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Tom Holland and Benedict Cumberbatch are good friends, bonded and best-known thanks to their adventures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.
On the heels of an onscreen pairing in Holland’s blockbuster Spider-Man: No Way Home, they combined forces yet again Wednesday, this time in Cumberbatch’s honor to discuss his turn in Jane Campion’s critically acclaimed The Power of the Dog.
Holland quizzed Cumberbatch about the preparation, demands and challenges of stepping into the shoes of Phil Burbank in the Netflix film, which casts him as a charismatic yet troubled rancher who torments his brother, played by Jesse Plemons, his surprise sister-in-law, Kirsten Dunst, and her young son, newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee. Cumberbatch went method for the role and the results have been impressive: He’s currently nominated for a Screen Actors Guild (a seventh SAG nod overall with no wins) and has snagged nearly two-dozen critics group honors, more than any actor this season.
But before any questions were presented, Holland had kind words to get out of the way. “Congratulations pal, the movie is breathtaking,” Holland said to a humbled Cumberbatch during the online event for voting members of the Academy, SAG, PGA and other industry guests . “It’s incredible. The film is so shocking and it’s so gut-wrenching and the intricacies of your character — I’ve never seen a character arc quite like it.”
He went on to say that he came to watch the film from a “privileged standpoint” because he knows Cumberbatch so well. “When I meet you in the beginning of the film, I’m like, ‘Whoa, that’s not the Benedict that I know. What on earth is going on here?’ For the first time in knowing you, I really, like, hated you. I thought you were horrible and so, just, grotesque and awful. As the film progresses, what I loved about it was that it has these themes of toxic masculinity and gaslighting but it explores the problem rather than the problem just being present. Not that his actions are justified in any way, but you understand why he is the way he is.”
Cumberbatch was quick to give credit to Campion and novelist Thomas Savage, whose book was adapted for the screen by the auteur. He said he’s fielded a range of reactions from viewers, some of whom, like Holland, found the film a hard watch. “His behavior, like you said, is repugnant. I’ve had some reactions, of people saying, ‘I can’t watch all of your film. You’re so awful,'” he explained. “I then get the reaction of people that they go back to it, maybe a second time through, or even like you, start off in this position of being repelled and then lean in and see him as what he is really, which is a tragic figure.”
The pair then did a deep dive into a conversation about toxic masculinity, repressed sexuality, the root cause of Phil’s behavior, Holland’s interpretation of the story and the performances delivered by Cumberbatch’s castmates. Holland asked Cumberbatch to open up about his process in reaching the level of authenticity the role required in that he was playing the banjo, riding horses, rolling cigarettes, tying rope and so forth.
“I kind of went from the inside out on this one. First, as far as source material, the book is an incredible blueprint for character and for physicality, even, and a little bit like Watson describing Sherlock. There’s such a detailed kind of understanding, visually, for me of who this character is,” he explained before noting how important the costumes were in helping him find Phil’s footing. “That’s when it becomes the outside in, is the minute you have a costume fitting. Kirsty [Cameron], our costume designer, was fantastic. I really fought for those overalls, the bibs. Everyone was like, ‘Ah, they don’t look heroic enough.’ I went, ‘This is authentic. I need to wear them. I really need to wear them.'”
He also said he really needed to live a life like Phil so he went to Montana.
“The dirt, the feeling of sweat, and smell, and stench, and blood, and sinew and shit, all of that stuff just had to be real,” he said. “I went ranching there with an amazing cowboy called Randy and his wife, Jen. They put me up in their homestead, which is on this amazing flatland prairie overlooking what the local tribe call the backbone of the world, and it really is. It was magical. And then they drove me all around the state of Montana to two very different, wonderful ranches where I experienced a branding and cattle herding, and at the same time constantly teaching me to rope, to braid, trying to pick up on my errors as a horse rider, and an English horse rider at that. I learned from that. I learned from watching men and women who do it as a living.”
They then talked about the process of working with McPhee as he and Cumberbatch dance through tense moments together. “Working with Kodi was just a dream, and because we were more intimate in that relationship, I was able to be far more on the same page in a way with Kodi. It was the one or two times that I let my guard down as being a character all day, every day because I felt we both needed to get that dance so right at the end,” he said. “We weren’t talking about what effect we wanted it to have, but we were just encouraging each other as actors rather than just being in character all the time. And we’re both terrible gigglers, so we would giggle a lot in rehearsal. We giggled quite a lot in the shoot of it, which probably undermines the gravity of those moments. But we were committed.”
At one point, Cumberbatch took a moment to compliment Holland on his performance as a spiraling veteran in Joe and Anthony Russo’s drama Cherry because of the similarities of the demanding roles. “You’re fearless in what you did in your craft in that film, and so are Anthony and Joe and their uncompromising gaze on it, and so is Jane,” Cumberbatch said, mentioning the Russos, who directed them both in Avengers installments Infinity War and Endgame.
He also took a moment to thank Holland for donating the time today, especially now after the massive success of No Way Home. “It means the world, as a friend, and someone who’s experiencing what you’re experiencing. To have shared a bit of Spider-Man with you, and the phenomenon that that’s become, and just to have watched you and worked with you in other fare, as well,” he said. “It’s amazing to think that you are almost just at the beginning. You accomplished so much already.”
Holland returned the favor. “Honestly, mate, I was blown away by the film and knowing you as well as I do, you don’t need me to tell you what an amazing actor you are, but it’s an incredible film,” he said. “No one could have done that better.”
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