By Emma Badame
This year’s TIFF Festival has a number of big name stars pulling double or even triple duty on the red carpet, traveling to the Big Smoke as part of the annual ten-day long fest dedicated to all things new and cinematic. But the guy attracting the biggest crowds, with the most vocal and devoted fans, a certain actor named Cumberbatch.
The 37 year-old British thesp was one of the first A-listers to touch down in Toronto late last week, just in time to hit the world premiere of his brand new drama, The Fifth Estate, at Roy Thompson Hall. The film sees Cumberbatch star as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in director Bill Condon’s look at the friendship between Assange and colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl).
We had the opportunity to sit down with the (ever-so-stylish) man of the hour — who happens to star in four movies this fall,including the three TIFF headliners 12 Years A Slave, August: Osage County and the aforementioned FifthEstate — at the Ritz Carlton this past Saturday afternoon to address the complexities of Julian Assange, his awe of Meryl Streep and those pesky Star Wars VII rumours.
Read on for what he had to say on:
His busy year:
“I apparently had ten days off in the summer but they went by in a bit of a blur. It’s been a very, very busy year but it’s an embarrassment of riches, so I’m loathe to complain about it. I’m just really enjoying it and as my erstwhile character Sherlock says, a new job is as good as a change – or a change is as good as a rest even. I think that’s what he says. He says it in ‘The Sign of Four’ so you can go look it up and see how badly I misquote him, never mind behave like him. So yeah, it’s been an amazing time. It is an amazing time right at the moment and I’m really enjoying it.”
Assange’s unique look:
“I quite liked having a kind of a skunky badger thing with the white [dyed hair] and my normal sort of darker hair on top. I did love the fact that for about six months last year — both in August: Osage County and in 12 Years A Slave — I had my own colour hair, which was great. But I really, really quite enjoyed it — putting the wig on.
The first time I put it on and came into the room, people were wowed. That’s a great thrill when you realise something’s working.
I think he’s probably got softer features than me though. I’m a little more angular, which sometimes makes me look a little weird and creepy in some of the wigs and that’s not the intention at all, that’s just the way I look. We weren’t trying to do that, it’s just the different bone structure. I’ve got a longer face, he’s got a rounder face.
The harder thing was the contact lenses, I’ve never worn them before. I’ve got kind of light aquamarine, green-y kinda things. My eyes change depending on whichever light is stronger, whichever colour is stronger. Mine are lighter, that’s the thing – much much lighter than his. And in certain lights his are a really rich, deep blue and in other lights they’re a kind of slate-y grey or dark and so I wanted to tone my eyes down a little bit.
Assange requesting he not make the film:
“It mattered to me a lot that [Assange] felt so passionately but I wanted to persuade him that it wasn’t necessarily going to be as bad as he feared it would be, which was based on a script he’d had leaked to him — a very old draft that I don’t think I even ever saw.“
His portrayal of the WikiLeaks founder:
“It was important to me to portray him as a three-dimensional human being and not get into a slagging match about whether he was good or bad. I wanted to portray the human characteristics of a man at the forefront of an incredible media revolution with incredible ideas whose controversy was borne out of that, primarily, and not get bogged down in character assassination, which is so easy to come by because people want a headline. They want to grab something and run with a two-dimensional story. I like the way the film tackles that — the wayJulian talks about his appraisal in The New York Times as giving equal billing to the state of his socks as to the collateral murder — it kind of highlights that idiocy. So it was important to me to portray him in a balanced way.
It was important to also concentrate on what we were doing, which was a film — a dramatization of events. So while [all the source material on Julian] was informative, it was important for me to always remember that this is a perspective, not the perspective. I think the film’s central message is there’s no such thing as objective truth. It’s always going to be a bit of a personal truth and you have to, I think, take inspiration from the film in that way as it is about people journalism. It’s about something that’s powered by individuals, it’s not about a consensus. I think that’s probably how the film will be greeted and reacted to and that’s no bad thing.”
On the importance of showing the audience another side of Assange:
“I think the banner headline — the perception of him — in a tabloid sense is very two-dimensional. The character assassinations came hot on the foot of shifting perspectives and everything that went on in the time of the leaks. So anything that fleshes out who he is as a three-dimensional human being is to his benefit. God knows what he’ll think of that but, as an audience, I think you can understand more of someone when they are part of something that’s universal to all of us. Though I think it’s very clear that he doesn’t want the message confused with the messenger. And that’s happened. We obsess about that in culture all the time. We can’t just take an actor’s work, we need to know everything of their personality.We can’t just take a politician’s stance, we need to know what it is that relates to us. I’m not saying whether that’s good or bad but I think it’s an extraordinary thing.”
On Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg‘s relationship:
“I think it’s really complicated and for those two to disseminate, not me as an actor outside of it. In a moment of drama, you have empathy for your character so I see [Julian’s] perspective as strongly as now, as an audience, I can see both perspectives. It’s a very complex relationship and two very complex characters. Daniel’s no stooge. He’s not a follower, he’s a smart guy. He’s an activist and he’s incredibly pragmatic. He’s not some kind of blind acolyte. But I think Julian has a magnetic hold over people and I think he’s an incredible spokesperson for an extraordinary idea that was borne out of his realization of it. And he has very complex relationships with people because of that.”
His role in August: Osage County:
“I play Little Charles, who’s this adorable, really lost soul who’s trying to find a place in a world that cuts him out. He’s in love with someone who’s very close to him, but it has to remain a secret and it kind of tears him apart. He’s constantly belittled by a destructively loving and protective mother because of a secret surrounding who he really is. He’s a pretty tragic figure but rather a beautiful soul. He’s an alright singer and songwriter too. I do sing and play the piano in it.”
Working with Meryl Streep in August:
“I loved that job. I mean I loved, loved the play and when I heard they were doing it, I thought: “I’ve got to audition! I’d kill to play that part!” Are you kidding me? To sit around that table and watch Meryl? I mean, we were all of us in awe. It’s an amazing table to sit ‘round anyway but we kind of forgot to act in character because we just sat there as an audience. She’s astonishing. Working with her was very, very inspiring. I know every actor says that that works with her but it’s a trip, an absolute trip.”
Acting advice from Meryl:
“I was about to do Assange and I asked her, “Where do I start?” I mean, obviously I’m not Australian, I don’t have the same speech patterns as him. His way of holding himself, his gestures – all that sort of thing. And she was just giving this incredible tour de force [on set]. She was playing someone with esophageal cancer, who’s high on drugs, on downers, getting drunk at her husband’s wake and she’s turning vulnerable into attack into lost into knowing into sexy, vampy — the gear shifts were sublime. And I just wondered how she was playing this orchestra of a performance. So I asked, “Chicken and egg, cart and horse? What gives?” She said, “I don’t really know. How about you?” And I went “Well, thank f**k for that!” because I don’t have a method. I wasn’t schooled in a method, necessarily. I mean I’ve got tools I carry around very gratefully from my time at drama school and also what I’ve learned working with people like Meryl and great directors like Bill [Condon], Danny Boyle and Tomas Alfredson. I’ve been so spoiled by the roster of talent I’ve worked with. So we agreed that if you have just one approach to it, it limits what you can do and what other people can do with you. So it was reassuring. Really reassuring for me. It was a really nice moment.”
That name for his fans:
“They’re actually changing their name – well most of them — to CumberCollective. They’ve gone down the route of reversing the negative backlash of however many years of feminism. I didn’t ask for this subservient, demeaning collective noun and they’ve very kindly gone, “Oh no, it was only a joke!” Best to make a slightly more politically correct joke about it in my name though! But it’s one of the least offensive names I’ve got on the internet. If you care to Google it, there’s all sorts of nonsense but I’ve had that since school so I’ve got quite a thick skin about that.”
The Star Wars VII rumour:
“No. No offer. It’s all rumour and it’s all gossip. No one’s been offered anything other than the people we know have been offered a part. Would I like to do it? I’ve said many times that of course I would. But J.J.’s worked with me before, so he knows where I live. It’s all up to the boss.”
The Fifth Estate and 12 Years A Slave open in theatres October 18, while August: Osage Country opens December 25.