Calling us from his hotel room in Hong Kong, Benedict Cumberbatch exudes a polite charm and grace as he tells us about “the parity of Victoria Harbour” to Sydney with their ocean harbours sharing the same colour blue of the water. There’s an ease in his voice which belies the madness that he’s about to jump aboard, as the Marvel press tour for Doctor Strange has begun. Cumberbatch, ever the professional sees the press tour obligation just like work but is also now starting to realise the enormity of it all.
“It’s fine, we’re at the beginning of it, we’re kind of full of glee. It’s like a day’s work, they’re long hours but incredibly rewarding hours. We’re being treated like royalty, there’s no complaints I have to say.
It’s fun to talk about this film, it’s great to be up front and centre of that, and it’s very exciting for me. There are posters and billboards with my character’s face all over it and it’s hitting home that I’m in a very large film and it’s very exciting.”
That very large film is Marvel’s latest offering and will be one of the cornerstones of its Phase 3 lineup, as we are introduced to a new hero in Stephen Strange. From the 15 minute preview we witnessed prior to the film’s release it’s clear that Marvel is delving deeply into Strange’s origin story, which centres around Strange’s early arrogant and egotistic persona that slowly changes on his journey to becoming the Sorcerer Supreme.
“A lot of superheroes have to have a sort of pride before a fall. They have to earn their stripes. It’s almost like a comeback story. In our world being a brain surgeon, a neurosurgeon, I think is being a superhero. The amount of skill and tenacity and the steadiness of mind as well as hand and judgement is just sort of superhuman in my book, I just couldn’t imagine doing that job with the pressures involved. But I guess in this super hero context we learn is that this is a man who becomes embroiled in the ego of it and the materialism of it.”
Despite the character’s flaws though, Cumberbatch is quick to defend Strange and say that he can still be charming and fun to be around. And that’s all part of the progression of this complex character which was one of the draw-cards for him to play the role.
“But he’s still quite fun to be around though. He has relationships with people more sensible than him. Christine his partner of previous years realises that it’s pretty much always about him and not ever going to be about them or her. So he can be self-centered and egotistic and materialistic but he’s a fun nut to be around and he should have an element of charm but that’s all taken away from him in the most spectacular car crash both physically and psychologically and he has to try to rebuild himself.”
“He wants back what he’s lost and that’s the search he’s going on when he meets somebody who teaches him he has a much greater purpose and power than he ever imagined possible. Then it’s about the choices of using that power to go back to his old life or take on the true mantle of a superhero and that lonely walk you have to tread to do good for others. So yeah, that’s very much as you summed it up that arc in a nutshell, and that is what really appealed to me.”
Surprisingly the character of Doctor Strange in the comics realm is considered one of the lesser known superheroes but during the comics run he was also considered a representation of the counter-culture of the time. There were some that considered this an unusual move for Marvel to bring this specific character into their cinematic universe. However Cumberbatch believes that he is an appropriate choice, assuring us that the essence of those original comics has been brought into our modern day setting along with all the action and visual extravaganza we’ve come to expect from the studio.
“The original comics are fantastic, they’re even more humorous than I feel our take on him and it’s very much positioned in the 21st century bracket. So things that may have been very intriguing or had an allure to the sort of era of occultism when the comics first arrived; I wanted them to be examined in a way that would be bewildering to a man in this era and hopefully that means there’s definitely some comic misunderstandings. And you know a hell of a lot of action and what you would expect from a big beautiful Marvel film.”
“I think one of the main reasons for doing it now is that not only is this a left turn in the comic book world but a bit of a left turn in the cinematic universe for Marvel but also bolstering what they’ve already achieved in great style in the previous films. We are at a level where effects and everything that’s done in the backroom with the final production of this film are literally being invented for this film. Some of these effects, some of the lenses, some of the qualities being used in the digital works. So it’s going to be a spectacular visual ride on top of a new and interesting character and way into a superhero story.”
Initial trailers and previews have already left audiences astounded by the visual effects. It’s quite evident that this will be Marvel’s most ambitious project to date in that department. Particularly since the source material of Steve Ditko’s comic series are renowned for their complex, detailed and colourful interpretation of the mystical, magical as well as an introduction to the multi-verse and concepts of parallel dimensions and realms. Cumberbatch has had some experience dealing with digital technology in film and television but he still considers it a challenge to his imagination.
“Absolutely (it’s a challenge to the imagination). It’s a normal acting exercise multiplied by you know an acid trip, because all acting is smoke and mirrors. You’re trying to fulfill an imaginary set of circumstances after fleshing out with a back story and understanding of your character what you can do in that world in that situation. And yet you’ve got a film crew in front of you, you have cameras and other technology, lighting, all sorts of restrictions to just being. And yet you just have to turn that on, you have to use your imagination and commit to something and let go. So it’s that plus like you say, the multi-verse is a mighty peculiar and wondrous place to be, it can be very confusing sometimes when you don’t have immediate orientation in an environment.
The magic of Hollywood though is that not all of it is CGI trickery and Cumberbatch is quick to point out that a surprising number of physical sets and constructions were also used in the making of the film.
“This is the thing about Marvel there are just huge amounts of it whereby you are walking onto set and their world is so detailed in its re-construction whether it’s an interior of the Sanctum or a street of Hong Kong. The set decoration Charlie Woods’ design, is so thorough you can throw a camera 360 degrees and not come off the set and not have any detail that wouldn’t be worthy of a frame in the film. At the same time you just have to sort of fly through it all and go through a dimensional gateway and that’s when you have to put a leap of faith into what you’re doing.”
Sometimes it results in a combination of both real and fake to make it all work in the end though. Whether it’s actual working L.E.D lights or relying upon the VFX wizards, the end result is a trust exercise for all parties involved.
“Then there’s also the weapons at the end of your hand. These things that I’m creating through spell casting and energy they are sometimes replicated by tiny little ring of L.E.D. lights or a whip of lights. Or sometimes I’m acting with nothing because the stunt involves maneuvering or the fighting involves maneuvering which would hurt the person opposite me if I had those things in my hand so then you’re just working with a bit of ambient light that’s coming off my hand. It’s real child’s play, it’s like being back in the bedroom again. Take a leap of faith knowing that the boys and girls who work in the SFX department are just supreme at this. They are the sorcerer’s supreme really, they make the real magic happen. And you know that that’s just going to be an extension of your performance so what you have to do as an actor like in any moment of any drama or comedy or any kind of genre you just have to commit. You just have to make sure you understand what you’re supposed to be doing and commit to it and try and believe in it.”
As with so many of the Marvel films we’ve seen thus far, there is a lot to take in, and Cumberbatch is quite detailed in discussing his experience. In the second installment of our interview with Benedict Cumberbatch we ask him about the significance and intricacy of the hand work used in spellcasting as Sorcerer Supreme, and the physical training he underwent for the role. As well as what it was like working with Tilda Swinton and what he hopes fans will take away from his portrayal of Stephen Strange.
Doctor Strange releases in Australian cinemas from 27 October 2016 through Disney Australia.