Benedict Cumberbatch on being an unhuggable superhero in Dr. Strange

From Marvel Studios comes Doctor Strange, the story of world-famous neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange whose life changes forever after a horrific car accident robs him of the use of his hands. When traditional medicine fails him, he is forced to look for healing, and hope, in an unlikely place — a mysterious enclave known as Kamar-Taj. He quickly learns that this is not just a center for healing but also the front line of a battle against unseen dark forces bent on destroying our reality. Before long Strange — armed with newly acquired magical powers — is forced to choose whether to return to his life of fortune and status or leave it all behind to defend the world as the most powerful sorcerer in existence. Benedict Cumberbatch talks about his first superhero role.

How did you come onto the project?

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: I didn’t know much about the comics initially but I heard about this project and knew that Marvel had interest in me. Once Scott Derrickson was attached, I met with him. He was really on board with me being cast in the role. There was a huge space of time whereby I couldn’t do it because of Hamlet and Sherlock, which were sandwiching this project quite tightly. But they worked it out and were graceful enough to move the shooting dates. So, I got to do it.

Did the character appeal to you?

Yes. I found Stephen Strange to be incredibly good company despite his occasioned arrogance. And his journey is extraordinary! He is utterly broken down to be reconstituted into the superhero that becomes fully fledged by the end of the movie. And very importantly there’s a lot of humor on the way. There’s a lot of action, a lot of drama. All those elements really appeal to me as an actor. So it was mainly the character arc and the journey he goes on in the film that drew me to the material.

Also, this superhero came out of a context in the ’60s and ’70s, a bleed between Western science and logic and Eastern mysticism, which is something as a teenager I was very interested in. I spent some time teaching in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery near Darjeeling and read things like Fritjof Capra’sThe Tao of Physics and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, as well as studying Buddhists texts and reading up on certain scientific books about cosmology. I got to observe extraordinary ancient ritual and wisdom right in front of me every morning and every evening. My mind as a 19-year-old was really blown open by all of that. So this material immediately made sense to me.

Were you drawn to the material by the comics as well?

The comics themselves are beautifully drawn and they’re incredibly visually rich. In particular, Into Shamballa, which is a stand-alone piece, is beautiful and very atmospheric. That kind of visual richness immediately translates into a 21st century cinematic landscape because we have extraordinary filmmaking tools at our disposal. There’s a lot of real-world live action in this film. There’s a lot of drama, a lot of comedy. All those elements appealed to me as an actor. But there’s also the most extraordinary, fantastical adventure and madcappery, which Marvel gets better and better at with every single film. The importance of the environments and the context and the action in those environments has never been richer. It’s going to be a great cinematic ride.

Is Dr. Stephen Strange arrogant to the point of being unlikable?

He does seem arrogant to the point of being unlikable but yet, somehow, you do still like him. He’s got a great deal of charm. There is a sense of loss or soullessness about him very early on in the film. You see him as a lone figure at the beginning and end of this film. But by the end of the film he’s a superhero, and we all know that’s quite an onerous task and often quite a solitary existence. Not too many people can form meaningful relationships when your responsibilities are always others and elsewhere.

At the beginning of the film, he’s driving a fast car. But he’s on his own. There’s no one in the passenger seat. There’s no love. There’s no other life. There’s no child. There’s no wife. There’s nothing more important than himself in that landscape. It’s pretty barren in my opinion. He’s made his bed and it’s empty. But he gets great job satisfaction. He has a sense of humor. His colleagues like him, even the ones that are beaten down by him because they’re wrong or they’ve been corrected by him. He doesn’t make enemies of these people. He’s respected by them. But he is incredibly arrogant and incredibly forthright.

I think to have a superhero who begins by being complex and not immediately likable is brave because it dares the audience to be a little bit in reserve. I’ve personally never liked the sort of “vanillafication,” the kind of warm, soft, fuzzy edges of “huggableness” of characters that are a hero all the time from beginning to end. Give me edginess over cuteness any day! The fact that he’s a real person with an attitude, with a history, with a profession and with a social status that’s his own making and not inherited, makes him interesting. And in regards to him becoming a superhero, while it is in a way accidental, his destiny is one he has to fight to understand, master and accept. He isn’t a Norse god. He hasn’t been bitten by anything. Nothing comes from another planet.

What makes him accessible to us?

Stephen Strange suffers so much during the film, not just physically but psychologically. What happens to him in that moment with the car crash is so unexpected that you immediately see everything in his world disappear in a matter of seconds. And it just doesn’t stop with that. He goes so downhill in his recovery that even when he’s at Kamar-Taj and he’s being shown the way, he just keeps hitting brick walls or being hit by them or being thrown into them physically or mentally. He suffers humiliation after humiliation after humiliation and goes through every kind of hardship you can imagine, whether it be physical or psychological. You can put yourself in his place. And that’s the key to being able to empathize with the character.

But ultimately his realization that he has a mission beyond his own self is the true turning point for people to lean in and sympathize with him and to understand that this moment, and what becomes of it, is what he’s journeyed through all that suffering for. What’s bold about his origin story is that you get someone built up from ground zero, and this is truly who he was before and after.

He doesn’t have something in his past that leads him to this destiny. In fact, while he’s thinking he’s doing good as a surgeon, he soon realizes that actually he’s a careerist and is obsessed with that rather than actually focusing on doing good for other people. Once Strange unlocks that in himself, he really becomes powerful in the superhero world.

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For the role, did you learn how a neurosurgeon works?

Yes. It was important to me that it reads as being very real. I studied some neurosurgery and the procedures that we perform in the film. We had advice from Dr. William Harkness, who is a very well-reputed neurosurgeon. He informed us about the brain, the operations, instrumentation, priorities, focuses, procedures — everything from scrubbing to cauterizing a wound. I also read two wonderful books: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a stunning autobiography about a man who was an extraordinary neurosurgeon and who had treated many of the conditions that he then had as a cancer sufferer himself; and Do No Harm by Henry Marsh. Both are frank, funny and incredibly moving accounts of the complex dilemmas of the practice, patients, love and institutions of these exceptional men. They were as key to character as they were to scientific research.

What was it like in the operating theater?

It’s extraordinary to step into all of these environments. The surgeries were so detailed, accurate, beautifully lit, and beautifully manageable as playing spaces. But they were still very specifically attended to as places that could possibly carry out some neurosurgery, minus the 21st century unscrubbed-up film crew. Procedurally we were going through drills with our technical advisor, Dr. Harkness. There was also a fantastic nurse on set. A lot of the extras had practiced in medicine or surgery. So we had a great deal of expertise floating around in that room. And you never felt at sea or incapable of asking an important question about what to do and how to do what you had to do. When you walk into a space that is so well prepared with many people who can advise you, it makes your job very easy.

What can you tell us about Stephen Strange as a surgeon?   

Doctor Strange is a neurosurgeon who likes to listen to music when he works and who likes to control the surgery room with a relaxed atmosphere but he’s the authoritative ego in the room for sure. He teases his colleagues, but it’s all good fun and good-natured.

That aspect of him is very likable but his arrogance is pretty off-putting. But it’s not completely alienating; otherwise, he wouldn’t have the position he does and people wouldn’t be able to work with him in surgery. He’s well known. He’s a character and he plays to that. Getting the humor right was key to me. I didn’t want him to be too dry or too serious. I really wanted the audience to have some fun with this experience and this ride. And I hope that comes across.

At the beginning of the movie, he’s got a kind of Tony Stark-esque charm about the fact that he knows what a dick he’s being. But he doesn’t shy away from it, so you sort of admire him for that.

Have you gone for an authentic look for Strange?

Yes. We were really keen to go for as close a look as possible. We wanted something that moved and that had dynamism for all of the action that he was going to go through. His look needed to tell a story as well as his progressive achievement within the Kamar-Taj. So there’s this whole kind of notching up from apprentice to master that you see within his costume and his look.

Talking about costume for a bit, Alexandra Byrne is fantastic. She’s got a great deal of experience now with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and that shows because every fitting was about comfort and pragmatism as much as it was an aesthetic. The artwork was massively helpful to them, envisaging this character in three dimensions and his facial and hair look as well.

As far as the Cloak of Levitation goes, he comes across that quite late in the film. So the whole thing of the origin is wonderful. It feels like a composite as he gets more and more complete as the film goes on. He earns every single item of clothing and every prop. So both with the clothing and the gravitas of his face, the designers wanted to mark that progression very clearly. It was very important for us to be able to build story through those details.

In the beginning of the story, Strange is very well kept. He doesn’t want to waste too much time beautifying in the morning. He looks great but there’s not much effort going into it. After the accident ruins his hands, he starts to let himself go. He doesn’t have the ability to shave much but I don’t think he’s bothered with it. It’s not about his appearance anymore at all. He becomes obsessed with curing his hands so everything else goes by the wayside. Clothes tell a story, though, as well as his unkempt reality, with facial hair and crazy wild long hair. He starts to sell everything, so the remaining things get a little bit more worn.

There aren’t too many buttons on the clothes because of the shake in his hands, so the clothes get simpler on the outside. They’re not stylish and really get overused. They’re dirty and frayed around the edges. That detailing is very important for an actor to help build a character. All of this was brilliantly considered and conceived by Alexandra Byrne, our costume designer, and her team.

How was Nepal?

Nepal was amazing. Kathmandu was absolutely vital to this film. I think not least because it’s so based in something that is exotic. It was a magical way to start the shoot. It was mind-boggling; a beautiful, beautiful city, and a beautiful people.

And they’d been through so much. They were going through a fuel crisis when we were filming there. But months after the earthquake damage there were still shantytowns that we’d pass every day. You could see the devastation in some of the most famous tourist spots. Patan Durbar Square, one of the places we filmed in, you could see where temples had been destroyed or partially damaged by the earthquake. Slightly outside of Kathmandu, the shock was a lot bigger, so the damage was a lot more prevalent — entirely flattened areas of villages or ancient town squares. And yet such resilience and such welcome. We had a lot of fun and they had a lot of fun having us.

It’s important to a film like this, which has a profound gearshift into a spiritual and otherworldly dimension, that the portal for that be in a place that actually happens in itself, regardless of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to be incredibly spiritual and marvelous.

It was a very bonding experience for all of us as a crew.

What was the director, Scott Derrickson, like?

I think Scott’s one of the main reasons that this project attracted such a brilliantly talented cast. He’s great on process. He’s really good at going through a great volume of detail about characterization. You really feel very safe in his hands about who you’re playing and why you’re playing what you’re playing. All those kinds of acting questions are very easy to talk to him about. Also being one of the writers, he’s very generous with the script. He always comes back with an open door — like if you want to plus it, that’s what it’s there for. It’s a springboard. You can add to it. You can better it any which way you want to try. Doesn’t mean it will make the cut but it gives everybody options.

He’s made me feel confident about being an action actor. I’m playing a superhero and that’s quite something. In films I’ve done before, there have been elements of action but to be up front and center playing the title lead, the amount of action in that is new to me. But Scott’s been incredibly encouraging on that front as well. He’s a lovely boss to work for. You want to please him.

And he’s got a very good laugh. I always know if we’re going in the right direction if I can hear him laughing. He’s probably ruined a lot of takes. But that’s encouraging. Firstly, you know the director’s actually listening and watching what you’re doing; and, secondly, he’s enjoying it, and he’s the first audience — the most important in a way.

They recreated both Kathmandu and Hong Kong at the studio. What was that like?

Obviously we traveled to Kathmandu, but the recreation of Kathmandu in London was so extraordinary. They recreated an actual street, and there were Nepalese extras here that had relatives who lived on that street. They were freaking out with the notion that if they went into that shop, they’d then be able to go upstairs to say hello to their cousin. We brought with us the smell of incense, maybe not quite the kind of full-on smell of being in a town like that, but even on that level, the odd flash of smoke or incense or food stuff, whatever it was that the set was being dressed with, was so evocative that you felt like you were back there. You could’ve just blinked and been back in Kathmandu. It’s extraordinary.

That then translated into Hong Kong, this incredible outdoor set on the side of one of the stages in Longcross. It is one of the biggest, most extraordinary sets I’ve ever seen. Everyone was talking to me about that set before I stepped on it, so I just made sure I didn’t have a little peep before the actual night I first went on it. My jaw was scraping on the ground. I could not believe it. It’s basically elements of the whole of patches of Hong Kong, Kowloon, brought together in one street. There are presses and metal workshops and restaurants and knick-knack shops and stalls where you actually could cook some food. You could go and have something mended in one of those metal workshops. You could have a card printed in the paper shop. They’re all functional machines, real storefronts. It’s phenomenal.

Do you have to pinch yourself some days?

Constantly. On one of the weirdest days, I thought, “How many people on Earth, even in my profession, ever get to do this and call it work?” I was in a water tank at 4 a.m., strapped into a Lamborghini, cut in half, being turned upside down, post the car crash, trapped inside the carcass of the car half-unconscious as the water was rising into it with a camera going underneath to capture me upside down. It was so surreal. That was a real pinch-yourself moment, but truthfully there were pinch-yourself moments every day. Running through Manhattan in full superhero outfit; everyday acting with that cast; stepping onto sets like the Sanctum and Hong Kong; doing the most insane amount and variety of wire work. Some days really were like test piloting fairground rides… although better men than me had gone before to do the proper testing. I felt brave but it was all really safe. I just really did love it.

But being in Kathmandu with an entire film crew was astonishing, and kept on surprising me. These beautiful places that you’d be lucky enough to get to as a traveler, let alone call it working, and then to watch that sunset over Boudhanath Stupa after a day of filming. That was perfection, really special, and tied the whole experience together for me. It was a brilliant footnote at the beginning of this long journey.