Webchat for The Guardian for Doctor Strange
Scott McLennan asks:
A hypothetical for you, Benedict: after witnessing your polished performance of Comfortably Numb with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour last month, your all-time favourite act comes to you asking you to perform with them the song you’ve always dreamed of singing live in front of a massive audience. What song do you choose?
BC: David texted me – I resisted for a while, especially because of those who had gone before – David Bowie and Kate Bush, among the legends. But then I realised I’d probably regret not standing beside him listening to him playing the body of the song, singing like a dream, more than I’d regret doing something out of my comfort zone!
I love Mads Mikkelsen, what was it lime to work with him in Dr Strange? You worked with his brother is Sherlock, do you have a favourite out of the two? How are they different as actors?
BC: I do not have a favourite. They’re both wickedly cool and fantastically talented. What a family! I loved working with Mads. He was a gentleman, especially when it came to the fights. It was always about making it better than making himself look good – which he does flawlessly, I might add!
I was wondering whether you “build” a role up with backstories etc? Carice van Houten f.i. says that she just turns up and says the lines.
A while ago you played an American (Johnny Depp’s brother; forgot the name of the movie, sorry) one of the things I notice between American and English is that English is quite precise and requires a lot more strength from the muscles in one’s mouth. Do you prepare for things like that?
You play a lot of parts in a short amount of time (I don’t know if you still do that since you have a family), if you do work with a backstory (as well as learn your lines) what do you do if you do do that and how long does that take you, in general?
Also how do you “take your self” out of the character? For instance, when you played Stephen Hawking, given the physical aspect of that part, in that moment it is your body who is bringing that into expression, but it might not be comfortable, how do you separate these things?
Anyhow, I love your work and how broad it is.
BC: Yes, I do build up a backstory in my head even if it’s just for me. I remember asking Steven Moffatt what his backstory was for Sherlock – “Oh, he’s just brilliant!” was his response. That’s lasted until this series, where you’ll find out a lot more about his backstory. As far as preparation goes, it’s important to understand the who, what, where, why of the character before you meet him.
That helps the character employ those tactics for whatever action they’re trying to perform, which can necessitate a limit of choice as well as a discovery of new things to be learned as an actor to portray the character with. For example, a character I played in a Martin Crimp play called The City at the Royal Court, was describing an incident where he was humiliated in his new job to his wife, and I began to characterise the voices in his story when Katie Mitchell [director] pointed out that it was unlikely he would have the confidence to do that as opposed to me, because I could. Those differentiations are vital, but often (and this really ain’t no humblebrag) I’m chasing the tailcoats of my character’s abilities, whether it’s their intelligence or professional excellence, or even their ability to sing/play piano/ride a horse/paint some of the great works of modern art! All these things require a heavy tutoring in new skill sets, one of the many privileges of our job, ie getting to learn new stuff and continuing with a form of further education, I suppose. And the results, while varied, sometimes work, but it’s all smoke and mirrors, and I often feel like a horrible fraudster. I think the worst is when I played violin as Sherlock – a skill that takes years of childhood and adolescent practice time.
I’m feeling at this point that Alan drew some short straw in an office competition – while (forgive me) your question is long, my answer is more verbose and I’m worrying for his fingers! But just to finish, vocal and physical differences, prep of any sort, work on a backstory, learning a skill, all has to be given time and when it isn’t you run into generalising, and I’m fully aware I’ve done that on occasion, and so aim to create enough space around my work so there is enough space between roles and I have enough time to honour the tasks each present me with. Your last part of the question … I have a lot to distract me that is away from my work and things that are more important, namely my family, so whether it’s through them or a little bit of exercise and fresh air, reconnecting with friends and stepping outside the bubble, I do manage to disconnect and disentangle myself from my work. I think that’s as important for everyone around me as myself to be able to do.
What book are you reading at the moment?
BC: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and an Edison biography by Paul Israel, and Doctor Strange – Strange Tales Volume 2 Collected Comics.
Christopher and Valentine [Parade’s End] – would they have had a happy life together in the end? The book suggests yes, but what do you think?
BC: I think the book suggested not, actually? I think they had quite a tempestuous relationship, but I may be remembering wrong.
Do you ever ask for input on characterisation choices from your friends and family or is it quite a solitary process?
BC: Yes, of course there is an element where I trust their good taste, but it’s never solitary. This is such a collaborative process. Kevin Feige and Scott Derrickson were incredibly open to improvisations and alterations and I’m fine with giving choices for editors and directors to use or not use.
As an actor what kind of intellectual/physical challenges have you encountered in portraying Doctor Strange?
Does the character have any characteristics that resonate with your personal beliefs?
BC: There were a lot of physical challenges to playing this role that involved the usual fitness regime and dietary discipline which I won’t bore you with, but was certainly a help when it came to the obligatory shirtless moment. Beyond that need for a certain aesthetic, I really did need to get fit to keep healthy and also to do the kung fu fight sequences, car chases and aerial acrobatics in wires and on the gravity rig we use for what we term the Magical Mystery Tour moment where the Ancient One sends Strange on a trip through the multiverse. Intellectually, I read, talked to and watched (on YouTube) neurosurgeons at work – what a fascinating area of medical science, dealing in ethical as much as medical complexities. I read two fascinating, heartbreaking and inspiring books – Dr Marsh’s Do No Harm and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Highly recommended reads whatever your interests, as both are beautiful and profound insights into human nature as much as their chosen professions and particular experiences.