TORONTO — The question is whether Julian Assange, or rather Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of him, qualifies as “creepy.” As portrayed by a bleached-blond, beady-eyed Cumberbatch in “The Fifth Estate,” which opens Friday, the controversial WikiLeaks founder is intense, eccentric, even maniacal. The actor is OK with any of those adjectives; just don’t call Assange the “c” word.
“That might just be the combination of my physical appearance, with me trying to look like him,” says Cumberbatch, a blend of otherworldly facial features both unsettling and hot-alien handsome, as he sits down with a reporter at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. “I don’t think he’s that creepy in real life.
“I think there’s a lot of him that people want to characterize like that because it’s easy, because he’s a little bit odd. He’s just very plain speaking. I don’t think that makes him creepy.”
It’s a defensive-sounding answer, no getting around it, though the mellifluous Cumberbatch delivers it in the same cordial, gentlemanly manner with which he addresses all of his interviewer’s queries. He seems more prepared than perturbed. “The Fifth Estate” was guaranteed to be scrutinized, he acknowledges, what with the whistleblower at its center accused of sexually assaulting two Swedish women. Assange has lived in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden (and on from there, many believe, to face possible charges of espionage by the United States).
“It’s very easy to see him in a sort of tabloid version as a strange Australian guy with white hair who’s wanted for rape and holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy somewhere behind Harrods,” Cumberbatch says. But that, he argues, “ignores what happened between 2007 and 2010, which was an evolution in media and the way we disseminate information.
“Through creating an anonymous whistleblowing website,” the actor continues, “[Assange] opened the doors on one of the most complex issues of our time: the containment, control, and editing of knowledge, news, and power. The debate goes on. Was he exposing people? Was he exposing risks? Was he playing God or was he actually doing everyone a service? I hope that’s the debate that this film will be a starting point for.”
Even as he’s speaking, the cinematic debate has begun, with critics sounding off in mixed response to the film’s Toronto premiere. (“I’ve read a few of the reviews; I can’t pretend they’re not there,” Cumberbatch admits.) But if consensus was paramount to him, he wouldn’t be starring in so many varied and challenging projects this year. Besides “Fifth Estate,” which is directed by Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”), Cumberbatch, 37, is still riding waves of praise for his nuanced portrait of the villainous Khan in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” and for his sexy-smart title-character update on the BBC’s “Sherlock.” Later this Oscar-nomination season you’ll see him as a conflicted plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave,” and as a sweet Oklahoma nebbish who struggles just not to get run over by the emoting of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in “August: Osage County.” Right now, though, he’s full-on Assange, even if he’s traded the Andy Warhol hairdo for slick black locks.
“The Fifth Estate” is based on books by Assange’s former partner, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, and journalist David Leigh. Josh Singer’s frantic screenplay dramatizes the story of WikiLeaks’ swift rise, from lone-wolf efforts to expose war crimes and corruption to the headline-grabbing publication of thousands of confidential US State Department documents in partnership with some of the world’s biggest media outlets. Its release feels especially timely with former CIA and NSA employee Edward Snowden still polarizing public opinion months after leaking top-secret details of mass surveillance programs. There have been other examinations of institutional secrecy vs. the public’s right to know (Alex Gibney’s provocative documentary “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” for one) and there will surely be many more.
Condon says he’d have welcomed Assange’s input, but the director’s many attempts to invite that collaboration went nowhere. Instead, Assange appealed directly to the film’s star to abandon his role.
“Benedict’s empathy, his sense of concern for the real Julian, runs deep,” Condon explains. “So imagine you’re an actor and as the movie starts shooting — I’m not saying he’s Daniel Day-Lewis, you know, but he is channeling Assange — you’re getting e-mails from Assange begging you, ‘Please don’t do this to me. Please don’t play me.’ What a strain that is. I think it was an incredible conflict, but he just took it on. It was impressive.”
Cumberbatch’s deep investment in his characters earns additional praise from costar Daniel Brühl, cast as Domscheit-Berg, who hints that you might notice a familiar detective quality to this portrait of Assange. (“He can’t get rid of that Sherlock part of his personality,” Brühl says with a laugh, disclosing sleuthing that continued off camera. “He would always try to [deduce] what I had for breakfast or whatever.”) And you might also glimpse the laser-focused Khan and Dr. Frankenstein (from Danny Boyle’s “Frankenstein” for “National Theatre Live”).
Before Benedict Cumberbatch was any of those people, however, he was just an artsy lad from London (mom and dad are actors) with a fussy name that sounds made for the clergyman protagonist in a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. He’s heard every possible bastardization of that moniker, by the way, from the simply silly (Blenderdick Splunderbatch, Bandersnatch Cummerbund . . .) to a long list of truly raunchy and/or cruel things that he challenged us to print (sorry, Benedict-Julian, this isn’t WikiLeaks.org). His fans are constantly coming up with new labels for themselves: Cumberpeople, Cumbercollectives, Cumberbitches, Cumbersomes . . .
“Well, I’ve just made that up myself,” Cumberbatch admits. “But I quite like it. I mean I’ve got to have some of the fun of it, haven’t I? Christ, I was born with this name; I didn’t give it to myself!”
So he knows what it’s like to be labeled. And he knows how to make a statement: Paparazzi are getting very used to him holding handwritten political messages near his face whenever they try to take a shot (recent example: “Go photograph Egypt and show the world something important”). He even knows something about the toll of physical confinement: In 2005, while trying to change a flat tire in South Africa, he and two friends were reportedly abducted by six armed men. Though they were let go without explanation a few hours later, he’s described the experience as both terrifying and transformative.
All of which may inform his empathy for Assange, and his response to questions about the responsibility of playing the man.
“This is a dramatic film. It’s not a documentary. It’s not a piece of evidence,” Cumberbatch points out. “If it’s just about is he creepy or not, that’s a bit disappointing. And I think that’s what he’s struggled against all this time. ‘Stop it being about the messenger, [Assange is saying], just concentrate on what I’m trying to bring to the world. This is not about me, it’s about you.’ It’s about how we question and how we should be allowed, in a democracy, to question.”