Though he’s not instantly recognizable with his hair bleached blond-white in “The Fifth Estate” (which opens Friday), it’s clear that’s Benedict Cumberbatch playing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from the moment he speaks a line of dialogue. The rich, deep, melodious baritone voice gives him away. Moviegoers have been hearing it a lot in recent years: in “Atonement,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Star Trek into Darkness,” and TV viewers have been enjoying his modern take on a certain deductive detective in the British series “Sherlock.” But Cumberbatch, 37, started on the stage, getting great notices for roles in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Hedda Gabler” and, just last year, a production of “Frankenstein” in which he regularly switched between playing Victor Frankenstein and the creature. Cumberbatch recently spoke about his career and taking on the part of Assange at the Toronto International Film Festival.
It’s been reported that you tried to meet with Julian Assange before starting, but he didn’t want anything to do with the film and refused. How did you approach the part?
I didn’t want to impersonate him, I wanted to interpret him. There’s an acreage of footage online. A lot of it is formal, of him in presentational mode, of him arguing or being interviewed or talking about particular issues to do with WikiLeaks. But the film investigates the man in the more private mode of friendship and the working relationship with [his WikiLeaks associate] Daniel Berg, as well as stories of him off camera and very much out of the public eye. I guess that was the harder part.
The film portrays him as being passionate about his work but doesn’t show him in a very flattering light. Any guesses on what he’ll think of the film and your portrayal?
I really don’t want to venture what his reaction’s going to be. I’m not a betting man, but I imagine he won’t particularly want to support the film. But I’m not a mind reader, even though I tried to get into his mind to a certain degree for a certain period of his life. I think that we show a man and his idea, and the integrity and sacrifice that he had to pursue to see that through. I think we show the achievement of WikiLeaks between 2007 and 2010 – electoral reform in Nigeria, the exposure of corruption in the banking systems of Iceland and parts of Western Europe, Tibetan suppression by the Chinese. And then the massive dump of [American military] information in 2010. I think there’s a lot to celebrate about his achievements, and the perspective it shows on what he managed to do and how he managed to do it.
Assange is still holed up in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London. How do you think the situation will be resolved?
Page 2 of 2 - I don’t know. I’m not a legal expert; I’m an actor. I wouldn’t like to venture what might or should happen. It’s very complicated, and it has to do with dealings and goings-on behind closed doors. I don’t have access to any kind of information or perspective that would shine a light on some sort of certain truth about that. What I’d like to see is the man able to carry on doing his work as the founder of WikiLeaks. Beyond that, due process has to take place in whatever way, shape or form that happens.
Are you as good with computers as Assange appears to be in the film?
Actually, I’m very computer illiterate. I interface with easy, user-friendly kinds of software on sleek-looking hardware without really understanding what the workings of computers are. So it was fascinating to explore that aspect of Julian and learn about his pioneering work in computer programming and hacking. It was an education but not one I took to naturally.
Could you speak about making the transition from theater to screen acting?
I genuinely believe that they feed off each other. You can take theatrical moments into cinematic moments, and vice versa. I don’t know if having a theater background changed my approach to film acting in any particular way, but I was really lucky to begin in theater. You have the wonderful, amazing discovery period of a rehearsal time, which is a luxury in the film world. But most directors on most [film] projects, including this one, do try to carve that out, so you can experience a preparation and a level of experimentation and failing and getting up again and failing, before you’re in front of a camera.
What draws you to a role?
As much as it’s your choice as an actor, variety is a prerogative. That’s kind of my guiding principle when I do get the opportunity to choose – to keep myself guessing, to challenge myself to do things I haven’t done before, and hopefully an audience hasn’t seen before. I’ve been very lucky.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.