September 26, 2022

The 37th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) presented the prestigious Cinema Vanguard Award to Benedict Cumberbatch for his tremendous work in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. This particular tribute was created with the intention of honoring actors who have forged their own path in their craft, and the way that Cumberbatch has balanced massive blockbusters with independent cinema, all with the same level of thought, care and dedication, certainly qualifies.

While at the Arlington Theater for the tribute, the Academy Award nominee talked about growing up with parents who are both actors, how his acting debut occurred while he was at school, taking on extraordinary and fascinating real-life figures, the huge success of Sherlock, his first experience with physical training for Star Trek Into Darkness, the incredible level of play that came with bringing Smaug to life in The Hobbit films, how much fun he’s been having as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe playing Doctor Strange, and why The Power of the Dog was such a special project. Here are the highlights of what he had to say during the Q&A.


Question: What’s it like to see a reel of your work put together? What do you think, when you see all the work you’ve done?

CUMBERBATCH: Everything flat lines in my brain, to be honest. I don’t think much at all. I just sit there going, “Holy shit!” It’s very rare that you stop to look back. What I’m trying to do, all the time, whatever I’m doing, is being in that present moment. I seem to have an appetite for life and I seem to have an appetite for work, so I keep going. I don’t really look back. So, to do that is a novel experience and quite a surreal one.

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Image via Tibrina Hobson / Getty Images for SBIFF

RELATED: ‘Doctor Strange 2’: Trailer, Release Date, Cast, Filming Details & Everything We Know So FarWhat do you kids think about all of this?

CUMBERBATCH: I don’t talk too much about them in public because we try to give them as normal a childhood as we can. They get it more from their friends, that I’m Doctor Strange, etc., etc. The time will come when they can either enjoy that, or run a million fucking miles from it.

Your parents were both actors, right?

CUMBERBATCH: They still are. If anyone out there needs an 85 or 86-year-old, they’re very handsome, and they’re very talented too. They’re still working.

So, you were born into this?

CUMBERBATCH: I was. And they worked incredibly hard to afford me an education whereby I had the choice to do anything but something as ridiculous, as unpredictable, as precarious and as odd as being an actor. I kept on throwing it back in their face. It worked out all right there. They’re pretty happy.

What do they think?

CUMBERBATCH: They’re okay about it now.

Is it true that you made your acting debut as Titania, Queen of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when you were 12?

CUMBERBATCH: That was my acting debut at an all-boys boarding school at age 13. The tradition was, since it was an all-boys boarding school, that boys would play women in the Shakespeare production. We were fortunate enough to be just about involved, in the terms of doing a modern drama and having girls come from girls schools to be girls in the productions, so there was some normality. It was amazing to do. I went from playing Titania to playing Rosaline. If you really wanna screw up a prepubescent boy, get him to play a girl playing a boy playing a girl, at some point in a play. And then, get an 18-year-old whose balls have dropped by then, in an interview at Bristol University. There were these two very stern-faced, brilliant academics and feminists who said, “What was it like to be 13, being a boy playing a girl playing a boy playing a girl?” I thought, “I’ve gotta think of something really impressive to say,” rather than, “That was a really long time ago and I can’t really remember.” But I just started talking and my mind went out the window and across the way to a potted plant on a window sill and a sash curtain blowing in the breeze. I just kept talking. I don’t know what I said, but I didn’t get in.

You’ve played many real-life people in your career. What was it like to take on Stephen Hawking for Hawking?

CUMBERBATCH: He was wonderful. It was a very charged experience. It was one of those jobs where you get it and the elation lasted for about five seconds before the enormity of what the job actually consisted of landed. He remains to be this extraordinary icon of resilience and this mind that was just beyond so many. And as a communicator, he was somebody that was able to revolutionize a whole genre of popular science. He really was, and is, a totemic figure in the 20th century and 21st century. This very particular moment of his life was the first few years of his diagnosis. I just remember meeting him for the first time and it was absolutely terrifying. It was a glorified script meeting and they sandwiched me in, in order to have that moment. I remember just sitting there, being too anxious to make eye contact. He was looking at me quite a lot, during the meeting, and then finally, I looked at him and nodded, and he just smiled at me. I was like, “Oh my God, he smiled at me!” It was like the smile of a newborn baby, or a pope who doesn’t speak English. It just felt like a blessing. It felt like something incredibly potent, non-verbal and profound. And then, I went outside and had a cigarette. I got told by his then-wife that he didn’t like smoking, so I thought I fucked it up. He then came on set in Cambridge, a few weeks later, and I just heard that very mechanical IBM voice drifting up the stairwell going, “Very good. Very realistic. Well done.” And I went, “All right, I can retire now.” It was amazing.

Sherlock Sherlock Holmes and John Watson side by side

Could you have ever known that Sherlock would turn into such an iconic series?

CUMBERBATCH: No. What I knew was that it was already a very iconic role and an iconic hero, and that there would be a lot of attention. I knew when I was putting my motorbike helmet on, having left the audition, that it could be big, as in there would be a lot of attention. It would be the first openly commercial role that I wanted to play, and yet there was something so classy about it that it didn’t feel commercial for commercial’s sake.

It didn’t feel like you were just resurrecting that character for the hell of it. It felt like a very reverent re-examination of him through the 21st century, but with such adoration of the original material, loads of Easter eggs for fans of the Conan Doyle novels, and two fanboys writing it, in the form of the brilliant Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. It was a winning formula. And when Martin [Freeman] came in to audition and just raised my game massively, I thought, “That’s a great piece of chemistry. This is a really great combination.” And the rest took off from there.

At the same time, none of us really knew quite how stupendously successful it would be. It was at the birth of Twitter. It was the first time that I can remember sitting around with the producers and the directors when it aired on the BBC that night and going, “Jesus Christ, it’s trending. Your name is trending worldwide.” I didn’t even know what that meant. By the end of the evening, I thought I was gonna exit Sue Vertue’s house and be assaulted, with reporters helicoptering down and photographers and people running out of their houses going, “Oh my God!” I was disappointed that my taxi was a bit late and no one was there. I was like, “This modern world is a bit disconnected in its connection, isn’t it?” But it just snowballed after that. It was such a fun ride. I say that in the past tense. We never say never. For now, anyway. But in that moment, it was extraordinary. Even Steven is not arrogant enough to presume it would be as big of a hit as it was. It was phenomenal. Television’s reach is extraordinary, really extraordinary. Pre-streaming, it blew my mind.

What was your experience like on 12 Years a Slave?

CUMBERBATCH: My character’s duplicity and the fact that he was a Christian and was denying the knowledge of Solomon being a free man. Solomon was enslaved from the North as a free man, and he knew it. He knew that nobody would have the intelligence to be able to engineer a channel through the bayous to ship cotton and other materials through canals. The engineering mind for that and the educated mind for that was not something that was on offer for a man born into slavery. He hadn’t experienced education as a free man. I found the duplicity of him, in many ways, even worse. It’s the silent, embedded within the cultural, unspoken but very all-present structural racism, which we’re dealing with now. That’s what he embodied. It’s a human life over money. It’s as much about capitalism, at that point, as it is about racism, but the two things go hand-in-hand, as we know.

How was it to work with Steve McQueen?

CUMBERBATCH: He’s extraordinary. He was dynamite. He would do interesting things. He reminds me of Jane [Campion]. He’d throw a grenade into a situation, just to get you to feel and be different. I remember Paul Giamatti turning up off a plane from New York, and just arriving in New Orleans where we were shooting. At the first dinner, everyone was chatting away and getting to know each other, and it was all very familial and lovely and respectful. And then, Steve went, “Where was everyone on 9/11? What was your 9/11 like? Paul, what was your 9/11 like?” And Paul went, “Are we doing this? What the fuck!” He was really disturbed. Three days later, that man was on set, having to smack naked actors who were in a slave auction. He wasn’t Paul Giamatti, in that moment. Steve wanted to disturb him to get him somewhere, to see what he was like when he was uncomfortable and to see if he could manage him. It was extraordinary. I didn’t quite get it.

I’d joined halfway through the shoot, so Chiwetel [Ejiofor] was like, “You watch. This is a thing.” Sorry it was Paul, in that moment. He’s a remarkable antagonist, really. He examines and antagonizes culture, like Jane does. They’re both visionaries and they revel in the fact that things can be revealed through something that is uncomfortable to lens and look at. They don’t flinch. They both have a respect for what the very worst of humanity is, as well as the very best. They want to examine it, in order to understand the full picture, and not come down on one side or the other, but try to understand what makes that happen, hopefully, to avoid it.

Image via Tibrina Hobson / Getty Images for SBIFF

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You played Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. Were you a Trekkie? Did you actively want to be in Star Trek?

CUMBERBATCH: No, I wanted to be in Star Wars. I got it all wrong. Of course, I used to watch the series, but I wasn’t an ardent fan. I didn’t have any fan base knowledge. I wasn’t an expert, by any degree, but I knew what I was going into. I hadn’t seen Ricardo Montalban’s Khan. I didn’t even think about that. I just thought, “I really wanna work with J.J. [Abrams].” He’s a visionary. I loved the first film. I thought it was so punchy and irreverent and knockabout and fresh, and it had that amazing cast. So, I got the call, I did an audition on my iPhone, and he thought it was all right.

You had a lot of physical training for that too, right?

CUMBERBATCH: I did. That was the first time I beefed up and did that Hollywood actor thing. There’s this man-slapping that goes in Hollywood between men. You slap each other around the triceps and biceps and go, “Oh yeah!” It’s very weird. But yes, that was my first time doing that and eating a disgusting amount. It was fun. I’ve always been interested in marrying the body and the mind. I don’t see the duality thing, at all. For me, it’s all one. Any approach to character, however much it might be, from both the inside out and the outside in, it’s to get to a place where it’s all contained in everything that you see, and whatever is inside comes out through that physical form. He’s a genetically engineered warrior, so I had to do some press-ups. It was that simple. That goes back to Stephen Hawking, or to Patrick Melrose, as an addict. I get a great kick out of that, when you get to do that journey. Khan was the first time I really hit the gym to get buff.

You brought Smaug to life in The Hobbit films. What was that process like, to physically act out that role?

CUMBERBATCH: Which I didn’t need to do at all, by the way. He said, “It’s a voice-over gig.” And I said, “But I wanna do the thing. I wanna be with Andy Serkis.” He’s the king of all of that. He’s a genius physical actor. He’s a genius actor, but a genius physical actor that really initiated that art and mastered it, unlike any other. He was on holiday. He was having a break. I was there with Peter [Jackson] in New Zealand. It was an excuse to get to New Zealand. I’d heard a lot about it from James McAvoy. We worked on Atonement together, as well as Starter for 10. When we were doing Atonement, we went walking and he said, “You’ve gotta get to New Zealand, buddy. You’re gonna love it. It’s Wales on steroids. It’s just extraordinary.” And it is, and it was.

WETA is there. So, in the middle of doing Star Trek, I went off to do what was supposed to be two weeks worth of work. Peter didn’t know what to do with me, after four days. He said, “I think we’ve got it.” I said, “Shouldn’t I run the whole scene?” He said, “The whole scene, altogether?” I said, “Yeah, it’s only about five pages long.” He said, “Sure, by all means, if you wanna do it, you can do it. You don’t need to. We’ve got what we need.” So, I did it a couple of times. He clapped, and the guys behind him started clapping because I think they were a bit embarrassed.

They were watching my avatar doing things which were never gonna end up in the movie. It informed the vocal quality, I suppose, of the dragon a little bit, but I think the people at WETA were very generous in publicity when they were like, “We translated his physical performance into the dragon.” They really fucking didn’t. That’s a four hundred-year-old, mile-long serpent breathing fire. There ain’t no way that I could do that. Feel free to laugh at it. At the same time, it was so amazingly liberating. I felt like a child again because there were no marks, there was no costume, there was no continuity. It was just play. It was just guileless play, which is what it should be.

Doctor Strange wielding mystical glowing power circles

You’ve been playing Doctor Strange throughout the MCU. How fun is it to be in the Marvel Universe?

CUMBERBATCH: It’s great. It’s a big old playpen. There are broad strokes and there are subtle strokes allowed in it. I feel very fortunate to be your Doctor Strange. That’s what I am. I really do. It’s a great honor. There’s just a lot of fun to be had.

What was it like to join Spider-Man: No Way Home?

CUMBERBATCH: It’s a terrific film. The script was just a humdinger. If you haven’t seen it yet, that thing that happens, when those guys appear in the same type of costume, the whole thing just had a wit to it. The culmination of those first two films into the third, and those relationships and that triumvirate with those three actors, they’re so good. It was a brilliant set to be on. I knew it would be good. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m just astonished at quite how big a hit it is. I understand the love of it because not only is it Spidey, it’s a brilliant Spider-Man film.

[John Watts] is fantastic. He’s got such great taste. He’s very detail-orientated as well. He manages the tone so beautifully, all the time, and yet is still so nimble. Great directors are able to throw aside a piece of script or a big set piece and go, “Oh, maybe that’s the story there.” There was this one moment near the end of the film, where we were really trying to make that moment work, at the top of the Statue of Liberty. Tom [Holland] was having a tough time with the script, as it was before the reshoots. And then, we did the reshoots and I came up with this idea of, to show that I love him, I didn’t want him to make the sacrifice of being forgotten. He was like, “That’s gonna be in the film.” And I was like, “Okay, cool. That’s great.”

You throw yourself out there in those huge sand pits. The remarkable thing I learned from Tom Holland and RDJ on Infinity War was seeing how at ease he was, just in improvising about Aunt May with Robert Downey Jr. He did this thing which wasn’t scripted at all. I’m quite a canon guy. It’s about the text for me. To be free with that and to have some maneuverability in it and to be able to improvise, and on such a large canvas, was a real eye-opener.

What can you tell us about the next one, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness?

CUMBERBATCH: Absolutely fucking nothing! If you came here tonight for that reason, you have to leave now. You just need to get home quick because there’s no point in hanging around. Sorry. I’ve been very long-winded with lots of answers, but this one is just nothing.

the power of the dog Benedict Cumberbatch Kodi Smit-McPhee
Image via Netflix

How was the experience of playing a character like Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog?

CUMBERBATCH: It’s rare that you play a character that you are allowed to understand as deeply as this man, through both Jane’s script and the passage we went through together, in parallel to getting the character to feel what it was like to be him, to question him, to authenticate him, and to deliver him with respect for the original novel and the original story, based on a true story of Thomas Savage’s family and written by Thomas Savage, a man who struggled, himself, because of his sexuality, in a time of intolerance.

To bring all of that to life, in something seemingly very different from what I’ve done before, it’s hard to say this, but I like him. He’s abhorrent. His behavior is intolerable and dangerous, to himself and to others, and yet the searing pain of the man and the causality behind that is something I think we need to examine. It’s a very specific thing to do with his repression.

We aren’t gonna really be able to move beyond toxic masculinity arising, whether it’s on a global scale with world leaders or on a local scale in a partnership or a situation in a bar, unless we can look under the hood of it and understand it better. This is obviously a very specific dilemma, but it’s about time. We need to teach our sons to be feminists, and we can’t do that unless we understand what the pitfalls are of being a male. There are just ingrained cultural things that happen. They’re not as severe as being born into a time of intolerance. I say that as if it doesn’t exist, but it sill very fucking much does exist. It’s extraordinary to think that there is a world view that’s only hetero-normative in 2022, but there we go.

For me, the trip of this character, as an actor, was to immerse myself in something utterly different than my lived experience, on every single level. To get to do that in parallel with one of the all-time great visionary directors, who’s a glass ceiling breaking feminist auteur who’s work is sublime, essential and violent. It asks for authenticity of its actors and every single department of the storytelling, what a double gift – this role and Jane Campion.

Is it true that you didn’t shower for a week, while you were doing this role? Are you a method actor, in that way?

CUMBERBATCH: It’s become such a thing. It’s so weird. I guess it’s because we do shower quite a lot, nowadays. I don’t know. No, I didn’t wash for a few days. And the costume didn’t get washed for the whole shoot. It was fun. It has a character of its own, by the end. The point is, you can’t play someone who’s that uninhibited by his physicality, as he presents it and as he exposes it when he does wash, which is a very ritualistic thing. It’s like a baptism, not a shower. It’s not a cleansing ritual. It’s a deep cleansing ritual. It’s a spiritually cleansing ritual. It connects him to something pure that he can’t connect to.

That’s not why he layers himself in dirt and masculinity. He is that, as well. He’s both things. Both things can exist, I think. I love that. I love the fact that there’s the animal in him. To just celebrate that and not be precious or present yourself in that way, and to be really honest about your work, and to bring the outside in, and to just be a man of nature and animal and dirt and sweat and blood, there’s an honesty to him, as well as the skill and the deep searing pain and injustice.

That really drew me into him. He’s funny and he’s brilliant. Unfortunately, he’s twisted into a toxic pretzel of masculinity gone wrong, and yet it’s situational . . . What a great journey to go on with a character. When you get a script like that, you go, “I have a secret in my hand, and one day, the audience is gonna enjoy this secret.” Not only that, because of how good it is, you also have a secret as a character, and you’re able to reveal that secret as the character, in private and in front of Jane’s sensitivity. It’s a pretty hard one to beat, to be honest.

Benedict-Cumberbatch-The-Power-Of-The-Dog interview social
Benedict Cumberbatch on ‘The Power of the Dog’ and How the Film Rewards Repeat Viewing

Cumberbatch also talks about how Jane Campion gave him the freedom to be Phil on set in between takes.

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