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Benedict Cumberbatch digs into toxic masculinity in 'The Power of the Dog'

"[The West is] about as far from my lived experience as you can imagine," Cumberbatch says. He plays a cattle rancher in Jane Campion's film, <em>The Power of the Dog. </em>
Kirsty Griffin
/
Netflix
"[The West is] about as far from my lived experience as you can imagine," Cumberbatch says. He plays a cattle rancher in Jane Campion's film, The Power of the Dog.

In his new film, The Power of the Dog, British actor Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, a hyper-masculine cattle rancher living on the plains of Montana in the 1920s.

In the novel upon which the film is based, Phil is described as washing himself in a creek once a month — and in the winter, not at all. Cumberbatch tried not bathing while rehearsing, but soon gave it up. But he did stop having the clothes he wore as Phil laundered throughout the shoot.

"The minute I put those clothes on, I was [Phil]. I could smell him," Cumberbatch says. "For the entire day, that was it."

Carrying Phil's smell was just one way that Cumberbatch got into a character and a landscape that, he says, was "so far from my lived experience on every single level that a lot of this had to be manifested for me."

In the film, which Jane Campion directs, Phil is a bully, who harasses his brother's wife (played by Kirsten Dunst) and mocks her son for being effeminate.

"What's really fascinating about bringing a character like Phil Burbank to life," Cumberbatch says, "[is] you're really looking under the hood of it, you're examining the causality behind that toxic masculinity."

Cumberbatch is also currently appearing as Doctor Strange in Spider-Man: No Way Home, and his new film Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, is due out in May 2022. Listen to the audio to hear more of this conversation, including Cumberbatch's story of being kidnapped while filming in South Africa in 2005.


Interview highlights

On his understanding of the American West prior to filming The Power of the Dog

[The West is] about as far from my lived experience as you can imagine, which I guess is part of the enticement of wanting to take this character and this milieu on. But no, I certainly didn't have a history of it. I had a little understanding of it from university, from studying cinema at that stage of my life. I guess the first inkling I had of traditional Westerns, it was the more sort of John Ford tough man, the John Wayne. But also, for me, I think where I really clicked into it was probably High Noon. I thought, ah, here's deliverance from an unassuming hero in a way. And then the revisionist era of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven began as well, which, for me, was at a very formative time in my cinema going experience. But it certainly wasn't a playground role-play thing for me, and it wasn't something I grew up fantasizing about or knowing anything about.

On going to what he called "dude school" in Montana

I knew I'd get snapshots or feelings of who Phil was from my encounter with people who actually lived that life in Montana, and who were graceful enough to let me into their world and educate me and give me an access to that extraordinary experience of working with animals. [It was] extraordinary in the sense that it's often a coordination between four species. There was one moment when we were driving cattle and there were horses and there were men, there ... [were] dogs. And those four species working together was just something profoundly affecting, and realizing that and the connection to landscape was really as informative as any of the specifics of ... whittling or whistling loudly, or the horse riding skills or any of the other kind of attributes this character has at his disposal. ... But to marry the brutality of being able to master the hard work in that hard landscape and those hard times with this amazing delicacy and sensitivity, I thought that was at the core of his character.

On why he sometimes stays in character between takes (like he did with Phil)

What it does is if you're far away from who you are, it just gives you the ability to have a focus and a hook that's complete. You're narrowing the chance for distraction, so that your concentration can be more complete. ... Normally I think my brain, either as a producer, which I'm doing now as well, or just as a curious filmmaker, kind of creeps into other people's business a bit — not in an intrusive or negative way, just because I'm curious. So I'll lean into watching an actor's process, or I'll get interested in choices. Or I'll wonder what the camera's doing or how that bit is going to be edited. I couldn't do that with this. I needed my concentration to be absolute.

On shooting on location in New Zealand (standing in for Montana) and how that helped his performance

[The landscape] was just an absolute gift. Our production designer, Grant Major, built a really masterful set. ... For an actor to be supplanted in that landscape with Grant's set, I mean, everywhere I looked, I had Phil. I had him in the weather. I had him in the sound of the wind, in the grass. I had him in the movement and the breath of the cattle, the hair playing on the horse's back ... and I just felt utterly nourished by the placement of where we were shooting at.

My big fear was once we got to a studio in Auckland, I'd be having to clink across a car park in spurs and furry chaps and just feeling ludicrous.

My big fear was once we got to a studio in Auckland, I'd be having to clink across a car park in spurs and furry chaps and just feeling ludicrous, like I'm at some kind of Comic-Con convention of Power of the Dog rather than anything as real as the lived experience on that set on location was. And then the pandemic happened and we stopped, and our dreams became supercharged as the collective consciousness had this massive shockwave sent across it. And we came back to the work not only with a renewed vigor and focus, but just an amplification of gratitude to be able to work.

On the difficulty of acting with green screens for Marvel films

It's such a fragmented, piecemeal process, making one of those films. I've watched incredible actors use an insane amount of skills on those sets to just be able to magically turn it on, be fresh with it. ... But that takes a huge amount of ability. And to be able to shift it and create something connected and present, when you're acting against so many elements that aren't there, when you're having to use your imagination, it's like being back in the bedroom again and just playing with characters that aren't seen, like we do in our childhood. I think it's a very, very heightened skill.

On teaching English at a Tibetan monastery when he was 19, and learning about Buddhism

By the end, I really wanted to engage in the thing I'd been a spectator of. I took myself with another teacher. We met up with this lama in town, we were initiated into the teachings of Buddha, and then given the opportunity to go on a retreat for two weeks. We started out in this small concrete room with about 30 other monks lining the walls. We did about four days of that. We were chanting this prayer that was in Tibetan, not knowing what we were chanting and feeling a little bit ... like we were being indoctrinated blindly into something. And then the lama came back in ... [and] we were then taught what we'd been doing [had been] a clarifying ritual to purge us of lived experience, to create a more blank canvas, to then start receiving a meditation practice, which he then started to impart. And we meditated for hours, an hour and a half, two hours at a time. ... And I remember the shifts in that time coming out of that experience and just everything in the world seemed so alive. Everything seems interconnected. It was a sort of psychedelic experience, actually. I felt the profound connectedness to some universal truth of what life and love and energy is. ...

Sometimes when I'm in that flow state as an actor or I experience a piece of art or work or physical experience in my life ... It harks back to that kind of awakening and my teenage years.

Lauren Krenzel and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.