Benedict Cumberbatch on Character Development

November 18, 2016

“Yes, I do build up a backstory in my head even if it’s just for me.” –-Benedict Cumberbatch

Marvel’s Doctor Strange actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s resume includes a long, impressive list of awards and nominations for his film, television and theater work. In part, he can boast appearing in four films that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar: Atonement, War Horse, The Imitation Game, and 12 Years a Slave–the last of which won the category. On a recent webchat on The Guardian, Cumberbatch answered fans’ questions about a variety of topics. After sharing what his favorite flavor of coffee is, and which books he’s currently reading, the Sherlock star was asked if he takes the time and effort to create a backstory for his characters. Cumberbatch responded with an admittedly “verbose” answer. But here is his reply regarding processes to build up backstories and specific skills for his prolific characters.

“Yes, I do build up a backstory in my head even if it’s just for me,” he said. “As far as preparation goes, it’s important to understand the who, what, where, why of the character before you meet him.” Cumberbatch continued:

“That helps the character employ those tactics for whatever action they’re trying to perform, which can necessitate a limit of choice as well as a discovery of new things to be learned as an actor to portray the character with. For example, a character I played in a Martin Crimp play called ‘The City’ at the Royal Court [theater], was describing an incident where he was humiliated in his new job to his wife, and I began to [characterize] the voices in his story when Katie Mitchell [director] pointed out that it was unlikely he would have the confidence to do that as opposed to me, because I could. Those differentiations are vital, but often (and this really ain’t no humblebrag) I’m chasing the tailcoats of my character’s abilities, whether it’s their intelligence or professional excellence, or even their ability to sing/play piano/ride a horse/paint some of the great works of modern art! All these things require a heavy tutoring in new skill sets, one of the many privileges of our job, i.e., getting to learn new stuff and continuing with a form of further education, I suppose. And the results, while varied, sometimes work, but it’s all smoke and mirrors, and I often feel like a horrible fraudster. I think the worst is when I played violin as Sherlock–a skill that takes years of childhood and adolescent practice time….But just to finish, vocal and physical differences, prep of any sort, work on a backstory, learning a skill, all has to be given time and when it isn’t you run into [generalizing], and I’m fully aware I’ve done that on occasion, and so aim to create enough space around my work so there is enough space between roles and I have enough time to [honor] the tasks each present me with.”

When it came to developing Doctor Stephen Strange, the English actor delved deeply into the character using the source material as well as relying on president of  Marvel Studios and “superfan” Kevin Feige and the film’s director Scott Derrickson’s encyclopedic knowledge of the character and story. He also referred back to his experiences as a teenager when he taught English in a Tibetan monastery which got him in touch with “the power of the mind to change your reality.”

Here is a clip of Cumberbatch and Derrickson as well as actor Mads Mikkelsen talking about how they prepared to capture the mystical world of Doctor Strange.