STACK caught up with Benedict Cumberbatch and renowned director Jane Campion to discuss their collaboration on the western drama, The Power of the Dog.
Most actors are delighted to tell you about the new skills they learned for their latest project and Benedict Cumberbatch is no different.
“For this, I had to learn how to be an a–hole,” he says bluntly as STACK chats with him and celebrated Kiwi director Jane Campion about their highly anticipated western psychodrama, The Power of the Dog.
Adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons play Phil and George Burbank, two brothers who own a large sprawling Montana ranch in the 1920s; New Zealand doubling for Montana.
Their lives will change forever upon the arrival of Kirsten Dunst’s widowed Rose and her almost adult son, Peter, portrayed by talented young Aussie actor Kodi Smit-McPhee.
This sweeping, tension-filled drama marks Campion’s return to the big screen following an absence of 12 years, during which she worked on TV series Top of the Lake, and she was excited to get back in the feature-film saddle again.
If the charismatic but cruel Phil inspires fear and awe in those around him, not least his brother whom he bullies and refers to as “Chubby”, then nobody can be more surprised than Phil when his mild-mannered brother wins Rose’s affections and marries her, the brothers’ relationship rapidly souring.
Therefore, the moment Cumberbatch arrived on The Power of the Dog’s New Zealand set, Campion instructed him to start acting the part.
“One thing that we started off with straight away when the rehearsal began was I said, ‘Okay Ben, I want to hear you say ‘no’ a lot. I never want to hear you say ‘thank you’ or ‘please. Everyone in this room knows what we’re up to, so get used to not explaining yourself, not being nice, not caring – and not washing’,” she adds with a laugh.
“I’m quite apologetic, and I’m a bit of a people-pleaser in life, so I had to learn to not be those things for Phil Burbank,” admits the actor best known to his Marvel fans as Doctor Strange. “And Phil is filled to the brim with a ludicrous amount of pretty superlative skills, with his hands mainly. I had to learn to whistle, too, and to ride a horse, and play the banjo. I didn’t have to learn to do taxidermy. But I went there because he does in the book.”
The not-washing factor was difficult for this usual pristine and well-manicured Brit, who was asked by Campion not to bathe for a week.
“There’s a lot of celebrity talk at the moment about washing and not washing. But this is purely character work,” quips Cumberbatch. “I’m not joining the elite non-washers. What do you do when you have it all? You don’t use the shower,” he teases.
But group dinners became uncomfortable for the actor, self-conscious of body odour. “When Jane took us out to a restaurant, that’s when it became really difficult. I was like, but these guys aren’t in the film. And I can sort of feel my body odour just pushing people away. I couldn’t sit comfortably then. But it was very helpful to do those things in rehearsal.”
Campion encouraged him to stay the course. “I think we understood, both of us, that we couldn’t leave a piece of ourselves unturned. As a director, I had to give it everything I had and, as an actor, there was no room for holding back either,” says the filmmaker, who enlisted LA therapist Kim Gillingham to do dream and psyche work with both her and Cumberbatch, the actor laughing about how his own dreams paled against Campion’s own vivid bursting orchid dreams.
Campion describes Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank as a “deeply complex central character, a brilliant but cruel, hyper-masculine cattle rancher”, adding that he is one of the “all-time great characters of American fiction.”
Cumberbatch agrees. “He’s so complicated and cruel but, as mean and unkind as he often is, he’s also the tormented lonely lover safe only by treasuring feelings from a long gone past. He is in an impossible situation of being an alpha male who is homophobic and also homosexual. It’s incredibly painful and complicated. I found Phil moving and I found the mysterious relationship between him and the boy exciting and satisfying.”
Campion’s script immediately captivated Cumberbatch. “When I read the novel as well as Jane’s script, I just completely fell for this extraordinarily complex and powerful and terrifying and brilliant and deeply damaged human being,” he says.
Eager to please his director, Cumberbatch enlisted in a “Dude Camp” in Montana, where he made Campion a horseshoe. “I don’t think it would fit any horse’s foot, but you kept it as a good luck memento… I hope. Otherwise, I want it back,” he quips.
Ranch life was a revelation: “There were lots of things that I hadn’t experienced, just the whole range of what goes on at a ranch, and the work that is involved with animals and people in that environment.
“I was intrigued by the alpha male aspect of it all. And I wanted to go to Montana. I wanted to walk the walk the earth and smell the air and just see the landscape and try and sense a little bit of the history that brought about this story based on Thomas Savage’s life. I had the most profound and extraordinary experience,” he recalls.
“There’s a huge power to Phil, a certain magnetism to him because there’s a superficial level at which his sensitivity and the flourish of his inner life is available to witness for all and sundry in his craftsmanship, his horsemanship, his braiding, his whittling, his iron mongering and his musicality. He is extraordinarily adept and sensual and delicate, as well as being a man who can slice off a testicle or two. His hands can be caked in blood and dirt, but they’re still capable of very intricate work on the fretboard of a banjo with light, thin steel strings,” says Cumberbatch.
“I think the book is one of the great American novels. It’s got everything. Montana is as rich a character as the lead four principles in this psychodrama of love and loss and revenge – and all in an era where so much is in flux. There’s an extraordinary perspective of American social injustice and prejudice, as well as the pioneering, dreamlike pull of landscape and its potential riches for those brave enough to tackle it,” he adds.
What Campion brings to the story, according to Cumberbatch, is “a particular brilliance, and a ravishing lens and perspective on sexuality, on gender, on beauty, on savagery. She’s not afraid of her vulnerabilities and so she encourages that in people’s work in order to find something that’s unexpected.”
At the centre of the film, we see Dunst’s Rose struggling to re-learn the piano, which immediately triggers a remembrance of Campion’s most celebrated film, The Piano.
“I didn’t notice it during the making of the film but, later, when I saw the film emerge, I realised that I had made a kind of companion piece, in a way, to The Piano,” says Campion, whose 1993 film marked the first time a female director won the Palme D’Or Award for Best Film at Cannes, going on to become one of only seven women ever to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar, taking home the Best original screenplay Oscar.
“Except that this one was dealing with masculine themes and exploring very complicated territory in the way that, I think, the original Piano with Holly Hunter explores the world from a woman’s point of view that perhaps hadn’t been seen before. So, in a way, I do see these two films as kind of bookends of my career.”
• The Power of the Dog is in cinemas now