BBC: Benedict Cumberbatch on The Hollow Crown

How did you connect with the character?

In terms of tackling the real historical figure versus the fictionalised version in Shakespeare, I think we’re smart enough as audiences that the two can coexist.

The script does all the heavy lifting. Richard tells the audience about how wrong he feels in his body, about being dejected and overlooked, and about being unable to be part of a royal courtly life with the Plantagenets.

In medieval England if you were not born perfect you were often drowned at birth. It was a terrible social taboo. In Shakespeare’s story, Richard is fostered at a distance from the Kennedy-like family of perfect specimens. There’s very little care for him. His deep-seated anger and hurt leads to his ambition and everything we know of him. That was our way into humanising him.

Do you see Richard III as a villain or as an antihero?
His arc is hugely brilliant. In Richard III he gives a speech about how he’s going to go and kill the king, Henry, and how this ties into his feelings about himself as a disabled man. I think that humanises him. As an actor you have to flesh out your character. You can’t pantomime with the daggers and the looks, because that gets really dull.

There’s such humour in other moments where Richard relishes his plans. He’s an antihero because he lures us in. He’s very funny, hopefully. Audiences don’t necessarily side with him but they revel in his villainy! I also don’t want to burden Freudian analysis onto him and make him more understandable. I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, he’s just a victim of this cruel world. Oh, what other choice did he have?’ Of course he had choices. He very clearly makes the wrong ones and suffers the ultimate downfall for that.

What do you think of Ben Power’s scripts?
Richard III is often performed stand-alone, because you can mention it in the same breath as Macbeth and Othello, if not, say, Hamlet. It is a standalone of the histories in a way that the Henry VI’s aren’t. What Ben has done is to create a sense of a through-line in the themes across the plays. He has created a real sense of urgency.

How did it feel having Judi Dench playing your mother?
I’ve never worked with her before and it was amazing that she got to play my mum. She’s very close in age and in friendship to my mum. They’ve known each other for a long time, since drama school. I rather embarrassingly publicly asked Judi to give us the nod at the Hay Festival last year and she was very game and agreed, which bagged us a Dame!

She is just an absolute delight. You’ve heard it all before, but she’s funny as hell, just an utter inspiration to be around. I crave the days when she’s on the call sheet and wish there were more. To watch her work is privilege enough, but to work with her in scenes is heavenly.

What’s it like to work with such a stellar cast and crew?
It’s exciting to see the talent you can draw due to the shorter engagement period. For example, it took Judi Dench a matter of days to film her scenes playing my mother, but to get someone of that ilk to do that on stage would be tricky, if not well nigh impossible.

History cycles are sometimes done, but rarely with the same director, and in this medium I can’t think of these plays ever having been done with the same director back to back like this. This series of The Hollow Crown is a continual drama rather than three separate films.

Dominic Cooke is an extraordinary director and someone who managed the Royal Court, one of our best-loved theatres, through a period of one of the best incarnations of new writing. He is so beloved in our industry, as well as being utterly brilliant, very kind and generous. You feel in safe hands.

It’s a winning element that we have the combination of Ben Power, the script-writer, along with Karen Hartley Thomas who worked on the prosthetics, with Dominic overseeing all.

Do you hope this cycle will introduce Shakespeare to a new audience?
There’s an immediacy and an availability to having Shakespeare on television. It’s in your living room, rather than having to make a journey to the town centre to see it. Hopefully seeing recognisable faces will draw in a new audience, as well as those who already love Shakespeare.

These films are so vital and current. They are about everything we’re facing, all the debates about immigration, about who we ally ourselves with, whether we should be part of Europe, about how deep the divides go within a society.

They stretch well beyond the remit of just a historical or period drama. The violence of medieval warfare sadly has a resonance with what’s going on with extremism in the world at the moment. To see the headlines, and then read the day’s lines realising we are enacting a beheading today. We are literally taking someone’s head off their shoulders as an act of revenge and having it witnessed. Sad to say, these are things which are still parts of our world.

The films are really well done. We are living through a golden era of television. To marry the talent in other areas such as film with the bedrock of all drama in this country, and dare I say it, a lot of the world, in the shape of Shakespeare will bring a lot of new eyes to this material. If the audience has half as much fun watching it as we have playing it, it will be well worth tuning in for.

What was it like working on location when shooting these scenes?
One of the joys of the job was an extraordinary heritage tour of Great Britain. It was a real honour for all of us to have access to these incredible parts of our history. It was awe-inspiring to be on these hallowed bits of preserved or ruined ground which these characters might actually have walked upon. The settings immediately create a sense of drama and scope.

What was like to recreate the medieval battles?
We were carrying around weapons of steel and aluminium, which were props but could still do a great deal of damage. We were fighting in fields and in rivers with water literally up to our chests. It was brutal.

The broadsword as a weapon could crack your skull open with just a glancing blow. It really is such a barbarous way to go about winning power. I’m in awe of it. The training was tough – all of us would come away from training looking shell-shocked and pale!

How do you reconcile the play with the historical Richard III, whose remains were recently discovered?
Physicality has always been at the centre of playing Richard III. He is very clearly described as being a hunchback with disproportionate legs. His physicality is there in the play and the script, in his own analysis and in other people’s name-calling. It is unavoidable.

On camera, anatomical accuracy is even more important because of the scrutiny provided by the lens. In the opening shots of Richard III we have the character topless, so you can see every detail of the curvature of his spine. It took me about 3-4 hours to put on the prosthetics. The weight of the silicone is incredible. It’s painted to match the skin tone and it looks distressingly real. By contrast, on stage Richard’s body has always been something to hide.

You recently found out you’re related to the historical Richard III, can you tell us about this?
It was an extraordinary bit of serendipity as I was literally dressed as Shakespeare’s version of Richard III when I received the email from Leicester University saying that I was a not-altogether-ridiculously-distant descendent of Richard III. I’m a third cousin, 16 times removed, which is still distant but puts me ahead of an awful lot of other people.

I was asked to read Carol Ann Duffy’s poem at the internment of Richard III. To have been present when Richard III found his resting place was moving. I was at the burial of a king. It makes my friends just laugh, because who would have thought it? Let alone a medieval king I happened to be related to!

I took this part as Richard III because it has some of the most extraordinary, visceral, gut-punching language and action that you get in any of Shakespeare’s dramas. Richard III is a tragedy but you only really appreciate that tragedy if you have seen Richard through all the plays and have met the adolescent who becomes the despot who becomes the regretful, nightmare-haunted wreck before he dies in battle.