Talk about a moment before. It’s a cold December day in London, and Benedict Cumberbatch is about to shoot a dinner scene with his Patrick Melrose costar Allison Williams. But by the time Cumberbatch’s titular character is ready to sit down for a flirty dinner with his girlfriend’s best friend (yep!), he’s already taken a few doses of heroin, carried his father’s ashes around in a plastic bag, and drunkenly collapsed in a bathroom. He’s a complete mess — exactly what Cumberbatch signed up for.
Based on Edward St. Aubyn’s series of eponymous novels, this five-part Showtime series traces the downward spiral of an upper-class Englishman who is reeling from the sexual abuse he experienced as a child. It’s a role Cumberbatch, 41, chased with ferocity. “You’re asked to empathize with a man doing some pretty awful things because you want him to do better,” the actor explains back in his trailer, comparing Patrick’s “good man goes wrong” journey to Breaking Bad. “It’s a very subtle but profound shift, from self-annihilation and narcissism to a world where he is sincere, loving, and open.”
Cumberbatch is a huge fan of St. Aubyn’s books and spent more than four years developing this adaptation with producer Michael Jackson.(Cumberbatch is credited as an executive producer.) The actor says the team behind Melrose is dedicated to honoring the original material’s brutal takes on family and class — a sort of reverse Downton Abbey, an “upturning of expectations” — and Cumberbatch wants to plumb the same depths as Patrick in order “to do him justice.” But the Academy Award nominee admits playing such a broken, self-destructive character takes a toll. “Containing the core of what drives this character — it’s hard to go there,” he says, adding that playing Patrick could very well require “a few years” of therapy. (Also: “Being on Quaaludes is quite hard.”)
In keeping with Patrick’s unpredictability, Melrose can veer dramatically in tone from scene to scene; between devastating explorations of Patrick’s trauma are bitingly bleak streaks of humor. Intrinsic to Cumberbatch’s portrayal is a dark wit and a palpable empathy. “You see Benedict, and then in a snap of your fingers there’s Patrick,” gushes Allison Williams, who plays the aforementioned flirty friend, Marianne. “And there is a vacancy there — it’s really remarkable to watch. My mental image of Patrick will never not be Benedict.”
Through the series’ five hours, Patrick goes on a journey of self-discovery, searching for his identity as he struggles to heal from immense psychological damage. For now, Cumberbatch is left to play another wrenching, draining scene — well aware that “there’s still a lot to come.” Patrick’s dinner with Marianne goes sour; she leaves, angry, and he chases after her. But she’s gone. The scene ends on Patrick, alone in an alleyway, vomiting, the drugs and booze catching up to him — and his father’s ashes still in hand.
Cumberbatch sums up the scene appropriately — and grimly: “It was never going to end well.”
Patrick Melrose premieres May 12 at 9:00pm, on Showtime.
Reporting by Simon Perry