For his The Power of the Dog role of Phil Burbank—a hyper-masculine, repressed rancher in Montana— Benedict Cumberbatch went to ‘dude school’ to learn such old world cowboy skills as roping, taxidermy and even banjo playing. It was vital to him that he deeply embody the world of Thomas Savage’s 1967 based-on-truth novel, brought to the screen by writer-director Jane Campion. When Phil’s brother George (Jesse Plemons) marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil torments Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but Phil finds himself drawn to the young boy, forming a relationship that ultimately results in his downfall.
DEADLINE: The Power of the Dog got 12 Oscar nominations, including your own individual one. That has to feel pretty good.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: It’s just insane, and it’s wonderful. It’s such an amazing validation of what I first saw. Once I took the blinkers off of the singular focus on Phil and sat in my own audience.
DEADLINE: What was the experience like of watching yourself on screen as Phil?
CUMBERBATCH: Obviously, that has factors. It’s a very weird relationship watching yourself, if you do it at all. But there’s no way I’m not going to watch this. It’s a Jane Campion film. I’d have to watch it for that alone. Even if I was f***ing it up left, right and center, I’d still watch it because of her. And the fact is, I’m sat there watching it, and for the first time, I could get over some of the self-consciousness because everything I’d intended to give her, the best of what I’d intended for her, she’d realized. She’d seen me. And she did, from the first conversation, which we had just down the road from where I am now in LA. That’s where we first met to talk about it. And she saw me, in the way that she saw the character, in the way that she sees everybody. She’s such a profound white witch, that woman. She’s such an extraordinarily gift, and she has a spiritual intuition, and obviously a lot of craft and hard work and deep thought. But it’s centered on a little bit of magic, really. What I’m trying to say about the 12 nominations is to sit in your own audience is an uncomfortable, weird experience.
I got over that a little bit, like I said, because of Jane realizing the very best of what I tried to give her. And seeing everything else going on around me, the score, [DP] Ari [Wegner]’s camera work on set, which actually on the day was a thing I totally got to work with and interact with and was blown away by. It was just so richly detailed. It was masterful, and something that was so merciful. It was an utter time capsule and just brought you to the place and era instantaneously.
DEADLINE: And great that all four actors at the heart of the story got nominated?
CUMBERBATCH: All these incredible performances, from Kodi, from Kirsten and Jesse, and to see all four of us gain nominations is a blessing. Everything that Jesse does I find profoundly human and naturalistic and grounded. And with George, so tender and considered, and elevating it to a character as worthy as the other three in their journeys. And it’s a quartet. So, the fact that all four of us have been nominated… Seriously, I think it’s such a harmony, and 12 is my new favorite number, without a doubt. It seems greedy in a way. It’s such an amazing pool of nominations, but then every single one of them is so richly deserved. I guess that’s what I’m driving at. My point is that when I saw what I was part of, I saw a truly great piece of cinema, a really poetic visual and aural statement of art history, on every level. And to be part of that is a reward enough. And then, to have it recognized the way it’s been recognized, and then this degree of recognition at the end of it all, is just remarkable and humbling.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Jane’s ‘white witch’ traits. What did she intuitively understand about you?
CUMBERBATCH: She saw the marriage of my ability as an actor and who I am with her character. And while there’s stuff that she wanted to give me security and confidence with, she didn’t have those anxieties. She just believed I could get there and do it because she’d seen enough of my range to believe there was more, and to believe that I was capable of getting there.
But I think primarily she knew that I was pretty fearless, that I wasn’t going to be afraid of admitting sensitivity and sensuality, which is needed for Phil, even in his public guise. The man who can castrate a bull and also whittle a miniature chair.
DEADLINE: The skills you went to ‘dude school’ to learn.
CUMBERBATCH: Yes. So those things are helpful with the culture, and the banjo playing as well. I guess because it’s always been a part of that pioneering life. But they’re held in equal regard by fellow ranch hands, but it’s not seen as an effeminate skill to be able to play the banjo and whittle and perform taxidermy and even be a scholar. They all know he’s smart, those cowhands and the ranch hands. And they’re in admiration for him, in equal measure, to the hard man who drives his cattle hard and uses a knife without gloves, as they are a man who whittles and plays the banjo. And so that’s interesting. But for me, it was a real key into understanding who this person was fundamentally, that these two things existed in him, this very strong front of masculinity for your own machismo. And this sensuality, this ability to be very fluid and delicate with his hands, which are described in the book as having an intelligence in the pads of their fingers. And so, let alone the fact that he has within his psyche this deep, deep-seated lack of authentic self, this inability to express a side of him, which has been utterly crushed by society, by the tragedy of losing [his lover and mentor] Bronco Henry in a corral stampede when he was 19, and the arrested development and everything else that turns him and his defensiveness against the world before it could discover who he is, in that regard.
So, Jane knew that I would get there. I think she knew that side of things was fine. I think I was the one who was more anxious about being authentically of that time and place and that skill set and learning how to rope and ride and steer cattle. To learn all of it, to practice some of it, and to just take into my body and observe it, as well as do it. Because of course, like all these things that feel far away from you, they’re not actually central to the performance. There’s not that much of that in the film, but where it does matter, it’s very prevalent. And yeah. And then, from there, to just journey into the revelation of him, as the story unfolds, and the layers of his character come off and is exposed in every way. That, I was never frightened of.
DEADLINE: Jane has said to her Phil is masculinity with a layer of femininity within. What about that dichotomy drew you in?
CUMBERBATCH: The idea that he’s a tragic character because he’s incapable of love or being loved until the very end, where a possibility opens, and then because of everything that he set in motion, it closes on him and ensnares him. I hope that people see the beauty of a man whose violence, whose aggression is to be understood, in order not to be replicated. But unless we see people and acknowledge them for who they are and accept who they are, a lot of damage can be done to both that person and the people around them. And there are exceptional qualities to this character, who’s obviously a very difficult watch. But rather than bang on about his brilliance, which is sort of in evidence or not, but certainly is in the book. But I feel that’s the thing. It’s the most important thing: that we see each other in our life; we understand and accept who we are. Rather than trying to crowd people into a formulation that’s about our expectations, that we open ourselves to trying to understand someone wholly.
I mean, he was shut out by an era—I say an era. I mean, it’s still something going on in the world—where homosexuality or any deviance from heteronormative behavior is viewed as ridicule-able or prejudiced against or criminalized, whether it’s morally or judicially. And that’s still a fight that’s going on. I think Phil represents that. I think he also represents anyone who hasn’t been seen or heard or understood. Even his attitude towards Rose, it’s born out of his attitude of her son that has a mother that wants her son to conform, stay in lane, and be true to the type that she wants to present to the world. He’s found an authenticity in his own life, which he can’t then express to the world. Instead, he ends up hating on it and trying to control it and master it through brutal strength and a sensitivity that’s allowed. And obviously, keeping that other feminine sensuality hidden.
DEADLINE: I did feel like part of his hatred for Rose is that Phil resents how kind she is to her own son, when he didn’t receive that from his mother.
CUMBERBATCH: Yeah. There’s that, absolutely. I mean, it works on many, many subconscious levels. And the fact that his brother is having a heteronormative time of it and happy with a partner, not alienated, has the love of his life, living under the same roof, sharing his bed. And it’s not necessarily something that he understands consciously because his hate on Rose is determined by not seeing her, because of his damage, and not being seen and suspecting her of skullduggery, that she’s someone on the make. And that she has to be stopped.
Phil’s mom was still trying to dress him up in knickerbockers and straighten his hair into a side parting. I reckon, you see him in that coffin, as if that’s their final victory. Again, the final moment of tragedy for Phil is he’s ended in a way that is so dehumanizing to who he is and his true nature.
DEADLINE: I heard you were so deep in character that after shooting the final scene with Phil in the coffin, the crew closed the lid on you and then opened it again, welcoming you back to your life as Benedict with champagne.
CUMBERBATCH: Yes, obviously, early doors [before people had seen the ending], I couldn’t talk about what a special acknowledgement that was, I guess, of all of our commitment to try and make it an immersive experience for me and to bring Phil to life in an undistracted environment and to appreciate what people have done. It was, yeah, it’s a pretty amazing story. I could hear the glasses clinking. I was like, “Guys, what’s going on?” I mean not in a grumpy way, just like, “Come on. You can pull the wool over my eyes, but I know that you’re up to something.” And rather like this, it was the joy of discovering.
DEADLINE: Could this be one of your toughest roles so far, in some ways?
CUMBERBATCH: Yeah. In some ways, I guess it is. I had to further my standards for this. I had to reach into something I haven’t played with before. But I don’t know. I always feel a bit on spot with this kind of question because I can’t immediately review all of my work. And they’re not always comparable. I mean, carrying a Marvel film is pretty hefty stuff, an utterly different set of muscles. And the same could said of anything on stage. So, comparing them is also pointless.
I feel that the idea of art being competitive is slightly… How can you compare the offerings of this year? I mean, you have to, but that’s an exercise, where I find it very difficult.
DEADLINE: That Marvel film you mentioned is of course Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. What’s been your takeaway from that experience?
CUMBERBATCH: It’s been tough. I’ll be honest with you. It’s had quite a journey, this film. But not in a kind of poor me way, just like the nature of where we’re at. To try and make a massive film like that under the constrictions of a pandemic and the delays that have ensued, partly because of The Power of the Dog, but also because of everything that was lined up and had to be pushed back from Marvel. It’s been tough for everyone. Also, incredibly enjoyable and no less enjoyable than the first one. So, I hope the results are as good, but yeah, I think it can’t be underestimated. It’s really… This is a film that has a lot of resources. It’s nothing compared to the struggles of live performance. It’s really, it’s tough, but very rewarding, very fun.
DEADLINE: You’re currently shooting Wes Anderson’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. How is that going?
CUMBERBATCH: Amazing. I would just say that the man is everything you’d expect him to be and have heard about him being, still, and it’s just a complete experience, a completed lived experience, not that dissimilar to Jane actually. A very different style and approach to filmmaking, but everything, the curatorship of every detail and surrendering yourself to that, to a master, it’s just the joy. It’s hard work. There are a lot of lines. It’s the same kind of brain gym as doing Sherlock deductions. But I love that talking head stuff. It’s a great stretch. The set and the costume designs are just incredible. And the era and milieu of it is just unlike anything I’ve done in recent years. And he takes as good care of you as a host in his world, as he does constructing character and the beats, and the music of his delivery and all his writing. It’s just fantastic, just such a joy.
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