In a new interview to Esquire Middle East, Benedict talked about Doctor Strange’s arc in Multiverse of Madness, playing different versions of the superhero and the horror elements in the movie. Read it below:
If you, like Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, ever find yourself looking for a man to lead your cinematic universe through its next phase after saying goodbye to its biggest star, trust us—the man you want is Benedict Cumberbatch.
After all, Cumberbatch has proven to be one of the most versatile actors of his generation, the breadth of which was keenly on display at the beginning of 2022, as found himself both nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards as well as co-starring in the blockbuster film that literally saved cinema-going culture. Whatever your film, Cumberbatch will bring the charm, gravitas and pure heart needed to make it work.
If all that wasn’t enough, he’s also about to star in what could be the biggest Marvel Studios film ever made—Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, a film that promises so many mind-bending twists and turns, not to mention Spider-Man: No Way Home-level cameos, that few know exactly what to expect.
Despite this being his sixth film appearance, Multiverse of Madness will be the first time since 2016’s Doctor Strange that audiences will be able to check in on Cumberbatch’s Strange personal journey, as while the character has been pivotal throughout the Avengers saga and beyond, his own personal story has been left behind as the fate of the universe—universes?—took center stage.
Ahead of the film’s release, Esquire Middle East’s William Mullally caught up with Cumberbatch to trace the character’s journey, look at why this is the closest to a horror film we’ve gotten from Marvel yet, and how his Oscar-nominated performance in Power of the Dog fed directly into his performance in Doctor Strange.
Read our Benedict Cumberbatch interview below:
ESQ: How different is your relationship with this character since you first took on the mantle, and what did you find in this film in particular that you hadn’t before, and how did Sam help you tap into that?
Benedict Cumberbatch: Well, to answer the first part of the five questions, I started as being trepidatious about adapting the comic that was very much of his time, the mid 70s, and very misogynistic, with lots of medallions and open chested machismo that was a bit dated, at the early dawn of Eastern mysticism meeting the Western pop culture.
But I was always reassured by Kevin’s focus on it being about a man of this time. And with that comes a wonderful journey.
In that first film he went from a guy trapped in a gilded cage of his own making, and someone who’s highly proficient and skilled and capable, but cold to his task of helping people while being very happy to pick up awards and book deals and all the rest of the kind of glory of being a famous doctor. That all went upside down in a car crash that results in losing use of his hands and having to use this power and then becoming somebody who serves a cause, and a purpose greater than himself.
I think the journey we’ve seen in the previous iterations, which have been seven now if you include What If? but certainly the six film appearances, it is somebody who become sort of unquestionably omnipotent, omnipresent. And yes, even though he’s all-knowing, I wanted to undo that a bit, because we didn’t know what the cost of that was. Lo and behold, I discovered it’s still the same character at the beginning, except he’s just taken the scalpel and is using the Mystic Arts as his tool. He’s still driven by his ego, he’s still thinking that he’s the one that has to be in control.
This is all very much in this film, a small character arc in a very crowded marquee. But it is, nonetheless. There’s a subtle shift of a man, realizing it’s not always the right way to do it on your own and take on all the responsibility. However noble, he thinks he might be in that way or arrogant. And I think his weaknesses, and also his strengths, are his arrogance, and his willpower, as we’ve seen before, of both his strengths and his weaknesses, the appeal of this character is that, and we see a little bit more of him in this.
We see a little bit, we hear and understand a bit more, of what made him something he was before he became the surgeon we meet in the first film. We’re just picking away at him just a little bit, to stress test him and put him in new places.
I mean, let alone the fact that he’s an audience to a new experience in the multiverse, like we all are watching it. It’s quite a reactive moment for him and a questioning moment of his character, but also he’s experiencing something he is not master of. That unfounds his confidence a little bit in an interesting way and reveals things about him that he needs to change, and go some way towards the end of the film.
You have to wait and see what the outcome is until you see the movie, but yeah, I also just love the ingredients that go into him. He’s bright, he’s damaged, she’s flawed, she’s heroic, selfless, and then utterly self-absorbed. He’s very vain, and at the same time, couldn’t give a damn about his own well-being. it a nice combination of flavors to play with.
He’s also all-powerful and can bring about incredible things in the multiverse, which is also fun.
How did you work on playing the different versions of Doctor Strange appearing in the multiverse?
Benedict Cumberbatch: That’s a good question. I don’t want to go into too much detail to spoil anything, but it was definitely one of the challenges I relished in. It’s a hard thing to do that sort of stuff on your own when you’re used to working opposite the extreme talents of Lizzie Olson, Chiwitel Ejiofor, and Benny Wong, not to mention Rachel McAdams, and everyone else’s in the film.
It’s a weird day at work when it’s just you, and you don’t have the option to lean on them for support, encouragement, and ideas, but we figured out a way of doing it. I’m not going say too much about it. Sorry about that.
There’s been talks that this is as close to a horror film as we will get from the MCU. How was that from your perspective, and how was working with Sam Raimi on those elements?
Benedict Cumberbatch: I’m trying to dumb down expectations a little bit on that. I think almost definitely it is the most frightening Marvel film of all time, but I know that doesn’t necessarily put it in the same league as The Shining, or of The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
You know, I’m not a fan of horror. I’m a fan of some of those films, but I’m not a fan in the sense I find it very difficult to watch them. I’m very suggestible and gullible and I buy into what I’m watching and it just haunts me for too long afterwards. It just scares me for longer than the moment in the film. I don’t really like living a life in horror or terrors, other than that in the real world without my imagination creating more. Horror is not my genre go-to. It’s not my genre go to.
I would say in compound sense of what little I know is it’s definitely darker in tone, and in terms of advice for taking kids of a certain age, it’s going to be prohibitive for certain people of a certain age because it is scary.
There are jump scares, there’s a lot of shock horror as this is a Sam Raimi film, in tone and execution. There are a lot of his trademark zoom cuts, close ups and and the schlockiness of it as well. It does feel like watching a Sam Raimi film of old at times. There’s a nostalgia kick to that, which I think feels playful at times, as well as dark and quite scary. I wouldn’t say it’s an out-and-out spine-chilling horror film, but there are definitely moments that make you jump, definitely moments that do fit into the horror genre.
Do you get the same satisfaction from making a film like Doctor Strange as you do from The Power of the Dog, for instance?
Benedict Cumberbatch: It’s very different. Very different asks, very different outcomes, very different methods of storytelling. And that’s the joy I get—that I get to do both. And lucky me, I think, to be able to be at the center of a franchise like this and play such a pivotal gateway character for so much of this phase of the MCU. But also at the same time, to be in smaller fare to an extent, and to be utterly absorbed in process with a masterful director like Jane Campion. Both are very enriching experiences.
Did one performance feed the other?
Benedict Cumberbatch: Yes actually, they do rub off on one another. We did for Power of the Dog, which carried on a little bit into this. I also feel that certain economies or focuses that Jane really encouraged and facilitated to lean into on her production spilled over into my craft on this. But whereas on her set, I was in character all day, I would never be able to do that on a Marvel set. It would just be so much wasted energy, and I’m all about energy, I’m all about giving it 100%.
The minute I needed to, if I’m in character for four hours, whilst a very complex camera is rigged up and tested, or a stunt is tested, it would all just be going on in a trailer for no one to see. I busy my time doing other things in those moments. It’s a different kind of energy, it’s a different kind of marathon focus, but then also intense focus as opposed to a continual focus, which immersive work Jane was more like. And they both have their difficulties and they both have the rewards I guess. I’m very, very glad to play that kind of range.
What was it like walking onto these sets for the first time?
Benedict Cumberbatch: Charlie Woods is an extraordinary designer. And there’s a lot, despite the amount of green and blue screen that you have to imagine realities and events. You also have a lot of real world sets and environments to work with. Charlie builds these beautiful, intricate spaces, whether it’s the Sanctum sets, or whether it’s entire blocks of New York. Honestly, an amazing amount of New York was built on the back lots of Longcross in Surrey. It was remarkable.
The detail at beginning of his journey, the origin story in the first film, where the Hong Kong has been destroyed, because Time Stone to reverse that distraction—we were on a set where there was an entire metal workshop, and entire printers, and entire takeaway.
Well, the takeaway was definitely fake food, because it would have gone rancid on the first night, but there was unbelievable detail, and almost near workable environments, just in the back a shot. Despite the insistence that these are all special effects laden, things that you have to just imagine, because they’re not there, there’s a lot that is there.
A couple of moments strike me—I’m not giving away too much—I fly, you know that much, with the cloak of levitation in one scene I was sort of swooping into action in a segment of the film, I was hovering above the set build and can see the M3 in the background, which is insane. What I get to do for a living, I’m so lucky, I’m just learning and being in New York. Surrey is just a memory of being up there. Kind of amazing.