It is the day after The Fifth Estate opened the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival with a premiere screening at Roy Thomson Hall and Benedict Cumberbatch is doing his duty as the film’s star promoting it. He is as thoughtful and passionate as one would expect on the film’s subject and the man he plays, WikiLeaks founder and guiding light Julian Assange.
“The guy sacrificed a lot,” Cumberbatch says. “It’s possible to have a great idea, but true sacrifice that takes real courage. That takes guts. That’s the unique thing. And he has done that. He’s in the Ecuadoran embassy still doing that.”
But while he is enthusiastic about The Fifth Estate, when the subject turns to Cumberbatch’s apparent affinity for playing offbeat characters, whether it be Assange; Sherlock Holmes; Stephen Ezard, an antisocial mathematician drawn into conspiracy in The Last Enemy; or even Dr. Frankenstein’s Creature, the actor pauses when the name Christopher Tietjens comes up as part of the list.
Cumberbatch received an Emmy nomination and won a Broadcasting Press Guild Best Actor prize for playing the character in the 2012, five-part BBC/HBO miniseries adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End. Tietjens is an aristocratic landowner and government statistician who makes a disastrous marriage with frisky socialite Sylvia (Cumberbatch’s friend and Starter for Ten costar Rebecca Hall) and who prefers to serve in the trenches rather than behind a desk during World War I. He is a man of principle at the cost of his own happiness and at risk to his own life.
“Tietjens, I love that man,” Cumberbatch says. “I’d like to be like him, I really would. I get very happy thinking about him. He’s an old-fashioned man in a modern era run by very old-fashioned people. It’s a very odd conjunction. His wife is modern, ahead of her time. The people ruling over him are just in a mess and he’s somewhere in the middle.
“I think he has such a great soul, such integrity, such true love for life, for those living around him, for his family. He has respect for those above and below his social status and class. He has respect for those above and below him in age. He loves his son, who may or may not be his, because it’s a young life. He loves his men, no matter where they’re from, because they are men spilling their blood on foreign fields for this ludicrous war that he gets drawn into on a statistical level, but he sacrifices his brain to be a body in the way of bullets, because he knows that he’s been asked to propagandize a war that’s being fought for ridiculous reasons.
“He’s a truly noble character. And he loves a woman who loves him but both of them love each other in the wrong way and he cannot escape that. He tries to be honorable to the detriment of himself. It’s sort of tragic comedy in a way. I loved playing him. I loved that experience.”
Cumberbatch is rhapsodic on the subject of Tietjens and more thoughtful and circumspect when talking about Assange. The two characters do have things in common. Neither man fits into his society (although Tietjens only becomes the subject of scandal, not an enemy of the state) and while the fictional character risks his life on the battlefield, the very real Assange risks his freedom in his pursuit of truth.
“He has a sense of humor,” the actor says of Assange. “He has to forefront some of the most potent and shattering stories of our era with those leaks. There’s not much room for comedy when you’re talking about the deaths of civilians and death squads and everything that was revealed in those war logs. And yet that was part of the dimension I wanted to bring in, that he has a sense of humor and a sense of the ridiculousness of his situation, somebody that is aware of the fact that the message has to be separate from the messenger, how the cost of what he’s done means those lines have blurred a lot.
“I wanted to give him a fair representation, really,” he adds. “I wanted to give him a three-dimensional portrait of him. It wasn’t just the mimicry. That’s the only thing I’m nervous about being criticized about is not going that distance with him.” – Pam Grady (Click here for more on Benedict Cumberbatch and The Fifth Estate.)