So often, when an actor is named to a role in a superhero film, there is an outrage cry that can be heard around the globe, and it inevitably turns out the masses are wrong, and the actor is perfectly suited to play the part. But when Benedict Cumberbatch was announced as Dr. Stephen Strange for Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE (set for release November 4), there was mostly universal approval, and with good reason. In the last 10 years of his film, television and stage work, Cumberbatch has managed to become one of the most in-demand actors on the planet, and the fact that’s he’s about to be the lead in a Marvel movie makes complete sense.
His versatility can be seen in such films as ATONEMENT, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY WAR HORSE, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, THE FIFTH ESTATE, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, THE IMITATION GAME (for which he got an Oscar nomination), BLACK MASS, as well as series work on “Sherlock” and “The Hollow Crown” (in which he played Richard III, and recent on-stage turns in “Frankenstein” and “Hamlet.”
During my London set visit to DOCTOR STRANGE earlier this year, Cumberbatch was brought before a group of online writer looking rather ragged. He was dressed in rags, his beard was covered in frost, and his skin was deathly white. Apparently, in the scene we’ve been watching, he’s coming through a portal from the side of a mountain in the Himalayas, arriving in the secluded compound of The Ancient One (played by Tilda Swinton), who is waiting with Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). And although you can’t hear the interview, you may find it amusing to know that Cumberbatch responds to all questions with the American accent he’s using for Strange. He also did most of the interview in a whisper, since another scene was being shot nearby as we briefly spoke to him. He was a real blast to converse with, and I can’t wait to see his take on this iconic character. With that, please enjoy Benedict Cumberbatch…
Benedict Cumberbatch: [Walking in pretending to be shivering] I suggest you keep moving, but if you wear a little bit more than I’m wearing, you’ll love it! [Everyone laughs] I can safely say that I’ve never looked like this in an interview. That alone is your scoop. It’s ridiculous. I bring greetings from Everest. Hello.
Question: So why do you appear this way right now?
BC: [looks at the publicist] I mean, I’ve got be able to tell them, right? I just stepped out of a refrigerator—no, I mean, almost. I’ve been stranded on the side of Mount Everest. I don’t know what I can say. It’s such a weird process; I’m still not used to it. Yeah, I’ve been literally exposed in what I’m wearing to some of the coldest temperatures on earth and I’m struggling to get back the way I came to this place. It’s a sure test of his abilities in this moment in time—I’m in an accent. It’s fine to be in an accent. I gotta stay in the accent, I gotta speak. So, he lives or dies by whether he can do this or not, so it’s an important moment to get back. That’s a long answer. I’m just coming back from Everest.
Question: We saw the concept art of the different costumes and the different levels of training—
BC: Yeah, aren’t they amazing? This is novice, this is at the very beginning. You’ve got the green slacks and your little loose top. I go through all the ranks. I think it’s fair to say that, yeah, since I’m playing Doctor Strange, I get there. That’s me just me hearing the inner voice of Marvel saying, “You cannot say that yet!” But I do. It’s one of the things that attracted me to the role is the fact that it’s a really wide origin story. I mean this is part of it, but of course there’s the whole chapter before where he’s the neurosurgeon who has the accident. It’s fantastic. It gives me an excuse as an actor to be learning with my character, which is something you can do authentically. I’m not a martial arts expert, I’m certainly no sorcerer, so all these things, the movement of the body, the physicality, the changes he goes through mentally and physically. Obviously we’re not shooting in sequence, but it’s a great part and it’s a great hook for the character that made me want to play him in the first place.
Yeah, this is him in his first day of school outfit. It seems to get not only cooler, as in it looks cool, but it gets warmer; it seems to get heavier and heavier, and the Cloak of Levitation, which is a dear friend, sometimes at certain takes it becomes the Cloak of Limitations, because I either trip on it or I’ll be like, “Oh God, was my entire body moving like this?” But what superhero or what actor playing a superhero doesn’t complain about the costume? It’s a blast. It’s a real blast. Alex [Alexandra Byrne], our costume designer, she’s just such a fucking genius, I mean, she’s up there.
People ask, Why did you want to do this part? I’ve never done a lead role in a film this big, in a franchise this big. One of the reasons was, I wanted to know what the toy box was like. And it’s just insane, the amount of facility that everyone gets, and the amount of artistry and craft that’s brought to every aspect of filmmaking. I mean, you go to your first costume fitting, and it’s one of 30. It’s a myriad, but it’s for a reason. There are so many incredible costumes in this. And you go through a process. My body shape changed with the training a little bit and then there’s movement, certain things brought into the choreography of the fights. “Well, I need to be able to do this in it,” and they adapt the costume to your movements, which is another riveting part of the process.
But to watch them do that craft, I mean, the real eye I had on him as a character, often the case with any film, but especially one like this, which is so visual and so based in illustrative language, was the artwork, the impressionistic artwork of him and his movement at every stage of the story. So when I first walked into Alex’s room here, I just went, “Wow, this is great!“ And then I saw what they were gonna make Tilda look like. I don’t know if Mads was on then or where Kaecilius was gonna go, to give you a real understanding of what the world would look like.
Question: Did you ever read the comics?
BC: No, not those. I had a very sparse comic upbringing, not because I was being whipped into reading Chekhov and Dickens, but I read Asterix on holidays when I was a kid, and Tintin was featured, I remember, for a few years. I was never geeky about anything. I never really got obsessed about one thing for long. I was a bit of a butterfly and a magpie. I’d shift disciplines, whether it was musical instruments or sports or whatever, and it’s the same with that. I really discovered him through hearing about this film and first meeting Scott and getting into it with Kevin [Feige, head of Marvel Studios] and just opening up and saying, “Okay, this is, like all comics, very much of its era,” and my first question was, ‘How do you make this film? Why do you make this film now?,’ and the answers were so enticing that I was like, “I’m completely in.”
Question: Is there additional weight to the character and to the role, knowing that this is opening a whole new corner of this Marvel Universe that’s already existed?
BC: Yeah, a little, but I think playing any iconic role when you’re stepping into big shoes, in the shadow of people who have come before you and you can’t process that on a movie-to-movie basis. I’m excited to see the Illuminati and whatever else might happen, how that works, and where it ends up. I’m aware of his place within the comic pantheon of it all, the Marvel-verse, but I don’t email Kevin saying, “What am I going to do in the next film?” I’m excited to see. And as you know, from all these previous incarnations, they play out in unexpected ways from the comic format and journey, so they manage to both fulfill that magical space of doing things that seem to please diehard fans and bringing something new as well. So, I guess that’ll be the centerpiece for this guy’s journey.
Question: It seems like fans have been naming you for the role for years, I’m curious when it actually became real to you as something that was out there that you were interested in.
BC: That’s very sweet of them. Really, when it was first talked about, I met with Kevin, I met with Scott and, timeline-wise, I can’t remember. I’ve been watching “Making a Murderer” and realizing how familiar that sounds; it’s really scary—but seriously, I can’t remember exactly when. I think it goes two ways. I think you can just throw yourself at the internet’s mercy and be part of social media and get into a room with people who wanna fuck you, kill you, maybe both at the same time, or you just take a little step back and do your own thing in your own world. And then stuff leaks through, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s interesting, that’s horrific, that’s libelous, but what can I do?” You let things run in order to have some sanity and be able to do your work and not feel pre-judged. That’s not even a word, but you know what I mean. I think of people have an opinion about it, so I guess I’m saying is that I was probably too scared to look into the fan-driving of it.
But I’m flattered that people thought I was a good fit, and maybe that resonated with the guys upstairs. It was hard at a point, because of the scheduling on this side of the Atlantic. It’s a massive compliment to me and then to empower me to work for that idea of the character that they adjusted the making and release of this to accommodate both my production of “Hamlet” and going into “Sherlock” season 4. It’s another reason to deliver every day, to fulfill that promise. But it’s a really rich character. It’s an easy thing to have a good old meal every day. It’s great.
Yeah, I’m excited. I was very nervous about doing the Entertainment Weekly cover, because I thought, “Okay, this is the first taste, this is the first visual moment.” By then, I obviously knew a lot of the more iconic moments in his comic history, but still it’s me. It’s not a drawing, it’s not an artist; it’s me and I’m kind of frightened, but it seemed to go down really well, and Kevin and everyone was happy and I just stepped back and I went, “Great” and settled into the job. That way you can try to own part of it as well as serving what’s already there.
Question: So much of what we learned today is how this movie is going be very different from what Marvel’s striving for. So I’m wondering if maybe there’s a touchstone that fans can maybe—
BC: You guys have seen the artwork, you’ve heard what people have said, you’ve seen the sets, you can watch a bit of the action. You make your own minds up. I don’t want to put things on fan sites because the minute you do that…you get pitches, as an actor, like “Think WHEN HARRY MET SALLY meets ROBOCOP 3,” so I understand how—
Question: When is that coming?
BC: Right? That sounds good. I’m trying to make up some dialogue for that one. It’s a shorthand that can be really misleading. This is not a get-out answer. I think, also, it’s just to let this breathe and be its own thing as well. You’ve seen some of the artwork and the visuals are way out there, but they’re very scientific as well as alternative, so there’s a bit of everything from the original, but really spiced up.
Question: We obviously know Strange’s story already, so how does his personality evolve from being the cocky neurosurgeon to a Sorcerer Supreme?
BC: He’s still quite cocky by the end of the film. No, I’d say the major curve for him is that he learns that it’s not all about him, that there’s not just a greater good, but what he thinks he was doing as a neurosurgeon, that was good because it benefitted people’s health but was really just a furtherment of his attempts to control death and control his own fate and other people’s, but that’s still driven by the ego. So he becomes more “ego-less.” He’s, I would say, more lonely maybe by the end of the film. I would say that he’s a kick-ass sorcerer by the end of the film, so that’s a major change.
But I mean, really, the guy goes through everything you could possibly imagine. He’s at the height of his profession, he’s completely in control of his life, yet there are things missing, which are quite obvious, but it’s a good life, and then he has this car crash and becomes obsessed with healing himself and not realizing that real healing is something beyond just becoming what he used to be, it’s something to foster something that he has within him. It’s all from the same drive.
The guy, like most of us, he’s uncorrupted flesh from the beginning of his life, he’s somebody who’s not marked with original sin or any crap like that. He’s somebody who’s come into this world and had experiences that have shaped him to the point that we first meet him. There’s always got to be leverage. I think there is some clear explanation, not within this film, but potentially further down the line, for more of that to come out as well. He’s difficult, he’s arrogant, but he’s kind of brilliant and charming and you’d think, “Yeah, I’d want him on my head if I needed brain surgery.” He’s good enough to warrant his arrogance and he respects other people but not when he thinks he’s right and he’ll just do what he deems needs to be done when he knows or feels that he’s right, and the problem from humility’s point of view is that he is right, he’s really really good at his job.
So, his brilliance feeds his ego, his defensive, unimpeachable perfected-ness. You get a guy, I mean, the broader arc is that he goes from someone who lives in New York, is a top neurosurgeon, top pay, more meritocratic maybe than someone with the skill and the hard work, junior doctor, junior surgeon, now a top neurosurgeon who has earned his way into the top pay of society, to having nothing. Nothing at all. No spiritual center, no hands, no money, nobody in his life he will let near him to care for him anymore, and then he has to build himself up again from the very bottom, and he’s a desperate man by the time he reaches Kathmandu. Hence he goes into this thing which is a million miles away from any worldview or belief system he’s ever entertained, so it’s desperation that leads him to the path of The Ancient One and spiritual enlightenment…and then all hell breaks loose [laughs].