‘Doctor Strange’: Benedict Cumberbatch on His Strange Journey to Becoming the Sorcerer Supreme

     September 27, 2016

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When you sit down to interview Benedict Cumberbatch on the set of Doctor Strange, you might expect to see him donning the character’s iconic semi-sentient red cape and the eye of Agamotto. You certainly don’t expect to see him in a weather-worn simplistic tunic and trousers with some seriously scraggly facial hair and evidence of possible frostbite. But that’s exactly what we got when I joined a team of journalists on the London set of the Scott Derrickson-helmed film. Far from the confident and sartorially superior superhero he will become, we caught Cumberbatch in an early scene, when Strange is only a nascent pupil at the Kamar-Taj, donning what Cumberbatch describes as his “first day of school” clothes.

With a delightful touch of theatricality, Cumberbatch walked into the press tent shivering in fits of spastic pretend cold with bits of fake snow spackled into his fake beard. He was also determinedly sticking to the American accent he dons as the latest headlining superhero to join Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe. You’ll have seen the set up in the trailers by now, which find Strange and the Ancient One on the peak of Mt. Everest, what you haven’t seen yet is what happens next when she leaves Strange on the peak of the mountain and leave it to him to prove his powers and make his way back to Kamar-Taj. Basically, The Ancient One is kicking baby bird out of the nest.

Spoiler alert: baby bird learns to fly. As we all know, he goes on to become the Sorcerer Supreme, but first he has to get there and that’s what the journey of Doctor Strange is all about. While on the set, we chatted with Cumberbatch about that journey, how he ended up in the role after years of fan casting, why The Cloak of Levitation can be “The Cloak of Limitations”, and Strange’s evolution from cocky neurosurgeon to the (still pretty cocky) Sorcerer Supreme. See what he had to say in the interview below.

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Image via Marvel

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: I bring greetings from Everest. Hello.

So why do you appear this way right now?

CUMBERBATCH: [To publicist] I mean, I gotta be able to tell them, right?  I just stepped out of a refrigerator—no, I mean, almost. I’ve been stranded on the side of Mount Everest. I don’t know what I can say. It’s such a weird process, I’m still not used to it. Yeah, I’ve been literally exposed, in what I’m wearing, to some of the coldest temperatures on earth and I’m struggling to get back the way I came to this place. So, it’s a short test of his abilities in this moment in time—I’m in an accent. It’s fine to be in an accent. I gotta stay in the accent, I gotta speak—So, he lives or dies by whether he can do this or not, so it’s an important moment to get back. That’s a long answer. I’m just coming back from Everest.

We saw the concept art of the different costumes and the different levels of training—

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, aren’t they amazing? This is novice, this is at the very beginning. You’ve got the green slacks and your little loose top. I go through all the ranks. I think it’s fair to say that, yeah, I’m playing Doctor Strange, I get there. (Voice from the set: “Can you keep it down?”) That’s me just me hearing the inner voice of Marvel saying, “You cannot say that yet!” But I do. It’s one of the things that attracted me to the role is the fact that it’s a really widely origin story, I mean this is part of it, but of course there’s the whole chapter before where he’s the neurosurgeon who has the accident. It’s fantastic. It gives me an excuse as an actor to be learning with my character, which is something you can do authentically–I’m not a martial arts expert, I’m certainly no sorcerer, so all these things, the movement of the body, the physicality, the changes he goes through mentally and physically, obviously we’re not shooting in sequence, but it’s a great part.

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Image via Marvel

It’s a great part for the character that made me want to play him in the first place. Yeah, this is him. First day of school kind of outfit. It seems to get not cooler, as in it looks cool, it gets warmer; it seems to get heavier and heavier, and the Cloak of Levitation, which is a dear friend, but sometimes at certain takes it becomes the Cloak of Limitations, because I can trip on it or I’ll be like, “Oh God, was my entire body moving like this?” But, you know, what superhero or what actor playing a superhero doesn’t complain about the costume? It’s a blast. It’s a real blast. Alex [Alexandra Byrne], our costume designer, she’s just, she’s such a fucking genius, I mean, she’s up there.

Why did you want to do this part?

CUMBERBATCH: I’ve never done a lead role in a film this big, in a franchise this big. One of the reasons was, I wanted to know what the toy box was like. And it’s just insane, the amount of facility that everyone gets, but the amount of artistry and craft that’s brought to every aspect of filmmaking. I mean, you go to your first costume fitting and it’s one of thirty. It’s a myriad, but it’s for a reason. There are so many incredible costumes in this. And you go through a process, I mean, my body shape changed with the training a little bit and then this movement, certain things brought into the choreography of the fights. So it’s—well, I need to be able to do this in it and they adapt the costume to your movements, which is another riveting part of the process. But to watch them do that craft, I mean, the real eye I had on his character, often the case with any film, but especially one like this, which is so visual and so based in illustrative language, was the artwork, the impressionistic artwork and movement at every stage of the story. So when I first walked into Alex’s room here, I just went, “Wow, this is great!“ And then I saw what they were gonna make Tilda look like, and–I didn’t know Mads was on then–where Kaecilius was gonna go, to give you a real understanding of what the world would look like. Some of Charlie Wood’s drawings. I mean he’s another genius.

Did you ever read the comics?

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Image via Marvel

CUMBERBATCH: No, not those. I had a very sparse comic upbringing—not because I was being whipped into reading Chekhov and Dickens, but I read Asterix on holidays when I was a kid, and Tin Tin was featured, I remember, for a few years. I was never geeky about anything. I never really got obsessed about one thing for long. I was a bit of a butterfly and a magpie. I’d shift disciplines, whether it was musical instruments or sports or whatever, and it’s the same with that. I really discovered him through hearing about this film and first meeting Scott and getting into it with Kevin and just opening up and saying, “Okay, this is, like all comics, very much of its era,” and my first question was, ‘How do you make this film? Why do you make this film now?’ and the answers were so enticing that I was like, “I’m in.”

Is there additional weight to the character and to the role, knowing that this is opening a whole new corner of this Marvel Universe that’s already existed?

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, a little, but I think playing any iconic role when you’re stepping into big shoes, into the shadow of people who have come before you and you can’t process that [inaudible]…I’m excited to see where the Illuminati and whatever else might happen, how that works, and where it ends up. So, yeah, I’m aware of his place within the comic pantheon of it all, the Marvelverse, but I don’t email Kevin saying, “When are we doing next film?” I’m excited to see. I’m excited to see. And as you know, from all these previous incarnations, they play out in unexpected ways from the comic format and journey, so they manage to both fulfill that magical space of doing things that seem to please diehard fans and bring something new as well. So, I guess that’ll be the centerpiece for this guy’s journey.

It seems like fans have been naming you for the role for years, I’m curious when it actually became real to you as something that was out there that you were interested in.

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Image via Marvel

CUMBERBATCH: Well really, when it was first talked about, I met with Kevin, I met with Scott and, timeline-wise, I can’t remember. I’ve been watching Making a Murderer and realizing how familiar that sounds, it’s really scary—but seriously, I can’t remember exactly when. But I remember—I think it goes two ways. I think you can just throw yourself at the internet’s mercy and be part of social media and get into a room with people who wanna fuck you, kill you, maybe some both at the same time, or you just take a little step back and do your own thing in your own world. And then stuff leaks through and you’re like, “Oh, that’s interesting, that’s terrific, that’s libelous, but what can I do?” [Laughs] You let things run in order to have some sanity and be able to do your work and not feel pre-judged. That’s not even a word, but you know what I mean. I think of people have an opinion about it so I guess I’m saying is that I was probably too scared to look into the fan writing on it.

But I’m flattered that people thought I was a good fit and maybe that resonated with the guys upstairs. It was hard at a point, because of the scheduling over this side of the Atlantic, so I’m just really—it’s a massive compliment to me and then to empower me to work for that idea of the character that they [inaudible] and then to accommodate my production of Hamlet and going into Sherlock season 4, so it’s another reason to deliver every day, to fulfill that promise. But it’s a really rich character. It’s an easy thing to have a good old meal every day. It’s great. Yeah, I’m excited. I was very nervous about doing the Entertainment Weekly cover, because I thought, “Okay, this is the first taste, this is the first visual moment.” By then I obviously knew a lot of the more iconic moments in his comic history, but still it’s me. It’s not a drawing, it’s not an artist; it’s me and I’m kinda frightened, but it seemed to go down really well and Kevin and everyone was happy and I just kinda stepped back and I went, “Great” and settled into the job. That way you can try to own part of it as well as serving what’s already there.

So much of what we learned today is how this movie is gonna be very different from what Marvel’s striving for. So I’m wondering if maybe there’s a touchstone that fans can maybe—

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Image via Marvel

CUMBERBATCH: You know, you guys have seen the artwork, you’ve heard what people have said, you’ve seen the sets, you can watch a bit of the action. You make your own minds up. I don’t want to put things and fantasies [in there] because the minute you do that, you get pitches, as an actor, like When Harry Meets Sally Meets Robocop 3, so I understand how—

When is that coming?

CUMBERBATCH: Right? That sounds good. I’m trying to make up some dialogue for that one. You know, it’s a shorthand that can be really misleading. This is not a get-out answer. I think, also, it’s just to let this breathe and be its own thing as well. You know, I’ve seen some of the artwork and it’s pretty—the visuals are way out there, but they’re very scientific as well as alternative, so there’s a bit of everything of the original, but really spiced up.

We obviously know Strange’s story already, so how does his personality evolve from being, you know, the cocky neurosurgeon to a Sorcerer Supreme?

CUMBERBATCH: He’s still quite cocky by the end of the film. No, I’d say the major curve for him is that he learns that it’s not all about him, that there’s a greater good. But what he thinks he was doing as a neurosurgeon, that was good because it benefitted people’s health was really just a furtherment of his attempts to control death and control his own fate and other people’s, but that’s still driven by the ego. So he becomes more “ego-less,” but he’s, I would say, more lonely maybe by the end of the film. I would say that he’s a kick-ass sorcerer by the end of the film, so that’s a major change. But I mean, really, the guy goes through everything you could possibly imagine, I mean he’s a guide of his profession, he’s completely in control of his life, yet there are things missing which are quite obvious, but it’s a good life and then he has this car crash, and becomes obsessed with healing himself and not realizing that really healing is something beyond just becoming what he used to be that he needs to foster something that he has within him. It’s all from the same drive.

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Image via Marvel

The guy, he’s like most of us, he’s uncorrupted flesh from the beginning of his life, he’s somebody who’s not marked with original sin or any kind of crap like that. He’s somebody who’s come into this world and had experiences that have shaped him to the point that we first meet him. There’s always got to be leverage. I think there is some clear explanation of that within this film, but potentially further down the line…for more of that to come out as well. He’s difficult, he’s arrogant, but he’s kind of brilliant and charming and you’d think, “Yeah, I’d want him on my head if I needed brain surgery.” He’s good enough to warrant his arrogance and he respects other people but not when he thinks he’s right and he’ll just do what he deems needs to be done when he knows or feels that he’s right and the problem from humility’s point of view is that he is right, he’s really really good at his job. So, his brilliance feeds his kind of ego, his defensive, unimpeachable perfected-ness. So, I don’t know, you get a guy, I mean, the hard arc is from someone who lives in New York, is a top neurosurgeon, top pay,  more meritocratic maybe, someone with the skill and the hard work, junior doctor, junior surgeon, now a top neurosurgeon who has earned his way into the top pay of society, to have nothing. Nothing at all. No spiritual center, no hands, no money, nobody in his life he will let near him, to care for him anymore, and then he has to build himself up again from the very bottom and he’s a desperate man by the time he reaches Kathmandu. As he goes into this thing which is a million miles away from any worldview or belief system he’s ever entertained, so it’s desperation that leads him to the path of the Ancient One and the spiritual…and then all hell breaks loose.

Catch up with all our coverage from the Doctor Strange set visit in the links below and stay tuned for more.

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Image via Marvel

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