This is the fourth time I’ve met Benedict Cumberbatch and he’s started doing that thing only A-list movie stars do — he’s begun to age backwards. He also looks more ‘famous’.
In a hotel suite off Trafalgar Square, the 45-year-old has been styled — or maybe he now always sports an expensive camel-hair jacket, skater-boy jeans and the kind of Tony Stark sunglasses that make people stop and look.
Celebrity garms aside, he’s as polite and friendly as ever. When I read him that morning’s headline — ‘Let’s give Cumberbatch the Best Actor Oscar now, it will save everyone time’ — he seems pleased and flustered. But then he is a jolly good actor.
‘Wow, that’s very nice! I don’t read reviews but that’s amazing!’ he says, removing the sherbet lemon he’s crunching in case it interferes with my recording.
The Doctor Strange star is a bookies’ favourite to score his second Academy Award nomination for The Power Of The Dog. While he shot to fame playing brainboxes (Sherlock Holmes, Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing), this movie casts the Old Harrovian against type as Phil Burbank, a rough, tough and gruff toxic-male cowboy, which was a huge part of the appeal.
‘Phil is very, very different from anything I’ve done before,’ agrees Cumberbatch. ‘And he’s a long way from me.’
The Power Of The Dog, set in 19th-century Montana, is the first feature movie in more than a decade by Jane Campion, the Oscar-winning director of The Piano.
‘I watched The Piano at a very formative time in my youth,’ Cumberbatch says. ‘I was blown away by the whole thing. When I was first thinking of doing this I went back into her back catalogue and every single performance was just so rich and raw and sensual and dangerous and violent and beautiful and extraordinary and different from things I’ve seen actors do before in their path.’
Such was his commitment to the role, Cumberbatch moved his entire family (he has three sons) out to New Zealand for the shoot.
To play an authentic cowboy he spent months learning how to play the banjo, ride rodeo, inoculate cattle, castrate a bull, flay and tan a hide, whittle, whistle, do taxidermy and — apparently the hardest of all — roll a cigarette with one hand while on horseback.
Benedict on… dogs versus cats
The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain (out Jan 1) casts Cumberbatch as an eccentric Victorian artist who believes cats will take over the world.
So is the Power Of A Dog star more of a dog or cat person in real life?
‘I’m definitely a dog person,’ he says. ‘When our kids are old enough there will be a dog. I prefer working with them too. I love cats, as much as you can, but I rage about working with them.
‘Everyone has to be quiet so there’s a special atmosphere of concentration for them. What the f***!?
‘And on this film, there was no budget for a stand-in for me but the f***ing cat gets one?! F***ing cats with their f***ing diva demands!’
‘That was so f***ing hard!’ he groans. ‘Every alpha male on set was like, “Ha, I can do that!” But they were rolling these huge, shapeless blobs and it’s very specific in the book [the film is based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel] that Phil rolls these rail-thin, tight cigarillos.’
There’s also a memorable scene where Phil bathes naked in a river. Did Cumberbatch request ‘modesty pants’?
‘No, never,’ he says. ‘There was a lot of talk about what the framing would be but you can’t cheat it. This is a man at ease with his body in nature. He calls this “the sacred place”. It’s where he’s allowed to reveal the truth of his past in a very private way. That was more tender and difficult and awkward to me to watch than seeing a brief flash of full male nudity. And that’s not such a big deal any more anyway.’ He laughs. ‘Ha! “big” deal!’
Following his recent role as a spy in The Courier, for which Cumberbatch lost one and a half stone even though it was for just four scenes, and his forthcoming one as an ambidextrous artist in The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain, it seems as if physical challenge is a ‘thing’ for him now.
‘Not intentionally,’ he says. ‘I really damaged my body doing quite a few things, playing Frankenstein and my first action movie. But there’s no Descartian, “I think therefore…” I think the body/mind split is sort of old news now. It’s one whole. The outside expresses something of the inside all the time.’
Whatever elixir he’s slapping on his outsides, we’ll have some please.
The Power Of The Dog is out now in selected cinemas and available from today on Netflix.