As Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, with Daniel Brühl as Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

The Chameleon: Benedict Cumberbatch

20th September 2013

From intelligent good guy Sherlock to Star Trek villain Khan, now Benedict Cumberbatch occupies the middle ground as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate…

Al Gordon talks to

Benedict Cumberbatch is on a roll. Coming off the back of a brilliant villainous turn in Star Trek Into Darkness, he’s now playing WikiLeaks co-founder and editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, in the controversial The Fifth Estate, which has just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.

In his career to date, Cumberbatch, 37, has acquired an Olivier Award, four BAFTA nominations, two Emmy Award nominations and a Golden Globe nomination. He’s also just been honoured by BAFTA Los Angeles with a Britannia Award for British Artist of the Year for his ‘masterful performances in television, film and theatre’. Given this fine pedigree, it’s pretty likely that he’ll be receiving more nominations in the near future following his portrayal of the complex and fascinating Assange. It’s a role, he says, that demanded a careful approach, considering the political outcast’s trial by media and treatment, and by the authorities whose dealings he exposed.

“I was just keen to do something that personalised and made him human; that showed there were universal qualities to him,” the 37-year-old says. “He’s a father, he’s somebody who’s had a childhood, he has a sense of humour, he’s got profound integrity and worked to create an idea into reality. I think a lot of people can at least empathise with that, and then discussions can evolve as to whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but he’s not context-less as a human being; he came from somewhere.”

It’s a sweet irony that Cumberbatch’s assessment of Assange is so thoughtful; the man himself steadfastly opposed the film and refused to co-operate with its mmakers. “I did try to contact him,” Cumberbatch says. “I would have loved to have met him … being in front of a live subject is far more productive and informing than working from a photograph or any kind of interface that’s not you being in the same room as that person.” He continues to regret the opportunity lost. “I sadly didn’t get the chance… but I respect his standpoint and I reasoned in my communication with him that I thought it was not totally well-founded.”
Cumberbatch strikes as a man that likes to put a positive spin on a turn of events. “I think there was a lot to celebrate in our version of the story, because what it does to my mind is bring back into the focus how important WikiLeaks is as an idea and the integrity of that idea. And personal politics aside, it really does show what an extraordinary achievement that was, and that was Julian, and that’s a celebration of his ability and what WikiLeaks continues to do. It’s a debate that’s ever-present in our media right now. This is something that affects our daily lives.”

Despite a ten page email from Assange, sent the day before filming was due to start in Iceland, asking him not to do the movie – “It was sort of expected but his arguments were very strong and I had some very strong counterarguments” – Cumberbatch went ahead and began a physical transformation that would lead to, hopefully, an authentic portrayal. Those who have met both men are startled by the accuracy with which the actor has captured his subject.

“I’ve got a very different face from him and I can pull apart the differences physically between us, but there’s enough to do in terms of an interpretation of a character without being an impersonation of him,” Cumberbatch says. “There are always going to be differences, and it was a tricky aspect of the job. But you can’t get too obsessed by it because, at the end of the day, you have got to perform the task that’s in front of you. You have only got what is available, which is our height, build, and there are similarities. There are countless things like personality and physical ticks and vocal qualities, so you work a way towards it and then, like everything you do, you prepare. But if you obsess about it all the time, it would be completely paralysing!”

Cumberbatch is something of a chameleon. Away from The Fifth Estate, he’s soon to be seen reprising the title role in the third series of the BBC’s Sherlock, and then as Smaug – a 400-year-old fire-breathing dragon – in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit sequels. “That I would say is probably the most far-reaching opposite of who I am!” he laughs. Hmmm. I wonder…

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