
But Cumberbatch sees both levels of production in similar terms. “Everything I strived for with Jane, I also tried with all that making-believe, even when talking to a ping pong ball, to make it sincere,” he said, referencing the challenge of interacting with stand-ins for CGI characters on set. “I was doing the same thing with ‘The Power of the Dog,’ in that extraordinary landscape, with people who were actually there in costume and not giant purple people.”
Still, working with Campion may be the apotheosis of a goal that Cumberbatch has chased for some time — namely, the opportunity to work with acclaimed filmmakers. “I just remember sitting in the theater a couple of times and saying, ‘That’s the kind of thing I want to be in,’” he said. Those occasions have happened to him a few times while watching Paul Thomas Anderson movies (“He’s probably sick of me saying this to him, but I love his work”), but started when he saw Campion’s “The Piano” as a drama student in London.
He revisited it before meeting with her for “The Power of the Dog,” but said that the anxiety over collaborating with her dissipated once production started. “Jane has such iconic status and yet she’s a very normal human artist,” he said. “It transmits into the work we’re doing as we find the truth of these characters.”
Campion praised Cumberbatch’s investment in a role that challenged archetypes of straight male identity — while starring as a superhero no less — in part because it was such a natural extension of his previous roles. “It’s such a big step for him,” she said. “It’s a fantastic demonstration of his capacity and his courage.”
Cumberbatch’s prolific television work have provided filmmakers with the opportunity to watch extensive showcases of his abilities while considering him for parts. Campion admired his work in the 2012 BBC miniseries adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End,” which compelled her to approach him for role of Phil. “I was very impressed with the level of sensitivity he had,” she said. “A lot of men can do the outer gruff stuff, but can they go to the other place? I had to make sure we had someone that can go to the other place.”
For “Louis Wain” director Will Sharpe, it was the 2018 miniseries “Patrick Melrose” that helped him grapple with the actor’s ability to juggle comedy and drama in a movie that demanded equal doses of both. “I felt like he found new ways to be vulnerable, funny, human,” Sharpe said. “He’s a hugely rewarding actor to work with, because he’ll always give you what you need, but he’ll also continue to invent and surprise.”
Unlike some A-listers only recently willing to experiment with the TV arena, Cumberbatch continues to juggle feature and episodic projects alike, though the movies have kept him busy enough lately. Doctor Strange returns in December opposite Peter Parker for “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” followed by “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” next year, but he next heads into production on the Netflix miniseries “The 39 Steps,” which refashions the famed Alfred Hitchcock thriller that the director made twice (in 1935 and 1959). “Long-form is very nourishing,” Cumberbatch said. “There’s a huge appeal to going further and deeper. But to craft something in two hours is its own journey.”
And then there’s the producing end of the equation. In early 2021, “The Mauritanian” marked his first official producing credit, but he recently sold a minority stake in SunnyMarch to production and financing outfit Anton and has plans to continue developing new projects for emerging filmmakers. He beamed with pride over the process of getting “Louis Wain” made, from its roots as a spec script to a role that he considers a career highlight. “As a producer, to see where it started and then bring it to the big screen, was such a treat,” he said. “Seeing something from inception to completion is a very different journey and it’s thrilling to support diverse talent. I’m absolutely loving it. Watch this space.”
Of course, the Marvel movies give him leverage. “It’s a well-paid role that gives me some flexibility to make bolder artistic choices,” he said, “but it doesn’t influence those choices. Unless people are asking me to play a dude with a crazy goatee and a high collar. I’m already doing that.”
Additional reporting by Anne Thompson.
An Amazon release, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is now in theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Netflix will release “The Power of the Dog” in select theaters on Wednesday, November 17 before a streaming release on Wednesday, December 1.
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