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Cumberbatch: To understand Brexit’s present we must understand the past

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings (centre) alongside the characters of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Photograph: Channel 4. - Credit: Archant

Ahead of the airing of Brexit: The Uncivil War actor BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH makes a pitch for why we should tune into the drama which looks at those who operated behind-the-scenes during the 2016 EU referendum.

You play Dominic Cummings in Brexit: An Uncivil War. Why did you want to take the part?

I wanted to take the role because of the script, because of James Graham’s past record as a brilliant, scalpel-like satirical and analytical wit in that political realm. I wanted to have the challenge of transforming into someone that’s pretty far from myself, in many ways, and to see the world through his eyes. I wanted to look into understanding how and why he did what he did, and how and why that affected the outcome of the referendum.

It’s such an important story that’s continuing to define our nation, and I didn’t know an awful lot about how the Leave vote was won. None of that, though, would have been of any interest had it not been for James’ script and the trajectory the character goes on through the drama. Even though we all know what happened reading it felt like a thriller, with humour, insight, access and really powerful emotion. Couple that with Toby Haynes who I’ve been wanting to work with again since we shot our episode of Sherlock together and with Juliette Howell and Tessa Ross from House Productions, and Lynn Horsford (who I did ‘To The Ends Of The Earth’ with in South Africa) producing, I was utterly in.

Benedict Cumberbatch will play Vote Leave boss Dominic Cummings. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/PA. – Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Brexit is just about the most divisive issue in British political history. Did you have misgivings about plunging into its midst?

Yes. But only before I read the script and talked to James about Dominic. Because it really is the most divisive issue in politics certainly that I can remember in my lifetime. Right down to family and friends voting differently. As Dominic says in the drama, ‘Referendums are a really dumb idea’ precisely because they are so divisive. They suggest that really complex choices can be reduced to simple binaries of yes or no, red or blue, black or white. As we’ve seen from what everyone wants and feels they are or aren’t getting now from the vote to leave, it’s far more complex than just the question of in or out on the ballot paper… Far, far more complex than that. So I suppose I was wary when I heard about the project.

As a Remainer, I wanted to understand more about who wanted to leave and why. The decision has been made and that’s a reality now and one that I wanted to understand. Better than I had when I supported the Remain campaign. I wanted to understand by listening. More. And better.

Dominic Cummings speaks about Vote Leave. – Credit: Archant

I know he’s a hero to some and a villain to others so I am also naturally wary that I will be open to criticism from both of those groups. But in all honesty I’m not interested in judging him. And neither is the drama. I tend to have empathy for a character I’m playing as I have to understand people’s motivations to play them. So if anything I wanted the drama to be impartial and to help create a three-dimensional character trying to achieve something for a cause he profoundly believed in, against all the odds and by any means necessary, who also has a private life as a husband and is a father-to-be. A man who is at the heart of this defining moment in our history.

Also we had in James Graham a writer of great integrity who was after the truth to create drama and not the other way around. He crafted the script out of endless interviews, first-hand accounts, journalism and meetings with all the protagonists from every political spectrum on either side. But I’m no fool and I know that because politics, especially around this issue, gets incredibly personal and therefore the drama’s not going to please everyone. But then nothing you ever do as an actor does.

You say you wanted to get the bottom of his motivations. How did you prepare for playing him? Did you get to meet him?

I did meet him. First of all, I asked James a lot of questions. About Dominic’s character.

Then I spoke with Dominic himself. I also watched the two bits of footage of him on YouTube. A lot! The first was his House Select Committee appearance and Lord Guthrie’s interrogation of him about the provocative sloganing suggesting our weekly payments to the EU could go towards the NHS if we left and the use of the NHS logo. I just watched that ad nauseum to try and get his mannerisms, his body posture, his dialect, his very particular Durham dialect and his way of holding himself in public. And his contempt for the status quo and the way he signals this with his shirt and tie being a mess.

I talked to some of the staff on the campaign about what he was like in person during the campaign and in private and how he behaved in ways I wouldn’t necessarily detect or know about purely from the script. One of the most striking things was how calm and composed they said he was throughout the entire campaign. He has a very even spirit level. Think about the amount of pressure both sides were on, and especially when he had to survive a potential coup from his own politicians who didn’t like his way of running the campaign. He’s got a very even keel.

There isn’t a huge amount of dynamism in the way he presents himself. It’s much more for him about where he’s at intellectually with his ideas and how to implement them by team building and getting people who are capable and committed around him to do the rest of it. Where he was very emotional was on the night of the victory. I think he’d been through a lot personally at the time, on top of what on both sides was an extraordinarily pressurised situation. So everyone saw that video where he punched the air and he was visibly choked and emotional about the whole thing. He also told me he was obviously very emotional when Jo Cox was murdered. But for the most part the things that got to him were the people on his own side.

Like the attempt to get rid of him?

Yeah. After the coup attempt he really felt surrounded. He felt he had to batten down the hatches, secure any trust he had and double down, as his phrase has it, on allies but be incredibly suspicious of anyone who he had misgivings of before, because that coup is a very open attempt obviously to get rid of him and it failed. He came out on top by sheer chutzpah, but only just. I think he found the most difficult struggle wasn’t with the other side.

He didn’t have an animosity towards Craig Oliver. And I’m not sure Craig did much about him, despite how we dramatise it as a bit more Pacino and De Niro in Heat. People kept referencing that scene. I couldn’t imagine two people less like Pacino and De Niro! It was a tongue in cheek reference. In actual life there was no animosity between them.

How did he feel about it all by the time you met him?

Whether he was motivated by political ambition or not, by the time I met him, I met an incredibly happy man who certainly wasn’t posing. He seemed to be incredibly content being at home with his family. So I was surprised but I didn’t feel I was meeting a politico. I felt I was meeting someone who still had great convictions and idealism who is pretty distraught about how it’s turning out. That was in the summer and he was most distraught about what he felt he wasn’t being delivered because of the way the politics was grinding down the results in his eyes. I was more interested in meeting him but obviously he wanted to talk about his point of view and the referendum. I felt that was pretty clear in the drama so I wanted to know what makes him who we meet at the beginning of the film. What makes him tick and to understand him through his nature and nurture. Well what makes you tick? Who inspired you at school? What’s your favourite colour? Do you prefer bitter or lager? Who do you support? Are you a swimmer or a walker? What do you do to burn off steam?’ Those kinds of questions… So it was about digging under the skin and trying to understand who he is.

I’m sure some Leavers will say, ‘Oh they got a Remainer to do a bang up job of playing a Leaver to unbalance it,’ but it was never ever my intention to do that. I’ve got a great deal of time and respect for him. Whether I think he’s right or not is kind of irrelevant.

One of the things the drama focuses on as being absolutely key in the campaign is the way Cummings uses social media and data mining. Do you think that that’s the future of political campaigning? How do you feel about that?

I don’t know enough about the laws of what we’ve done to curtail that. I don’t know how easy they are to loophole. But the amount of electrical footprint that we leave behind us, what we interact with through advertising, through our preferences online, any kind of electronic media, I can’t see how that won’t influence how politics is played. Even if it is legitimised I think we are only at the beginning of it.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of the whole campaign – or infamous – was the message on the bus. Why do you think that has come to define the campaign for so many?

It seemed to be a very clear promise, didn’t it? It seemed to be a very recognisable figure for a much loved institution and taking back control, that nostalgia ‘we deserve to have something that’s been taken from us’, that’s very powerful messaging. It tapped into what people held dear and what were the flashpoints, the emotion that had started to enter the campaign and didn’t stop until the end. Certainly Dominic believed, when I spoke to him, that had his man come to power that promise would have been deliverable. It was a masterstroke of strategy. It hooked people in. It was direct and relatable to a much loved national institution.

In the drama he’s quite reluctant to take on the role, he has to be persuaded to take on the role of leading Vote Leave. Why do you think he was reluctant and why do you think he agreed?

Best to ask him but from what I came to understand… He agreed because he’s incredibly passionate about his opinions on Europe. He thinks it’s not fit for purpose, the European Union, and isn’t equipped to deal with the challenges of the future. He feels it’s a cumbersome enterprise based on post-War ideals that, whilst very good and true, have changed drastically.

He took on the fight that he really, really believed was a once-in-a-generation chance to make a difference and take the country in a different direction. And he does believe in a different direction. He’s not just an arsonist who just wants to tear it down. He’s not just a disruptor. He wants to use the policy of disruption in order to get a result but he firmly believes in the need for that change. Why he didn’t want to take it on is he was sort of sick of the Westminster machine. He just didn’t feel comfortable in that world anymore. He felt constricted by it and he felt it wasn’t progressive and intelligent and well informed enough. It really frustrated him, the idea of being in a battle that he also thought would be a devastating thing to lose, and you’d be up against the might of the Westminster establishment. The idea of losing against the very thing he had to come to feel an outsider in I think was repugnant to him.

So do you think it was as much about beating the establishment for him as it was the end result?

I’d say from what little I know that for him it’s probably more about a certain status quo within politics that he felt was about short term careerism and not about the idealism and drive to accept and develop change that is happening globally, whether it’s environmental, political, social, economic.

In basic terms it’s not your sexiest role. Do you like having to leave all vanity at the door when you’re playing a part?

That’s such a Channel 4 question! Haven’t you been watching BBC1?! Brainy is the new sexy! To be honest, unless I think it’s going to help a character I try and leave all vanity at the door and let people help design the look or the image of a character. I’ve got the face I’ve got. What’s great about being an actor is being able to transform. Sure I’ve got more hair than Dominic and different coloured eyes but so what? What I like about it is yes, sure, there’s no vanity about it, that’s a good thing. And it’s also really just about trying to give truth to a character. That’s what it’s always about. If a character uses their looks, if that’s important to them, or if there’s a certain style to how a character thinks of themselves then of course that has to come across on screen.

To be honest it’s about acting style as much as anything else. With Channel 4 you get a great deal of social realism. You get very brilliantly cast-to-type acting in their dramas and that really appeals. The veracity, the level of truth in Channel 4 dramas is something I find really appealing as an audience and I knew it was something I’d be allowed to invest in heavily myself when I was asked to play Dominic Cummings. While there are obviously stylised elements to this which will be very enjoyable for the audience, it’s a man going about his business in a world that’s very recognisable.

Anyway I had a ‘no-hawk’. Completely bald on top and with my normal hair at the side and had a sort of piece go over to look like Dominic looked at the beginning of the campaign, where he had that sort of tonsured look with wisps of hair going over. He was very brown and handsome and with a shaved head when I met him.

You talk of the stylised elements that will be funny to the audience. How do you make this interesting to those who aren’t naturally engaged with politics or see this as a dry political drama or are just bored of Brexit?

It’s a really great story, beautifully told. And it is, after all, a story about arguably the most important single moment in this country for decades, and about the extraordinary way it came to pass. But it’s also very funny, particularly with the depictions of some familiar figures. James Graham has written a brilliant, funny, engaging script that deals with some powerful and important themes while never losing its lightness of touch.

Ultimately, I hope it will be a fascinating, and enjoyable drama which will make people think not just about the Brexit campaign but how they are targeted more generally by political and commercial organisations, and particularly how the data they provide to these organisations is used. Whatever side of the argument you were, or are still on – whether you’re Despondent, terrified, elated, hopeful, optimistic – James has written a fantastically entertaining drama.

The whole Brexit scenario seems to change day by day, almost hour by hour at the moment. Why do you think it’s still important to look back at events eighteen months ago?

I think that with any history, in order to understand the present, you have to look at the past. However recent that may be. And for me the more that happens in the current news cycle the further away the campaign and result day feel. So much seemed to be defined in that moment, in that vote being cast in the referendum, and yet we’re only really now truly beginning to understand all of it. This is just about really lifting the lid on a moment in time in a really condensed way to make us understand, amused, horrified, educated, interested in how it happened and why it happened. I can’t really advertise it beyond saying it’s a really fine bit of drama written by one of our great, great writers.

It’s a great cast and a lot of characters you do know and a lot you don’t. Does it help with understanding? I think maybe it gives a key to it. I think especially the test group scene where you see a really brilliant cross section of a demographic of people and motivations and beliefs. You can see the amount of division there now was there in the first place and as Cummings says in the argument with Craig Oliver, ‘We didn’t create it’. It has been there for a long time.

Bearing in mind the divisions in this country and the similar movements in the States and the way politics is going across the world, are you an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to the political future?

A pragmatist. I believe if things are breaking it’s because a new way has to emerge. I keep reminding myself that it’s important to see the good in all of this. You’ve got to… haven’t you…? Hard as that is at times. But I do believe in people. I believe that we can divulge ourselves of the importance of leaders in certain critical moments and make great changes and stand up for things we believe in a democratic way that surpasses the theatrics of it on the political stage. Some of the most inspiring and effective people I’ve met – whether it’s from the charity sector or the political sector – are the people who do things quietly and calmly behind closed doors. If you search for the common ground to build consensus then great things, global things can happen.

• This interview was carried out by Channel 4 ahead of the airing of Brexit: The Uncivil War.

• Brexit: The Uncivil War will air on Channel 4 at 9pm on 7th January 2019. It will premiere on HBO in the US at 9pm on 19th January.

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