Benedict Cumberbatch Talks WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and 'The Fifth Estate'

The actor describes his process in portraying this controversial figure in director Bill Condon's upcoming drama, in theaters October 18th.
Benedict Cumberbatch discusses playing Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate
Benedict Cumberbatch discusses playing Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate
Benedict Cumberbatch has already had a big year, starring as Khan in the summer blockbuster Star Trek Into Darkness, but his year is only getting started. This fall, he also stars in August: Osage County, 12 Years a Slave, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and the highly-anticipated WikiLeaks drama The Fifth Estate, in theaters October 18. The actor portrays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in this story about the controversial website's rise and fall, directed by Bill Condon. Benedict Cumberbatch recently took part in roundtable interviews for this highly-anticipated drama. Here's what he had to say.

We heard you were described by Daniel (Brühl) as a real Sherlock. He would see you in the morning, you would sit there and say all of these things you managed to observe that were totally accurate. So you've taken the role to heart or the role was just something that was inevitable in your life because you are Sherlock Holmes?

Benedict Cumberbatch: He's very flattering, but no, I'm a far way off his brilliance.

Okay. And you've got so much this fall coming out.

Benedict Cumberbatch: It's really exciting.

This movie, the Sherlock new series, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Have you stopped working? Have you had a week off in the past year?

Benedict Cumberbatch: Apparently I had ten days in the summer, but they went by in a bit of a blur. It's been a very, very busy year, but it's an embarrassment, the riches. I'm loathe to complain about them, I'm really enjoying it, and you know, as my erstwhile character Sherlock says, you know, a new job is as good as a change, or change is as good as a rest even. I think that's what he says. But yeah, it is an amazing time at the moment, and I'm really enjoying it.

How did you enjoy the hair in this movie?

Benedict Cumberbatch: I kind of did, I kind of did, and they eyes were a little bit more arduous. I quite liked, I had a kind of skunky badger thing with white run hair my normal sort dark hair on top - I did love the fact that for about six months last year, both in August: Osage County and in 12 Years a Slave, I had my own color hair, which is great. But I really, I quite enjoyed it, I quite enjoyed putting the wigs on.

Does it take you there, like when you put on the wig?

Benedict Cumberbatch: It does a bit. Yeah, of course it does. I think the first time I put it on, and I kind of came into the room, people were like "Oh, wow!" And that's a great thrill when you think, okay, well, something's working. I mean, I think he's got softer features, and I mean, I think I'm a little more angular, which sometimes makes me look a little weird and creepy with some of the wigs, and that's not the intention at all. I just think that's just the way I look and that's not, you know, we weren't trying to do that, but that's just the different bone structure. I've got a longer face, he's got a rounder face, so you know, it was a challenge. The harder thing was the contact lenses because I've never worn them before. They're brilliant at it now.

What color are your eyes?

Benedict Cumberbatch: It's just when you get to - brown eyes? No, blue. Well, I've got light aquamarine, greeny kind of things. It changes, whatever kind of light, I guess, is stronger, or color is stronger. But mine are lighter, that's the thing, much, much lighter than his, and in certain lights his are just this really deep, rich kind of blue, and in other lights, they're kind of slatey gray or dark, and so I wanted to kind of tone down my eyes a little bit, so that, as well as the teeth here, as well, I had a new set of kind of prosthetic teeth and a slightly bigger lip here to kind of push that forwards 'cause I've got a very big bottom lip and it's just we have a slightly different structure to our faces, so I wanted to try and experiment with that a little bit. But that with the accent and the dialect, and also you know, the slight lisp as well, the hard ridge lisp, so it's not a frontal, it's like a shh, so it's like that, you know. That was a huge change, I had a fantastic dialect coach called Sarah Shephard that helped me with that.

He's such an arrogant, brilliant person. I mean, he knows he's smart, but you know, he doesn't care about other people.

Benedict Cumberbatch: That's your opinion.

Did you talk to Bill about making Julian Assange somebody that the audience, if they couldn't quite identify with him, they wouldn't hate him?

Benedict Cumberbatch: It was important to me to portray him as a three-dimensional human being and not get into a slagging match about whether he was good or bad. I wanted to portray human characteristics about a man at the forefront of an incredible media revolution, with incredible ideas, whose controversy was borne out of that primarily and not get bogged down in character assassinations which is so easy to come by, because people want a headline, they want to grab something and run with a two-dimensional story. And I like the way the film tackles that and I like the way that Julian talks about his appraisal in The New York Times as getting equal bidding for the state of his socks, as for collateral murder, kind of highlights that idiocy. So it was important to me to portray him in a balanced way.

I read that you communicated with Julian Assange and at one point he attempted to dissuade you from doing the project. Can you describe your communications with him and what ways those informed you?

Benedict Cumberbatch: I tried to justify my reasons for doing the project and that was where that ended.

You weren't going to step out because Julian asked you not to?

Benedict Cumberbatch: It mattered to me a lot that he felt so passionately, but I wanted to persuade him that it wasn't necessarily going to be as bad as he feared it would be, both from the script he'd had leaked to him, which is a very old draft, I don't even think I ever saw that draft, but yeah.

Was your comunication via email?

Benedict Cumberbatch: Yeah.

That was my question. So was it just a couple exchanges back and forth?

Benedict Cumberbatch: Yeah. And private between us. Yeah.

The film was very much from kind of Daniel's perspective and through his filter.

Benedict Cumberbatch: From the perspective of the film, none, because you concentrate how you are in the moment that you are in the film, so if people are commenting about your character or reacting to your character, that's drama, you know, it's not something you worry about. You get on with playing your intention in a given moment and when the action changes in the scene you think about what your characteristic is and how that will inform what tactics you use to therefore, you know, get what you want out of the scene as a character and that's kind of how I go about my daily work.

There's so much material that you could use to kind of pull together things for this. I mean, there's interviews. What kind materials did you go to when you were working on the Assange character?

Benedict Cumberbatch: As much as I could. A lot, an awful lot. It was important to, you know, to concentrate on what we were doing, which is making a film, a dramatization of events. So while it was informative, it was important for me to always remember that this is a perspective, not the perspective. I think the film's central message is there's no such thing as objective truth, there's always going to be a personal truth and you have to, I think, take the inspiration of this film is that it is about people journalism, it's about something that's powered by individuals, it's not about a consensus, and I think that's probably how the film will be greeted and reacted to, and I mean, that's no bad thing.

I think Julian's intoxicating. I think that someone who has power like that, an interpreted power, is intoxicating. What do you think about that?

Benedict Cumberbatch: I think it's really complicated and it's really for those two to disseminate it, not me as an actor outside of it. I think, you know, but in a moment of drama, you have empathy for your character, so I see his perspective as strongly as I can as now as an audience see both perspectives. It's a very complex relationship, and two very complex characters. Daniel is no stooge, you know, he's not this follower, he's a smart guy, he's an activist, he's incredibly, you know, pragmatic. He's not just a sort of blind acolyte. I think Julian has a magnetic hold over people and I think he's an incredible spokesperson for an extraordinary idea that was borne out of his realization of it. And you know, he has very complex relationships with people because of that.

We see flashes when he mentions things about his past. "I have a 19 year old son." Did you see that as sort of letting the audience see another side of him, to sort of understand where he's coming from?

Benedict Cumberbatch: On a level, yes, because, you know, I think the kind of banner headline, as I might have said in here, I'm beginning to get a bit blurred about what I've said in here or next door, but you know, the kind of perception of him in a tabloid sense is very two-dimensional. The character assassinations came hot on the foot of all the kind of shifting perspectives and press war and everything that went on at the time of the leak, so I think a lot of people's perspective on him is very crude. So anything that flashes out who he is as a three-dimensional human being I think is to his benefit, and god knows what he'll think of that, but as an audience I think you can understand more of someone when they are part of something that's universal to all of us. And while, you know, I think it's very clear he doesn't want the message to get confused with the messenger, and that's happened. We obsess about that, I think, in culture, all the time. We can't just take an actor's work, we need to know everything about their personality. We can't just take a politician's stance, again, we need to know what it is that relates us, and I'm not saying that's a good or a bad thing, but sometimes I think it can corrupt what a heart is, you know, an extraordinary thing.

Do you see a link between Julian, who is so brilliant, and as I said earlier, kind of arrogant, with Sherlock, who is also brilliant and perceived as arrogant and maybe some people have said he's got Asperger's. He doesn't relate to people.

Benedict Cumberbatch: I think it's a pretty obvious but slightly lazy association. I think they're very, very different characters, for obvious reasons. You tell me, because what you're saying is obvious, is the link, so I'm intrigued to know if you can spot any differences.

Well, I didn't think about it until just now, but you're an actor in them.

Benedict Cumberbatch: Yeah, but I don't need to impact as an audience, do you know what I mean? I think it's pretty obvious. I mean, if you're saying that I conform to a type in my work, then yeah, there are crossovers, I'm sure, but have a look at "Little" Charles in August: Osage County and William Ford as well, 'cause they're nothing like Julian or Sherlock. And that's not me being defensive, that's me explaining that I think there are subtle - well, huge differences, actually, between Sherlock and Julian.

Talk a little bit about August: Osage County. We can't wait to see it.

Benedict Cumberbatch: Me neither. I still haven't seen it, so I can't talk to you much about it. I play "Little" Charles, who's this adorable, really, lost soul who is trying to find a place in the world that's sort of, ah, it kind of cuts him out. He's in love with someone that's very close to him and that has to remain a secret, and it kind of tears him apart, and he's constantly being belittled by a sort of destructively loving and protective mother, because of the secret surrounding who he really is, and he's a pretty tragic figure but rather a beautiful soul. He's an alright singer and songwriter. But yeah, I love that job. I mean, I loved the play. And when I heard they were doing it I said, I've got to audition this, but there's only - I said, I'd kill to play that part, are you kidding me? And to sit round that table and watch Meryl (Streep), I mean all of us were just in awe. I mean, it's an amazing table to sit round, but all of us just kind of forgot to act in character because were just in an audience going - astonishing. Astonishing.

What was it like to work with Meryl Streep?

Benedict Cumberbatch: Like that. I mean, it really was spectacularly - it was very, very inspiring. It was very inspiring. I know every actor says that that works with her, but it really was. It's a trip, it's an absolute trip.

You asked her a question about acting, and you said something about...

Benedict Cumberbatch: Well, because you know, I was about to - what was I about to do? Assange, I think it was, I think Julian was the next project. So I said, you know, where do you start with - 'cause obviously with Julian, I'm not Australian, I don't have the same speech pattern as him, other physical attributes and differences, his withholding himself, his gestures, all that sort of thing. So I kind of said to her, 'cause she was just doing this incredible delivery, she was playing someone with esophageal cancer, it was high on drugs, downers, it was getting drunk at her husband's wake, it was turning vulnerable into attack into lost into knowing into sexy, vampy. The gear shifts were sublime. And I just wondered how she was playing this orchestra of a performance, you know, and I said, well, chicken and egg, cart and horse, what gives? And she went, 'I don't know. I don't really, I mean, with this it was different, I mean, all of it came at once. How about you?' Oh, thank fuck for that, 'cause I don't have a method, I wasn't schooled in a method necessarily. I mean, I've got tools that I carry around very gratefully from my time at drama school and also what I've learned by working with people like Meryl and great directors like Bill Condon and Danny Boyle and Tomas Alfredson, I been so spoiled with the roster of talent I've worked with. So and like we both agreed, if you have one way of approaching it, it kind of limits what you do and also what other people can do with you, so it was reassuring, it was really reassuring. It's a really nice moment.

The Fifth Estate was released October 18th, 2013 and stars Peter Capaldi, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stanley Tucci, Carice van Houten, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Dan Stevens. The film is directed by Bill Condon.


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