Actor Benedict Cumberbatch steps into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Dr Stephen Strange, a world famous neurosurgeon who thanks to a horrific car accident loses the use of his hands and seeks for a more mystical approach to healing himself. His search leads him to the mysterious enclave of Kamar-Taj where his logical mind is challenged by what he discovers, a world of parallel dimensions and dark forces.
DIY joined a roundtable for an intimate chat with Cumberbatch who displayed an excitement and enthusiasm for the project, getting positively giddy at the reality that he gets to play a bona fide comic book superhero. And rest assured Cumberbatch fans, while it appear that he was getting flinty with one journalist it was all done in jest and with a mischevious glint in his eye.
Congratulations on the film, it is stunning in 3D and IMAX…
I would really recommend people see it that way, I’ve only seen it that way so I can talk from experience. It is phenomenal and we do things that haven’t been done before in this film and it’s a very fresh experience I think.
Was it how you pictured it or did it exceed all expectations?
No. You can’t possibly really get the full impact of sitting in your chair in an auditorium - especially when you’re in it - and there are so many components on the day but there’s also this entire army of people making the world a reality around you, or unreality depending on how you look at it, that you can’t [imagine it] otherwise you’d be doing their job for them. They were doing stuff on this until the Tuesday before the L.A. premiere. It’s a very Marvel tradition to keep pushing and get better and better. So I was just blown away.
This is a hugely iconic character to comic book fans, did you feel some responsibility towards them?
Yeah, of course but then I realised who was employing me and Kevin [Feige] is the real Sorcerer Supreme - Papa Marvel, Head of the studios - he’s the biggest super fan that there is and he was so convinced that I was right for it in the first place that they did something that they’ve never done before which was delay the making and the release of it. And also Scott [Derrickson - Director] who is so familiar with the material, so strong on story and who he was and how we’re going to bring him to life in this iteration of him. I got the pitch from Scott and that’s when I really fell in love with the idea of playing this character. He goes on such a strong character arc as far as an actor goes away from the responsibility of playing an icon, that was alluring. And obviously I did my research as in the comics and I did my research as a neurosurgeon and really training hard to physically change my shape, but also with yoga to keep fluid to do all the stunts and wire work. Not just for that obligatory shirt-off moment of aesthetic beauty - or trying for aesthetic beauty I should say! It wasn’t led by that it was about being strong enough to get through that much filming and that much physical work. I just loved all of that, I just concentrated on my job and it’s really their job to bring it to expectant fans. I think I got familiar enough with the character when I was working on him, the comics I read from the originals and what we wanted to do with him. So fingers crossed they’ll like it.
You weren’t familiar with the comics beforehand, were you into comics at all?
Yeah, when I was on holiday as a kid I used to read Asterix and Obelix and Tintin. And here a bit of the Beano and Dandy and then Viz when I was older at school. We could bring some of those “superheroes” to life, that would be great [laughs]. I kind of came to American comics in particular through films in the first place. The first one that really made an impact with me was Tim Burton’s Batman and we were obsessed with it at school, we had the t-shirts and the caps and used to sing and dance to the Prince soundtrack and quote lines from the film. They were really iconic performances, Basinger and Keaton and Jack Nicholson. So that was my first entrée really and then like everyone else for the last nearly 8 years going to Marvel films. Just buying my ticket and having a great time, being diverted but also being entertained with a degree of profundity. There’s always something interesting going on, they don’t mess around with vacuous ideas and the effects are obviously incredible, the fight sequences but also the richness of the characters and the story and the humour which was very important for me in this film to bring out.
You learnt meditation in Darjeeling when you were 19, does it help you sometimes to become a character?
Yeah, not enough but in this instance very much so. We were practising as much as possible. It helps authenticate something especially where there’s a very central theme of this film, about the power of the mind to shape your reality or change your reality and I think that’s true mediation. And in however slighter form you come out a better person. You’re calmer, more patient and able to empathise and see universality’s rather than differences and it means all helpful things to a world gone crazy. And just as an actor it helps with that moment with: “Action”, all the other things around you make-up and costume and what you’re thinking technically for the shot, the wire work, all that has to just flow. You have to be and to switch those voices off and just have that moment or present tense clarity. Meditation is obviously a great way into that.
How do you do it?
My practise is my practise and everyone has a different one. Go with what makes sense to you.
Are the dilemmas that Strange is having familiar to you? That clash between being pragmatic and then trusting the spiritual side…
Yeah, I think we all have that in our lives. There’s always something we run up against I think, whether it’s someone that we know and love no longer being with us, whether it’s a shocking moment in our own life and mortality and you go: “Yeah it’s not all under control and it’s not all on my iCal and it’s not all about time.” I think we definitely always get those shock moments and that’s when you do ask bigger questions. Science does that already though, it’s not just about an ‘either or ..’ it’s very much whether to meet which is something I have always been interested in since my time teaching in Sonada, this little hill-station near Darjeeling in West Bengal. It fascinates me that quantum mechanics and quantum theory in general can reach points of theorem where you have no sensory reality to base a judgement on, you can’t witness it happening. In fact there’s one theory where you do witness it and that means it’s happening somewhere else. Whether it’s Schrodinger’s Cat or the Uncertainty Principle there are incredible crossover’s with things that go beyond our causal reality as far as explanations go. And I think whether [people] pray or have a religion or just meditate or just have a quiet moment staring at the sea or the clouds or a child or something that takes them out of themselves we all have moments like that.
Something we were all deeply impressed by is how the film got culturally and socially updated vs the original comic books. There were controversies in the casting but it turned out to be updated in terms of gender. How did you react to that concept?
I think I’m very happy with the fact that I was cast in the film, the casting of the rest of it was not my responsibility, not down to me, I didn’t have a say in it so I’m just thrilled with the cast we have, it’s a special effect in itself to be able to work with that much talent. So I think for our story it works and I think it’s a good thing.
Sometimes the cosmic reasons are an allegory of the real world. Was there any particular feature that rooted it in the real world for you?
Yeah, I think very much so his story, his character. If it’s a bewildering journey for an audience that’s because you’re going with him so hopefully that builds an empathy, you’re experiencing these extraordinary things in the cinema for the first time that he’s experiencing as a character in that film and I think that parity was very important for me because it brings in humour and it brings a sort of justified sense of fun and sarcasm and cynicism. What turns it into something positive rather than just being outside of the original occult, eastern mysticism meets western logic origins of this comic when it was first drawn and written in the 60s, is that now we’re a little bit more wily to this. People go into Google and Disney and all sorts of other corporations and teach them how to meditate. It’s not something as exotic as it was then. What I’m trying to say is the positive thing that happens within him is something that does root it in reality, that’s relevant to all of us which is the idea that it is probably better in life to try and think of the greater good rather than just yourself.
The world won’t function without it and the real heroes in our world like the real doctors and nurses and surgeons in the NHS are a spellbinding example of that. They perform miracles every single day to keep something out of their love and enduring hard work and skills alive that wouldn’t be otherwise in the form of the National Health Service which is the envy of the world as far as health care goes. I guess the one heroic thing he really does is by the end of the film he admits it’s not all about him and he makes the choice not to heal himself but to do better for others.
Have you discussed the next step for the character?
A bit, yes of course. They have a story board that stretches years ahead and it’s very exciting.
Would you like to…
To share with you now? Yeah everything! [Laughs] I’ll tell you exactly what happens in all the Avengers films.
Well he’s just found his powers so what’s next?
Yeah it’s just the beginning!
Did you add humour that perhaps wasn’t in the script to make Stephen Strange more likeable, for example the Beyonce joke?
There was a lot of humour that was already there. The Beyonce and Adele that was left open to me to improvise names, so that was me kind of riffing a bit. It was a year ago and five months of work, I’m not going to take all the credit! The things like the relationship with the cloak and how that is going to be a key character and almost like a sidekick to him, that was something that I developed a little bit and take bit of credit for that definitely. But yeah there is humour in the originals, when you first meet him there’s a real dead arrogance to him, you like him or you don’t. He’s an extraordinary looking guy and very much of that era. Even when he’s at his most arrogant as a doctor you have to lean in, you have to want to spend some time with the guy, he’s got to have some charm or humour about him and humour is obviously a good way of doing that.
Would say his character is more like Sherlock Holmes in his arrogance?
Not really no. He’s good at his job and he’s smart and that’s pretty much it. He is sexual, he has relationships, he’s materialistic, he’s very much a man of sensory pleasures and he’s got a sense of humour and knows how to work with people, there are lots of differences. Oh and he’s an American and lives in New York and is a brain surgeon rather than a consulting detective.
And the second part of his character would be like Tony Stark? He has Tony Stark’s humour…
Yeah I might as well not turn up to work, I’ll just let other people do my [job]. I’ve already done half my job and Robert Downey Jr can do the other half. He’s a thing of himself as well, it’s like saying you’re just a journalist and that would be really insulting wouldn’t it? You’re who you are. Aren’t you? [laughs].
Did you find yourself in the character in a way?
Only with the journey of both of us being beginners. I was originating in the sense of an actor who’s not done much martial arts work or wire-work and he’s learning from more profound things than that but that’s I hope pretty much it. I’m a very happy man who’s married and has a family and I think my life is very different from his and I’m not a sorcerer supreme or any kind of sorcerer at the moment.
The car accident scene is great, how was it filming that?
Crazy. A lot of stuff was done without driving at stupid speeds down very dangerous roads but some of the stunt was done in a rig where there was half a car that was then spun on an arm into the water. I was doing that at 4 o’clock in the morning in full tuxedo gear with a face all bloodied and sort of sinking towards the water, my own blood literally rushing to my eyeballs and I had to hang that way for quite a bit of time. It’s one of those pinch yourself moments: “This is what I do for a living, this is crazy!” and there were lots of moments like that with this character, lots of fun. But to literally get on a platform, huge tank, massive arm, half a Lamborghini, get into it like that and find yourself crushed against the dashboard and turned upside down it doesn’t get weirder than that on a days work. Oh and then I scrubbed up from all that and had to get back on the streets of Hong Kong where we were filming our proper night sequence. It really shocked me when I saw that sequence at the premiere. Yeah it’s me, it’s the character but I was really shocked by it, so sudden and violent.
What was you favourite scene?
Oh, I’m rubbish and picking favourites, sorry. It had everything for me this role, it had great action scenes and fantastic technical work to do for special effects which is by and large really interesting and challenging. And comedy and I’m playing a superhero all of it was fun!
How was it saying all those words like “Eye of Agamotto”…
If we’re dusting this down from the 60s this is gonna be, for the non-comic fans, a bit of a strange world to be going into so I wanted him to have a little bit of reaction to that which he does in the film. I think there’s a line in the film like: “They just trip off the tongue don’t they?” something like that! It’s crazy and yet you buy it because these things kind of do come alive and it’s about how they’re used and what they’re used for rather than just them themselves but it’s fun, it’s just a new element of it with hammers and bows and arrows and all sorts in the Marvel Universe and now it’s time for a few antiques to get their say.
What was it like getting the costume on for the first time?
I’d been prepping the character as I do any job just as an actor, working out the beats and obviously doing the body stuff with the training and martial arts, the fight choreography, the diet, the press-ups, the yoga all of this stuff involved in getting to that stage and just keeping myself healthy apart from anything else. It was a long shoot and a long days work. And then I had a costume fitting with Alex Byrne who’s done a few of these films and is a genius. And as the cloak went on for the first time I sort of looked in the mirror with this stupid smile on my face [laughs] and she said: “I’ve seen that look before, you’re having the superhero moment aren’t you?” and [I said]: “Yeah I am!” It was the first proper, penny dropping moment for me: “I’m actually playing a superhero!”
Tell us about your collaboration with Tilda…
She’s incredible, she’s an icon and she’s perfected another iconic role in this performance and she straddles that line between profundity and comedy, between something truly ancient and profound and being very sort of modern and new and light and comedic and she still carries that air of mystery which makes you go: “Maybe she is 400 years old.” She’s the supreme master of her craft, she’s an inspiration to watch and she’s such good fun to spend time with, not just on the set but when we’re not working and now with the press tour it’s been a joy, an absolute joy and we’re very good friends.
How did it feel to watch yourself lying in surgery in the astral projection scene?
I thought: “Yeah, gosh it works!” because I remember doing the two elements very separately obviously. The minute when he comes back into the operating room as himself made me jump out of my skin which was pathetic considering I was there when it happened [laughs] but it really made me jump. Yeah we had a lot of fun doing both elements of those. All the astral stuff was obviously on wires but it was the majority of it - apart from some very fast stuff which goes CG double - is us, myself and Scott [Adkins] the martial arts star who is just brilliant. He does a double kick in this film which I think anyone who’s into their martial arts or kung fu will go: “WHAT?!” it’ll definitely be something that people watch a lot when they get to control the play a bit. It was astonishing to watch on set and be near. I watched it very near, he kicks you once and then as he’s coming round with a roundhouse kicks again. There are very few people in the world that can do that and let alone on a film set in costume. So to work stuff out with him was great, and Mads [Mikkelsen] as well and both were real gentlemen. I don’t come from that world so much I guess I’ve done a bit of it in films before but this was a whole tonne of it all the time and I loved it! I had two very incredibly generous men where it wasn’t about them, it wasn’t about their ego it was about us making a really good scene. I think it can be really easy to get carried away in those situations and hurt one another by accident or just because you’re trying to make yourself look really good.
Is there any difference between taking on an iconic character that has pre-existed to playing a completely original character?
Yeah definitely. But it’s important with both to make them your own and that’s the only way to do it really, you can’t please everyone. It would just be a very bland thing if you tried. So yeah I think the same rule applies but of course they’re very different experiences, one’s known and one’s unknown, one’s a blank canvas in a complete way and the other one has a level of anticipation about it because it’s understood in a certain way visually or thematically or whatever the structure of the icon is. But I was very lucky, I had two heavy lifters doing a lot of that work for me in the case of Strange in the shape of Scott [Derrickson] and Kevin Feige. These are two super fans especially Papa Marvel, the Sorcerer Supreme Kevin himself. And they know, they’re the first to get bored, they’re the first to say: “No we’ve seen that before,” and they’re the first to say: “Well we have to preserve that, that’s really integral to the world and to the character,” so that’s what makes it a lot of fun, you can concentrate on what you’ve got to offer as an actor, which should always be the way.
Marvel’s Doctor Strange is in UK cinemas and IMAX now.