Emmys: How Benedict Cumberbatch Became the Ideal Embodiment of 'Patrick Melrose'
Adapting Edward St. Aubyn's beloved book series required a talented actor to bring the "schizophrenic heroin addict" to life, which producers found in Cumberbatch: "He really met that challenge."
As veterans of varying forms of cinema, Patrick Melrose executive producers Rachael Horovitz (Moneyball, Grey Gardens) and Michael Jackson (documentaries including America: The Story of Us) shared a patient resolve in bringing the brilliant prose of Edward St. Aubyn's beloved semiautobiographical novel series to TV, devoting half a decade of development to it. Their perseverance bore glorious fruit: As they reveal, the five-episode Showtime limited series — encompassing the span of the five novels — found an ideal embodiment for the author's dizzying prose in the form of lead Benedict Cumberbatch.
You displayed considerable dedication to the source material. It took years of patience to adapt it in a faithful way.
RACHAEL HOROVITZ We both really were huge fans of all of the books, and when the last book was published the whole story came together for us, very much as a saga of a man's life that we both felt very connected to.
MICHAEL JACKSON The books were published over a considerable period of time, so people had optioned individual books at various points. But I think it only really became a television proposition at the point at which the last book came out, and the story had a kind of a natural arc, a natural closure. So we went after all five of the books, and were able to convince Edward St. Aubyn — or Teddy, as we know him — that we would respect his vision and his approach.
HOROVITZ It was his life story: They're novels, but they're very much written based on his own life experience. And one of the interesting ideas from the very beginning of the project is that he wanted it to be television — we didn't have to convince him of that. What he wanted was first-rate television. He knew it was too sprawling for film, and also that television in general had become a different medium, and a respectable medium. Probably more people would see it, and it could have the breadth of the time and the space of all the years that Patrick's life required to be told.
What were the challenges of working with St. Aubyn's very distinctive prose?
JACKSON We started by taking out all of the voiceover — in a sense, doing a traditional job of characterization. Then we realized that it wasn't as interesting or as complex or as much fun as the [first] book. We put that narration back in, and of course Benedict met that challenge. He really inhabited the various different personalities that are revealed in his schizophrenic heroin addiction. Something that we really felt right from the very beginning was that we wanted the episode books to each have a different visual sensibility, and to feel appropriate to Patrick's state of mind at any particular point. We were thrilled when the director Edward Berger really got engaged by that idea. We have references like Trainspotting for “Bad News,” French cinema through the '60s for the second episode, “Never Mind,” and Gosford Park for ”Some Hope,” the third episode. We very much strove to give each individual program its own individual sensibility.
So much of the show sits squarely on Benedict's shoulders. What stood out to you about his contributions as actor and producer?
HOROVITZ The devotion to the material. One of my favorite things about doing adaptations is, if you get material that everybody loves, you never really, really disagree because you're always going to be able to go back to a paragraph. And believe me, Benedict's copies of the book on set were very, very frayed and marked up and memorized.
JACKSON He really spent a lot of time with Teddy; sort of drank him in and got his phrasing, really sort of became him to an extent. It was quite fascinating to see how he was like a surgeon examining a patient. He really got to know Teddy well, took on a lot of him.
Who has the most difficult job on the show?
HOROVITZ That would definitely be a tie between Benedict Cumberbatch and Edward St. Aubyn [aka Teddy]. Benedict had an extraordinary 24/7 acting and producing job, while Teddy had to watch and advise on the most horrific moments of his life. The word difficult doesn't come close!
What's one note the studio gave you that was surprising?
JACKSON We were pretty surprised, after a few years of script development, to get the studio note to switch the order of the first two books. But ultimately it made a great deal of sense as it showcased Benedict's incredible performance of a split-personality addict and set up the mystery of why he was so damaged.
What other show are you obsessed with?
JACKSON The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling is a current obsession.
A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.