The 2020 Sundance Film Festival doesn’t kick off for another month, but with the recent announcement of the films headed to Park City in the new year, the buzz for the annual event is steadily building.
One of the starry titles that will make its debut at the indie fest is Dominic Cooke’s Ironbark, a spy drama based on a true story starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne, a salesman who was drawn into a high-stakes espionage operation during the Cold War. “This is a story of a very average hero,” Cumberbatch tells EW. “He was just a charming Welshman with the gift of the gab” — who ultimately played a critical role in bringing an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
An industrial goods salesman from a humble background (his “sort of strange Welsh accent,” which Cumberbatch describes as “kind of upper-class, and not quite upper-class enough,” presented a challenge for the actor to perfect), Wynne was taking his business further and further east when MI6 called upon him to be a messenger (in the exclusive image above, he’s pictured making a drop) for their Russian contact Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), with whom Wynne developed a deep friendship that would change the course of both men’s lives.
“He literally goes from being a rather charming businessman heading towards retirement, with a good sense of humor and a jolly manner, to being someone who is basically secreting Minox film cartridges about his case as he tos-and-fros to Moscow under the guise of being part of a British delegation of trade,” summarizes Cumberbatch, who also served as an executive producer on the film. “It’s a window into a world that’s not that far from our own, sadly, now, again, as far as how things heat up so quickly in politics and on the global stage,” he says of the story, which also serves as a reminder of the gravity of the Cuban Missile Crisis: “I think we forget how close we came to not existing anymore.”
The Doctor Strange star had previously been directed by Cooke in the BBC Two series The Hollow Crown as well as onstage in a production of Rhinoceros at the Royal Court Theatre. “He’s very much an actor’s director, as well as a brilliant stager,” says Cumberbatch. “I love his sensibility, and his take on character and relationship is key.” Once Cooke pitched Wynne’s extraordinary history for their next collaboration, the actor was on board.
But the shoot wasn’t without its challenges. In addition to mastering the accent, Cumberbatch also had to lose a great deal of weight in three months for just four scenes (rejecting suggestions that he Benjamin Button the rapid transformation) and a winter shoot in Prague, for which he had to be “semi-naked in real ex-prisons” that were well below freezing, made him terribly ill despite production’s efforts to keep him warm between takes. But the actor wouldn’t have had it any other way. “It’s nothing compared to what [Wynne] went through,” he says. “That’s the thing with these kinds of roles. People go, ‘Whoa, you did that?’ [But] you’re humbled by the reality, which is very far from what you have to do as an actor. And that helps you get there. That gives you all the motivation you need, frankly.”
He hopes that audiences, too, will be humbled and inspired by Wynne’s astonishing story, especially in our turbulent modern times. “It is possible for us to be ordinary people that are capable of doing extraordinary things when the time comes, when the questions are asked,” he says. “I think that’s what it is — it’s quiet heroics in a very loud world.”
Ironbark will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24, 2020.