Benedict Cumberbatch On Playing Julian Assange In 'The Fifth Estate' And Comparisons With Sherlock

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Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate opposite Daniel Bruhl (as Daniel Berg).

We heard what he thinks about people who compare this role with his Sherlock persona - "an obvious and lazy association" and why he took on the role, despite Julian Assange's efforts to dissuade him...

Q: Benedict, I heard you were described by Daniel as a real Sherlock. He would see you in the morning and you would sit there and say all these things that you managed to observe that were totally accurate. So have you taken the role to heart or was the role something that was inevitable in your life because you are Sherlock Holmes?

Benedict Cumberbatch: He’s very flattering but no. I’m far off of his brilliance.

benedict cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch

Q: You’ve got so much coming out at the moment, 'Twelve Years a Slave', this movie, the new 'Sherlock' series and 'The Hobbit'. Have you stopped working? Have you had a week off in the last year?

BC: Apparently I had ten days in the summer but they went by in a bit of a blur. It’s been a busy, busy year but it’s an embarrassment of riches that I’m loathe to complain about. I’m really enjoying it.

As my character Sherlock says, “A new job is as good as a change” so change is as good as the rest even. Let’s see how badly I can misquote him let alone behave like him. It’s been an amazing time and I’m really enjoying it.

Q: How did you enjoy the hair in this movie?

BC: I kind of did. The eyes were a little bit more arduous. I had a kind of skunky badger thing with the white hair. I did love the fact that for about six months last year, in this and 'Twelve Years a Slave', I had my own color hair, which is great. But I quite enjoyed putting the wig on.

benedict cumberbatch julian assange

Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange

Q: Does it take you there, putting the wig on?

BC: Of course it does. The first time I put it on and came into the room, people were like, “Wow” and that’s a great thrill and you think that something’s working. I think he’s got some different features and 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. That’s just the way that I look.

We weren’t trying to do that. It’s just the different bone structure. I’ve got a longer face, he’s got a rounder face. It was a challenge. The harder thing was the contact lenses because I’ve never worn them before. They’re brilliant at them now.

Q: So he has brown eyes?

BC: Brown eyes, no. Blue. I’ve got kind of light aquamarine, greeny type of things. It changes in the light I guess, the color is stronger, but mine are lighter, much, much lighter than his. In certain lights, it’s these rich, deep kinds of blue and in other lights it’s like a grey or dark so I wanted to tone down my eyes a little bit. That as well as the teeth. I had a new set of prosthetic teeth and a slightly bigger lip here because I have a big bottom lip. We have a slightly different structure to our faces so I wanted to try and experiment with that a little bit. And the accent and the dialect and the slight lisp as well. That was the huge challenge. I had a fantastic dialect coach called Sarah Shepard that helped me with that.

MORE: Benedict Cumberbatch Has A Young Doppelgänger

Q: He’s such an arrogant, brilliant person. He knows he’s smart but he doesn’t care about other people. Did you talk to Bill about making Julian Assange about someone who if the audience doesn’t identify with, at least they wouldn’t hate him?

BC: It was important for 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 character came out of that primarily and not get bogged down in character assassination which is so easy to come by because people want a headline to run with.

They want a two dimensional story. I like the way the film tackles that and I like the way Julian talks about his appraisal in the New York Times is getting equal billing as for collateral murder. That highlights that idiocy. It was important for me to portray him in a balanced way.

Q: I read that you were contacted by Julian and he attempted to dissuade you from doing the project. Can you describer the communications with him and how those helped to inform you?

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

Q: You weren’t going to step out because Julian asked you to?

BC: 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 that he’d had leaked to him, which was a very old draft, and I don’t think I ever saw that draft.

Interview continues below Benedict's 100 sexiest photos...

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Q: Was it just a couple exchanges back and forth?

BC: Yeah. And private between us.

Q: There’s so much source material to pull together for this. What did you go to when you were working on Assange?

BC: It was important to concentrate on what we were doing, which was making the film which is a dramatization of events. So while it was informative, it was a burden for me to remember that this is a perspective, not the perspective. The film’s central message is that there is no such thing as objective truth. It’s always gonna be personal truth. I think the inspiration of the film is about people journalism. It’s about something that’s powered by individuals. It’s not about the consensus. I hope that that’s how the film will be greeted and reacted to. That’s no bad thing.

Q: How do you see Julian’s relationship with Daniel? Is it like a master-slave? An S&M relationship?

BC: No.

Q: How would you describe it?

BC: Have you seen the film?

Q: Yeah.

BC: Well neither of those things. I don’t think it’s that extreme. You do?

Q: I think there are many times in the film where what he does and says to him and how he demeans him and how he ridicules him, a normal person would get up and walk out and say, “Fuck you. Goodbye” and he doesn’t.

BC: I think it’s really complicated and it’s really for those two to determine, not me as an actor outside of it. In the moment of drama, you have empathy for your character so I see his perspective as strongly as an audience can see both perspectives. It’s a very complex relationship and two very complex characters. Daniel is no stooge. He’s not this follower. He’s a smart guy, he’s this activist, he’s incredibly pragmatic. He’s not just this blind advocate. I think Julian has a magnetic hold over people and he’s an incredible spokesperson for an extraordinary idea that was born out of his realization of it. He has very complex relationships with people because of that.

Q: We see flashes when he mentions things about his past. Did you see that as sort of letting the audience see another side of him?

BC: I think the kind of banner headliners, the kind of perception of him in a tabloid sense is very two dimensional. The character assassination came hot on the foot of all the kind of shifting perspectives in the press war and everything that went on at the time of the leak. I think a lot of perspective on him is really crude. Anything that fleshes out the dimensions of him as a human being I think is to his benefit.

God knows what he’ll think of that but as an audience, I think you can understand more of someone when you can understand part of them that’s universal to all of us. While I think it’s very clear that he doesn’t want the message to get confused for the messenger, and that’s what happened. We obsess about that 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, we need to know what it is that relates us to them. I’m not saying that’s a good or a bad thing but I think sometimes it can corrupt what at heart is an extraordinary thing.

Q: Do you see a link between Julian who is so brilliant and arrogant and Sherlock who is also brilliant and perceived as arrogant?

BC: I think it’s a pretty obvious but slightly lazy association. I think they’re very, very different characters for obvious reasons. Can you spot any differences?

Q: Well I didn’t think about it until just now but you’re an actor playing them...

BC: Yeah but I don’t need to impart that to an audience. I think it’s pretty obvious. If you’re saying that I conform to a type in my work, sure.

'The Fifth Estate' is out now on DVD/Blu-Ray. Watch the trailer below...

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Benedict Cumberbatch | Culture | The Guardian