Benedict Cumberbatch explains the 'sensual, private' life of his toxic cowboy in Power of the Dog
Speaking at a digital panel Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Oscar nominee broke down his character's motivations in the New Zealand filmmaker's first movie in 12 years: A cautionary tale about a sexually subdued cowboy grappling with violent impulses after his brother (Jesse Plemons) becomes close with a woman (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in 1920s Montana.
"This character isn't existing in a vacuum. It's hard to watch what he does.... if our work has succeeded, you understand his motivations, and you should move toward an empathy for him, or at least an understanding," Cumberbatch told the audience. "Not to condone his behavior, it's part of the warning of the story, the moral of toxic masculinity is often born out of repression and feelings of being gaslighted or washed out or not allowed. There's no space or cultural space or tolerance of them, not just his sexuality, which is a huge part of that, but also the performative nature of his masculinity."
The 45-year-old English actor cited the character's removal from "this other sensual, private part of him that the film slowly reveals" predicates his "shocking acts," and ultimately leads to impostor syndrome and "alienated" feelings.
"He feels that the world is against him, and he hates on it before it can hate on him," he continued, later adding: "We move forwards as a society if we can see past the behavior toward the motivations towards an understanding, we don't if we just cast these people aside as the bad guys and throw away the key."
Early reactions to the film included discussion on the character's sexuality, as the book the film is based on — Thomas Savage's 1967 novel of the same name — implies that he's gay, though never explicitly confirms it.
Last week at The Power of the Dog's Telluride Film Festival premiere, Cumberbatch (who's married to a woman, stage director Sophie Hunter) spoke about his decision to play a queer character seven years after he received his first Academy Award nomination for playing gay mathematician Alan Turing in the 2014 film The Imitation Game.
"I feel very sensitive about representation, diversity, and inclusion.... One of the appeals of the job was the idea that in this world, with this specific character, there was a lot that was private, hidden from view," he said, according to a PEOPLE report. "It wasn't done without thought.... I also feel slightly like, is this a thing where our dance card has to be public? Do we have to explain all our private moments in our sexual history? I don't think so."
Cumberbatch is generating significant Oscar buzz for his work in The Power of the Dog — which releases Nov. 17 in select theaters before a Dec. 1 bow on Netflix — with critics and festivalgoers alike touting his turn in the film as one of the strongest of his career.
See EW's picks for the best films at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival on our TIFF Must List.
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