September 12, 2013

Benedict Cumberbatch is good at playing evil

The actor performs in three prestige films: an Internet rebel in 'The Fifth Estate,' a plantation owner in '12 Years a Slave' and an emotionally unsettled grown son in 'August: Osage County.'

By BETSY SHARKEY McClatchy Newspapers

(Continued from page 1)

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Benedict Cumberbatch, Carice van Houten, Daniel Bruhl and Moritz Bleibtreu in a scene from “The Fifth Estate,” which opens in the U.S. in October.

Paramount Pictures photos

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Cumberbatch as Khan in “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

"What we see is a very strong front man for a very powerful, complex cause," Cumberbatch says. "There's reams of footage of him arguing, defending, debating his position and then, did you see the John Farnham video?"

He's referring to Assange's parody of the Aussie pop singer -- a YouTube sensation the moment it landed in late August. It features Assange in a mullet belting out the Farnham hit "You're the Voice." "There I was struggling to give the man integrity and there he was -- and I was thinking 'Oh my God."'

The actor portrays a much different man, at a different time in his life, "this revolutionary warrior. Inside is the element of having to trust certain people and then being betrayed -- that's just seismic."

The betrayer is Daniel Domscheit-Berg, once Assange's right-hand man. He's played by Daniel Br? one of Cumberbatch's close friends (who has a breakout role this fall in "Rush"). That friendship worked to create a great on-screen chemistry as they weathered WikiLeaks storms. It also helped on Cumberbatch's difficult days.

One of those days was a scene at a press conference when Assange is under attack. There were nearly 400 extras. "It was terrifying, having rehearsed it for weeks, still with stops and stumbling, having to do it again and again."

It's not always like that. "There are days when you find the sweet spot, you might be hanging upside down and stark naked, but everything's placed right, you're in the zone. It's very empowering, but fleeting. The minute you think of it, it's gone."

Whether or not Cumberbatch feels it, the performances look as if he's mostly in the zone. The BBC's acclaimed "Hawking" made for remarkable watching as the actor captured both the vibrant mind and the failing body of the theoretical physicist.

Or Christopher Tietjens in "Parade's End." Written by Tom Stoppard and currently up for five Emmys, including lead actor in a miniseries or movie for Cumberbatch, he plays a man in a class war of a very personal nature, torn between his nasty socialite wife and his sweet suffragette lover.

Of all his characters, Tietjens is the one Cumberbatch says he wishes he were more like.

"He's a very good man. I've thought a lot about his goodness, I really got under his skin."

Though "12 Years a Slave" truly belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, the freeman sold into slavery, Cumberbatch has a meaty role as slave owner William Ford.

By Northup's own account, Ford was a decent man. His slaves were better cared for, beaten less and he could be compassionate. Though not enough to keep a mother and her children together. That's a fine line to walk, but Cumberbatch does it by shouldering Ford's shame. We see it, feel it.

In "August: Osage County," he's playing rather a mess; tears and self-recrimination come easily to "Little" Charles Aiken. But on set on "Osage" he found a model for the kind of career he hopes to have: Meryl Streep.

"I love what I do, and as long as the variations in characters are there and I'm still learning and progressing. It's great to have the freedom to play the entire orchestra. I saw that working with Meryl Streep ...," his voice trails off, then a quick smile. "I think I've got lots of learning to do."


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