Cum­ber­batch gets his dream role

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - TV - By Yvonne Vil­lar­real

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.”

MAR­CUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES

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