“Thank you for your question”. Benedict Cumberbatch is a highly regarded actor and widely respected for his dedication to his craft, and I was finally able to experience this for myself. Benedict reprises his role as Dr. Strange in the recently released “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”, but beyond his role as the eclectic Dr. Strange, Benedict continued pursuing a myriad of other characters which speak to his versatility as an actor. It was a rare opportunity to talk to him about how he approaches new roles, the multiverse, what being “zen” means to him and his favourite Jaeger-LeCoultre watch.

Photo: Charlie Gray

Photo: Charlie Gray

You’ve taken quite a detour before you return to your role of Dr. Strange – you’ve played the eccentric artist Louis Wain, and the villain Phil Burbank. What was it like returning to Dr. Strange? Did you gain a new perspective from these other roles?

Thank you for the question. However I don’t really agree that Burbank is “evil”. He’s a damaged human being who damages people around him but ultimately is the author of his own demise in the process. His monstrous behaviour is created out of an even crueler world of intolerance and expectation that he hates on before it can hate on him… As far as the sensitivity of Louis Wain, that’s common ground with Phil’s mastery of music and crafts in his world.

But to answer your question about do they influence each other – to be honest, no. My working methodology with Will Sharpe and then Jane Campion is one of intense continual immersion in a character after weeks and often months of research and practice and play at being a character. In films such as those two you get the opportunity to remain in character for longer stretches of time so it’s quite hard to carry what I learnt in those projects into the Marvel cinematic universe – which by necessity is far more staggered and broken up as a creative experience. This is due to huge set pieces and the amazing amount of technical intricacy that the multiple set ups that any single scene need.

Just to be clear I enjoy both challenges equally as they demand such different methodologies and exercise very different muscles from one another.

But… It’s not just the piecemeal, stop/start process of making a Marvel film that is so utterly different from the more continuous immersion of say Phil and Jane Campion‘s direction or Louis Wain and that of Will Sharpe‘s. It’s also that the characters I’ve been fortunate enough to portray are so radically different to one another.

I welcome the detours as you put it from one character to another. I’m permanently looking for challenges and experiences outside of my own to engage my imagination and craft. And I hope to grow with every experience so maybe there’s an accumulation of work that I’ve learnt from but little to no correlation between the characters means they’re very separate focuses.

I also had a wonderful time in “Spider-Man No Way Home” before starting filming “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”. The cloak and I had already had a very important chapter preceding the epic nature of this next standalone film for the character! So “The Mauritanian”, “The Courier”, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” and “The Power of The Dog” didn’t distract me from being our world’s greatest sorcerer!

The perspective shift, if any, is provided by the character arc in the movie and Sam Remi’s vision of Michael Waldron’s script and all our collaborative efforts to pull our hero through some of the most exciting scenarios to date in the Marvel cinematic universe to reshape him as a hero forged by the outcome of these new challenges… By the end of the film yes, I hope the character (if not the actor!) will have very new and different perspectives!

A still of Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in "The Power of the Dog"

A still of Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in "The Power of the Dog"

Reaching international stardom certainly gives one more freedom to choose roles to participate in. Do you have a soft spot for a certain type of role? What usually attracts you to commit to a role/ script?

I’m very wary of any soft spots I have for particular characters or roles, as I think that search for something known and comfortable can drive you away from challenging yourself and audiences in unexpected ways. That’s what gets me excited as a consumer as well as a creative in our culture. So the unexpected and variety are key motives for my choices . I try not to repeat myself although of course there are bound to be certain crossovers when you get as many opportunities as I have.

But apart from that my criteria is about the creative process and who I get to share that with. Specifically at the moment directors. The part and the script have to be good too obviously! But after my experience with Jane Campion I realise there is so so much more for me to explore and to challenge myself with within my process and while that will be a hard one to match it’s a great benchmark of quality to aim for with my choices

Having my cake and eating it, I also want to have fun and promote talent both in front of and behind the camera, above and below the line that maybe my involvement can help with.

Though Louis Wain and Phil Burbank seem like two very different characters, they are both deeply vulnerable in their own ways. How deep did you dive in order to understand their vulnerabilities? How do you keep a “safe” distance?

That’s a great question. In my own way with Louis Wain and with some fantastic direction from Will Sharpe. I often work to play something on the inside that will hopefully show through intuitive choices on the outside – if that makes any sense. For example, with Louis it started with reassigning the script, then research reading as much as I could about him, visiting some of the locations of his life and then creating him through that information into my body.

The way he spoke, danced, walked, swam, painted and drew, these are shards of information to act on and improvise around and try. Costume fittings and what clothes meant for him as an artist in that era effected his body and gait and movement as well as his projection of self in his world. His love of cats and his connection to that animal and to love. To Emily. And everyone in his life who interacts with him. And then I have a whole load of utterly brilliant and truly inspirational actors to riff off of and raise my game and learn from. That’s the real secret! Being with peers who’ve got it in spades and make it all seem so easy and who are kind and encouraging.

All that starts to slowly, and in stages, weave together through practice to inform what becomes a belief and courage in your intuition. The guidance of a great director is channeled into each and every scene and the usual script/scene analysis also has to work itself into a way to capture the performance of that moment in the lens. I was continually copying his [Louis] artistic style and methodology reading about the way he spoke in public but realising that would be different to how he was with his family in private. Perhaps I get both parameters and freedoms to start playing with the character’s physicality. Of course the deep and detailed work on the scripts and every scene with real understanding where the character is in a story is an actors job to carry whether they have a director helping them or not. That’s also to really get the best out of that particular moment by leaving everything on the floor so that the director has choices in the edit. I’ve been very lucky to work with people that I trust in that sense to pick the very best of what I’ve given on the day to create the final story.

Coming back to Dr. Strange, the character itself had been through a journey as well – participating in a few Marvel stories in parallel. What can we expect from the new Dr. Strange? How has the character evolved?

I think Stephen Strange has evolved from being an ego-driven neurosurgeon of brilliance unknowingly trapped in a gilded cage of his own making into being freed by the ancient one and Karmataj into becoming an equally ego driven sorcerer of some brilliance! We’ve seen him evolve from that origin story into a key player in The Avengers becoming the protector of our reality and being pretty omnipotent. In “The Multiverse of Madness” all that starts to come at a cost… and everything he thinks he knows about himself, our reality and his role in it is fundamentally challenged. But you’ll find him as resourceful, adaptable and witty as ever as he experiences the full madness of the multiverse!

A still of Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange in "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness"

A still of Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange in "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness"

The subject of time and multi-verse discussed in Dr. Strange had always fascinated us – which people around the globe started to have first hand experience given COVID-19. We started to develop a new sense of time. Does this also happen to you? Have you developed new routines or even rituals over the past two years?

No… but I feel I should have… I think we might have to revisit these subjects in a few years to see if they’ve had as lasting impact on me and examining the way I live my life as I would have liked. I feel we’ve all collectively experienced a shift in our perception of time due to COVID. It caused a species-wide disruption of routine and other markers of normality. And personally I feel that’s one of the (few) good things to come out of the pandemic. To learn to take time again, to not rush, to not just make your day about completing a list and allow yourself to have moments of stillness and inactivity and reflection and humility in the face of your own mortality… And to relearn the importance of communication and community and being together. That and a far closer connection to family and nature as the true priorities in my life. Anyway… I’m veering off into the territory of answering a different question… Some old habits of mine obviously haven’t deceased thanks to COVID!

I don’t know that I have a specific routine or practice that has evolved because of those two years. But in my daily meditation when I register what I’m grateful for, my learning over the last two years comes into sharp focus. And also I think I’m getting better at doing more of less and completing tasks rather than doing less of more and not getting everything done, though I do still battle with time management as anyone who works with or lives with me will tell you. It’s interesting that there are great benefits in certain aspects of routine. I think the way you begin and end your day is very important as are the ways you approach meals and eating.
But honestly, one of the great joys of being an actor is there is never a predictable 9-5 schedule.

Having said that I truly try to always establish routines in every job but you have to be really adaptable and not cling on to them as certainties!

In your last collaboration with Jaeger-LeCoultre, you explored the mind and being zen through diving. I wonder if zen plays a part in your daily life? What in life gives you the greatest zen?

Sleep! I’m actually giggling thinking of the answer to this question because I have a pretty hectic home and professional life at the moment… I have a practice that I try to stick to most mornings. I also really enjoy Wim Hof breathing and cold water swimming. My real mid-life obsession has become surfing. There’s a lot of drama and turmoil and difficulty and angst involved in this especially when starting so late in life. But the immediate connection to water, the joy of floating on the surface and looking back at the coastline, the extraordinary view of nature it offers you whether it’s fish swimming beneath you or dolphins or seals or extraordinary sunsets or just a really blissful day of glassy, peeling and forgiving waves… There’s always a moment in every session that is a zen-like blessing on your day.

You once mentioned you prefer to look at watches rather than phones to tell time. In your point of view how does a timepiece add texture to time-telling, setting it apart from a practical act?

The artisanship. The analogue process of springs and parts that animate with the movement of a wrist into becoming an extension of our pulse and life force. No leads. No chargers. No notifications. Just a steady rhythm and connection to our universe in which time plays such a central role.

What aspects of Jaeger-LeCoultre fascinate you the most? How did learning about timepieces craftsmanship change your perspective on time?

The lifelong careers and the generational baton passing-on of skills. Also the ethos and sheer class of the company and its product from the Reverso to the Memovox. The original collaboration between Edmond Jaeger and Jacques-David LeCoultre  was born out of a competition to find the thinnest mechanism. This ongoing pride in technical tests leave Jaeger-LeCoultre in a class if their own. and I love the people I interact with in the company from their CEO Catherine to Dorothee and all the people who have helped me with their skills on and off set with their timepieces. Oh and it’s Dr Strange’s favourite watch!