As The Power of the Dog hit the New York Film Festival, Benedict Cumberbatch opens up about playing a sexually repressed gay man. This immediately reminds us of his depiction of scientist Alan Turing in 2014’s The Imitation Game.
Benedict Cumberbatch has always borne the weight of Sherlock whenever he has ventured into new projects. 2014’s The Imitation Game rediscovered the actor in a manner that was not known to many. The biopic on Alan Turing’s discoveries during World War II and how he became the proverbial father of computer science. The Morten Tyldum directorial holds significance even in today’s world where the underlying themes, also highlighted in the film, of the feminist agency in a patriarchal setup, which is brought forth by Joan Clarke‘s (Keira Knightley) struggle to navigate through a hostile workforce and Turing’s frustration in trying to mask his secret homosexual status.
Turing’s life, apart from his prodigious genius, involved deep pain and suffering. This fact that was not only recognised by Cumberbatch, but also by his own self-admission, caused immense trauma for the actor. The RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) alumnus, Cumberbatch’s ingestion into Turing’s world was instant. Talking about the scientist’s unfortunate and lonely death, the actor had famously once said, “Everything that he [Turing] experienced influenced his mind, which, again, amplifies the volume of the tragedy of his death.”
Cumberbatch was well aware of why Turing’s status as a homosexual icon has remained one of the highlights in the posthumous history of the scientist’s life. Because he remained loyal to his identity and tried to work within (instead of against) it, Cumberbatch had the added pressure of portraying him well, or at least it seemed that way.
This worked like a driving force for the actor who instilled a sense of quiet sensitivity into Turing’s actions. Cumberbatch was cognizant of Turing’s many contributions and had to therefore justify the role with poignance and a deep understanding of how he oscillated between two lives. For all the accolades that Turing receives after his death, his living years were mostly spent in acute self-doubt and a sense of ostracization, one that was so intense, that it pushed him to suicide. That he was a class apart and had it in him to change the way the world worked, was completely unknown to him. And for both Cumberbatch and Tyldum, this was what the denouement should have been about. Initially, the makers had decided that the end-credits scene would depict Turing’s suicide. The sequence would begin with a policeman’s entry into Turing’s house only to discover the dead body of the scientist. The scene would vividly depict Turing lying on the floor with remnants of cyanide trickling from a bottle lying beside him. The camera would also pan towards the remnants of an eaten apple lying on the bedside table. But somehow, this scene was not passing muster at the final edit. It somehow, “did not feel right” like Cumberbatch noted.
Instead, the final scene was altered to include a heartwarming sequence with someone telling him that he was always special, that he was way beyond ‘normal’, and that he ought to remember it always. The actor added that these scenes were the cast and crew’s way of expressing their gratitude towards what Turing had managed to achieve – “was our way of thanking him in the structure of the film, our eulogy to him.”
On a similar strain, the actor now portrays a sexually repressed gay man in the New York Film Festival favourite The Power of the Dog. Featuring as the gruff cattle rancher, Cumberbatch sinks his teeth into a Brokeback Mountain-esque milieu to bring out yet another marginalised character for the celluloid. The rancher falls in love with a young boy, the son of a widow (Kirsten Dunst) who shift into the ranch recently. Cumberbatch’s character struggles with reconciling his sexuality especially in an era where gender-specific roles were in place and heteronormative ways of life, an axiom.
In a recent , the actor explained his character’s deep sense of hatred that grew because of society’s rejection of him and his choice of life. The toxic masculinity that he developed as a defence mechanism against the sheer rejection that he continually faced.
"I don't think he's disgusted with himself, he has privacy, he has moments of recollection; he communes with his memory, but I don't think he knows any different. It's so hard for us to view it through his lens, that's the trickiness of it," the actor explained about the rancher’s ways of dealing with a sense of self.
Though Alan Turing’s depiction underwent considerable scrutiny, Cumberbatch may have set himself up for a clean win with The Power of the Dog, which is scheduled to premiere on Netflix on December 1.