“This is a window into English society and a particular story and a very cherished character that is very unusual, I think, in dramatic terms,” Benedict Cumberbatch says of Patrick Melrose, the limited series about addiction and abuse at the enriched upper echelon that concludes tomorrow on Showtime. “We have seen the deprivations of addiction and sexual abuse in many courses of society, maybe not as much in this course of English society and so yes, it’s a very different take on something we know from other dramas,” the Emmy winner and Oscar nominee adds.
As devotees of Edward St. Aubyn’s Booker Prize-nominated books know, the story of the fast-witted and deeply wounded Melrose ends with a 2005 funeral, some forgiveness and a new start of sorts. Of course, as Cumberbatch admits, it is quite the journey – which is in many ways the point of the series co-starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hugo Weaving, Prasanna Punwanarajah and Allison Williams.
While Cumberbatch firmly declined to discuss his recent halting of an attack on a London cyclist by muggers, the actor was very chatty about the Melrose bucket-list project, which he led and produced as well. In addition, having disappeared in a puff of dust in his role of Dr. Strange in the blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War, Cumberbatch spoke of what’s next for Marvel’s supreme sorcerer. He also offered some insight on whether a return to Baker Street in his award-winning Sherlock is in the offing, his upcoming Brexit project and why grownups need to sit down and speak forthrightly about who is paid what.
DEADLINE: Unlike a lot of adaptations, the Patrick Melrose limited series stayed pretty true to the five Patrick Melrose books by Edward St. Aubyn. Was that a difficult path to stay on when the small-screen medium has its own possibilities for telling the story?
CUMBERBATCH: I was very nervous about it, despite it being a bucket-list role because I knew the books had quite rightfully a variety of very passionate of devotees and they are difficult to adapt. There’s such rich source material and extraordinary set pieces in the books as they are.
DEADLINE: Such as, because you obviously melded a few different parts together at times too.
CUMBERBATCH: Such as the near-schizoid episode of voices fighting for control of him, in that moment of possession in the hotel room. When he’s pushing himself to the very limit of his capacity to consume drugs, at near a suicidal limit, and that sort of leaps off the pages and actually, like oh my God, that would be an extraordinary thing to try and play or portray.
CUMBERBATCH: Well, that horror show of internal voices and the struggle they all make for the demands on him and how powerful an influence they are on him and so I took that scene and tried to rework it. I am not a writer, but I looked back to the book and I took another section and I wanted it to ramp up to a confrontation with his father, with him like brother, like Hamlet — or some productions of Hamlet — being consumed by his father’s spirit and impersonating his father’s voice and that being the source of near-cliff-edge moments.
And there were countless other moments: the scenes with HRH, the confrontations with his mother, with his father, the dinner scene in what is in Book One but Episode 2 of ours. The whole story leads towards that fateful day when he’s first abused by his father.
DEADLINE: Now it’s funny, Benedict, that you mentioned Hamlet because obviously you did Hamlet not too long ago on stage in London.
CUMBERBATCH: (laughs) Dominic, it’s entirely purposeful.
DEADLINE: Purposeful perhaps, but your Patrick is a very different look at the English upper class than audiences are used to on this side of the pond.
CUMBERBATCH: You know, this is a window into English society and a particular story and a very cherished character that is very unusual, I think, in dramatic terms. We have seen the deprivations of addiction and sexual abuse in many courses of society, maybe not as much in this course of English society, and so yes, it’s a very different take on something we know from other dramas.
DEADLINE:Patrick Melrose the series has received a lot of acclaim, but still, do you think that new and much harsher perspective on the country house backdrop, a favorite subject matter, is potentially jarring to an American audience?
CUMBERBATCH: I know it’s quite a stretch to ask an audience to go on this journey. It’s not an easy watch but God knows it wasn’t an easy life and it’s certainly not an easy journey that Patrick goes on, so pity the audience but pity the subject even more. I think it’s fantastic that people have stuck with it.
DEADLINE: Clearly Edward’s books are the primary window, as you said, through which we view this look at addiction. So how — besides an obvious path not taken — did you, director Edward Berger and others on the production seek to capture a genuine insight on the matter?
CUMBERBATCH: We were very much advised by two people who were addicts as well as having been very honest about his own experiences. I didn’t want to alienate that world at all. I wanted them to feel, however, uncomfortable the watch might be, that we were being accurate. But also, I think that this is a story of salvation, so it’s universal. You don’t have to have experienced the trauma that he has on any level to go on the journey.
DEADLINE: How so?
CUMBERBATCH: I think that’s a testament to Teddy’s work, that it is so sort of surreal, I guess, that it goes beyond class and era even. It’s something that, yes, he is, as one of the characters said, a well healed addict, but we see him very nearly hitting rock bottom. And as you probably know, and I certainly know as in research wise, you sit around a table or in a group meeting and every walk of life is in that room from the Wall Street banker to the guy on the street corner. You know, addiction takes in all of us.
DEADLINE: Speaking of addiction taking us all in, there are two other roles you’ve played that have elements of that in them in Sherlock Holmes and to a lesser degree, Stephen Strange. So, it is incumbent upon me to ask if you will be returning to those roles, especially after the way the Strange character ends up at the end of Avengers: Infinity War.
CUMBERBATCH: (laughs) Oh, Strange? Just try to stop me. That’s all kind of lined up as far as I’m aware, but who knows? I mean, you know, the problem is, how does he get out of where he’s at. But that’s the only thing. I’m bits of dust at the moment as far as I understand. So you really have to ask (Marvel Studios president) Kevin Feige. But as far as wanting to do it, yeah, I would love to go back into that role.
As far as wanting to do Sherlock, I am having a great time at the moment doing other things, but we never say never.
DEADLINE: Putting your money where your mouth is, a matter you did have something to say about recently was pay equity and that its time or time’s up on not having a frank and fair discussion about that. From the remarks you gave to Radio Times magazine and the stance of your SunnyMarch production company, this is a priority for you but how do you think it needs to be addressed?
CUMBERBATCH: It’s important for us to acknowledge the pay gap and to do something about deliberately making a stance to correct that. It will take a great deal of effort, not just from women trying to break through but also men offering parity. I just think people need to know that men are supportive of this. I can only speak for myself, so I’m not speaking for mankind, but just to say that I think it’s incumbent on me and my position to seek and understanding, and what has to start with all this is transparency about such issues. Not in the public domain but between artists and their management and producers and that conversation, I can guarantee, is already starting to happen
CUMBERBATCH: Absolutely. Look, it’s just a taboo subject. So, if it’s to change, we all need to sit around a table and act like grownups and go, “This is the pie and this is how the pie came to the table. This is how much of the pie you’re contributing, so there’s how much you should eat and it’s got nothing to do with gender and everything to do with parenting the workplace.”
DEADLINE: Your workplace will see you shifting from addiction as a theme to Brexit, with a script for Channel 4 by James Graham about leading Leave strategist Dominic Cummings. This is more television for you but also a one-off. Is that a matter of preference for the small-screen medium or scheduling?
CUMBERBATCH: Well, a bit of both, I guess. It’s an extraordinary script. They are few and far between, those standalone moments where you know this is a moment. This is a piece that has incredible cultural resonance with what’s going on in our country and the revelations. it was just a brilliant, brilliant read.
DEADLINE: It was the prose not the politics that drew you in?
CUMBERBATCH: I just thought I have to do this. It’s sort of an extraordinarily brilliant eye opener and you know we’ve heard a lot it, a lot of revelations, through the feed of media with drama sometimes have a better ability to crystalize complex and disparate narratives into an hour or two-hour long format, in this case. It can condense those complex arguments into one piece of drama and then people can sit back and investigate the truth behind the drama and make their own decisions. It’s extraordinary to read a script about a story you know the outcome to and be as thrilled and held in suspense and as enthralled as I was when I first read James’ brilliant, brilliant script.
He’s a very interesting character, Dominic Cummings, a brilliant man. Yes, he obviously very much divides people as this argument does. It’s polarized a nation, so it’s an important thing for us to examine, I think, as storytellers. It’s not telling anyone what to think, it’s just going well this is what we know now and this is it in dramatic form about events that happened that weren’t necessarily in the public domain It’s kind of fascinating and it blew my mind when I read it and I can’t wait for people to see it.
DEADLINE: Earlier you called Patrick Melrose a bucket-list project for you, but, with so much shifting in time and space — and that’s not a Doctor Strange reference — why now to take it on?
CUMBERBATCH: You know, these books lay out a very particular set of circumstances and the personal dilemma of them. So, of course, the older you get the wiser you get for whatever reason, but I think for these books, I had to be somewhere in the balance of his age.
The beauty of having that prose as a tool to characterize that dynamic is that they are so rich in their detail and their back story, in the depth of analysis of internal working of this man as well as wider positions and lenses on the human condition, or some certain strata of English society or politics, or general attitudes. Whether they be sexual, or to do with parenting, it’s all there in the material.