MSN Entertainment -The Fifth Estate: Benedict Cumberbatch on interpreting Julian Assange

By Matt Schichter

Benedict Cumberbatch flew through the door like Kramer in an old episode of Seinfeld. Dressed in a dapper slim fit suit, he looked as if he was in the middle of a whirlwind ride as he entered the suite filled with a dozen journalists at the Ritz-Carlton. While he was a little frazzled by the lack of pleasantries; one journalist barraged him with questions as soon as he entered; he was certainly ready to talk about his new privacy-versus-transparency film The Fifth Estate, in which he plays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Benedict is expected to be one of the breakout stars from this year’s TIFF, starring not only in the festival-opening Fifth Estate but in the Julia Roberts/Meryl Streep dramedy August: Osage Countyand Steve McQueen’s Oscar-hopeful 12 Years A Slave.

How did you approach creating the Julian character?
I was just very keen to do something that personalized him and made him human. Something that showed the universal qualities to him, which, as a film that’s investigating him behind the front of being a frontman for WikiLeaks could expose or try and castigate him easily as either good or bad. I just think it’s so easy to do that.  I think that has happened to him and I think that’s one of the reasons he wanted to pull away from the film. Also, for him, it’s about the message and not the messenger. He’s a father. He’s somebody who had a childhood. He has a sense of humour. He’s profound. He’s got profound integrity and worked to create an idea in reality. I think a lot of people can at least empathize with that and then the discussion can evolve as to whether that’s a good or a bad thing. He’s not contextual-less as a human being, he came from somewhere.

You didn’t want to impersonate Julian, but how did you get into this mind-set?
Obviously the presentational side of him, there’s an awful lot of acreage of stuff on the Internet and in print as well. Vocally, I had a lot to work on with a very good dialect coach. Chris [Lyons] and Dana [Kalder], as well as the rest of the makeup team. [I had] fantastic help and expertise in all departments to sort of help transform my appearance and sound. But as far as access to him and understanding him, I tried to excavate what I could from his autobiography, his unauthorized autobiography from accounts of people who knew him and worked with him and do now know him, or did know him. That included Guardian journalists as well as Daniel [Berg]. But also outside of the source material, I wanted to broaden that. It’s no secret that he didn’t want to be part of the film because he felt that the two source materials it was based on were antithetical and damaging to both him and his cause and I wanted to make sure that what we portrayed was not that. It was something that involved a richer portrait than what he feared would be a one sided attack on him.

Did you try to contact him?
Yes, I did. I did try to contact him. I would have loved to have met him. I think like any artist, being in front of a live subject is far more productive and informing than working from a photograph when you kind of interface that’s not you being in the same room as that person. I sadly didn’t get the chance to do that, but I quite respect his standpoint, and I reasoned in my communication with him that I thought it was not totally well founded, that I think there was a lot to celebrate in our version of the story because what it does is bring back into focus how important WikiLeaks is as an idea and the integrity of that idea, personal politics aside. It really does show what an extraordinary achievement that that was, and at the helm of that was Julian. That’s a celebration of his ability and what WikiLeaks continues to do. It’s ever present in our media right now, whether it’s Edward Snowden and before that with Bradley Manning’s trial. It’s not going to go away. This is something that affects our daily lives.

As an actor, do you find it daunting to almost become a political pundit or an expert in the subject matter now that you have to do press for the film?
A little but then again I am an actor. I’m not a political activist. I’m not a founder of a website. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not an expert pundit. I’ve touched on what I’ve needed to grasp to try and manufacture a characterization and I’m the first person to hold my hand up and say that I’m an amateur in all other classes other than my chosen profession. Which, I guess, because I’m paid for it, I’m classed as a professional. I leave judgement of my performance to other people. You do have to become an instant overnight expert and that can be quite daunting. There’s a lifetime of commitment and knowledge behind these people’s activities whether they’re investigative journalists, whether they’re state department officials, whether they’re Julian and so to try and encompass all the arguments and have opinions is sort of fruitless.

What were your thoughts when the WikiLeaks story first broke?
I was interested in the story rather than the messenger. I was shocked and in fact fascinated by the revelations, none of which was sadly completely out of keeping with what we suspect. It’s in the example of the theatre of the war and the true travesties that occur on both sides of action whether it’s civilians or whether it’s soldiers being deployed into dangerous areas or are ill equipped, or being given a position whereby they are being dehumanized by what they’re being asked to do. It was really shocking and I think what Julian did very sensibly was to give that over to the mainstream media to perform – somebody asked me on the red carpet last night. They said, “Well what are you doing? You’re going to do us out of a job with this film!” Julian’s movement is about this new evolution and people journalism but I think journalists still have a place. You have to sew the narrative together. This is raw information that we’re all trying to understand and now it’s dramatized in the film even from the point of view: acronyms, just this new intelligence. It’s very difficult to draw a story from raw data. I think journalism still does that. And as Julian would say, it obviously reflects editorial bias. But what doesn’t?

What was your email correspondence like with Julian?
It was brief, it was brief, at the beginning of filming.

Bill Condon, the director, said Julian asked you not to do the film.
He did. That was the main gist of his email, yeah.

How did it affect you?
It was sort of expected, and his arguments were very strong. And I had some very strong counterarguments.

What were your discussions like with Bill about how you were going to present him?
Very collaborative and very sympathetic and helpful. He completely understood the pressure I was under. He also didn’t want to make a film that was a consensus film that was going to just be a positioning of the arguments. He wanted to just debate them within the characterizations of those dramatic moments and with the characters. If you ask anyone on any side of this story, everyone’s got a different version and accounts of what happened. I think what the film does do well is explore those in dramatic terms between the polarization of the arguments, whether it be Julian’s perspective or the far extreme of someone appearing on Fox News decrying him as a terrorist.

You were very kind to Daniel [Bruhl] in the press conference. You said it was like a master class working with him. 
I was a huge fan from the first time I watched him. It was a very hard task what he had to pull off. To tread that fine line of being someone who falls under the spell of someone, becomes an equal, sees himself as an equal or challenges that authority and then has the fallout of that relationship to deal with. I just think he charts a beautiful path through the film of that relationship. He works with great, great subtlety and humour, and we had a great collaboration as well. It didn’t feel like we were boxes on either side of a ring. I think that’s what I was trying to sort of illustrate with the previous question as well. It was a real collaboration.

What was your first emotional reaction when you looked in the mirror and saw the reflection of Julian?
It was interesting. I was listening to him on my iPod. I was listening to a recorded interview from the internet. I was sort of looking down and they were working [on my make-up and hair] and it was the middle of rehearsal so I was just trying to do some voice work and I sort of looked up, and the first time I looked up, I went, whoa. It works, it sort of works. I mean, I’ve got a very different face from him. I can pull apart the differences physically between us all day. But there’s enough to do the job of an interpretation of a character that is represented without being an impersonator.

How difficult it is for you to portray someone who’s still alive?
You have to let go of that after a while because there are always going to be differences. It was tricky, that was another hard aspect to the job but you just can’t get too obsessed by it, because at the end of the day, you’ve got to perform your task that’s in front of you and you’ve only got what you have available which is the way the you’re built, and it is different to Julian. There are similarities, but he’s got a rounded face. I’ve got a longer face. He’s got dark eyes, I’ve got lighter eyes. He’s got white hair, I’ve got dark. I mean there are countless, and personality and physical ticks and vocal. So you work away towards it and then you have to, like everything you do I guess as an actor, you prepare and then you step back and hope that some of it floats and works. If you obsess about it all the time, it would be, yeah, it would be completely paralyzing I think.

Is that a challenge that an actor welcomes?
Yeah, of course. Oh no, these are high class problems. These are the things that, from my point of view, I like things that are varied in my work. Hopefully as the three films I’ve got here will show, I try to choose things that keep myself guessing as well as an audience and trying to challenge myself in new ways. So I like things that are close to me. I like things that are far from me and in the middle as well.

Like in The Hobbit.
That’s very different. A 400-year-old fire breathing dragon who lives in Middle Earth. That I would say is far reaching. There’s a weight of expectations with that kind of character. I mean it’s like Sherlock in a sense and other characters I’ve played that are fiction, but there’s still a weight of expectation that’s kind of on par with a real life character who you can completely parallel comparison to. You’re a child playing with your imagination and just your body and your voice and your movements and expressions and you’re kind of free of any of the other encumbering factors of being in front of an audience with sidelines or having to work for a camera or a particular lighting situation.

Is it easy for you to leave your characters behind?
Yeah I mean [Julian and I] are weirdly tied together now a little bit, but I have the same feeling with Steven Hawking and some of the other characters I’ve played who existed but no longer exist, like Vincent van Gogh. You open a door of investigation when you research a character and I’ve been really fortunate to play some truly extraordinary people. I’ve said before, with Julian and history, it’s a way down the line as to how we get an objective perspective on this if ever, because I think that the arguments and the context for the story is just going to keep evolving. So yeah, I’m a very keen follower of him and the organization and everything around it and Snowden and other revelations. I think we’re living through fascinating times.

The Fifth Estate opens in theatres across Canada on October 18th.