Benedict Cumberbatch: Playing unravelling characters like Dominic Cummings is 'enthralling in a perverse way'

28 May 2024, 15:55 | Updated: 6 June 2024, 12:30

'It’s enthralling to me in a sort of perverse way': Benedict Cumberbatch on playing Dominic Cummings
'It’s enthralling to me in a sort of perverse way': Benedict Cumberbatch on playing Dominic Cummings. Picture: Global / Netflix

By Danielle De Wolfe

Benedict Cumberbatch has opened up about the appeal of playing unravelling characters including Dominic Cummings, Dr Strange and Hamlet, describing the roles as "enthralling to me in a sort of perverse way.”

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Speaking in an interview with Andrew Marr ahead of his forthcoming Netflix release Eric, the 47-year-old Doctor Strange and Sherlock star touched on the parallels between his past and present roles - including that of Cummings.

“This is very much a Russian Doll story about layers; layers of who a certain person is," Cumberbatch explained, with Marr going on to draw parallels between Eric and that of Number 10 political strategist, Cummings.

“As an actor, I want to mess around in the worst of us to understand what the best of us is," he told Marr when pushed on the unravelling of his on-screen characters.

Cumberbatch starred as former Number 10 advisor and strategist as part of the 2019 HBO television film Brexit.

"It’s that journeying through the dark to reach some kind of light," he explained, adding: “It’s enthralling to me, in some kind of perverse way, I guess, but It’s what drives me to do these characters justice and give something authentic to them... it's to realise that if we don’t do that, we have no chance of change.”

Now, the actor has added yet another gritty role to his repertoire, that of on-screen puppeteer Vincent whose life begins to unravel following the disappearance of his son.

Andrew Marr is joined by Benedict Cumberbatch

Based in New York City in 1985, Eric is a film that captures the city at a crucial intersection where cultural crises are concerned.

“This is a fable about when institutions fail us and surprise, surprise, we’re still there almost 40 years on from Gordon Gekko’s ‘Greed is Good’ - and I wonder why?” explains the actor, referencing Wolf of Wall Street's real-life character.

Set against the backdrop of the AIDS pandemic, homelessness, homophobia and institutional racism in the New York Police Department (NYPD), Cumberbatch says Eric's script left him “wondering if I’m talking about 1985 or now”.

Asked by Marr whether the world beneath the streets of New York acts as a metaphor for the divisions within society - likening the premise to hit Netflix show Stranger Things, Cumberbatch explains: “The Mole People were a real thing and I see what you mean, I think there is a play on that.

"Only by going below the superficial surface of a very colourful, texturally brilliant and inventive pop culture can we actually get the seating mass of humanity as it is - which is these people who have literally and figuratively fallen through the cracks.”

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Describing his character as "pretty toxic", Cumberbatch says his latest project, written by BAFTA-winning writer Abi Morgan (Shame, The Split) is something of a Russian Doll story.

“It’s about societal failure at a domestic level, in the family, it’s also about societal failure in a larger political sense - city hall and the police department, and what happens when those things fail to hold us as individuals and particularly in this case, children."

The Imitation Game star also touched on society's tolerance to bad behaviour where creatives are concerned, noting his character, to a certain extent, gets an “easy pass” because of his abilities.

“As far as an easy pass, I don’t know that losing your job, your house, your child, your wife, your career is an easy pass," Cumberbatch rebuffs, before conceding that early in the story, his character's behaviour is tolerated.

"I think that’s why the house of cards has to tumble, it’s been a long time coming..." he says. "It’s quite interesting your point, artists of old - there’s that power and that prowess and that entitlement for toxic behaviour that’s created around figures of note in the arts - and we all need to be kept in check.”

Benedict Cumberbatch as Vincent in forthcoming Netflix mini-series, Eric.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Vincent in forthcoming Netflix mini-series, Eric. Picture: Netlfix

Describing his character as ‘pretty toxic’, Cumberbatch says the project is "not just learning from history - we are still living from the actions of that time”

He added that the way in which institutions are unable to help those most at risk in society continues to be “terrifying”.

“In Vincent’s case, we see him there at the beginning of his Odyssey, it’s a very, very testing and dark one. And he comes out of it at the point of salvation - and I think, redemption.

“I think it’s important to relay the human being behind the crisis - and to see he does do something mildly heroic in turning that oil tanker of pain and toxicity around.”

Describing how it's easy to "just paper over the cracks", Cumberbatch told Marr that the issue centres around society's ability to "listen" and the need for "vulnerability".

“Eric is many things, he’s a shadow self, he’s a nanny, he’s an enabler, he’s all sorts of jumbled voices of the self for Vincent, but at the core what he is is the lead back to his child.

"It's a beautiful thing," Cumberbatch adds.

Listen to the full interview on Tuesday 28 May on Tonight with Andrew Marr on LBC at 6pm.

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