Early in 2020, in rugged countryside in New Zealand’s Otago region, Benedict Cumberbatch was immersed in a test of masculinity. For his role as a 1925 Montana rancher with a cruel streak in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, the British actor had already learned a host of rustic new skills, including how to play the banjo, how to roll a cigarette with one hand and how to castrate a bull. But for one tense scene on horseback in which his character acts as a menacing mentor of ranch life to a pensive young man played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Cumberbatch was supposed to whistle to summon a dog. For the first time in his career, the actor was staying in character during a shoot, and he had watched countless YouTube videos on whistling to prepare for the scene, practicing every day on the drive to set. “I did it again and again and again,” Cumberbatch says. At the crucial moment, Smit-McPhee remembers hearing a hollow wheezing noise coming from his co-star and then Cumberbatch muttering “Damn it!” under his breath.
This is not how you want things to go when you’re trying to play a feared and charismatic cowboy. But in a way it was perfect. The Power of the Dog, Campion’s first film to feature a male protagonist, is about the crushing weight of performing manhood. “It’s a lesson in how tangled up you can become, how toxic masculinity can become if your true identity is not allowed or tolerated or celebrated or accepted,” Cumberbatch says of the movie, which Netflix will release theatrically Nov. 17 before premiering it Dec. 1 on the streaming service. The Power of the Dog will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10 as part of a tribute to the actor following premieres in Venice and Telluride — its acceptance to the three marquee fall film festivals already positioning the feature for a strong awards run, with Cumberbatch’s performance central to the campaign (he did, after many tries, nail the whistle).
The role is a dramatic departure for the 45-year-old actor, who is best known for playing cerebral, refined characters, men like Sherlock Holmes on the BBC series, mathematician Alan Turing in Cumberbatch’s Oscar-nominated performance in 2014’s The Imitation Game and neurosurgeon-turned-magician Doctor Strange in the Marvel films. The Power of the Dog comes at a moment when Cumberbatch is ubiquitous onscreen.
Three films Cumberbatch stars in and produced arrive for audiences in an eight-month window — the dramas The Courier and The Mauritanian, both already out this year, and The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, which screens at TIFF and Telluride ahead of a theatrical and online release by Amazon. He’s got a significant arc in Spider-Man: No Way Home, due from Sony on Dec. 17, and has finished shooting a second stand-alone Marvel film, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, which is due March 25.
“It’s crazy how much I’ve got coming out,” Cumberbatch says. “I suppose there’s a mild thrum of overload anxiety of, ‘Will people be …’ It’s just a lot. It’s just a lot of me. But you know what? If you can stand by the work and be proud of it, and if it’s varied and diverse, then, great. You just roll with it.”
Campion cast Cumberbatch against type in The Power of the Dog after a meeting that both actor and director describe separately as awkward. It was in Malibu in 2019, at a house where Cumberbatch was staying with his wife, theater director Sophie Hunter, and their three sons, ages 2, 4 and 6.
While Cumberbatch would be working well outside his comfort zone in this film, the stakes were high for Campion, too. The Power of the Dog is her first movie in more than a decade in a career of putting women at the center of her work; Campion would be treading into new territory with a movie about Phil Burbank, a sadistic ranch owner who launches a campaign against the young widow (Kirsten Dunst) who marries his brother (Jesse Plemons). “After the #MeToo movement, I really felt the ground shift beneath me,” Campion says. “I’ve been waiting for something like [that movement] my whole career, because previous to that, I really didn’t feel good about having a male protagonist. There were so few films about women or made by women that I only wanted to tell stories with women as the lead.” Liberated by a proliferation of other films and TV shows featuring her gender, “I could actually just go where I want, wherever my heart went.”
Campion had appreciated Cumberbatch’s work since seeing him play an unhappy aristocrat on the 2012 BBC miniseries Parade’s End, and when word reached the director that Cumberbatch was interested in her project, “I didn’t know how much of that was actually organized by his agents, or by his wife,” she says. “In fact, maybe it was his wife, because she wanted to see him as a cowboy.” Campion knew that Cumberbatch had the emotional range and the presence for the part. “Ben is obsessively sweet, but he ain’t no daffodil,” Campion says. “He knows what’s what. I totally believed he could be as tough and cruel and mean as we needed him to be.”
Cumberbatch, equally admiring, had prepared for the meeting by rewatching Campion’s 1993 film, The Piano, and had read the 1967 Thomas Savage novel she was adapting for her script. “I thought I was being auditioned all the way through the conversation,” Cumberbatch says. “I thought, ‘This is her just sorting out if she could bear to be in a room with me.’ ” As the meeting wound down, Cumberbatch says he asked, ” ‘Are we doing this?’ She started giggling like, ‘Yeah. I just wanted to meet my Phil.’ I just flushed with excitement.”
Campion didn’t actually intend to make a deal that day, however. “It was awkward because it wasn’t an offer,” Campion says. “We were just going to meet and talk about it. But then he said something that made me think he thought that I had offered it to him, and I thought, ‘Oh, golly, OK. I was supposed to go back and report to the producers but can’t be rude. So I’ll just act like this is happening, I guess. Yeah. OK. He can have it.’ “
Ahead of the production, Cumberbatch trained in Montana, to learn to rope, ride and steer cattle and to spend time in the fictional setting, before heading to New Zealand, where Campion would shoot. “I was drawn into how utterly different to any experience I’d lived this character was,” Cumberbatch says. “He very much marries with the landscape. He is nature. He brings the outdoors indoors.”
Cumberbatch’s gameness for new experiences endeared him to Campion. “He allows himself to be not perfect, and that’s extremely courageous,” she says. “I loved him for that. A lot of it was just showing up naked, a long way from where we needed to be and figuring out, ‘OK, how are we going to get there?’ And knowing that failure was not an option.”
Cumberbatch also worked with acting coach Kim Gillingham to analyze his dreams and, at Campion’s behest, remained in character for the entire 12-week shoot, stifling his usual agreeableness even when cameras were off. “[Campion] introduced me to the crew as Phil and said, ‘You’ll meet Benedict at the end. Benedict’s really nice. Phil is Phil,’ ” Cumberbatch says. “And it just gave me carte blanche to say, ‘No.’ To be Phil, really. To stand in his shoes.” (He did return to himself with his family in the evenings.)
Whether it was Cumberbatch being Phil, or just the actor’s own feelings, Campion wasn’t ever sure, but he pushed back regularly on prop and wardrobe choices — he considered one scarf he caresses in a key scene too scratchy. “Ben does a lot of apologizing and politeness work,” Campion says. “I said, ‘I don’t want to hear you say anything other than no. And never apologize. Just never.’ ” While shooting, he’d also go long stretches, six days or so, without washing, as his character does, and listen to Jonny Greenwood music on his way to set — the Radiohead guitarist eventually wrote the film’s score, but Cumberbatch was listening to Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood score and other orchestral music. Shedding the skin of his Power of the Dog character was hard, Cumberbatch says. “You grieve him,” he says.
The Power of the Dog is likely to spark cultural conversations about contemporary expressions of gender and sexuality. “Tenderness, surely that’s the answer and the thing that needs to be addressed,” Cumberbatch says, of parallels between his 1925 character’s repressed feelings and those of modern men. “Whether that’s raising men as feminists, whether that’s understanding that there is a reason behind your emotions … Emotions need to be addressed and understood, rather than just put out there into the world in violence or language or an action that just permeates a toxic culture.”
White shooting in New Zealand in the spring of 2020, Cumberbatch was in a country with one of the most effective COVID-19 responses during the early days of the pandemic, and he was relieved to have his wife, children and parents, who are in their 80s, with him. “It was tough to watch that wave going across Europe, knowing it was going to be a shit show from how [the U.K.] government responded,” he says.
Cumberbatch’s parents, Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, are both actors who worked steadily in British TV and theater when he was a child, and they played his parents in some episodes of Sherlock. (Cumberbatch is his father’s real last name, which Carlton changed, thinking it detrimental for a life onstage and onscreen; his son has obviously not found the family name a barrier.) Watching his parents’ careers informed Cumberbatch’s sense that his success could be fleeting. “I had a great deal of respect for the vagaries of the profession,” he says. “It was very peripatetic. It was feast or famine. It was Dad leaving holidays to go and take the job or audition for an advert. I was aware of the true nature of what being a working actor was. It didn’t put me off. It made me want to join that merry band and experience that thing.”
After his father saw him play Salieri in a student production of Amadeus, Cumberbatch says he told him, “You’re better than I ever was or ever will be, and I think you’re going to have a wonderful career. And I can’t wait to watch it and support you.” In sharing the story, Cumberbatch gets tearful. “I know he would have liked to have more of a career,” he says of his father. “More confidence, more variety than he’s experienced. I know it. He’s never complained about it. He’s never spoken of it. So to have that much generosity of spirit, it just makes me cry thinking of it … He’s just a deeply, deeply loving man. And that’s all the guidance you need to be a good father and to be a good son, I’d say.”
Cumberbatch has had to curtail a natural openness, a quality almost anyone who knows him cites, as his fame has risen. The actor has an avid fan base dating to his Sherlock days — they call themselves Cumberbitches — and he guards against their passionate curiosity. (One fan edited a YouTube video of the actor on red carpets with his wife, where he can be seen whispering in her ear, “Are you OK?” at various industry events.) Adam Ackland, Cumberbatch’s producing partner and friend since they met shooting the 2008 BBC miniseries The Last Enemy, says, “It’s hard for anyone of that stature to have your private world, and he’s just super protective of his personal life.” The actor declines to answer a question about how fatherhood has impacted his work. “It’s just a Trojan horse to let people point lenses at [my family] and talk to me about them or farm out quotes about them,” he says. “And I’ve just got to move on from that.”
Cumberbatch attended boarding school from the age of 9 and was an art scholar before he turned to acting. For his recent title role as the English artist in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, the Will Sharpe film which Amazon will release in theaters Oct. 22, Cumberbatch leaned on those skills. Wain, who gained acclaim for whimsical portraits of the cats he started drawing in the late 1800s, was institutionalized later in his life with what may have been schizophrenia. Among the artist’s signature techniques was painting with both hands at once, which Cumberbatch does in the film. On set, “a real purpose to my day would be to go off in a corner and instead of gossiping or doing a crossword, I’d settle down and start painting on a piece of glass,” Cumberbatch says. “Or I’d start copying his drawing. Or trying to do stuff blind, or trying to do stuff with two hands.” Claire Foy, who co-stars in the film, says Cumberbatch’s enthusiasm can be contagious on set. “He can be fearless when it comes to trying new ideas and throws himself in, which makes everyone else around him feel much more confident and comfortable,” Foy says.
Cumberbatch is by nature an adventurer, and he’s had a few close calls. At 19, he spent six months in India teaching English to Tibetan Buddhists and living in a monastery. On one disastrous weekend backpacking trip there, he and some friends got lost for a day and a half on a mountain pass, got altitude sickness and contracted giardia from some food a shepherd gave them. In 2005, he and other friends were kidnapped while changing a flat tire on a highway in South Africa, where he was filming the miniseries To the Ends of the Earth for the BBC — the gunmen eventually abandoned him with a blanket over his head. While voicing Smaug for The Hobbit movies in the early 2010s, he explored New Zealand. “I jumped out of planes,” Cumberbatch says. “I went in helicopters. I went hiking. I went boating. I did everything I could. Not just as an adrenaline junkie, but just losing myself in landscape. Landscape, I think, gives you something for nothing.”
Cumberbatch toggles between mid-budget prestige projects like The Power of the Dog and Louis Wain and gigantic Marvel movies and says he relishes them equally. “I feel fortunate that I’m part of a franchise that keeps wanting more of this character I play,” he says. “And I really enjoy playing that character. I don’t feel it’s ‘One for them,’ as in, ‘This is more arduous and it’s just so I can do the more esoteric art house work.’ “
As the Doctor Strange sequel nears release, Cumberbatch has watched the legal battle between Scarlett Johansson and Disney over Black Widow‘s simultaneous release on Disney+ and in theaters. In July, Johansson filed a lawsuit alleging the media giant breached her contract with the hybrid rollout, which deprived her of salary that was to be based largely on box office. Disney responded with an eyebrow-raising statement calling Johansson’s suit “especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” stating that she had already made $20 million. “It’s sad what’s going on between the lawyers,” Cumberbatch says. “Just the verbiage and the accusations of, ‘Put it in a global pandemic context.’ The whole thing’s just a bit of a mess. We’re trying to understand what the revenue streams should be for artists that contribute to the billion-dollar business that is Disney. And it has to be contractualized. How does an artist’s normal compensation with box office bonuses, how does it work? It’s a new paradigm, and it’s a very complex one. No one saw this coming, and no one should use hindsight to say, ‘Well, it should have been done.’ That was the first of these films that was going to get a cinematic release during the pandemic and got stalled and stalled and stalled. It’s very new territory.”
While he was in New Zealand shooting The Power of the Dog, Cumberbatch got a call from Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, who told him Marvel was replacing Scott Derrickson, who had directed and co-written the 2016 Doctor Strange movie, over creative differences on the sequel. “I was sad to hear about it, but that was not my decision,” Cumberbatch says. “I completely respected the studio’s decision, and it was done very amicably. The grown-ups called and just talked me through it. And that was that.” Sam Raimi, who directed the three Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies of the early aughts, was brought on board.
“He was an assured pair of hands, who knew that world,” Cumberbatch says. “He’s got certain Raimi traits. The smashed-zoom close-up. The mixture of just on the level of horror and just on the level of camp. There’s fun in there, but there should be some real thrills as well.” Raimi encouraged Cumberbatch to improvise. “With the first film, you’re always locked into a script, because it’s the origin story,” he says. “But there was a lot more freedom this time around. I guess, because we were … not literally making it up as we go along, but sometimes it feels like that. Marvel has this amazing ability to come into production: ‘We really just have to start shooting now. It doesn’t matter that the third act is not quite where you want it to be.’ You really do things on a wing and a prayer sometimes.”
Cumberbatch says he developed a comfort with improv on Marvel productions while making Avengers: Infinity War in 2018, watching Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Holland riff. In that film, in a scene where he and Downey’s Iron Man are bickering about how to save the universe, Cumberbatch ended up improvising one tonally pivotal word. When Iron Man asks, “What exactly is your job, besides making balloon animals?” Doctor Strange answers, “It’s protecting your reality, douchebag.”
Says Cumberbatch, “I remember on the set when I called him a douchebag, there was this sort of ripple effect. ‘Oh my God. Did you just call Iron Man a douchebag?’ They kept it, good for them. And then, it got the same kind of response at the cinema. I was just … I got bored of being compared to Liberace or whatever other retorts the guy with the same camp goatee had opposite me, so I tried to knock him down. It’s great fun to play with that stuff. You find your feet. The more times you do it, the more familiar it becomes.”
The Doctor Strange sequel shot in London during the height of the pandemic in late 2020 and early 2021. “I lost count of how many lockdowns we actually filmed through,” Cumberbatch says. “With this government-approved gold standard testing and tracing and temperature taking and PCR and lateral flow tests. But it worked. And 500-plus crew came back after Christmas, and there was not one single positive test. We never stopped it. I got taken off, because of someone near me getting a false positive. But that was it. People made such sacrifices. Some of their children were going to school, and they weren’t necessarily going to be sleeping in the same part of the house, or even in the same house. I was really, really blown away by that.”
This past fall, Cumberbatch arrived in Atlanta to shoot Doctor Strange’s scenes in Spider-Man: No Way Home, in which his character casts a spell that will make the world forget Holland’s Peter Parker is a superhero. “There’s a close relationship,” Cumberbatch says of Strange and Spider-Man. “They’re neighborhood superheroes, and they’ve had an experience or two. They’ve got history. It might be the case that Peter asks me to help him do something? I think I’m allowed to say that much. I help him fill in his tax returns. That’s what I do.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.