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Benedict Cumberbatch digs into toxic masculinity in 'The Power of the Dog'

The British actor is nominated for an Oscar for his role as a taciturn cowboy in The Power of the Dog. He prepared for the role by spending time with real ranchers. Originally broadcast Jan. 19, 2022.


Other segments from the episode on March 4, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Interview with Jonny Greenwood; Interview with Benedict Cumberbatch; Review of "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty"



This is FRESH AIR. Benedict Cumberbatch is nominated for a best actor Oscar for his role in the Jane Campion film "The Power Of The Dog." The film has received 12 Academy Award nominations, including best film, best director and best supporting performances for his fellow actors Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Terry spoke with Benedict Cumberbatch in January. "The Power Of The Dog" was adapted from the novel of the same name and is set in 1925 in Montana. Cumberbatch plays Phil, who along with his brother, played by Jesse Plemons, owns a cattle ranch. Phil is hypermasculine and a bully.

When they're taking the herd to market, they stop at an inn where they have dinner. They're served by a young man, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, the son of the woman who owns the inn. He has a clean white linen towel over one arm, the way you might see in a fancy restaurant. To Phil, his manner and the linen make him seem effeminate. While the young man is serving the table where Phil, his brother and the cow hands are seated, Phil picks up a paper flower from the handmade bouquet serving as the table's centerpiece and starts examining it.


BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) Oh, yeah. Well, I wonder what little lady made these.

KODI SMIT-MCPHEE: (As Peter Gordon) Actually, I did, sir. My mother was a florist, so I made them to look like the ones in our garden.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) Oh, well, do pardon me.


CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) They're just as real as possible.


CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) All right. Now, gentlemen, look. See; that's what you do with the cloth.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Right. Oh, that's what you do.

SMIT-MCPHEE: (As Peter Gordon) It's really just for wine drips.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) Oh, you got that, boys? - only for the drips.


CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) Now get us some food.


TERRY GROSS: Benedict Cumberbatch, congratulations on your performance and on the film. So "The Power Of The Dog" is a Western of sorts. I mean, it's set on a cattle ranch, and your character is - he's a cowboy. So did - growing up in England as you did, did American Westerns mean much to you? And did you study, like, the history of the American West or anything?

CUMBERBATCH: I mean, not really - no. It's about as far from my lived experience as you can imagine, which I guess is part of the enticement of wanting to take this character on and this milieu on. But, no, I certainly didn't have a history of it. I had a little understanding of it from university, from studying cinema at that stage of my life. I guess the first inkling I had of a traditional Western - it was the more sort of John Ford, tough man, the John Wayne. But also, for me, I think where I really clicked into it was probably "High Noon." I thought, ah, here's deliverance from an unassuming hero in a way. And then the revisionist era of Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" began as well, which for me was at a very formative time in my cinema-going experience. But it certainly wasn't a playground role-play thing for me. And it wasn't something I grew up fantasizing about or knowing anything about.

GROSS: Yeah. You said that Westerns, cowboys didn't mean anything to you growing up. And you joked that to do this film, you had to go to dude school (laughter)...


GROSS: ...To prepare for the character, to learn both the Western things, but I think also to learn that style of, like, cowboy. So what are some of the things you had to learn, and which was the most interesting for you?

CUMBERBATCH: I knew I'd get snapshots or feelings of who Phil was from my encounter, but with people who actually live that life in Montana and who were graceful enough to let me into their world and educate me and give me an access to that extraordinary experience of working with animals - extraordinary in the sense it's often a coordination between four species. There was one moment when we were driving cattle. And there were horses. There were men. There was silence at times, but whistled or talked communication between dogs. And those four species working together was just something profoundly affecting. And realizing that and the connection to landscape was really as informative as any of the specifics of braiding, say, or whittling or whistling loudly, say, or the horse-riding skills or any of the other kind of attributes this character has at his disposal. But to marry the brutality of being able to master the hard work in that hard landscape and those hard times with this amazing delicacy and sensitivity - I thought that was at the core of his character.

GROSS: In the novel and in the book, Phil rarely bathes. In the novel, it's specified he bathes once a month in the creek. And when the creek freezes over in the winter, well, then he just won't bathe (laughter). So in trying to really get with the character, you stopped bathing for extended intervals while making the movie. I assume that was while making the movie. But, like, that must have been a really icky experience for you. I mean, once you start to smell yourself and then you realize other people are definitely smelling you and not acclimated to the smell like you are - I mean, that must've, like, been very uncomfortable and maybe even a little embarrassing.

CUMBERBATCH: In rehearsals, I did it for about a week before my family turned up in New Zealand, where we were rehearsing and shooting the film. And I did it because I didn't want that to be something they had to endure. And I thought, you know, this is fine. This is about me getting used to it and Jane and, you know, maybe a couple of other people during the rehearsal period in that time. But then she'd say things like, oh, let's go and get some sushi. And I'd be like, oh, come on. Now I've got to walk out into the real world, not in character, possibly being recognized and...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMBERBATCH: ...Carrying this kind of biohazard-level heft of stink around with me. That's not fair.

GROSS: I could see the tweets - like, Benedict Cumberbatch really smells (laughter).

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah. Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, you know, yes, it's enough to be self-conscious of it in any normal circumstance - the heightened one I find myself in as someone recognized. But I think where it's essential might really help was on filming days. I - you know, I washed a lot more than Phil did, put it that way. But I would not have my clothes laundered, so I did carry his body odor with me. The minute I put those clothes on, I was him. I could smell him. And the minute they were off, I was me again. And I cleaned myself up when I got home.

GROSS: You don't bring the character home with you, but you do keep the character when you're on set. You stay in character even when you're not filming.

CUMBERBATCH: I did for this one.

GROSS: What does that - you don't always do it, but you did with this? What does that do for you? What's the advantage of that?

CUMBERBATCH: Well, I think what it does is if you're far away from who you are, it just gives you the ability to have a focus and a hook that's complete. You're just - you're narrowing the chance for distraction so that your concentration can be more complete. It's more - it's also more a sublimation of the self and - then it is method. Method is really putting on your own psycho trauma and drama to facilitate the same in a character. And this is so far from my lived experience on every single level that, you know, a lot of this had to be manifested for me.

Normally, I think my brain, either as a producer, which I'm doing now as well, or just as a curious filmmaker, kind of creeps into other people's business a bit, not open in a intrusive or negative way. But I just - because I'm curious. So I'll lean into watching an actor's process or I'll get interested in choices. Well, I wonder what the camera's doing or I'm that bit's going to be edited. I couldn't do that with this. I needed my concentration to be absolute.

GROSS: Jane Campion likes to explore different meanings of masculinity, and she certainly does that in in this film. As we've talked about, your character seems to be a real bully and prides himself on, you know, this real macho. And the things that he does are very, like, you know, masculine things like cattle herding, castrating cattle, you know, wearing spurs and stomping around. And what are some of your insights into - to the extent that you can share them with an audience that includes many people who have not seen the film - what are some of your insights about what made him that way? Because when we talk about a certain type of like, quote, "toxic masculinity," it's always interesting to think about what's behind that.

CUMBERBATCH: What's really fascinating about bringing a character like Phil Burbank to life, you're really looking under the hood of it. You're examining the causality behind that toxic masculinity within that bracket, though, of behavior labeled toxic masculinity. I think there are genuine, non-performative elements that he has just grown into being. I do believe that he is that ranch man. I do believe that he is that capable. You know, he's a master of his craft, whether it's the banjo or whether it's whittling. He really is profoundly gifted.

I think where it becomes toxic is where he has a need to protect things in the world and hate on the world potentially through that defensive protectiveness before it hates on him. And, I mean, to talk about the landscape a bit for me, that was just an absolute gift. You know, our production designer, Grant Major, built a really masterful set. I mean, it was an extraordinary piece of reality where there was absolutely nothing. And that was integral to filming in New Zealand. There are 360 degrees of nothing, which in Montana, near where the film is actually located, sadly isn't the case, but logistically very difficult to film there.

But for an actor to be supplanted in that landscape with grants set, I mean, everywhere I looked, I had Phil. I had him in the weather. I had him in the sound of the wind and the grass. I had him in the movement and the breath of the cattle, the hair playing on the horse's back, which is actually detailed in the film that Jane picks up on with Ari's cinematography. And I just felt utterly nourished by the placement of where we were shooting at. My big fear was once we got to a studio in Auckland, I'd be having to clink across a car park in spurs and furry chaps and just feeling ludicrous like I'm at some kind of Comic-Con convention of "Power Of The Dog" rather than anything as real as the lived experience on that set on location wise. And then the pandemic happened, and we stopped. And our dreams became supercharged as the collective consciousness that this massive shockwave sent across it. And we came back to the work not only with a renewed vigor and focus, but just amplification of gratitude to be able to work.

BIANCULLI: Benedict Cumberbatch speaking to Terry Gross in January. He's nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the film "The Power Of The Dog." The Academy Awards will be televised March 27. Coming up, I'll review Adam McKay's highly stylized take on the LA Lakers basketball dynasty of the 1980s. It's a series called "Winning Time," premiering Sunday on HBO. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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