Read below an interview Benedict gave to British newspaper The Guardian on The Power of the Dog, his character Phil Burbank, his relationship with nature and more:
Earlier this week, Benedict Cumberbatch picked up his first nomination this awards season: best actor in a drama at the Golden Globes for The Power of the Dog. It will not be his last. In Jane Campion’s western, adapted from the novel by Thomas Savage, he plays Phil Burbank, a brilliant but vile cattle rancher in 1925 Montana.
Trained at the start of the century by an iconic cowboy called Bronco Henry, Phil bullies everyone: men, animals, his brother, George (Jesse Plemons) – and, particularly, George’s new wife, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her delicate son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Campion’s film is a thriller, wound tight as a noose, even in those scenes which permit glimmers of Phil’s secret life, one far removed from the dirt and aggression of the ranch.
I spoke to Cumberbatch as he was driving to the set of the new Doctor Strange film in Hollywood, about his experiences shooting the western in New Zealand over the first nine months of 2020 (with a three-month break at the start of Covid restrictions), and his feelings about the film now.
You’ve said that when you watched The Power of the Dog, you were amazed by being able to see the whole arc of your character Phil, just as you’d hoped. Is that unusual?
I don’t know if watching your own work is a good or bad thing. I don’t know how much I learn from it. Each individual circumstance holds its own world of singularities and peculiarities. But among that, you can go: “Oh yeah, I remember that was what I tried to do.” Sometimes it doesn’t fit with the cast or the energy of the scene or the beat of another character. But to sit down in the audience and go: “Oh my God, I think that was what I intended”, was great.
Sometimes you worry the director is looking from a very specific angle and maybe a better take or different take has been overlooked because of what they’re prioritising. But everything about this project felt very in sync with Jane and her process. In the rawest form of just building the character as well; I felt as if I was doing it alongside her in pre-production.
We had an equal love and need to carefully create this character from the page to the screen. We understood the complexity of a man whose monstrous behaviour masks a deep well of pain; a scar needed to be understood in order to be inhabited. I’d never had that long in the company of a director doing the same sort of things to get to a character. I don’t know if she always works like that but it just felt like I was going on a journey with a friend.
I didn’t feel like I was being steered by her because we were using tools to manifest the results and then sharing them. Whether it was me going to dude camp to learn the outward skills of the man or whether it was the more internal, psychological work with dream analysis and role playing to find the core of the man, we were always doing similar work or sharing the work at the same time. It’s just a lovely, productive thing to do with the director when you have the luxury of time. She wanted me to sort of marinate it for longer than I usually get. Sometimes, because of a happily busy career, I’m kind of building the plane as it takes off.
What did you like about Phil? What do you miss about him?
I liked his directness. His mastery of the world. And I really, really liked the fact that he was someone who brought the outside in. He was all about nature. He was consumed by every aspect, every craft, every detail of his job involving men, animals and the landscape. The way he saw detail in everything – not just the dog in the shadows – but everything. He had that highly attuned, animalistic sensibility towards his environment.
The stewardship of land and animals was a very different thing in those days: far harsher, far less low-impact. You rode ’em hard and got what you needed and that was that. And then he burned the hides! I never really understood that other than as the need to consume everything that his work produced. But I admired his complete involvement.
And as somebody who’s a bit of a people-pleaser and apologetic at the best of times, who worries too much about what people think of me, I loved the freedom of being somebody who wasn’t in that space. Of course, there’s this deep kernel of truth he never lets get exposed. And that ties into the breadth of fear and fury that we know he has. But he can also stand with his hands behind his back and survey all these scenes with a sort of calm acceptance and knowing. And not be taken in with the hoopla of worrying about what the ranch-hands think of him. He’s very self-assured. I admired that.
I have a deep, deep empathy for him, a real love for him, a real feeling of the tragedy of someone who has lived his entire life in a secretive way apart from one small shard of acceptance and tolerance with a man in his teenage years. He was 19 when he watched Bronco Henry die at a corral in a stampede of death. So this is a man who has lived his entire life without fully knowing what it is to love and to be loved. The loneliness and the pain of that – I felt for that, I really did.
How has it changed your own relationship with nature? And how has that changed over the course of the past two years?
It’s completely heightened the value of what it is to be in nature. The nurture that nature provides, the answers it holds and our dependence on it. But also to have an experience where everyone – through the conditions of the pandemic – was forced to stop and to contemplate.
You could not be in a more beautiful example of Earth’s abundance and variety than New Zealand to make a film like this. If all the exteriors were shot in some kind of Mandalorian environment, that would’ve been a hell of an acting exercise. I was terrified enough about clinking in spurs across a car park in Auckland to do the studio section of the shoot.
You are provided with an extra character by being surrounded by that environment. And when it’s something that your character is so dependent on, it’s such a lifeline. It nourishes him and provides his wellbeing and his profession. But it’s also a sanctuary, a place where he finds solace and can express himself, where he rebaptises himself. For me, it’s not just about being clean, that sort of sacred space where Phil washes and is discovered by Peter and re-engages with the memory of Bronco Henry. That place, it holds him and that water is purifying for him, bringing him back to something that’s honest and true. Not just washing away the dirt of his work, but the mask of his life.
To have those tools, to be able to be in that water and kind of connect, was an absolute gift. On the first day of the shoot we were introduced to Maori elders from the local tribe who did a blessing to welcome us to the land and to ask the land to bless and support the project. I was already in character and so was standing a little bit to the side as Phil’s got a slightly tenuous link with indigenous culture. Jane introduced me as Phil, not as Benedict, and said they’d meet Benedict at the end of the shoot. It felt very tied into that moment of submergence into the character.
I went for hours and hours to just lie in the grass, to move around the set, to look at those hills, to watch the light change. During the shoot, we had every form of blessing. We even had snow! Every kind of weather that you could possibly want for a shoot that tells a story, contextualised by environment, over a yearly cycle at this ranch. We looked at each other a lot and went: this is kind of extraordinary. And the locals were saying that, not just the wide-eyed Europeans.
I was very outdoorsy before. I’m all about that. That’s my refuge as well. Not for the same reasons as Phil, but I find comfort in the humbling scale of it, of what it returns you to think of in terms of being a species on the third rock from the sun, rather than everything else we tie ourselves in knots over, to do with identity and our day-to-day struggles.
At dude camp you had riding and banjo lessons. You learned how to roll a cigarette one-handed and castrate a bull. Have you kept any of that up?
Yeah! Also taxidermy and ironmongery. Taxidermy is little bit hard to come by in this part of LA [where he’s shooting the new Dr Strange]. I think I’d get a few frowns. Horse riding I’ll definitely keep up. Ironmongery is a very specific thing. Roping and braiding: I haven’t caught myself braiding a bit of grass or twine or anything else at hand, in moments where I could have done.
I do still use the loud whistle. That’s very helpful when you’re corralling small children on a beach or they’re far away from you. I hope they don’t grow up thinking that I think of them as Phil thinks of his cattle. But it’s a good tool of communication. And it’s better than shouting out names.
I really enjoyed playing the banjo. I was awful at it compared to Phil, but it’s a very satisfying if peculiar instrument and you can have a lot of fun with it, with very little skill. I’m getting there.
What do you play?
Little exercises and repetitive scales and standards which are on the verge of bluegrass but the minute I speed them up kind of fall apart. A bit of Radiohead. It’s very meditative. I’m not gonna sing on a stage any time soon; it’s just for my own enjoyment. But I really do love it.