Benedict Cumberbatch talks about playing Julian Assange

Sep 15, 2013, 05:57 IST | Sian Edwards

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the controversial movie, The Fifth Estate, playing Julian Assange. At the Toronto Film Festival this week, the 37-year-old London-born actor talks about this highly anticipated thriller concerning the news-leaking website WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief and founder, Assange

How difficult was it for you to become Julian Assange?
I was keen to do something that personalised and made him human; that showed there were universal qualities to him, which as a film that’s investigating him behind the front man for Wikileaks could expose or try and discuss. At the same time, I think it is easy to castigate him easily as either good or bad. I believe that has happened to him and that is one of the reasons he wants to pull away from the film, but also, for him, it’s about the message and not the messenger and I kind of respect that.

Describe him.
He’s a father, he’s somebody who’s had a childhood, he has a sense of humour, he’s got profound integrity and worked to create an idea into reality. I think a lot of people can at least empathise with that, and then discussions can evolve as to whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but he’s not context-less as a human being; he came from somewhere.

Benedict Cumberbatch interview
Benedict Cumberbatch has bagged on Olivier Award, four BAFTA nominations, two Emmy Award nominations and a Golden Globe nomination to date. Pic/Camera Press, Tristan Gregory

Did you try to contact him?
I did. I would have loved to have met him and I think like any artiste, being in front of a live subject is far more productive and informing than working from a photograph or any kind of interface that’s not you being in the same room as that person. And I sadly didn’t get the chance to do that, but I respect his standpoint and I reasoned in my communication with him that I thought it was not totally well-founded. I think there was a lot to celebrate in our version of the story because what it does to my mind is bring back into the focus how important Wikileaks is as an idea and the integrity of that idea. It shows what an extraordinary achievement that was and that was Assange and that’s a celebration of his ability and what Wikileaks continues to do.

As an actor, do you find it daunting to have to talk about this political issue?
A little, but then, I am an actor, I am not a political activist. I am not the founder of a website, I am not a lawyer, I am not an expert pundit. I have touched on what I have needed to manufacture a characterisation. And I’m the first person to hold my hand up and say that I am an amateur in all other classes than my chosen profession, which because I am paid for, I guess I am classed as a professional actor (laughs). There’s a lifetime of commitment and knowledge behind these people’s activities, whether they are investigative journalists, whether they are state department officials, or whether they are Assange. And so to try and encompass all the arguments and have opinions is sort of fruitless.

As an ordinary citizen, how do you react when you learned for the first time about Wikileaks?
Well I was interested in the story rather than the messenger. I was shocked and confounded and fascinated by the revelations, none of which were sadly keeping out what we suspected. It was really shocking, and I think what Assange did very sensibly was to give that over to the mainstream media to perform. Assange’s movement is about this new evolution in journalism and I think journalists still have a place.

Julian asked you not to do the film?
He did. That was the main gist of his email. (laughs). It was sort of expected but his arguments were very strong and I had some strong counterarguments.

What was your first emotional reaction when you saw the reflection of him in the mirror?
It was interesting. I was listening to a recorded interview from the Internet and I was trying to do some voice work when I looked up and saw my reflection in the mirror. I was like, ‘Christ. It sort of works.’ I’ve got a very different face and I can pull apart the differences physically between us but there’s enough to do in terms of an interpretation of a character without being an impersonation of him.

Did you worry about the differences in physicality between you and Assange?
Well yeah, but you have to let go of that after awhile because there are always going to be differences, and it was a tricky aspect of the job. But you can’t get too obsessed by it because at the end of the day, you have got to perform the task that’s in front of you.
You have only got what is available, which is our height, build, and there are similarities. But he’s got a rounder face, I have got a longer face, he’s got darker eyes, I have got lighter eyes, he’s got light hair, I have got dark (laughs).

The Times / The Interview People 

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