As Benedict Cumberbatch returns to screens big and small, he tells Craig McLean the secret to building a blockbuster body – and reveals his reaction to the Weinstein revelations
The last time I met Benedict Cumberbatch he was wearing only a pair of trunks, eating wine gums and worrying about the size of his abs. It was April 2017 and we were on the set of The Child in Time, the first drama from his production company, SunnyMarch. In the lead role as a children’s author overwhelmed by grief following the disappearance of his daughter, Cumberbatch was preparing to shoot a scene in a bathtub – and was painfully aware that his toned torso looked out of place.
Shortly after the five-week shoot, the actor explained, he was due to fly to America to reprise his part as the disarmingly buff, dimension-bending Marvel superhero Doctor Strange. The year before, his stand-alone Doctor Strange movie had taken almost half a billion pounds at the international box office – and when it was announced that the character (also glimpsed in Thor: Ragnarok last autumn) would be making a prominent return in this year’s Avengers: Infinity War there was no question of Cumberbatch returning to the role without first hitting the gym.
By the time we met, the actor’s pre-shoot fitness regime – which he described as “pretty full on… but a mental sorbet” – was well under way; hence those abs.
Fast forward to April 2018 and Cumberbatch – a 41-year-old father of two – is in front of me once again, on the global press tour for Infinity War. This time, thank God, he is fully clothed (in blue linen, denim and suede), but he’s still eating sweets.
Bulging with stars (Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana and Josh Brolin as intergalactic villain Thanos) for starters), the biggest Marvel film to date promises to be a superhero Greatest Hits, featuring all of the Avengers, Spider-Man, Black Panther and the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Doctor Strange appears to be the main goody. Coiled in his chair, Cumberbatch admits that, after all those hours in the gym, he “bristled” earlier in the day when a journalist commented that his Doctor Strange “wasn’t very brawny”.
“How dare he?” he tuts now in mock-outrage, “Didn’t he see my shirt-off scene? Just hours before we shot it, I was told to do nothing but drink coffee and eat Skittles. ‘What’, I said, ‘you want to turn me into a trucker?’ But they said it’s about dehydrating – if you have that much of a sugar- and caffeine-hit, the skin ‘shrink-wraps’ round your muscles”. He grins toothily. “And it worked!” He frowns. “I would never advise it, though.”
Still, however Doctor Strange’s physique looks on screen, one place the Oscar-nominated, Harrow-educated star can count on his character having rock-solid abs is on the associated merchandise, from T-shirts to figurines. “It’s the lunch box moment,” says Cumberbatch, wryly.
He tells me about a recent visit to the home of his friend and co-star, Tom Hiddleston (“Hiddlebum”) who has been a member of the Marvel family since 2011 when he played Loki in the first Thor film. “I went into his kitchen and I just said: ‘Holy s**t, you’ve been merch’d: you are on the lunch box’. And he went: ‘I know, it’s great, right?’ And, yes, it is great. It’s also slightly terrifying. I thought: ‘Do I have to make peace with being turned into a moulded plastic souvenir?'”
Cumberbatch evidently has.
“It’s terrible but I actually look for kids wearing Marvel gear,” he admits. “And there are very few Doctor Strange lunch boxes or backpacks.” Ten years and 19 movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, does Cumberbatch think the time for snobbery about superhero movies is over?
If, say, Eddie Redmayne asked him if he should put on cape and tights, would he encourage his friend? “I’d say he’s got his plate quite full with wizardry right now,” he chuckles, referring to Redmayne’s role in JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts. “But, yeah, if you really are bored of that, come and join the party!”
He is similarly forthright on the subject of Patrick Melrose – David Nicholls’s forthcoming five-part TV drama, adapted from Edward St Aubyn’s autobiographical novels.
In it Cumberbatch plays the lead, a character who, on the page, appears to be an unlikeable, heroin-taking posho.
“Well, your words not mine,” he replies. “I don’t think he’s unlikeable at all. I think he’s fiercely funny, erotic, charming and dangerous. And incredibly, incredibly damaged. So you should feel for him.
“As for the posh bit? I mean, what? You think people who are sexually abused by their father from the age of five to 10 aren’t worthy of our attention because they’re posh? You need to go back to ethics school, surely. That’s a terribly shaky moral position to hold. So,” he concludes briskly, “I don’t bounce with that.”
Neverthelesss, I suggest, it’s hard to imagine that Melrose’s life – from childhood abuse to the drugs with which he self-medicates to escape his pain – will make easy viewing.
“I think at heart it will be a really enjoyable watch,” says Cumberbatch. “But it’s not for the faint-hearted. It is a story of salvation. But it is blisteringly funny. That’s the real hook for me. Even among the depth-charge moments of abuse, you’re kind of mesmerised by Hugo Weaving’s David Melrose [Patrick’s father], as you are in the books. He’s a really magnetic character.”
While researching the part, Cumberbatch talked to counsellors and former addicts. Was he also able to draw on his own school days? Surely, at Harrow, he wasn’t short of classmates weighed down by their heritage.
“Well there was a prince of Jordan, so that brought a level of weirdness. But the more English version? I didn’t get an intro much into that world. I was very privileged to be at Harrow, but there’s not some part of Wiltshire that belongs to the Cumberbatches.
“We have our past – you don’t have to look far to see the slave-owning past, we were part of the whole sugar industry, which is a shocker,” he says of the revelation four years ago that an 18th-Century forebear was a Bristolian merchant who established plantations in Barbados. But, no, he didn’t know “Lord and Lady Such and Such”.
His only ennobled classmate was Simon Fraser, whose father and uncle died “tragically close to one another in our last year”, making him the 16th Lord Lovat. “He suddenly became titled, and we didn’t even know. The point is,” he continues, “weird though it might be, given the perception of me out there, I had to push some to get to the right level of class for this. And that was a very important part of the process.
“Because Patrick Melrose is very much a study of class, and the disintegration of the moneyed, landed gentry to cash-poor, still possibly land-rich idiocy. Their hypocritical, cynical, back-stabbing, malicious, ironic unsympathetic behaviour is really exposed with a scalpel in this.”
Speaking of men behaving badly, if things had gone according to plan, we would by now have seen Cumberbatch’s performance as Thomas Edison in the historical epic, The Current War. At one point mooted as an Oscar-contender, the film’s original release was scrapped after its producer Harvey Weinstein (with whom Cumberbatch worked on The Imitation Game) fell spectacularly from grace. Cumberbatch sounds far from disappointed.
“If it takes us not releasing our film for a couple of years just to be rid of that toxicity, I’m fine with that,” he says, adding that he wants “to step back and be as far removed from that influence as possible, both as filmmaker and as human being.”
He recalls being on the Avengers set when the Weinstein story broke.
“You could feel people going: ‘This is important and this will change things…’ And that’s terrific,” he says. “But having worked with the man twice…” he exhales heavily. “Lascivious… I wouldn’t want to be married to him… Gaudy in his tastes, for all his often brilliant film-making ability… But did I know that was going on? A systematic abuse of women, through bribery, coercion, trying to gain empathy, to physical force and threats, physical and to career? No. No,” he says firmly. “That was the true shock. That this has just literally happened. And it’s been covered up by an entire body of people through lawsuits and gagging and money – hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to silence victims and survivors.”
He shakes his head, aghast. “That truly was a revelation. I have a film company. Our head of development is a woman. There are two women running the TV side of SunnyMarch. Adam [Ackland, his SunnyMarch co-founder] and me are the only men in the office. Countless times I’ve brought up issues of equal pay and billing. And so to realise that this attitude is so deeply culturally ingrained – that was my rude awakening. We have to fight a lot harder.”
That’s toxic masculinity dealt with; now bring on Thanos.