Cumberbatch gets his dream role
One by one, Cumberbatch responded to offbeat questions: “Is fame different from how you imagined it would be?” “Do you bother with Halloween?” “Which Muppet would you like to share a scene with?”
But it was one query that made a special impression: “If you could choose to be any other literary character in an upcoming role, who would it be and why?”
“Patrick Melrose in Edward St. Aubyn,” Cumberbatch shot back, referring to the troubled, self-destructive protagonist at the center of a quintet of novels — the first of which was published in 1992 — written by St. Aubyn, a British novelist. Word found its way to the producers who had optioned the books.
“Never underestimate the power of an online Q&A,” Cumberbatch jokes on a recent weekday.
The actor takes on the complex anti-hero in Showtime’s limited series “Patrick Melrose.” The project presents another twist for the internationally renowned actor celebrated for his diverse resume, ranging from Shakespeare and the “Sherlock” TV series to blockbusters such as “Avengers: Infinity War, where he reprised his portrayal of Marvel’s Doctor Strange.
Adapted for television by David Nicholls (“One Day”), each installment of the five-part project tackles one of St. Aubyn’s loosely autobiographical novels in the series —“Never Mind,” “Bad News,” “Some Hope,” “Mother’s Milk” and “At Last.” The saga follows the harrowing journey of an aristocratic playboy struggling to overcome the psychological damage inflicted by his abusive father. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Hugo Weaving star as Patrick’s toxic parents.
Cumberbatch, who also serves as an executive producer on the series, became acquainted with the novels well after the last book in the series had been published — a mix of word of mouth and intrigue at seeing it on coffee tables at the home of friends piqued his interest. One sitting with St. Aubyn’s prose had the actor captivated.
“An actor aches to be given as much to get their heads and bodies around as this role demands,” Cumberbatch says from the balcony of a West Hollywood hotel room. “I felt so hard for this guy. I felt for him so much because of what he’d been through, but also, just this extraordinarily brilliant mind trapped in this situation. You root for him, even when he’s behaving incredibly badly and being very amoral and sabotaging the good in his life. You know why he’s doing it, so you’re just waiting, waiting, waiting for him to turn that corner.”
Nicholls, a British novelist and screenwriter who has adapted the novels “Far From the Madding Crowd” and “Great Expectations” for the screen, was eager to tackle St. Aubyn’s style of prose that can deftly paint a portrait of painful chaos and trauma while infusing it with biting satire and psychological insight.
“Whenever anyone said to me, ‘What would you most like to adapt?’ I always said the Patrick Melrose novels, knowing that they would be very, very, very, very hard to adapt faithfully,” says Nicholls, who read the first book in the series, “Never Mind,” not long after its 1992 release.
“If you synopsize the books,” he adds, “they’re about mental illness and depression and drug addiction and alcoholism and childhood trauma and guilt and hatred and all of those things. They’re also among some of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I love that tension between the brilliance of the comedy and the darkness of the subject matter. It is a story of recovery and redemption.”
The most challenging aspect, Nicholls says, was getting across a state of mind.
“If you pick up the five novels and flick through them, there really isn’t much dialogue,” Nicholls says. “The dialogue that’s there is wonderful, but a lot of it is very internal. A novelist can write the words, ‘He thought’ and ‘she felt.’ How do you take five books that, to a large extent, take place in someone’s head and physicalize that journey? Well, we have the great benefit of an actor like Benedict.”
St. Aubyn describes Cumberbatch’s performance as “astonishing.”
“Being a novelist, I suppose I was very aware of how much of the inner life of the characters was simply not going to be on the screen, because I spent so much time describing people’s mentality,” says St. Aubyn, who visited the set at different junctures. “So I thought, ‘What’s going to happen?’ What I saw was someone manifest a whole psychological history with a gesture or with a tone, and I thought it was miraculous.”
Cumberbatch, nearly five years removed from that Reddit.com moment, still can’t believe his luck.
“It was thrilling and slightly terrifying,” he says of the experience. “But lucky me to have gotten the opportunity. I just tried to grab it with both hands and ride it till the wheels came off. I was able to fly with Patrick.”