Benedict Cumberbatch on playing the man behind the Brexit campaign

by The Listener / 29 March, 2019
Benedict Cumberbatch on Brexit: The Uncivil War.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War.

RelatedArticlesModule - Benedict Cumberbatch Brexit

In Brexit: The Uncivil War, the actor stars as Dominic Cummings, campaign director of Vote Leave.

What made you decide to take on Brexit: The Uncivil War?

When James Graham’s script came along, I instantly knew it was a damn fine bit of writing, so it was a no-brainer really. James has an ability to contract very complicated, important events into an hour and 20 minutes. That gives a much-needed narrative structure to something that seemed to sprawl for months, even though the actual campaign was only six weeks. It is a great skill to be able, with a certain amount of dramatic license, to give a really coherent, intriguing, thriller-like, narrative structure to complex events and characters without losing the integrity of his very deeply researched material. So James’s script both keeps its integrity as a piece of reportage and has the air beneath its wings as entertainment at the same time.

What appealed to you about how the project was approached?

I like the fact that it tries to battle the enigma of who Dominic Cummings is behind closed doors and also just to expose dramatically, comedically, what it was like to be in the room where it happened, to borrow a phrase from Hamilton. The urgency, the timeliness of it. It’s an electric feeling to do work like this. I was also attracted by [director] Toby Haynes, who I loved working with on Sherlock.

Do you view it as a sort of period piece?

Yes. It isn’t really a drama about now; it’s about how now came about.

What drew you to Dominic Cummings?

It was the attraction of playing someone of this world. He is recognisable despite being a backroom figure. It’s just a nice direction to go, in a style of drama that’s a little more naturalistic.

Is it important not to view Dominic as either a goodie or a baddie when you’re playing him?

Yes. I think the drama is dead in the water if it’s viewed as a goodie and baddie conversation. It’s about the grey, it’s about finding the human in all the arguments. Dominic is a brilliant political strategist. But to judge his character or his motivation, that is not for me to do, and I don’t think it would help any viewer if I did that.

Is it also important that your views on Brexit, whatever they may be, don’t intrude, either?

Yes. It’s not going to enhance anyone’s viewing experience of this drama if I or anyone else is talking about what their personal feelings are about it. It’s an examination of key players that weren’t necessarily in the public eye, behind the closed doors of the campaign. So that is what is fascinating.

What did you learn from meeting Dominic?

Obviously, there is a lot that is private between us two. But he was incredibly helpful and trusting and transparent and supportive of me as an actor pretending to be him. It was very helpful to hear what it was like to experience it, as far as the temperature, the changes of mood, the whole pacing and shaping of the drama were concerned.

Did you ask him lots of questions during filming?

No. I’d been so tempted so many times to go, “What was it like for this? What was it like for that?” But, actually, I relied on the script, the direction, my fellow actors and my own intuition, because it is about serving a drama. If I tuned in too much to a verbatim testament of the actual person I’m playing, then it can frustrate you, it can inhibit the drama. So it is always a balancing act between honouring the integrity of real-life characters and events and making sure it’s a palatable drama for people to watch and understand.

Do you think drama can change people’s minds?

I think the great potency of drama from its very earliest moments in Greek civilisation to now is that it provides bathos, it provides cathartic experiences where you realise the world is not just one long line of joy or sorrow, but it’s tragedy and comedy meeting together. That’s why making sense of information given over a long period of time in this one stretch of narrative is one of the chief reasons why this is an important piece of work. ‎People can see it unfolding in a contained space and time on the television and maybe have a debate about who we are as a country.

Is this drama meant to be didactic at all?

No. This is about a specific aspect of the referendum campaign. It’s about revealing and unearthing. It is not about how to solve it or what went wrong or right, it’s just about how those moments occurred. It doesn’t lecture. It’s not censorious, and it’s certainly not didactic. 

What do you hope viewers will take away from watching Brexit?

It’s very much supposed to be a prism on a world, opening the crack of a door to step into the room where it happened. It will be far more entertaining than a night in watching the news - and that’s saying something considering what’s on the news at the moment! It will be frustrating, entertaining, occasionally very funny and highly moving. I hope all the things a great drama can be.

BREXIT: THE UNCIVIL WAR, UKTV, Sky 007, Monday April 1, 8.30pm.

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