Benedict Cumberbatch talks Doctor Strange, and how he’d fit into Avengers: Infinity War

The British actor, best known for portraying eccentric geniuses such as Sherlock Holmes, Alan Turing and Julian Assange, takes on Marvel’s weirdest superhero

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 3:15pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 5:20pm

Vital as he may be as the latest addition to Marvel’s medium-spanning, culturally dominant cinematic universe, Benedict Cumberbatch is not ready to fabricate a story of lifelong devotion to the second-tier superhero Doctor Strange.

“I don’t think I had ever read the comics,” he says. “I think the nearest that I’d come to knowing Strange was some artwork from a Pink Floyd album (1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets) where he featured.” And he was initially lukewarm about the idea of headlining Marvel Studios’ next big franchise when it was first put to him.

“I remember having a conversation on the roof of Bad Robot [the production company owned by J. J. Abrams] when we were doing Star Trek,” the 40-year-old Oscar nominee best known for his role in the BBC’s Sherlock series recalled in Hong Kong earlier this month. “One of the journalists said, ‘You’d make a great Doctor Strange.’ I went, ‘Doctor who?’ And he went, ‘Well, that as well!’. And I said, ‘No, no, I mean, I don’t know what you mean by Doctor Strange.’”

Tilda Swinton feels ‘collateral damage’ of Doctor Strange ‘whitewashing’ controversy

When Cumberbatch went back to study the comics, all he initially picked up was “certain characters’ traits”, he says. “You know, he’s an intelligent man, he’s arrogant, and there’s a certain sort of Englishness to the character. … He’s not dissimilar to certain traits of certain characters I’ve played before. So I wasn’t that interested.”

It was only after Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige offered him the part, and director Scott Derrickson allayed his concerns over the story’s seemingly dated East-meets-West elements, that Cumberbatch began to feel right about donning the cloak as the “master of black magic”.

Film review: Captain America: Civil War adds mistrust and division to Avengers showdown

The resulting Hollywood blockbuster – the 14th entry in the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe – is an action-adventure film that’s visually entrancing and surprisingly humorous. In it, Cumberbatch plays the egotistical New York neurosurgeon Stephen Strange who, after losing the use of his hands in a horrific car crash, discovers an occult world of sorcery on a pilgrimage to Kathmandu, Nepal.

As Strange learns the skills to traverse time and space from an ageless mystic, The Ancient One (played by Tilda Swinton), he’s also gravitating towards a psychedelic final showdown with the villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) – on a fictional Hong Kong street.

The actor’s preparation for the part was intense. It was during the 12-week run of Hamlet at London’s Barbican Centre last year – where he played the title role of the Shakespeare tragedy – that Cumberbatch rehearsed for Doctor Strange. “So when I was playing Hamlet, I was rehearsing during the day and getting [through] the script, the character, the fight sequences and the fitness regime.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch in Hong Kong to kick off global promotion of film Doctor Strange

“I had a newborn baby in my life as well,” says Cumberbatch, who welcomed his first child with his wife, the stage director Sophie Hunter, in June 2015. The couple are currently expecting their second child. “I have an extraordinary wife, so credit where credit is due,” he says, flashing a big smile.

“Beyond that, I had a very specific routine and diet for the physical training; I think that really was the foundation to keep me going through the working day. I rehearsed in the morning and early afternoon, and by 4pm, I’ll be back in a car, which is often an hour and a half’s journey. The hardest bit was being in a car not doing anything.”

While Cumberbatch has taken on an eclectic list of roles in the past few years – from Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness , to a plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave , to the sad-sack cousin in August: Osage County – he is perhaps most commonly recognised for his alienated-genius characters.

The actor has enjoyed a meteoric rise since he took the leading role in Sherlock in 2010. In just the past three years, he’s played Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, mathematician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, and now a neurosurgeon in Doctor Strange. When I ask if he remembers how the trend started, Cumberbatch is defensive. “I think people draw lines with [actors],” he says.

Benedict Cumberbatch on Alan Turing's legacy and the challenge of making The Imitation Game

“I’ve played some very normal characters, but they don’t necessarily have as big a stage or presence in the films. Alan Turing was a very specific case: a real character, a very complex character, and someone I think [who], while socially challenged, is not a manufactured character in the sense that Sherlock is. … We meet Sherlock and he is the hero [from the beginning]; and what our series does is gradually challenge that hero to become more human.”

Cumberbatch goes on to make the case that Strange is, indeed, “very human”, before abruptly returning to my question. “But apparently my career – if there’s a pattern, tell me about it and I’ll smash it, because I’m not interested in repeating myself. So you’ll have to tell me when you think that [trend of similar roles] started, because I don’t take interest in those things.”

That being said, he’s expected to reprise the role of Doctor Strange in solo sequels and ensemble movies. “I’m not preparing for any yet, because I’ve got another movie project in the pipeline first,” he says. That film is possibly The Current War, in which the actor will play the inventor Thomas Edison (whom some would even call a genius).

Meet the man who is bringing Asia into the Marvel universe

“I’ll have to check with Kevin [Feige] if I’m allowed to say that – but yes, I think there’s definitely a life to [Doctor Strange] beyond this film,” says Cumberbatch.

“We’ll see how the film does first. But, look, it’s a great character; he basically gets to open the doors of different dimensions, literally, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it just expands massively. Just when you think, ‘How can we cram more characters into the Avengers or any, you know, grouping?’, you realise you can when the landscape gets massive. It really does go well beyond our world.”

So will the Sorcerer Supreme be joining either Captain America or Tony Stark’s Iron Man in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War?

“I think, in some way, he’s above all of that,” Cumberbatch says with a chuckle. “He’s protecting brackets that surround both Cap and Stark, so I think he’s more of an overseeing judge of that, rather than a participant in the domestic squabble that he’ll probably see it as. That’s the best answer I can give you for now.”

Doctor Strange opens on October 27

Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook