Benedict Cumberbatch has been chosen to be featured on the 2022 Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair magazine, with a brand new interview, in which he discussed The Power of the Dog and working for both Netflix and Marvel, and a new photoshoot, available on our photo gallery:
Read the full interview below:
Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t dodge tough questions—in fact, he raises some of the thorniest ones himself. Over a long outdoor breakfast at the Malibu Racquet Club, we’re preparing to discuss two of the most significant films of his career, Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Power of the Dog, both of which came out this past year. Cumberbatch considers their heft. “Am I working for the Goliath that’s killing the David?” he says.
Technically, it’s two Goliaths—Marvel and Netflix, respectively—but these days the Davids can’t afford to be adversarial. Cumberbatch knows how difficult it is to get a movie made without a particular star power: “Unless you have a Marvel star, financing any film is very, very, very, very difficult—no matter how important the story, no matter how urgent the story, no matter how talented and awarded and appreciated the artist is.” The director of The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion, recently said, “I actually hate” superhero movies. Cumberbatch finds both challenging and has been balancing blockbusters and prestige projects with uncommon ease—“artistically, I never think of the two as completely mutually exclusive.” He’s everywhere he needs to be.
In December, Cumberbatch’s irascible, magic-wielding Doctor Strange helped resuscitate the box office—for IP-driven blockbusters, anyway—by uniting Spider-Men of different universes for a record-shattering spectacle. This May, the doctor gets his own sequel with Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. This likely sounds like a lot of special effects for a classically trained British actor, but Cumberbatch welcomes the challenge. “It’s a big moment for Strange,” he says. “We can bring our game to this large tentpole fare and give it an authenticity and a heartbeat and something that makes it not just effects-laden nonsense.”
Cumberbatch came to prominence in the title role of the BBC series Sherlock, which sparked a rabid online following when it debuted in 2010. He had, and has, an intense presence that’s all the more riveting for being slightly odd and hard to quantify. What’s going on in the heads of his haunted characters? Well, clearly a lot—and Cumberbatch reveals who these people are with slow, mesmerizing care. In The Power of the Dog, he plays Phil Burbank, a closeted rancher in ’20s Montana whose cruel streak deepens dramatically when his brother marries a widow and she brings her quiet, protective son (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live with them. The fact that Cumberbatch has played gay men in more than one highly decorated film role—another being his Oscar-nominated turn as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game—has provoked debate around sexuality and representation. “While my lived experience is very far from Phil Burbank’s, that’s not to say that all of it is,” he says carefully. “But that’s where we get into the realm of my privacy.” (Cumberbatch is married to the theater director Sophie Hunter; they have three children.) After a pause, he continues: “I don’t want to sound defensive because I’m not. This is coming from a cultural questioning of appropriation, and that’s something I’m very supportive of as a producer and an actor.” He ruminates more on the topic, talking about fraught subjects with empathy and nuance. “If your community’s underrepresented, then that’s why people will be rightfully angry,” he says. “I understand it. I do understand it…. Maybe I’m entering a new era where I have to be much more sensitive about it.”
It’s surely a heartening sign that a drama as character-driven and intimate as The Power of the Dog was distributed by a Goliath like Netflix, but Cumberbatch does have one misgiving. As he puts it, “If I’m in the belly of the beast, then surely I can start asking questions of it.” The key question is this: Why did Netflix give the film such a perfunctory run in theaters?
Back in September, the drama screened exclusively at festivals around the world. (Cumberbatch traveled with it and was bedridden with COVID in London after attending a crowded gathering, which he calls “a sober reminder of limits.”) The gripping Western had only been playing in select theaters for two weeks before it hit the streamer. “This is for Scott [Stuber] and Ted [Sarandos] and everyone who runs Netflix: Could you not afford to have a longer theatrical release?” Cumberbatch asks now. “Maybe not. I don’t know. I’m positioning this as a question publicly in Vanity Fair. I haven’t actually had this conversation with them, but I would and I will.” So goes the journey of an actor in an industry transforming by the day.