This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Academy Award nominated actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who is up for Best Actor for his portrayal of Phil Burbank in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.” Cumberbatch is also currently reprising his role as Dr. Strange in “Spiderman: No Way Home.” Cumberbatch talks about the superhero’s evolution while trying not to reveal plot spoilers for the upcoming “Dr. Strange” film. He discusses the central role physicality plays in his portrayals of both real life and fictional characters. And he talks about the two hardest days filming “The Power of the Dog.”
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to the Treatment. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest today is Benedict Cumberbatch. Maybe you've seen him in such real life roles as Dominic Cummings or Grevelle Wynn or Louis Wain, or Thomas Edison or Alan Turing and, of course, his most recent role as Phil Burbank in the adaptation of the "The Power of the Dog." I've never talked to you really about seeing you on stage before. And I got to see you doing Danny Boyle's “Frankenstein,” which was really something.
Benedict Cumberbatch: Thank you. What an experience to make that with him, with Underworld, and just an amazing creative team really pushing a different point of view, from the creature's point of view. This man who's fully formed but emotionally just beginning a life, not understanding anything. What is it to be reborn as a mature and disfigured human in amongst the world, and how does that world then shape him, and how much is nurture and nature?
It's a fascinating exploration of the human condition and it's a thriller, and it's a love story and it's got all the kind of bells and whistles that the National Theatre and Danny's brilliant direction and Mark's design could throw at it. And with Johnny Lee Miller, to do something like that and be able to role swap, that was the real key for me. I wasn't more interested in one part or or than the other. I thought both had their challenges. But the real ticket for me was to be able to alternate with Johnny and to learn from him but also just trying to do our own things, and it was wonderful how that chemistry of the entire show shifted around either portrayal.
KCRW: Going back to that performance, especially the last few performances seeing you as Wynn or as Louis Wain, or as Phil in "Power of the Dog," or even Steven Strange, there's something about the way you play these people that they invest their being in their hands.
Cumberbatch: It's true. One's an artist; one's a salesman, so it's about a sort of presentational form. I think with the creature it was about an articulation using the limbs as an extension of vocal intellectualizing or communication and the spasmodic nature of his body. And then Phil Burbank, who's described so vividly physically in the book by the extraordinary writing of Thomas Savage, in a book I really do think is something like one of the great American novels and one of the less discovered ones at that. His fingers move like spiders' legs, I think he says at one point, and that there seems to be intelligence in the pads of his fingers, and yet they're caked in the savagery of his work in the blood, the grind, the mess, and yet within that power and masculinity and strength, there's also this incredible tenderness and sensitivity and that, for me was a key in physically to what really is pulling the tension in his psyche and creating this outwardly toxic behavior.
The idea that he could exist with both the skill set that can wrangle a calf to the ground and then delicately cut the sac of the scrotum or do fine furniture work of an Adam style chair that he jokingly pushes towards his brother's miniature desk that he's made him. The man that can do both the meta with his hand and also the micro, with great sensitivity and artistry, I leant into that very early on. In the culture that Phil exists within the story and the men around him, both of those skills are not only acceptable but highly admired. Also his musicianship lest we forget he's a master at the banjo.
There's a lot of things to encompass that were to do with his physicality and his hands as an extension of his inner self. It felt to me an important thing to master. No, hang on, not master, just having a go at. Let's be realistic: I had a few months which was great, but it was about practicing. It was about trying to register that in the performance, even if I didn't do any taxidermy. I still wanted to have that experience, as well as the roping and the braiding and the cutting and the treating of rawhide and the banjo playing and whittling, which you do see the results of in the film.
KCRW: Phil is somebody who is so aware of everything that he knows exactly the velocity and volume and the tambour of his voice. And he always makes sure that people hear him before they see him in fact. Even thinking about Alan Turing, in a way he was present when his hands were in front of him or even Sherlock for that matter, who's only confident when he's using his hands.
Cumberbatch: Yes, very true. When they're in the prayer position tucked under the chin. I've leaned heavily into a lot of my character's physicality through what is there in the original source material. I think it was more difficult with Alan Turing. The immediate thing when you have some kind of a template for what a character has left behind that requires a physical engagement like a signature, but especially a painter and an artist like Louis Wain to invest time in literal copycatting, not to coin a pun, but he also leaves instructions as to how to begin with the ears of the cat in order to get the dimensions of the head right.
I've had some great guidelines, but for me, it's always incredibly important to both build the character from the outside in as well as the inside out so that there is an articulacy and a dynamic and an intelligence to the physicality that informs the reader, informs the viewer, and feels like it's paying some kind of homage to something authentic. If it's someone who existed or somebody who's very beautifully described in a work of literature like "The Power of the Dog," as you say, his presence physically is a manifestation of his intellect, but I saw as well, of the arrested development in him.
This contrast between something very hidden, very beautiful, sensual, and for want of a better term unmasculine, compared to...I don't think it is a masquerade, the masculinity that he does show. I think he has completely swallowed the Kool Aid. He's been doing it for over 25 years at a very masterful level. He is that hard a guy. He's not faking a walk; he's not faking an interaction with an animal. That's him now. He just has this other layer of sensuality, that we only discover with him in private in the sections of the film that we call the “sacred place” where he's on his own, and reveals himself both physically and psychologically as tied to this character in a very sexual and deep and profound way. And I feel there is no better way of doing that on camera in a film by Jane Campion with Ari Wagner's delicate camerawork. I get to hold a secret, and then I get to expose that secret in a very intimate and unusual way, even within the language of that film's shots and dynamics. And what a gift to be able to explore that, and I had to be fearless to fall into it.
For me as a viewer, the kind of roles that I've always been impressed with involve some sort of physical transformation but not just for the sake of it. It's something that's so embodied that it's absolute whether it's other versions of toxic masculinity. For example, De Niro in "Taxi Driver" or Brando in "On The Waterfront" or especially in "Streetcar" that what his physicality does, how that tortures Blanche, the noise of him, the smell of him, the presence of him. There's a lot of that in Phil I feel and how volatile and childish at certain levels this man who's incredibly adept at having power and presence is when he's reduced to tears, when he's brought to some incredibly vulnerable place of not being in control. What happens then to the body and the voice and the eyes and the movement of the hands and the rigidity or the fluidity of that? That's something that's always fascinated me.
KCRW: Some of these characters that you played, you played with the idea of masculinity through vanity. And in Phil's case, it's almost reverse vanity where he dares you to be repelled by him because he knows the size of his personality. And he knows exactly how charismatic he is. It's almost in some way, like watching somebody do physical comedy, where he understands every movement and the reaction to every movement that he makes.
Cumberbatch: There are two instances with Phil, like I described, those moments of intimacy where the camera is seeing him and no one else until Peter crashes in unexpectedly at the end of one of those moments. And I feel in the same way that there had to be a complete abandon both, for my sake, in terms of vanity, just to completely dissolve into that exploration of something innocent of being viewed that wasn't voyeuristic, that felt at the time, to try and find something that you touched on: this authentic naiveté.
I think, in regards to the creature, there is a parallel to those moments in the sacred place. I think the creature at the beginning of his evolution, this biochemical sack of electrified bones, and fluid and sinew and material, he doesn't know what to do with it, there's no coordination. It's a fully formed human; it's not a baby, so there isn't just an immediate awakening of the vocal cords, there's a maturity to this man. And it's how to discover where the physicality grows into something that's recognizable out of something that is completely a blank canvas in many ways. But Johnny and I had to be very vulnerable that day, not just naked, but just evolving in a way that spoke of a step by step understanding of this new sensation in an aged form.
I guess with Phil, it's different when he drops his guard in private, because obviously, he's doing something in a very ritualistic way. That's how I imagined it anyway, that's how we kind of manifested it. You know, it's almost like a disemboweling. It's like a pulling out from beneath. That's the silken handkerchief with the initials of Bronco Henry on them, that proximity to him, that investment in that item, that inanimate object is a connection with someone he loved, someone who he had a profound experience with, who is long since passed, who he can never recognize as fully as he would like to because of the times he lives in.
I didn't have that prop, essentially, with the creature; that was done in terms of what the creature bumped up against the floor gravity and then, the sort of seizure of dead limbs being made alive again, and the pain of that rebirth. Whereas I think Phil, even though he's vulnerable–there's no one else he wants to see him doing this–there isn't that physical naiveté in the same way as with the creature. But it is exploring something incredibly intimate and new to the viewer and I guess in the case of Phil, something they aren't necessarily expecting or have seen at all in his character to that point, and which, while it's touched on in the book in the way a novel can with backstory and jumping around temporally, Jane manages to hold on to the narrative tension to lead to that inexorable and propelling conclusion of the thriller aspect of it all and where the story in the plot and the characters collide and resolve.
But what she does so masterfully with Phil is we have to gaze on his toxicity. We have to be part of what he does to his victim. And at the same time, she then finally peels back and peels back and goes back to that moment when you see him vulnerable. You see who is behind all this behavior.
KCRW: It's really kind of the locus of this film: that intersection of delicacy and brutality that is always at the center of what she does.
Cumberbatch: Completely. Everyone says, What's it like being the first male protagonist? I'm like, Well, I don't know. But I certainly do know that I've seen a lot of other incredible male performances in her films throughout, as well as obviously extraordinary female roles and performances, but she also thematically has let the beauty and the violence exist side by side. She's not shy and she never vanillifies. There's an honesty and rawness about the subject matter and the performances depicting them, the characters voicing them or inhabiting them. You know, you're going to get that with Jane anyway, but double that in with a period and a time and a way of living, and a being that is "Western," and you really get to examine those characters in a way that has breadth.
KCRW: For me, the key line of the description of the book was that he loved getting people's goat, which is a very infantile thing to do, but a kind of sophisticated turn of phrase about it. And his voice is almost always a little bit too loud in the room because these rooms are almost always empty when he's talking, except for when he's out to dinner with everybody. But he has an understanding of that, and when we first see him in the windows, Jane stages that in some ways, like a horror film.
Cumberbatch: He stalks that land. And I think it's interesting that for such a powerful figure, he's quite small in the frame, but there's a certainty. I had to own it, I had to completely own it. And as I've said before, the very worst day on set was both the first and the last. The first because I felt that I didn't own it. And I was asking a lot of people around me to pretend that I did. Jane did the awkward thing of saying to the crew, this is Phil Burbank you're going to be working with. Benedict's really nice; you'll meet him at the end. She gave me that sort of excuse to be immersed in him. However, when you first are there, and you are trying to utterly be everything that it is that you worked and thought about, and you're trying to let go, and you're in front of a whole bunch of professionals who, the one consolation of this is they're all nervous as well. But it's the first day fear of: I don't own this person yet. And they're having to call me Phil, not Benedict. The loud voice of the inner critic was pretty overwhelming. But, once you get that first day done, you own a bit of it. And then the last day is as bad because you're letting go of what you've owned. And it was an extraordinary moment. It was the last shot you see of Phil.
KCRW: As somebody who grew up going back to the Steve Ditko days of Dr. Strange, the most unsmiling character in the history of Marvel Comics, you found a way to offer this idea of somebody who has his trained use of his hands taken away from him. The way you use that physicality in "Strange" as the master of the mystic arts because that's kind of a rebirth, too. And then I connect that to “Frankenstein” because when we meet him, he's one person and by the end of that first film, he's somebody else who's still kind of trying to figure out what exactly to do with his hands.
Cumberbatch: Yeah, for sure. And I think when everything was about the delicacy and the control he had with a surgeon's knife in the impossibly difficult constrained and at times amorphous world of brain surgery, to go from that level of mastery to having his hands essentially utterly ruined by a car crash and then finding out that through trying to heal them to go back to the person was, he actually undercovers the fact that he has a different journey and a different path and a different power again expressed through those hands.
Listen, it's an origin story, and ain't that always the case that there's some kind of adversity that's answered by this odd calling to become more than human or superhuman or whatever the the terminology might need to be? But what I love about Strange, and it's reflected in another character Pangborn, who uses the magic to become capable again to get over a spinal fracture and be an athlete playing basketball, is that he uses his magic for not going back to surgery, but he does use it to be somehow a force for good in this other realm of protecting our very reality. And that requires a level of sacrifice and knowledge that takes film to get to. And let's see how that keeps going as well. His scoresheets have been pretty clean up until “SpiderMan,” and then it all went a little bit wrong out of love for a kid that he obviously didn't think to question that. And I think that speaks to the human side of him that cares for people, and there is that element to him.
He's often abrasive and can be un-emotional or certainly locked into himself and his own needs rather than others. Rather like someone perhaps who's in recovery, who becomes obsessed with health, whether it's through exercise or diet or work, I think he has transferred his obsession with control in the medical realm into the realm of the mystic arts and all the challenges that it presents. So I think there are definitely some bills becoming due in this next iteration, which has been fun to play with. The physicality is constantly evolving, and I really wanted to pin that with the spellcasting.
Lizzie Olson had already started that with her work as Wanda, and I didn't work with her person. I wanted it to be a different articulation. And so I worked with this fantastic guy called Jay Funk. That's his working name. He's a hand tutter, so literally it is like breakdancing from the wrist upwards to the tip of the fingers is the best way of describing it. It is breathtaking, like the best of body popping and breakdancing. He's a true master. And so to get to have someone like that coordinate and choreograph has just been a joy.
KCRW: Dr. Strange is one of the rare characters who is an adult when his life has changed, which means you're somebody who is set in his ways, who was a respected professional, somebody who basically didn't want to connect with other people, because his skills let him do that for him, and then had to immerse himself into a world that he found kind of repellent, because there's some part of him that doesn't like people.
Cumberbatch: For sure. And I think it's the sort of slightly Sherlockian coloring of his character, and God knows they were influenced by him. He definitely viewed people as a problem to be solved in a very Sherlockian way. His human touch, his bedside manner is kind of never in existence. It was all about the process of solving the case, in his case, the difficulty of surgery. And then I think with the sorcerer supreme as well, not that he is a sorcerer supreme. He's a master of domestic arts, but his state is a little lower than it is in the comics. But that's a different story, and one that requires another interview, probably with Bennie Wong to explain why. But I think it's very apparent that he's in isolation there. And it costs him a relationship in that first film. And that's a choice.
I think he only realizes once he's had the evolution at the hands of the ancient world, what he's screwed up and is going to miss in Christine. And so that is a painful goodbye. He realizes that there could have been a future with them and that seed is sown in that moment in the film. But you're right; maybe that is part of what he actually is fine with. He's fine with aligning himself with creatures and spirits and everything else that's thrown at him and that's why he can be a slight outsider as an Avenger.
People say that you were in the Avengers, but you're not an Avenger, right? No, I'm not. I'm not at Stark Tower with Nick Fury. No, he's sort of outside of that realm, but I don't think that's necessarily a character trait. I think that is just a job title. He's there to protect the reality of the Avengers in a different way to what they have been fighting up until the point that everything collides in the last two Avengers movies, so he holds his position as an adult on the periphery of that, but I think only for so long. There's always a moment where he has to work with people and team up. And you know, we might see that in the next film; you have to wait and see.
KCRW: Strange seems almost more comfortable in these mystic worlds because at least there aren't people. And he can have some curiosity about these things that he thinks he knows, and can deal with or doesn't want to be in contact with. I felt like, at some point, you gotta find something to play.
Cumberbatch: Yeah. And if you're not a people person, how would you do that? Well, I mean, the trademark snarkiness, the kind of off the cuff wit and put down, the sort of the ego behind that, but also the enjoyable aspect of that, which is something we've seen very prevalent with Tony Stark, and especially Downey's incandescent encapsulation of that, in his performance over the last decade. It's definitely something where I feel it's not just the goatees that the men have to talk about. There is a way that they have difficulty with other people or a manner in which their egos get the better of them. And their wit is something that comes up full score on many occasions. I think that in the past that has been the case with Strange.
I think this does veer into the realm of plot spoilers, so I can't talk too much about it, because this film is definitely an evolution of that characteristic. We'll definitely see him being challenged on that front. That much I can say. And I think that's a good thing. We need to shake him up. You can't be a superhero in isolation. They have to interact with people. Good, bad or indifferent. And whatever the outcomes are, there has to be an exchange. I think there is a buddy thing going on with Wong, for sure. That's the sort of odd couple relationship akin to Watson and Sherlock. It's no secret that Wanda Maximoff is a big part of the next film, and that's all I'm gonna say. I can feel the little infrared dots creeping over the horizon.