TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Benedict Cumberbatch, stars in the new film "The Power Of The Dog." The film was named one of the 10 best films of 2021 by the American Film Institute, appeared on many critics 10-best lists and won this year's Golden Globe for best movie drama. Cumberbatch was named best actor for his performance in the film by the National Society of Film Critics and by film critics associations in New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth and the San Francisco Bay Area. You can also see Cumberbatch now in "Spider-Man: No Way Home" as Doctor Strange. And he's just completing work on the new Doctor Strange movie. Cumberbatch was nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in the film "The Imitation Game," based on the story of Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who was instrumental in breaking the German Enigma code in World War II. Cumberbatch has played other real people, like Stephen Hawking and Julian Assange. He's famous for his role as a contemporary version of Sherlock Holmes in the British TV series "Sherlock."
"The Power Of The Dog" was directed by Jane Campion, adapted from the novel of the same name, and is set in 1925 in Montana. Cumberbatch plays Phil, who along with his brother, played by Jesse Plemons, owns a cattle ranch. Phil is hypermasculine. He's skilled at cutting the testicles off cattle, herding cattle and braiding leather ropes. He rarely bathes. He's also a bully. He even insults his brother and calls him fatso.
When they're taking the herd to market, they stop at an inn where they have dinner. They're served by a young man, the son of the woman who owns the inn. He has a clean, white linen towel over one arm the way you might see in a fancy restaurant, not a little inn in a tiny town. His manner and the linen make him seem effeminate to Phil. While the young man is serving the table where Phil, his brother and the cow hands are seated, Phil picks up a paper flower from the handmade bouquet serving as the table's centerpiece and starts examining it.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POWER OF THE DOG")
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) Oh, yeah. Well, I wonder what little lady made these.
KODI SMIT-MCPHEE: (As Peter Gordon) Actually, I did, sir. My mother was a florist, so I made them to look like the ones in our garden.
CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) Oh, well, do pardon me.
CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) They're just as real as possible.
CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) All right. Now, gentlemen, look. See, that's what you do with the cloth.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Cow Hand) Oh.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cow Hand) Oh.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Cow Hand) Wow.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Cow Hand) Right. Oh, that's what you do.
SMIT-MCPHEE: (As Peter Gordon) It's really just for wine drips.
CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) Oh, you got that, boys? - only for the drips.
CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) Now get us some food.
GROSS: Phil's brother apologizes to the waiter's mother and soon marries her. When she moves to the ranch, Phil torments her. And when her son visits, Phil continues to mock and bully him. As the film progresses, we begin to get clues about what lies beneath Phil's exterior.
Benedict Cumberbatch, congratulations on your performance and on the film. And I should mention, as we record this on Wednesday, January 12, this morning you were nominated for a SAG Award, the Screen Actors Guild Award, which is fantastic because that's, like, a jury of your peers. Those are actors voting. And they know their stuff. So congratulations. That must be a real honor for you.
CUMBERBATCH: Thanks so much, Terry. It really is. And thank you. Thank you for having me. It is a fortuitous moment. And you're right. It's such a great validation of the work to have your peers, who share this craft with you as their work, to recognize it in this way. It's really humbling - a great honor.
GROSS: So "The Power Of The Dog" is a Western of sorts. I mean, it's set on a cattle ranch. And your character is - he's a cowboy. So did - growing up in England as you did, did American Westerns mean much to you? And did you study, like, the history of the American West or anything?
CUMBERBATCH: I mean, not really - no. It's about as far from my lived experience as you can imagine, which I guess is part of the enticement of wanting to take this character on and this milieu on. But, no, I certainly didn't have a history of it. I had a little understanding of it from university, from studying cinema at that stage of my life. I guess the first inkling I had of a traditional Western - it was the more sort of John Ford, tough man, the John Wayne. But also, for me, I think where I really clicked into it was probably "High Noon." I thought, ah, here's deliverance from an unassuming hero in a way. And then the revisionist era of Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" began as well, which for me was at a very formative time in my cinema-going experience. But it certainly wasn't a playground role-play thing for me. And it wasn't something I grew up fantasizing about or knowing anything about.
GROSS: Yeah. You said that Westerns, cowboys didn't mean anything to you growing up because it was so far from your experience growing up in England. And you joked that to do this film, you had to go to dude school (laughter)...
CUMBERBATCH: I did.
GROSS: ...To prepare for the character, to learn both the Western things, but I think also to learn that style of, like, cowboy. So what are some of the things you had to learn, and which was the most interesting for you?
CUMBERBATCH: I knew I'd get snapshots or feelings of who Phil was from my encounter, but with people who actually live that life in Montana and who were graceful enough to let me into their world and educate me and give me an access to that extraordinary experience of working with animals - extraordinary in the sense it's often a coordination between four species. There was one moment when we were driving cattle. And there were horses. There were men. There was silence at times, but whistled or talked communication between dogs. And those four species working together was just something profoundly affecting. And realizing that and the connection to landscape was really as informative as any of the specifics of braiding, say, or whittling or whistling loudly, say, or the horse-riding skills or any of the other kind of attributes this character has at his disposal - and, of course, the banjo playing - his musicality. But to marry the brutality of being able to master the hard work in that hard landscape and those hard times with this amazing delicacy and sensitivity - I thought that was at the core of his character.
GROSS: In the novel and in the book, Phil rarely bathes. In the novel, it's specified he bathes once a month in the creek. And when the creek freezes over in the winter, well, then he just won't bathe (laughter). So in trying to really get with the character, you stopped bathing for extended intervals while making the movie. I assume that was while making the movie. But, like, that must have been a really icky experience for you. I mean, once you start to smell yourself and then you realized other people are definitely smelling you and not acclimated to the smell like you are - I mean, that must've, like, been very uncomfortable and maybe even a little embarrassing.
CUMBERBATCH: In rehearsals, I did it for about a week before my family turned up in New Zealand, where we were rehearsing and shooting the film. And I did it because I didn't want that to be something they had to endure. And I thought, you know, this is fine. This is about me getting used to it and Jane and, you know, maybe a couple of other people during the rehearsal period in that time. But then she'd say things like, oh, let's go and get some sushi. And I'd be like, oh, come on. Now I've got to walk out into the real world, not in character, possibly being recognized and carrying biohazard level heft of stink around with me. That's not fair.
GROSS: I could see the tweets, like, Benedict Cumberbatch really smells.
CUMBERBATCH: Yeah. Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, you know, yes, it's enough to be self-conscious of it in any normal circumstance - the heightened when I find myself in as someone recognized. But I think where it's essential might really help was on filming days. I, you know, I washed a lot more than Phil did, put it that way, but I would not have my clothes laundered, so I did carry his body odor with me. The minute I put those clothes on, I was him. I could smell him. And the minute they were off, I was me again. And I cleaned myself up when I got home. But for the entire day, that was it. But I don't need to take my work home with me, you know, to provide authenticity for the moment-to-moment drama of a shoot. And I think it's really true. We washed ourselves a lot. We're very concerned about smelling neutral or pleasant. And this guy just didn't. And he lived in a time where people would smell.
GROSS: You don't bring the character home with you, but you do keep the character when you're on set. You stay in character even when you're not filming.
CUMBERBATCH: I did for this one.
GROSS: You don't always do it, but you did with this? What does that do for you? What's the advantage of that?
CUMBERBATCH: Well, I think what it does is if you're far away from who you are, it just gives you the ability to have a focus and a hook that's complete. You know, you're just - you're narrowing the chance for distraction so that your concentration can be more complete. It's more - it's also more a sublimation of the self and - than it is method. Method is really putting on your own psycho trauma and drama to facilitate the same in the character. And this is so far from my lived experience on every single level that, you know, a lot of this had to be manifested for me.
Normally, I think, my brain, either as a producer, which I'm doing now as well, or just as a curious filmmaker, kind of creeps into other people's business a bit, not, I hope, in a intrusive or negative way, but I just - because I'm curious. So I'll lean into watching an actor's process or I'll get interested in choices. Well, wonder what the cameras do, how that bit's going to be edited? Like, I couldn't do that with this. I needed my concentration to be absolute. And normally, being in character for me during the day, you know, it comes and goes. I can switch it on and off, and that's fine. And the only thing I maintain if it's an accent that's foreign to me would be to stay in the character's voice was Strange. I stayed in his New York American dialect for as much of the day as I'm playing him. But yeah, for this, it needed something absolute. I needed to kind of blinker out my reality.
GROSS: Jane Campion likes to explore different meanings of masculinity, and she certainly does that in in this film. As we've talked about, your character seems to be a real bully and prides himself on, you know, this real macho. And the things that he does are very like, you know, masculine things like cattle herding, castrating cattle, you know, wearing spurs and stomping around. What are some of your insights into - to the extent that you can share them with an audience that includes many people who have not seen the film - what are some of your insights about what made him that way? Because when we talk about a certain type of like, quote, toxic masculinity, it's always interesting to think about, what's behind that?
CUMBERBATCH: What's really fascinating about bringing a character like Phil Burbank to life, you're really looking under the hood of it. You're examining the causality behind that toxic masculinity. Within that bracket, though, of behavior labeled toxic masculinity, I think there are genuine, non-performative elements that he has just grown into being. I do believe that he is that ranch man. I do believe that he is that capable. You know, he's a master of his crafts, whether it's the banjo or whether it's whittling or whether it's - I mean, it's stuff that is - (unintelligible) taxidermy. He really is profoundly gifted. I think where it becomes toxic is where he has a need to protect things in the world and hate on the world, potentially through that defensive protectiveness, before it hates on him.
And, I mean, to talk about the landscape a bit, for me, that was just an absolute gift. You know, our production designer, Grant Major, built a really masterful set. I mean, it's an extraordinary piece of reality where there was absolutely nothing. And that was integral to filming in New Zealand. There were 360 degrees of nothing, which in Montana, near where the film is actually located, sadly isn't the case. But logistically, very difficult to film there. But for an actor to be supplanted in that landscape with Grant's set, I mean, everywhere I looked, I had Phil. I had him in the weather. I had him in the sound of the wind in the grass. I had him in the movement and the breath of the cattle, the hair playing on the horse's back, which is actually detailed in the film that Jane picks up on with Ari's cinematography.
And I just felt utterly nourished by the placement of where we were shooting at. My big fear was once we got to a studio in Auckland, I'd be having to clink across a car park in spurs and furry chaps and just feeling ludicrous, like I'm at some kind of Comic-Con convention of "Power Of The Dog" rather than anything as real as the lived experience on that set on location was. And then the pandemic happened, and we stopped. And our dreams became supercharged as the collective consciousness that this massive shockwave sent across it. And we came back to the work not only with a renewed vigour and focus, but just amplification of gratitude to be able to work.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Benedict Cumberbatch. He stars in the film "The Power Of The Dog." You can also see him in "Spider-Man: No Way Home" as Doctor Strange. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Benedict Cumberbatch. He stars in the film "The Power Of The Dog." The film was named one of the 10 best films of 2021 by the American Film Institute and appeared on many critics' 10 best lists and won this year's Golden Globe for best movie drama. Cumberbatch was named best actor for his performance in the film by the National Society Film Critics and was just nominated for best actor for a SAG Award, the Screen Actors Guild.
So, you know, at the same time you're in "Power Of The Dog," you're also in "Spider-Man: No Way Home," which is a movie in the Marvel Universe, and you play Doctor Strange. And, I mean, you have your own Doctor Strange movies, and this is - like, you're a character in the "Spider-Man" film. You just finished the latest - or about to finish the latest "Doctor Strange" film. It - the Marvel Universe seems so different from, say, the Jane Campion universe. She directed "Power Of The Dog." The whole, like - for example, like, you stayed in character (laughter) when you did your role of Phil in "The Power Of The Dog." And you know, you kept your accent. Now, you can keep your accent when you're doing Doctor Strange 'cause it's a New York accent, not a British accent. But I'm thinking how funny it would be if all of the characters in a Marvel Universe movie, all the superheroes, stayed in character (laughter) while they were on the set. I mean, that would just be kind of ridiculous.
CUMBERBATCH: That would make it officially the most exhausting job you could possibly do as an actor.
GROSS: (Laughter) And damaging, too, because you don't really have superpowers.
CUMBERBATCH: There's that as well. The - yeah, exactly. That could be pretty devastating to come out of. But yeah, imagine that lunch chat. No, it's true. It would be a very bizarre situation because, mainly, it's such a fragmented, piecemeal process making one of those films. Yeah, I've watched incredible actors use an insane amount of skills on those sets to just be able to magically turn it on, be fresh with it and be loose with what's one of the biggest sand pits in the world and play and never forget the art of acting as playfulness. But that takes a huge amount of ability. And to be able to shift it and create something connected and present when you're acting against so many elements that aren't there, when you're having to use your imagination, it's - it is like being back in the bedroom again and just playing with characters that aren't seen that - you know, that we do from - in our childhood. I think it's a very, very heightened skill.
GROSS: You come from a really interesting family. Your parents were both actors in England on stage and screen.
CUMBERBATCH: They're still actors.
GROSS: Are both actors, yeah, OK, good. And your family tree includes a great-grandfather who was a diplomat and served as consul in Turkey and Lebanon, and a great-great-grandfather who was a British consul in Turkey and the Russian Empire, and a paternal grandfather who was a submarine officer in both world wars and a prominent figure in London high society. At least, that's what I've read. Hopefully, that's all true (laughter). Did you feel connected to them? And did they feel connected to a larger history? I mean, like, my grandparents were immigrants, so I have no roots past them on American soil. But you have these, you know, deep roots in British history and - I don't know. How did that affect your perspective on who you were?
CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, I don't - it sounds very callous to say this, but not much because I don't know enough about my family history, really. I've never taken a huge interest in it because, for me, it's always been about a very close-knit circle of individuals. I don't come from a very big family. I - you know, I never met either of my grandfathers. My grandmothers sort of - of an age when I was young. My - I - my parents had me quite late. So my connection to my past, you know, it - I learned about - as much about it, or I'm reminded as much about it or made aware of it being present as much about it by the description that you just gave. It doesn't inform who I am. I feel that I kind of just started as me, and my parents' influences is the be-all and end-all as far as family goes. And I was an only child.
And I think - you know, I don't speak much about my private life. But obviously, Sophie's my wife, and she comes from a much larger family - three of them - children - I mean, two brothers. And that expansive, extended family that's now part of my life is a very new experience for me, a wonderful thing as well, beautiful, inspiring and supportive and loving thing. And hello to any of them listening. They're so large, I'm sure one of them is. There's so many of them. But I guess I lived the life of an only child. And you really do think you're the center of the universe. I mean, not in a sort of arrogant way, but just you don't know any different. So I'm only really learning now a little bit more about my family's history.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Benedict Cumberbatch. He stars in the film "The Power Of The Dog," and you can also see him in "Spider-Man: No Way Home" as Doctor Strange. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Benedict Cumberbatch. He stars in the new film "The Power Of The Dog." Cumberbatch was named Best Actor for his performance in the film by the National Society of Film Critics and by film critics associations in New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth and the San Francisco Bay Area. He was just nominated for a Best Actor award from the Screen Actors Guild. And you can also see him now in "Spider-Man: No Way Home" as Doctor Strange, which is the biggest box office hit since the start of the pandemic.
Your parents were both actors. Did you spend a lot of time backstage watching them when you were growing up?
CUMBERBATCH: I did a bit. I mean, I've got a very vivid memory of mom walking from, you know, one of those very sort of ordinary flats of wood, decorated, obviously, on the other side for the audience as a room. And I remember her just being my mom, and then a beat of something happening to her, her in the door and being completely someone else, and walking out into the heat and the light. I don't know. It's just a very strong memory. I must have been - I don't know - around - somewhere between the ages of 8 and 12, I'll say. And I was entranced by that, that moment of shift, that moment of transformation and what that meant. How could she be my mom one minute and then suddenly be this other person for people watching her?
GROSS: What made you want to act?
CUMBERBATCH: I think moments like that pretty much from, I would say, 12 or so onwards. I mean, my parents, being actors, didn't want me to be a child actor. They wanted me to have a childhood free of being in the public eye, to have a natural, for want of a better term, development that's not exposed, I guess, that young. And they wanted me to have an education. They were very keen for me not to be an actor. They were very keen for me to be anything but an actor. And that's why they were working so hard to give me the opportunity to be a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher or whatever it might be - or someone the diplomatic. I don't know what their ambitions for me were, really. But I don't think they wanted me to be an actor.
And then there was this one moment of blessing, which, I think, was the other real kind of gear change in thinking, OK, right, I'm going to be able to do this as a living now that I've got my father's blessing. And I've been talking about it a lot recently. But it still remains a profoundly moving and humble thing to recount. And my dad, basically, after playing Salieri in "Amadeus," took me by the shoulders - this was at university, so I must have been around 20 - and said, you're better at this than I ever was or ever will be. And I can't wait to see what you're going to do with it as a career. And for a father to say that to his child is just enormous.
GROSS: Yeah. I can imagine. I want to talk to you about when you took a year off from school. I think this was probably college, but I'm not sure. Maybe it was an in-between year. And you went to volunteer as an English teacher in a Tibetan monastery in Darjeeling, India. So how old were you when you did this?
CUMBERBATCH: I was 19.
GROSS: Who was in your classes? Who were the monks in your classes?
CUMBERBATCH: The age range was about 35 years, I think. I had a man in his late 40s and a kid who was about 12. And I had - in town, I had a sort of more sort of preschool crowd of Tibetan refugee children from that small village just outside of Darjeeling that I was at. It's called Sonada, which is one of those little towns along the Darjeeling railway train. If you look at a map of India, where you're on the right-hand side, and it's that kind of finger that goes up towards Tibet and Bhutan and China and Bangladesh on the right.
GROSS: How did it feel as a 19-year-old teaching English to Buddhist monks, especially the older ones who probably had a kind of depth of understanding of the world that, you know, a 19-year-old...
CUMBERBATCH: (Laughter) Say it.
GROSS: ...Person from London would probably not have.
CUMBERBATCH: Yeah. It felt...
GROSS: That you definitely did not have (laughter).
CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, I mean, the learning experience, as I constantly apologized to them for, felt very one-sided. I felt like I was learning more than I could possibly impart to them for all those reasons you just stated, but not least because I had only trained to be a teacher for about a month. Having said that, I did go for it. I built them a little kind of, well, classroom area and a blackboard and stuff that they didn't have from the previous volunteers. But I really - I think there is a sort of undeniable cultural exchange in the fact that they have access through me to an experience that's so utterly different from theirs. Of course, to us, theirs is far more exotic. But to them, a lot of it's very mundane. And, you know, the interactions were sort of comically overlapping.
And then by the end, I really wanted to engage in the thing I'd been a spectator of. I took myself, with another teacher, we met up with this lama in town. We were initiated into the teachings of Buddha and then given the opportunity to go on a retreat for two weeks. We started out in this small, concrete room with about 30 other monks lining the walls. We did about four days of that. We're chanting this prayer that was in Tibetan, not knowing what we were chanting, and feeling a little bit, I felt at the time, like we were being indoctrinated blindly into something. And the lama came back in and very wisely said, yeah, this is good for my students. You Westerners, you need to come with me.
So we were then taught what we'd been doing. It was a clarifying ritual to purge us of lived experience to create a more blank canvas to then start receiving a meditation practice, which he then started to impart. And we meditated for hours - hour and a half, two hours at a time, and bit by bit would be drawn into focusing, mainly through breath, different methodologies of concentration and being present and what people now call mindfulness. And I remember the shifts in that time coming out of that experience. And just everything in the world seemed so alive. Everything seemed interconnected. It was a sort of psychedelic experience, actually. It really felt - I felt a profound connectedness to some universal truth of what life and love and energy is. And it's sort of wordless, just a sensation, profoundly moving and stayed with me ever since. And I think sometimes, when I'm in that flow state as an actor or I experience a piece of art or work or physical experience in my life - I have three children. And what I will say about them is they're the most profound and beautiful creatures, as is their mother. And to be able to have those moments with them as well, it harks back to that kind of awakening in my teenage years.
GROSS: I'm wondering if your experiences meditating and what you learned with the lama have helped you through the pandemic. Speaking for myself, there's just so much to be anxious about right now. And there seems to be this, like, constant threat of, you know, contagion, of, you know - of getting COVID. And it's gotten worse with omicron.
CUMBERBATCH: Oh, completely. I think, like any kind of meditative practice, it's about drawing yourself back away from that anxiety and to a still point of focus. And that definitely has helped. But I've been just as caught up in the anxiety, I think, as you or anyone else, you know, as somewhat responsible for my family.
GROSS: Are you sure (laughter)?
CUMBERBATCH: Well, I don't know you because...
CUMBERBATCH: ...I don't know you, but I - you know, I would imagine, Terry, that, you know, we've all, I think had a kind of communal shock to the psyche on a massive global scale. You know, there's so much uncertainty in the world with things that used to be certain. Even approaching another human being - it's a risk. Thankfully, now that things are evolving - perhaps more just the risk of inconvenience than a life-threatening risk.
But, oh, I was pretty far away from profound calm in those early moments of lockdown in New Zealand, where we were washing our groceries with detergent and then washing them again to wash the detergent off and leaving things outside that could be left outside and didn't need to be touched in case of surface contamination. I mean, it was, and I think remains still, at that sort of - a new level of anxiety. But in that first moment, yeah.
I was also harboring my parents, as well as my family, in New Zealand. So I was responsible for two 80-year-olds, one of whom is a severe asthmatic, and they were supposed to travel back having just visited us for what was supposed to be three weeks. And they ended up staying for five months because I just said, I can't put you on a plane now. I can't risk you getting this unknown threat and - especially for my father, who's the asthmatic, to risk his mortality is too precious. And so we held together as a family, and it was an extraordinary experience from that point of view alone, making this film. So, yeah, great things came out of it. We were very fortunate.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, good. You got through that earlier stage of - with feeling responsible for your family in New Zealand, yeah. Well, thanks for talking with us about that. Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Benedict Cumberbatch. He stars in the new film "The Power Of The Dog." You can also see him in "Spider-Man: No Way Home" as Doctor Strange. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Benedict Cumberbatch. He stars in "The Power Of The Dog," and he's also in "Spider-Man: No Way Home," which is the biggest box office hit since the start of the pandemic. And he plays Doctor Strange in that. He also just is on the verge of completing the new Doctor Strange movie.
I want to ask you about another life-changing experience. You were in South Africa, I think shooting a film, in 2005 when you and a couple of other people who were working on the film got kidnapped. How did that happen?
CUMBERBATCH: We were coming back from our first initiation to a PADI diving course. We'd done some PADI work with breathing underwater, with regulators and oxygen tanks - air tanks, rather - in a pool outside - pre to going into the sea, which is just, you know, the preliminary preparation you make before going out to the sea. And I'd been pretty overworked and was anxious to get back that night rather than going Monday morning, when filming was starting very early, because I think - you know, I thought I wanted to get home to have a good night's sleep. We were very cautious about that. The South African of the three of us was like, well, I don't think it's that safe to travel at night. I'm not so sure about that. And I kind of pushed it - not aggressively, but just in a way I obviously now regret.
Our front right tire blew. We'd gone over some detritus in the road. We stopped to try and change the tire. We took all our luggage out. And that's when people approached us from the bush - the scrubland on the side of the road. And they surrounded us and told us to get - well, they, first of all, wanted all of our money and anything - any weapons we might have. We'd paid for our class in cash, so all we had were cards, which is part of why it lasted as long as it lasted. They then piled us back into the car. We drove off-road.
GROSS: Did they put you in a trunk for a while?
CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, that's right. Yeah, I think I was definitely seen as the problem. I was more talkative. I was definitely acting out and more nervous and frightened and panicking than the other two, who were far calmer and more adult. And I think because of that, they saw me as something to be contained, as they locked me in the boot with my hands tied behind my back. And I thought, this isn't good. I know this isn't going to end well. I - so I tried to argue my way out of that position. And eventually, after arguing with each other, they let me out. They took me up to the side of the road, and then the other two joined. By this stage, I had kind of gone through every flash of panic, anxiety, and I was in this weird state of calm. And I just - I felt very sort of accepting in that moment. I thought, OK, I'm either going to be - I'm going to be ringing my parents tonight or someone else is.
It ended with them going away and coming back and going away and coming back. And we realized the car had been taken with our cards. They then wanted our PIN numbers. And it must have worked because they left us, and it went quiet for a long time. And we decided to make a move.
We found a roadside pit stop for truck drivers - late-night truck drivers - that was about, I don't know, maybe 400 yards away outside a game reserve called Hluhluwe. And there was this cooperative of Zulu women, whose artistry and work were sold - beaded bowls and incredible pieces of pottery and woodwork. And they - we told them our plight. We were in tears, and they were so, so - I mean, what was absolutely gobsmacking about it - and I'll never forget - was how humiliated they were. They said, this happens to us. We are poor. We have nothing, and they steal from us. There are bad people in this country. We're so sorry it happened to you in our country. We love our country, but we're so ashamed. And I remember the security - this - the other - the only man that was there was a security guard reaching down to give me a cup of tea. And I remember just bursting into tears, saying thank you to him. As I looked in his face, I realized I could look into a man's face and not be frightened, as I had been for the last 2 1/2 hours, to be grateful for the good in the world.
GROSS: When you thought you were going to die and that they were going to kill you, what were...
CUMBERBATCH: I did meditate. I started to breathe. I started to sort of go into a state of going - acceptance, really. It was very strange. And I thought the profoundest the realization is that that's a journey you take on your own.
GROSS: Did you make any decisions about how you wanted to change your life if you survive?
CUMBERBATCH: I think the ongoing trauma from that - if it wasn't something that already existed in my character, it certainly wrapped it up - was this need to live a life less ordinary, to sort of squeeze the drop out of every moment. I went back into that country. I finished the job. I also went travelling on my own afterwards around South Africa but also mainly Namibia. And when I got to the sort of adrenaline capital of Namibia called Swakopmund and started jumping out of airplanes and going for trips in microlights and, you know, swimming with sharks and doing all sorts of crazy stuff that was about me controlling...
GROSS: Like, maybe going too far and...
CUMBERBATCH: Yeah. I mean, it was about - you know, I'd been forced to look at - or reckon with my mortality. And this was about me doing that at my own pace. So it kind of makes sense when you see it like that. That was a big thing for me to get over, and I still work on that by dint of accidentally or subconsciously overprogramming.
GROSS: With all the risk-taking that you did afterwards, did you think that you behaved cowardly, and therefore, you wanted to prove to yourself that you weren't and take all these risks and survive?
CUMBERBATCH: I think that was definitely part of it. You're absolutely right. I - you know, I wasn't proud of my behavior that night. And I think also I wanted to - I think I wanted to understand what it is to not be forced to look over the edge but to actually do it willingly, doing it - do it of my own volition, to have control over that, you know, to feel like I had control again. You know, that's the other thing, when you're out of control and your behavior's out of control is to then sort of weirdly do something (laughter) that seems mad to a lot of sane people. And, you know, I'm not - It's weird. I'm not a big thrill-seeker. There's things I just - I'm not interested in. I do not want to do bungee jump. I have no interest in doing that at all. But I would gladly jump out of an airplane again. I love it. I did it quite a few times after that time.
GROSS: This is, in a way, where movies come into play. Like, there's so many scenes where somebody is on the verge of being killed, and they're such a wiseguy. I mean, they're, like, wisecracking, and it's funny, and they're, like, totally brave, and they don't flinch. And, like, real life is not that way. And, like, quipping probably would not have been (laughter) a very helpful response. And you've probably been in movies like that, too, you know, like, you know, the Marvel movies. And so I'm wondering how you feel about that, you know, about, like, the quipping in the face of death.
CUMBERBATCH: I think it's fine in Marvel films. I think we need an escape from the mess and the peculiarities and the - it's a relief from that. And, you know, there is a lot of reality in that. There is some cowardice or mistakes or ill decisions and responsibilities that have to be taken for those decisions in those films. I think, you know - but you're right. By and large, it's about standing up to something with a certainty and a sort of absolute power, which is not of the real world. And yeah, I mean, I play a sorcerer who throws magic at the problem and has great power from his insight into the mystic arts and how he can embody that and excavate that and externalize that through his hands and his ability to conjure things and use powers against adversity which aren't real, you know?
It's fantasy. It's like comparing kitchen-sink drama to Marvel. And yet at the same time, to really hook in and feel, you know, the punch but also feel the human element to these stories, you have to have actors who can bring in something authentic or something that in that moment feels of this world, as well as of the world of fantasy. You have to care. If you humanize the problems in these gigantic films and do it with the same kind of mess and humor as our normal facility as human beings, then you're kind of in as an audience because you can relate. And then you can maybe forgive the and just marvel at - no pun intended - the kind of more heightened nature of the fantasy.
GROSS: Well put. Thank you for that. Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Benedict Cumberbatch. He stars in the film "The Power Of The Dog." You can also see him in the new Marvel Universe movie "Spider-Man: No Way Home," where he plays Doctor Strange, and he is Doctor Strange in the "Doctor Strange" movies. So we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "MISS NANCY ARRIVES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Benedict Cumberbatch. He stars in the film "The Power Of The Dog." The film was named one of the 10 best films of 2021 by the American Film Institute, and Cumberbatch was named best actor for his performance in the film by the National Society of Film Critics and was just nominated for Best Actor Award by SAG, the Screen Actors Guild.
You became so famous in England and here playing Sherlock Holmes, a contemporary Sherlock Holmes, on the series "Sherlock." What was it like for you to first experience that level of fame? How did it compare to what you thought fame would be like?
CUMBERBATCH: I don't think I really knew what fame would be like beyond my mom being recognized in the supermarket every now and again. But I was not prepared for it. Nothing prepares you for it. There's no school or learning to be done there. It's just one of those kind of things that when it happens, you have to kind of negotiate. And I still find myself doing that day to day with the shifting circumstances of my life and my visibility, recognizability or not.
And it's - I just remember that particular night when "Sherlock" dropped that there is still a live audience. The watercooler moment was instantaneous. It was very early on in the days of Twitter, and Twitter just sort of blew up and I was trending. And I thought, what the hell does trending mean? I know what trends are. I used to, you know, have yo-yos and aerobies and skateboards or whatever at school. That's a trend. But, you know, so it was just a new language and a new way of receiving feedback. And it was immediate and sort of to the point that I expected after watching it at the producer and director's house - writer's house, sorry. Mark Gatiss was there with me at Sue Vertue and Steve Moffat's house, who collaborated and created, produced, co-wrote the show. I expected to walk out onto the street for sort of journalists to be out setting up helicopters and everyone would be coming out their front doors going, that was amazing because it was so hot online, you know? And yet you go out and it's just a cold night and get in a cab and go home.
And then slowly, things began to change. I remember stepping out of a hair appointment when I got my head dyed and cut just before the second series was shot, and it was like the whole street came to a standstill. But someone was like, oh, it's Sherlock. And then it just, you know, I - (laughter) it was very bizarre. And I remember promoting "Star Trek" and turning up to Tokyo, and the airport there, it was just crazy. There were like - you know, it was, like, 30 people deep, screaming fans, all with artwork and placards and chanting. And I just - I tried to normalize it by talking to them, but I looked like Pink Floyd, you know, in this massive arena. They said they hadn't had this kind of hysteria since the Beatles. And then Marvel going, oh, don't worry, we don't need to worry about you. We've got Chris Hemsworth, you know, and Robert Downey Jr.
And then they took me to Nepal, and within three days, we were being mobbed by hundreds of people in Durbar Square. I actually had to call up security once we were in a car and we were surrounded by people and the car was rocking. And I went, we're not moving, so I'm going to get out and we can make a run for it. I can explain to the people I have to go. I have to work and then get to somewhere where I can actually address people and say thank you and calm it down a bit.
But my - you know, the ability to be able to talk to large groups of people, that's a wonderful thing, the sort of platform it gives you for causes and concerns and just to be able to talk and just communicate with people who've connected to the work is fantastic. You know, the ever-shrinking island to privacy is an odd thing to deal with. And, you know, the advent of the mobile phone means everyone's a walking publisher. So I get a little bit shirty with my - when my family's around for certain. I'm very protective of them. That's when I become a little alpha male.
But it's very odd to walk into a room and know that people know you and you don't know anybody in that room or restaurant or whatever it might be. That's still - I'm still getting to grips with that because, ultimately, our job as actors is to observe and replicate and inhabit human behavior. And to do that, you need to sit amongst your subjects, and it's hard to do that anonymously when you get known. It's really back to front. You become - the observer becomes the observed. And, yeah, that shift is still tricky.
GROSS: It's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
CUMBERBATCH: You're very welcome.
GROSS: Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the new film "The Power Of The Dog." You can also see him in "Spider-Man: No Way Home" as Doctor Strange. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be New York Times reporter Thomas Gibbons-Neff, who has been covering Afghanistan. He first went there when he was serving in the Marines. He recently wrote about sitting down with the now-high-level Taliban commander, who in 2010 led a band of Taliban in a battle against the company of Marines in which Gibbons-Neff was serving as a corporal. They had tried to kill each other in that battle. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEFANO BOLLANI, JESPER BODILSEN, MORTEN LUND, MARK TURNER AND BILL FRISELL'S "EASY HEALING")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEFANO BOLLANI, JESPER BODILSEN, MORTEN LUND, MARK TURNER AND BILL FRISELL'S "EASY HEALING")
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