Benedict Cumberbatch on Confusion About ‘Power of the Dog’

Is the feeling any different the second time around?

No. I mean, it was seven years ago, so my memory — you know, I’ve had an awful lot of life since then. But I would say the joy, the thrill of it, the sort of excitement of it — we live in a very different time and I suppose that is part of what’s changed, but actually that doesn’t affect your visceral reaction to being recognized for your work in this way. It’s a great honor, it really is.

You are not the first person that comes to mind when casting a cowboy, and you trained extensively to portray Phil and his life accurately, even learning to brand and castrate cattle. How was that?

One of the true joys of this job in general for me is obviously the elements you can experience outside of your lived experience. And everything about this role is as far away from me as possible. And in many ways my wheelhouse, what I’ve been known to perform as before — although I’m always thinking about the physicality of my characters. So all of this was a lived experience in his body, which is so essential to the storytelling of Phil Burbank, how he holds himself, who he is with his command of craft and land and people and animals. And so for all of his masculinity and brutality and all the danger, there’s an incredible, sensitive, vulnerable, artistic side to him, which is working in relation very openly, unlike his inner secret — his sexual identity or what his experience has been at least in the past and his life with that man, which is very hidden from the world.

But even the miniature furniture that he whittles for his brother as a joke at one point, that kind of craft, and the banjo playing that was looked upon by the other ranch hands as being a real badge of the brilliance of their leader. They marvel at his ability in every regard. It’s not just riding the cattle herd or castrating the animals, but I needed to somehow experience all of that in my body. And I did experience all of that in my body. But that moment when I’m whipping the horse with the blanket? I hate to tell The New York Times but obviously it’s me and a camera with kidneys around it. I can’t watch that moment.

Have people talked to you about being confused by the film at all?

They’ve talked to me in, in very honest terms, about how there are so many elements that are open to interpretation. Listen, what’s extraordinary about this film is it’s the equivalent of a piece of poetry compared to an Op-Ed on Trumpism. It is metaphor as the best of cinema can be. So I think a little confusion, or a little questioning over motivations or outcomes, or how the plot ties together is a good thing. It’s not just a straightforward thriller about an avenging angel. Especially because [Phil and Peter’s] dynamic starts to become incredibly slippery. Peter is trying to seduce Phil, but also getting seduced by his role play in some way. And maybe Phil is seduced so artfully within the masculinity that he’s portraying and emulating to disguise something else that he feels in contact with in private. It’s just got an iceberg worth of subtext underneath it.

Are there any of Phil’s traits that you’ve carried into your life?

There’s a simplicity to him and a directness, which I admire. There is also the so profound connection to nature. That’s becoming increasingly important to me as a father. He is someone who brings the outside in, and there’s an honesty to the way he behaves without dressing up or masquerading that I find appealing. He’s such a tortured soul. But despite his abhorrent behavior, you see through him, and you understand who he is and why he is the way he is. And he becomes very compelling as a character.

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