Jazz Tangcay talks to Benedict Cumberbatch about playing Dominic Cummings in HBO’s Brexit: The Uncivil War
Sherlock, Patrick Melrose, Dr. Strange and The Imitation Game are just a few of Benedict Cumberbatch’s roles, but his most transformative is in one of his most recent roles, playing Dominic Cummings in HBO’s Brexit:The Uncivil War. Cumberbatch plays Cummings, the campaign director behind Britain’s “Vote Leave.” The series goes behind the scenes of Cummings and his strategy for the referendum; exploiting fears about racism and immigration. Sound familiar?
He’s often described as sharp and brilliant by those close to him, others call him eccentric and Cumberbatch talks below about how he took a deep dive into understanding who Dominic Cummings was. “I was very intrigued to find out who he was before the drama starts.” Cumberbatch says.
As we approach pens down in Emmy voting phase one, I caught up with Cumberbatch to learn more about tapping into Dominic Cummings.
First of all, it’s phenomenal, completely unrecognizable.
[laughs] Thank God. In a good way, no detriment to Dominic. It’s a good thing. It was one of the draws. I said, “You can’t cast me as Dominic. I don’t look anything like him. I speak differently.” It’s always interesting when I’m cast outside of my type, and that was an attracting part of it.
While we’re on it, let’s talk about the transformation that you go through.
It was a pretty weird five weeks. I had to shave the middle of my hair off and kept the sides normal. It didn’t look like a man with thinning hair going, “Oh, fuck it, I’m going to go for a nice crew cut and shave it and look trim.” It wasn’t a metropolitan look. He had thinning hair on top of a growing bald patch. I had to shave it all to then put a wig on top of it. It was so back to front. It was all because we didn’t have the time and just had to get things done.
I just want it to look good. I don’t want people to be talking about a bald cap that doesn’t quite work as opposed to what I’m doing underneath it. Of course, shaving my head and putting a wig on still meant that people said, “Oh, my goodness.” I walked on set and people were saying, “Benedict’s lost a lot of hair, hasn’t he?” They did such a good job of it, I think people might believe that is what I look like.
It was really important for me to be authentic. But also to Dominic as well who could not give a monkey about personal aesthetics. He’s ideas driven and someone who is studdedly scruffy, or at least was during the campaign.
The draw to the character wasn’t just about the hatbox fun of being another person, but it was also about what it means to be Dominic. It was about where he was at in his life and what mattered to him. He was completely off grid. He’d been reading and was on his dad’s farm in the war bunkers in his dad’s den, just reading and being with his dad. He spent time with Mary and was out of any kind of the Westminister to and fro.
I was very intrigued to find out who he was before the drama starts. I think that’s always key to playing a part, especially one written by James. It’s so thorough in its execution in the moment by moment and the piecing together of the unraveling of that campaign and the results.
It was, for me, what’s always key when you have a script that’s that good to go, I need to ask questions that aren’t asked in this drama that might inform the ones that get asked by knowing more about the character before we first see him.
So, on the transformation, We were thinking about doing the teeth and the contacts, but then it got a bit silly. I thought I’d lose a bit of weight. I’ll do the hair and the eyes, and then, it’s all about dialect and how I hold myself in the body. Then, it’s about getting his tone and his energy. The casing of him is there and understanding his voice. He had that slightly tired voice, the slightly croaky and how relaxed he was. He was very different to the intelligent man I’ve played before. He wasn’t interested in speed. He was very direct and had a continued line of energy, but there’s nothing flashy about the way he delivers. It’s just what he says and how he does it. He doesn’t try to show off or speak like a machine. It’s a very even keel. Interestingly, for such a high octane moment in history and the pressures that he was under both with the campaign and with the situation at home, it’s very tempting to go and look for the apex moment. That moment where the lid blows off.
We certainly probably characterized him with a bit more force than was ever ever described to me by anyone on his side of the campaign or the other. For all people’s mixed opinions about him, he’s really quite even keel. When it came to temperament, it was almost weird how calm he could be. He didn’t like big groups. He wasn’t a showman. He had ideas, but he worked in small groups. He was incredibly loyal, and people then gave him loyalty back.
There’s footage of him and photos of him, after the fact of him talking about the tourists and the campaign bus, in front of Lord Guthrie. There’s another bit of YouTube footage of him punching through the fireproof tile in the ceiling over the desk of their makeshift campaign office. Everyone said he was very emotional and his voice was cracking. It meant a huge deal that all those people that had worked really hard had brought about this incredible victory.
The even keelness of him and where those things got pushed too far – in a drama, it’s very tempting to go to a shouty place whenever the tension turns up. What was great about him was there was a lot of containment.
Aside from James’ script of diving into him, how did you find all those qualities you just mentioned?
I talked to people in the campaign. I talked to people who knew him, and I went to his house. We talked the evening before the readthrough. We talked and talked. He was so generous. He invited me to the farm, and he had prepared stuff. Drinks were flowing, and it was a vegan meal. They went to town, but it was really honest and really open and inviting. I was so charmed by it. There was no charm offensive in nature. It was just very natural. I was trying to observe everything.
You have to approach a character in a non-judgemental way. As a social interaction, he didn’t need to be this accommodating. He really didn’t. Critics of him say it didn’t go far enough. There’s no way he needed this drama in his life, but he’s very helpful to an actor by inviting me in. He wanted to talk about politics, and Mary was very insistent in steering him. She’d say, “Benedict is asking you who your inspirations were, not what you think about Theresa May triggering Article 50.” [laughs]. It was always about pushing away from politics. He said, “I’m crap at this.” I’d ask Mary. I was looking at his relationship with his father, mentors and building up this psychological profile of what motivated him. What class means to him? What class doesn’t mean to him? What geography means to him as far as being a Durham boy who has lived a lot of his life in SW15. How all of that amalgamates and bubbles up and where this feeling came from? What his motivation was for doing it? He was utterly disenchanted with the whole thing. I’m not if we got that. I think it’s not the usual tale of he was just setting the place on fire.
He was massively passionate about wanting a better thing than what Europe was. His views were very very valid, but whether leaving Europe was the right way of solving that problem, I don’t know. I went the other way in my vote, to remain. There are very understandable queries. Is it becoming too bureaucratic? The imperialism of Europe. All the strong arguments and what wasn’t working. Jesus, I’m using the past tense and it’s so weird. It’s so bizarre. I can’t even go there.
I really got a flavor of whom he was by the end of the night. Just to be in his physical space. He was really keen to help me play and try and pretend and do my best. I was really touched by that.
During the process of filming, there were loads of fake news stories. Lots of twitter accounts that were rubbishing the script. He denounced all of that. There were so many hacks and he didn’t engage with any of it. He just didn’t want to aid and abet in that media cycle. Again, he didn’t need to be a gentleman. We were taking liberties in telling the story and credit where credit is due. He was very gentlemanly on that.
As an actor to lean into the other arguments, the only good thing that can come out of this polarization is we do start to listen more. There are a world and an amount of understanding, experience and reality that is utterly different to our own. We need to hear the truths and hear them. That’s the only refreshingly honest and decent thing about what happened with Brexit is that our National character, the divides and issues are out there.
We talked about it at the time, Dominic and I. What I’d be really upset about is if people who felt pissed off because they had been overlooked by any liberal movement for the last twenty-five years and they suffered the austerity of the banking crisis. Making their hard lives harder, as well as the issues of immigration and accusing the NHS. All the things that are fuel to the fire that you lit, if they don’t get a better deal out of this, I would be so fucking furious and upset on their behalf. That’s where I hope to be proved wrong. I hope there is some good in the outcome for the people that were promised things would be better as well as different.
Looking to the arguments and understanding how that campaign worked was what was really fascinating to me. It wasn’t about taking sides. It was about trying to understand how it came about. Dominic says in the opening monologue; we all know what happened, but how and why? That was worth asking that question. I think a lot of people were prepared to loathe it and say it was too soon. They were saying, “It can’t be dramatized and turned into a narrative until we have more distance.” Actually, I think we can. I think we absolutely can. Day after day there was another James Graham worthy story popping up. Events and history were faster than anything we could do anyway, including some retrospective analysis of that campaign.
Did you have any reservations before jumping into Cummings before taking it on?
I think that would go on regardless of a Channel Four drama. I think it was about doing service to an extraordinary script. What James manages to do which I think is extraordinary is that for me, it puts you in the room where it happens. For me, it made you feel that you were given access to a group of people coming together, to try and take on against all odds, the establishment and win. Whatever you think about the means and the outcome. It’s an extraordinary story. I think it’s important that people do know what that is. What drama of this nature does, is that It never is going to set itself up as admissible evidence in a court of law, although some of it is verbatim. It’s a drama to provoke and to focus discussion on a specific issue of this whole period of history and how that vote was won. You can almost separate that from what the vote was about. The legality. The difficulty. The complexities. You can talk about data mining. The advertising. You can talk about the legitimacy of all of that and what that means. You can make everyone aware that this is a reality now. It was put together in all one campaign with such devastating victory. That is the modern political model, by how people are brought together to understand what it is that they should vote for. I didn’t hesitate. People can take it or leave it. It’s not a kiss and tell. It’s not evidence. It’s a dramatization of events that we’ve lived through.
It’s like Chernobyl. I thought I’d know what it was about, but my God, I didn’t know half of it. It’s incredible. Drama has a very important role to play in trying to create some kind of clear view of very complex issues. That look at our nation whether it was in that test room with a wide canvas of political opinions and backdrops and types that were representative of different voices in the country, that lays bare how complex this is for people and how many issues it touches on. I didn’t hesitate because it’s an incredible challenge, it had an incredible script, and it’s an important issue-driven drama. I thought it was funny. I thought it was revelatory and moving.