Braiding, Whistling and Damn Cigarettes: Benedict Cumberbatch on Mastering Phil’s Talents

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“There was nothing that came easily with this job.” TIFF 2021 Tribute Award recipient Benedict Cumberbatch joined programmer Robyn Citizen for a conversation about his career. He described the many lengths he went to in order to embody Phil, the lead in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog

Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog is Jane Campion’s first with a male lead character, Phil Burbank, a Montana rancher whose lifelong repression plays out in cruel, toxic ways when his brother George (Jesse Plemons) marries widower Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who comes to live on the ranch with her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). “I fell for Phil. Had as much love playing him as I did with Louis [Cumberbatch’s other film at TIFF], but for very different reasons.”

Cumberbatch hopes that, though “it’s hard to watch what he does,” audiences will understand why Phil is who he is. “If our work has succeeded then you understand his motivations and you should move towards an empathy for him, at least an understanding... My point is that it’s harder to win sympathy for a character that acts out in such a monstrous way as Phil does. It’s harder to get to that place. It’s really interesting to go there.” 

As well as being volatile and damaged, Phil is also “amazingly capable”, Cumberbatch explains. Whether it’s playing the banjo, whittling, treating animal hides, undertaking taxidermy, or “rolling a really tight cigarette with one hand” in a single shot while on horseback, “every single thing he does, he’s masterful. He’s so dextrous.” 

And so, Cumberbatch threw himself into the job of learning Phil’s skills, which took him to a ranch in Montana to spend time with “an amazing cowboy called Randy, and his wife Jen… What an incredible way of life. To experience that, to get it in my skin, my bones, my hands. All of that stuff, I carried with me to New Zealand.” 

The Power of the Dog was filmed in Campion’s home country, a place already familiar to Cumberbatch from his time as Smaug and Necromancer in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films. Also familiar, horse-riding—although not as much as he would have liked. “Nowadays, insurance is so… Unless you’re Tom Cruise, you don’t get a lot of riding,” he laments. Nevertheless, “I had an amazing horse, Cricket. I really felt like I got a lot better, thanks to him.” 

Less familiar to him were skills like needing to be a virtuoso on the banjo. “The banjo started difficult and ended difficult,” he laughs. “There’s nothing like having an incredibly authentic, immersive experience as an actor and then be given a musical instrument that you haven’t played before.” (He won’t pretend, he said, that a particularly accomplished piece in the film is played by him.)  

Another of Phil’s many skills? Not just the roping that comes with being a cowboy, but also creating the rope with which to sling. “All that braiding! Braiding, I thought, would be easy. It’s so easy to lose focus and get it all wrong.” 

Through it all, Cumberbatch had Campion and “her exceptional sensuality and delicateness and forthrightness” to guide him down the rocky river of Phil’s permanent bad mood. “There’s no messing with Jane. She’s the perfect pair of hands to examine toxic masculinity... The majesty of that landscape as well as the minutiae of this quartet of people—it’s a very intoxicating cocktail, in her hands especially.” 

And there is one talent of Phil’s that Cumberbatch still enjoys using long since picture wrapped: whistling. “I got it down eventually,” he says, revealing that, in public, he’ll often now whistle to get his family’s attention. If he shouts to them, people may wonder why Benedict Cumberbatch is yelling at people, but with the whistling, “only my family know it’s me”. 

‘The Power of the Dog’ lands on Netflix on December 1, after a theatrical run in late November. ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’ will be in US theaters from October 22, and available to stream on Amazon Prime from November 5.