Why Benedict Cumberbatch signed up for Doctor Strange

British actor Benedict Cumberbatch leaps onto the A-list in the new Marvel blockbuster.

Robert Chilton November 27, 2016

Joaquin Phoenix, Jared Leto and Ryan Gosling – those are the elite actors that Benedict Cumberbatch beat to bag the biggest role of his career as Doctor Strange. Not only did the movie makers choose the Brit to play Strange, they also postponed shooting to accommodate Cumberbatch’s schedule and allow him to wrap the hit BBC show Sherlock and his acclaimed run as Hamlet on the London stage. 

It’s precisely those ‘proper’ acting skills that impressed producers of Doctor Strange and made them wait for his services. Nominated for an Oscar for 2014’s The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch stars in the Marvel comic book adaptation alongside Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams and Mads Mikkelsen.

It’s a mind-bending movie in which Manhattan folds in on itself as sorcerers adept at the ‘mystical arts’ go head to head. Cumberbatch plays a top neurosurgeon with a sports car, a watch collection and a slick New York pad. But after a terrible car crash, Strange travels to Kathmandu to heal himself and embarks on a journey he never expected. 

The Brit is married to theatre director Sophie Hunter (left) and they have a son Christopher, born in June 2015. He voiced Smaug the dragon in the Hobbit movies, and gave Captain Kirk a headache as Khan in the Star Trek reboots. Cumberbatch has also been seen in War Horse, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and is tipped to reappear as Strange in the 2018 Avengers movie, Infinity War.

What first got you excited about the character Doctor Strange?

One of the things that attracted me to the role is the fact that it’s a really wide story. There’s the whole chapter before where he’s the neurosurgeon who has the accident. It’s fantastic. It gives me an excuse as an actor to learn with my character, which is something you can do authentically. I’m not a martial arts expert, I’m certainly no sorcerer, so all these things, the movement of the body, the physicality, the changes he goes through mentally and physically – it’s a great part. 

How were the costumes?

The Cloak of Levitation is a dear friend, but sometimes at certain takes it becomes the Cloak of Limitations, because I can trip on it. But what superhero or what actor playing a superhero doesn’t complain about the costume? There are so many incredible costumes in this and they adapt them to your movements, which is a riveting part of the process. Alex [Alexandra Byrne], our costume designer, she’s a genius. When I first walked into Alex’s room, I just went, ‘Wow, this is great!’

Why did you sign up to the movie?

I’ve never done a lead role in a film this big, in a franchise this big. One of the reasons was that I wanted to know what the toy box was like – it’s a real blast. The amount of artistry that’s brought to every aspect of the filmmaking is just insane.

Such as?

You go to your first costume fitting and it’s one of 30, but it’s for a reason because this film is so visual and so based in illustrative language. The visuals are way out there, but they’re scientific as well as alternative, and they’re really spiced up with what modern cinema is capable of.

What happened during your first meeting with the director?

When I first met Scott [Derrickson, director] and Kevin [Feige, producer] my first question was, ‘How do you make this film? Why do you make this film now?’ and the answers were so enticing that I was like, ‘I’m in.’

Tell us where we find Doctor Strange at the start of the film...

He’s completely in control of his life, yet there are things missing which are quite obvious, but it’s a good life. He’s difficult, he’s arrogant, but he’s kind of brilliant and charming and you’d think, ‘Yeah, I’d want him on my head if I needed brain surgery.’ He’s good enough to warrant his arrogance – he’s really, really good at his job so his brilliance feeds his ego. Then he has this car crash, and becomes obsessed with healing himself. He has to build himself up again from the very bottom. And then all hell breaks loose.

How does Doctor Strange’s character develop from arrogant neurosurgeon to sorcerer?

He’s still quite cocky by the end of the film. The guy goes through everything you could possibly imagine. I’d say the major curve for him is that he learns that it’s not all about him, that there’s a greater good. But what he thinks he was doing as a neurosurgeon, that was good because it benefited people’s health, was really just a furtherment of his attempts to control death and control his own fate and other people’s, but that’s still driven by the ego. So he becomes more ‘ego-less,’ but I would say he’s more lonely by the end of the film. I would say that he’s a kick-ass sorcerer by the end of the film, so that’s a major change.

Did you feel added pressure in playing an important character such as Doctor Strange?

Yeah, a little, but I think playing any iconic role when you’re stepping into big shoes, into the shadow of people who have come before you – you can’t process that. I’m aware of his place within the comic pantheon, the Marvelverse. But it’s a really rich character.

It seems fans of the comic wanted you in the role for quite some time. How did that feel?

I’m flattered that people thought I was a good fit. I think you can just throw yourself at the internet’s mercy and be part of social media and get into a room with people who want to kill you. Or you take a step back and do your own thing in your own world. Then stuff leaks and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, that’s horrific, that’s libellous, but what can I do?’ You let things run in order to have some sanity and be able to do your work and not feel pre-judged. People have an opinion about it so I guess I was probably too scared to look into the fan-driving on it.

What are your expectations for the film?

I’m excited to see. And as you know, from all these previous incarnations, they play out in unexpected ways from the comic format, so they manage to both fulfil that magical space of doing things that seem to please diehard fans and bring something new as well. 

We hear the shooting schedule of Doctor Strange was delayed to accommodate your other work, is that right?

It was hard because of the scheduling so it’s a massive compliment to me. Postponing the making of this to accommodate both my production of Hamlet and going into Sherlock season four is another reason to deliver and fulfil that promise.

Did you read the Doctor Strange comic books as a kid?

No, I had a very sparse comic upbringing, not because I was being whipped into reading Chekhov and Dickens, but I read Asterix and Tin Tin on holidays when I was a kid.

Were you a geeky child?

I was never geeky about anything. I never really got obsessed about one thing for long. I was a bit of a butterfly and a magpie. I’d shift disciplines, whether it was musical instruments or sports or whatever.

Rumour has it that this movie is very different to previous Marvel movies. Do you agree?

You’ve heard what people have said. You make your own minds up. I don’t want to put fantasies out there, it’s a shorthand that can be really misleading because the minute you do that, you get pitches, like When Harry Meets Sally Meets Robocop 3.

Sounds like a hit!

Right? That sounds good. I’m trying to make up some dialogue for that one.