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‘Men have to shut up and listen’: Benedict Cumberbatch on toxic masculinity and championing women

“We need to fix the behaviour of men,” Benedict Cumberbatch has told Sky News. “You have to kind of lift the lid on the engine a little bit.”

The Oscar-nominated actor, best known for TV series including Sherlock and Patrick Melrose as well as his portrayal of Doctor Strange in the Marvel Universe, is discussing toxic masculinity, a theme which runs through his latest film, Power Of The Dog.

An adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel, set in 1920s Montana, Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, a masochistic rancher who inwardly represses his desires while outwardly bullying those closest to him, including his brother’s new wife (played by Kirsten Dunst).

Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in Power Of The Dog. Pic: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix
Image: Benedict Cumberbatch stars as masochistic rancher Phil Burbank in Power Of The Dog. All pics: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Most surprisingly, perhaps, is that this take on masculinity is by a filmmaker best known for telling the female experience – Oscar-winning director Jane Campion, known for films including The Piano, The Portrait Of A Lady and Bright Star. Power Of The Dog is her first feature film in 12 years and also her first with a male protagonist.

“She’s always been a heroine of mine,” says Cumberbatch. “The Piano was a seismic film when I was growing up, for me, and I just completely fell under its spell.

“She’s just a great director and the sensitivity and sensibility is needed in this to really crack Philip, you couldn’t imagine a better director for that.”

Although the film is set a century ago, Cumberbatch believes its exploration of masculinity is just as relevant today.

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“You get this sort of rebellion aspect [from men today], this denial, this sort of childish defensive position of ‘not all men are bad’, but no, we just have to shut up and listen,” he says.

“There is not enough recognition of abuse, there’s not enough recognition of disadvantages and, at the same time, somewhere along the line – maybe not now, but somewhere along the line – we need to do maybe what the film does as well, which is examine the reason behind the oppressive behaviour.”

Associate producer and assistant director Phil Jones and director, producer and writer Jane Campion on the set of Power Of The Dog. Pic: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix
Image: Associate producer and assistant director Phil Jones with director, producer and writer Jane Campion, pictured on set

It is almost 30 years since Campion first won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, for The Piano. Back then, many predicted it would pave the way for other female filmmakers to follow in her wake but only now, post-MeToo, are we finally seeing more women being asked to direct major feature films.

“It does feel like a painfully long road compared to where she began,” Cumberbatch admits. “But… she has inspired people all along the way.

“It is like mental health, you know, these things are still a stigma. There’s still something that needs talking about, needs addressing, needs writing, help with, and until there is equal pay, a place at the table, equality across the board of every kind, we still have to have that conversation.”

Campion deployed some unconventional methods to help Cumberbatch get into character, including hiring someone to carry out what he describes as “deep work” using dreams.

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“Beyond the book and Jane’s script, together we actually did some dream analysis, which is just like dropping a bit of oil in the water of your subconscious to kind of push stuff up from the depths and see what’s at the deepest parts of your psyche, to see what you can do to connect with the character. It’s amazing, it’s obscure, and wonderful stuff.”

It is a searing performance that Campion draws from the actor and one that certainly required him to go the extra mile.

Cumberbatch was “so into being” his character that he got nicotine poisoning three times through smoking so much on set. He also had to learn how to play the banjo and, more gruesomely, castrate bulls.

Method acting which requires a strong stomach – but might just pay off come awards season.

Power Of The Dog is out in cinemas now and on Netflix in the UK from 1 December