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Red-hot British actor Benedict Cumberbatch took on the challenge in "The Fifth Estate," even going so far as to don prosthetic teeth and a bleach-blond wig. Cumberbatch worked hard to ensure his portrayal was as real as he could possibly make it; he revealed to us that his discussions with Assange are private, and what they talked about will never be made public.
Moviefone chatted with Cumberbatch at the Toronto Film Festival about all the costuming and working to make Assange a three-dimensional character rather than a tabloid assault -- something Cumberbatch took very, very seriously.
Did you enjoy your hair in this movie?
Benedict Cumberbatch: I kind of did, and the eyes were a little bit more arduous. I had a skunky badger thing going with white hair and my normal dark hair on top. I did love the fact that for about six months last year, both in "August: Osage County" and in "12 Years a Slave," I had my own color hair, which is great. But I really quite enjoyed putting the wigs on.
Does it take you there, when you put on the wig?
Yeah, it does. I think the first time I put it on, and I came into the room, people were like "Oh, wow!" And that's a great thrill when you think, OK, well, something's working. I mean, I think he's got softer features, and I think I'm a little more angular, which sometimes makes me look a little weird and creepy with some of the wigs, and that's not the intention at all. I've got a longer face, he's got a rounder face, so it was a challenge. The harder thing was the contact lenses because I've never worn them before.
And your eyes are different than his, too, correct?
I've got light aquamarine, greeny kind of eyes. It changes, whatever kind of light, I guess, is stronger, or colour is stronger. But mine are lighter, that's the thing, much, much lighter than his, and in certain lights his are just this really deep, rich kind of blue, and in other lights, they're kind of slate-y gray or dark. So I wanted to tone down my eyes a little bit, as well as the teeth here ... I had a new set of prosthetic teeth and a slightly bigger lip to push that forwards. I've got a very big bottom lip and we have a slightly different structure to our faces, so I wanted to try and experiment with that a little bit.
Did all of these prostheses add a layer of difficulty to your performance?
With the accent and the dialect, and also the slight lisp, the hard ridge lisp ... it's like a "shhh" [sound]. That was a huge change.
Did you talk to [director] Bill Condon about making Julian Assange somebody that the audience wouldn't hate?
It was important for me to portray him as a three-dimensional human being and not get into a slagging match about whether he was good or bad. I wanted to portray human characteristics about a man at the forefront of an incredible media revolution, with incredible ideas, whose controversy was primarily borne out of that, and not get bogged down in character assassination, which is so easy to come by. People want a headline, they want to grab something and run with a two-dimensional story.
I like the way the film tackles that. I also like the way Julian talks about his appraisal in The New York Times as getting equal bidding for the state of his socks as for collateral murder. It kind of highlights that idiocy. So it was important for me to portray him in a balanced way.
I read that you communicated with Julian, and at one point he attempted to dissuade you from doing the project. Can you describe your communications with him and what ways those informed you?
I tried to justify my reasons for doing the project and that was where that ended.
You weren't going to step out because Julian asked you not to?
It mattered to me a lot that he felt so passionately, but I wanted to persuade him that it wasn't necessarily going to be as bad as he feared it would be, from the script he'd had leaked to him, which is a very old draft. I don't even think I ever saw that draft.
Was your comunication via email?
Was it just a couple exchanges back and forth?
Yeah. And private between us.
There's so much material that you could use to pull together things for this. There are interviews, profiles, columns available everywhere online. What kind of research did you do when you were working on playing Assange?
As much as I could. A lot, an awful lot. It was important to concentrate on what we were doing, which is making a film, a dramatization of events. So while it was informative, it was important for me to always remember that this is a perspective, not the perspective. I think the film's central message is there's no such thing as objective truth, there's always going to be a personal truth. You have to take the inspiration of this film: it's about people journalism, it's about something that's powered by individuals, it's not about a consensus, and I think that's probably how the film will be greeted and reacted to, and that's not a bad thing.
Julian's intoxicating. Someone who has power like that, an interpreted power, is intoxicating -- how would you interpret the relationship between Julian and Daniel [Berg]?
I think it's really complicated and it's really for those two to disseminate it, not me as an actor outside of it. I think, in a moment of drama, you have empathy for your character, so I see his perspective as strongly as I can, as an audience can see both perspectives. It's a very complex relationship, and two very complex characters.
Daniel is no stooge, he's not this follower. He's a smart guy, he's an activist, he's incredibly pragmatic. He's not just a blind acolyte. I think Julian has a magnetic hold over people, and I think he's an incredible spokesperson for an extraordinary idea that was borne out of his realization of it.
We see flashes of Julian's past -- like when he admits to having a 19-year-old son. Did you see that as letting the audience see another side of him?
On a level, yes, because the perception of him in a tabloid sense is very two-dimensional. The character assassinations came hot on the foot of all the shifting perspectives and press war and everything that went on at the time of the leak, so I think a lot of people's perspectives on him are very crude. So anything that fleshes out who he is as a three-dimensional human being I think is to his benefit. Who knows what he'll think of that, but as an audience I think you can understand more of someone when they're part of something that's universal to all of us.
I think it's very clear he doesn't want the message to get confused with the messenger, and that's happened. We obsess about that, I think, in culture, all the time. We can't just take an actor's work, we need to know everything about their personality. We can't just take a politician's stance, again, we need to know what it is that relates us, and I'm not saying that's a good or a bad thing, but sometimes I think it can corrupt what at heart is an extraordinary thing.
"The Fifth Estate" opens in theatres on October 18.