The hardest part about playing a terrifying rancher in Jane Campion's acclaimed Netflix film? "The banjo."
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The Power of the Dog

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You're known for cerebral roles: Doctor Strange, Sherlock Holmes. This one's different, a gruff 1930s Montana rancher named Phil. What drew you to it?

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: My default mode is being a little apologetic and a bit of a people pleaser, and Phil is as far away from that as possible. He is a cerebral character, by the way. He may dress and talk like folk, but it's a masquerade for a highly intelligent, highly calculating, at times monstrous psychology. It was just a really mind-blowing experience, and so far away from my lived one.

You stayed in character throughout filming. What was that like?

It's the longest I've ever been in character. There are all sorts of technical reasons: We were in New Zealand. I wasn't surrounded by America or Americans, so there was that to hold on to the character for, but also how far away he is from me and just to try and give as much possibility to being him as I could.

How did that work on weekends? Did you apologize to your costars Kodi Smit-McPhee and Kirsten Dunst?

Yeah. [I said] "I'm so sorry. I'm body-shaming you. I'm torturing you psychologically. It's so horrible." They're very cool about it, but it's a heavy thing to do, and you want to reconnect with the human beings who you are playing with just to reassure them that there's no subsidiary joy to it. 

The Awardist The Contenders Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog
Credit: Netflix

What was in the "look book" director Jane Campion gave you?

Unexpectedly sensual pictures of the era, whether it was cowhands relaxing by kind of a stream or a levee or a little lake, or whether it was these sort of odd, semi-erotic photographs, half in shade, half exposed in light. I thought, what an amazing woman to enjoy this with, because she's got such a profound understanding of landscape, of sensuality within a frame, but also the alienation within that landscape.

The production was led by two extraordinary women, director Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner. What was the vibe on set?

For me, it's not really about gender. It's just about sensitivity and appreciation for the balance of needs on a set. [Jane's] been a champion and has shown people that women have every right to be behind a camera and proven it with extraordinary work in her career. But on a day-to-day shoot, it doesn't seem to me as being a different feeling. Maybe I've been lucky and I haven't worked with sort of hypermasculine directors. 

What is Jane's directing style?

She brings out such raw, direct, and honest performances from her actors. She does it in all sorts of ways, some very peculiar, some very left-field, some very direct. She got Jesse [Plemons] and I to waltz off screen, to just bring together our bodies and create an intimacy between two brothers who, while pushing and pulling against each other in the drama, have lived a life tied at the hip of codependency. It was a great idea.

Your performance was so fearless. Did anything scare you about the process?

Oh, God, all of it. And the banjo — the banjo. The banjo is the most skilled thing I really had to do in it, and anytime I hit a bum note or it sounded off, it would bring me out. That makes you feel very vulnerable when you're trying to do something that requires a lifetime's worth of skill and you've only had a few months. There's nothing like playing a musical instrument to bring you up short. 

A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's February issue, on newsstands Friday and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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The Power of the Dog
The Power of the Dog (2021 movie)

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a menacing cowboy in Jane Campion's twisty Western.

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