You know him as the inimitable Sherlock Holmes. You may have seen him in his latest movie, The Courier, which was released in local theatres recently. In his new movie, The Power of the Dog, Benedict Cumberbatch stars alongside Kirsten Dunst, playing a rancher who torments his brother (played by Jesse Plemons) and his new wife (Dunst) before he discovers the possibility of romance himself.
Directed by Jane Campion, the movie was filmed in New Zealand, where Cumberbatch also moved his family for the duration of the shoot. The crew, and his family, ended up being locked down there for five months when the pandemic hit.
“It was life changing. I’ll never forget it,” said the 45-year-old actor. He talks about the benefits of Netflix and the future of cinema in this interview.
Tell us about the process of getting involved with this film.
My first meeting with Jane Campion was quite funny. I was promoting another film, an Avengers film — so I was with my family and having a lot of fun. And then this icon of cinema, this incredible female force of creativity, stepped in and went, “Oh, hello”. We had a conversation and at the end of it, she showed me a lookbook which was where she wanted to visually go with the storytelling.
They were extraordinary photographs of ranch hands, and there was a sensitivity and sensuality she wanted to bring out. At the end of the conversation I went, “This is amazing, so are we doing this?” And she was like, “Yeah, I just wanted meet my Phil [the lead character].”
What preparation did you do for the part?
I needed to know what it’s like to work on a ranch, to get my hands dirty, literally. I needed to be somewhere that’s like the location and to ride more and learn to rope and braid and treat calf skin, do iron mongering and taxidermy and banjo. The character is a whittling, whistling, whatever you want — he is a polymath, he’s brilliant at it all. And his dexterity and sensuality mattered to me as much as his kind of brutality. His strength and ability to deal with the elements of the animals and the men meant all kinds of muscularity. So I went to Montana for a few weeks. I read periodicals and history books about The Clark Expedition, for example, and about the politics of that era. Also read an amazing book by a modern author, called Surrender, about Montana now and the sort of disparate states of it all. And we spent about two weeks in New Zealand with crew rehearsals.
What is the significance of wide empty spaces in your life?
It makes me happy just having that horizon and seeing that mass of uninterrupted nature. It’s just immensely restorative. I think we’ve all learnt that during lockdown, it’s absolutely fundamental to who we are. For me, it’s about recalibrating, re-grounding myself. And the role in that regard is a gift because [Phil] is nature; he’s consumed by it and even his own true inner nature.
Did you watch any Westerns before doing this movie?
No, because I knew the world Jane and her team were creating would be really good. Grant is an exceptional designer. Costumes were brilliant. I just knew we would have every support to give us a world around us that we needed. The art department worked so tirelessly with props and anything I needed or wanted to personalise. So yeah, I didn’t need to.
Dunst said you didn’t really meet apart from being on set together. Was that a method thing?
It was helpful for both of us, actually, because we get on very, very well! But I’m sort of apologetic, I’m a bit of a people pleaser and Phil [the character] is neither of those things — so I had to be him. I had to really not worry about what people thought of me. So when Jane introduced me to the crew, as I asked her to, but she was really good the way she did it, she went, “Okay everybody, this is Phil. If you meet Benedict at the end of the shoot, he’s really nice but this is Phil.” So that gave me full permission to just keep in character, to be him and not have to go, “Oh sorry, I’m just acting.”
How long were you in lockdown in New Zealand?
Three months lockdown and then we stayed on for a bit. We were filming in South Island. I got to the studio, had one day, and then we went into lockdown. We still had the whole studio shoot to do. But I loved it. We were very lucky to be in New Zealand. Very, very lucky.
How was the experience for you?
I was with my parents and my whole family, my children and wife. My mum and dad had come over to have a three-week experience with us. Then we went on a little road trip and it all happened — and they ended up staying for five months! My dad is a severe asthmatic and my mum is 85, so I needed to shelter them, protect them. It was that scary time, but it was time that we’d never ever get back as a family. We were Zooming and contacting people back home, realising that even if they were two streets away, you know, a brother and sister couldn’t see each other for months. Yet, we were all together. We felt so lucky. Far away from home but we found a new home in New Zealand.
What are your thoughts about the future of cinema in the streaming age?
Well this is my first engagement with Netflix producing. I think if Netflix is true to its mission, it’s not just about subscribers and reach, it’s also about fostering young talent — which they do. It’s a very unusual time to test that question of, “What would we have seen over lockdown if not for streaming services?”. We’re very fortunate to be able to have that service. As long as they are supporting good filmmakers and putting money into an industry that needs it, where it needs it — fantastic.
People do still watch things on big screens. A couple of times I’ve been to those nice places where you sit down and have a drink and people are eating and it feels like being in 20 people’s living rooms… and I don’t like that. I’d like for people to sit there and watch the film. I don’t want to feel like I’m hearing someone eating nachos two hours into a movie. That’s not why I paid to have that communal experience.
I hope cinema doesn’t go that way, that we all have to be eating and drinking and sitting on sofas in order to see a film. I hope a seat and a two-hour attention span is still possible for the human race, because I think that kind of absorption in any artwork is incredibly potent as a medium and it’s stood the test of time. These inventions are all very new but cinema has been around for longer than streaming services, so I hope it can foster a continuation of that.