When I first met Benedict Cumberbatch on the set of Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange earlier this year, he had just come through a magical portal. Well, not really. I was with a small group of journalists in a giant, drafty warehouse outside of London, overlooking an incredibly detailed reproduction of a courtyard in Kathmandu. There was fake snow and ice in Cumberbatch’s beard, which makes sense, given that Doctor Stephen Strange had just been zapped to Mount Everest, and was forced to return, using the rudimentary magical powers he had acquired, to his home base of Kamar-Taj. This was the set we were overlooking: a kind of spiritual hub where the Ancient One (played by Tilda Swinton) teaches her disciples and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) studies alongside her. One of those disciples is Doctor Strange. And by the looks of things, this was a tough lesson.
“I just stepped out of a refrigerator,” Cumberbatch joked to the assembled cluster of journalists. We were in a small white tent just off the set, huddled around a plastic table, trying to stay reasonably quiet because filming was in progress. “I’ve been stranded on the side of Mount Everest. I don’t know what I can say. It’s such a weird process, I’m still not used to it. Yeah, I’ve been literally exposed, in what I’m wearing, to some of the coldest temperatures on earth and I’m struggling to get back the way I came to this place. So, it’s a short test of [Strange’s] abilities in this moment in time.” It’s important to note that throughout this discussion, Cumberbatch spoke in the American accent he’s using for Doctor Strange, not his typical British accent. And he addressed this in the greatest, most Cumberbatchian way possible. “I’m in an accent. It’s fine to be in an accent. I’ve got to stay in the accent,” he said and then continued, “So, [Strange] lives or dies by whether he can do this or not, so it’s an important moment to get back. That’s a long answer. I’m just coming back from Everest.”
Earlier in the day we had been walked through the production, which included a look at all of Doctor Strange’s costumes, which definitely follow a progression, ending with the iconic look that Steve Ditko created way back in 1963. It’s that transformation of the character, a wealthy and arrogant neurosurgeon in New York, who, after a catastrophic car accident that robs him of the use of his hands, turns to more alternative forms of healing. That uniqueness–an exploration of parallel universes and astral projection–in the plot of a superhero movie made Cumberbatch want to take the part. If you’ve never read Doctor Strange or heard of the character, his general arc mirrors (to a degree) that of another famous Marvel character–Tony Stark (played in the films by Robert Downey, Jr.). They’re both initially selfish characters that, after having a brush with death, go on an amazing, otherworldly journey and find that they have the capacity to be true heroes by looking inward.
“I’ve never done a lead role in a film this big,” Cumberbatch said. “It’s one of the things that attracted me to the role … the fact that it’s a really wide origin story. I mean this [the astral point of view] is part of it, but of course 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 be learning 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, obviously we’re not shooting in sequence, but it’s a great part.” And he described the outfit he wore on that day of filming as a “first day of school kind of outfit,” since it’s very early in his training and his evolution to wizardly sorcerer is a ways off.
In a lot of ways, the story of Doctor Strange is a story about letting go of the preconceived notions of normalcy and embracing the impossible. It seems Cumberbatch was drawn to the film for the same reasons. “One of the reasons was that I wanted to know what the toy box was like,” Cumberbatch said about accepting the role. “And it’s just insane, the amount of facility that everyone gets, but the amount of artistry and craft that’s brought to every aspect of filmmaking.” Cumberbatch said his first costume fitting was “one of thirty.” He went on: “But to watch [artists] do that craft, I mean, the real eye I had on this character, often the case with any film, but especially one like this, which is so visual and so based in illustrative language, was the artwork, the impressionistic artwork and movement at every stage of the story.” Judging by the trailers for the film (which also co-stars Rachel McAdams and Mads Mikkelsen) and the show-stopping San Diego Comic Con presentation this past July, it’s very clear that this is a big impressive movie and everyone is bringing everything to the table.
Cumberbatch admitted that wasn’t an avid reader of the comics (the original Ditko comic books, as well as the more recent arc “The Oath” by Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin, were cited throughout the visit), but became intrigued when the role came his way. “I really discovered him through hearing about this film and first meeting Scott [Derrickson, the director] and getting into it with Kevin [Feige, the producer] and just opening up and saying, ‘Okay, this is, like all comics, very much of its era,’ and 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.’” (Sadly, he did not clue us into those answers.)
Now that Cumberbatch knows the direction the character takes in the comics, as the all-powerful Sorcerer Supreme of the Marvel Universe and a member of the secret superhero group The Illuminati, he seems thrilled to see where the character will go on the big screen. “I’m aware of his place within the comic pantheon of it all, the Marvelverse, but I don’t email Kevin saying, ‘When are we doing next film?’ I’m excited to see,” Cumberbatch said on the set. “And as you know, from all these previous incarnations, they play out in unexpected ways from the comic format and journey, so they manage to both fulfill that magical space of doing things that seem to please diehard fans and bring something new as well. So, I guess that’ll be the centerpiece for this guy’s journey.”
Cumberbatch has been a fan favorite for the role since Marvel Studios announced that a Doctor Strange movie was in the (tarot) cards, something that the actor said he was very taken aback by. “I’m flattered that people thought I was a good fit and maybe that resonated with the guys upstairs,” Cumberbatch said, in his charmingly self-deprecating way, noting that a lot of work had to be done just to open his schedule up enough for him to play the role (he was on stage in Hamlet and filming a fourth season of Sherlock around the same time). Thankfully, everything worked out and, judging from everything I saw that day (and at Comic Con), Cumberbatch is a perfect Doctor Strange.
Cumberbatch went on to describe Strange after his accident as a man with “no spiritual center, no hands, no money, nobody in his life he will let near him, to care for him anymore.” This is a character who literally has to reconstruct his life, like he’s reconstructed the lives of those on his operating table. “As he goes into this thing which is a million miles away from any worldview or belief system he’s ever entertained, so it’s desperation that leads him to the path of the Ancient One and the spiritual … and then all hell breaks loose.”
It’s clear that Doctor Strange goes on a journey in this film, not just one of cosmic, unquantifiable discovery when he’s shown alternate dimensions and additional universes, but also a journey of self-discovery, as he puts much of the pettiness of his swaggering doctor persona behind him. Well, almost. “He’s still quite cocky by the end of the film,” Cumberbatch said. “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; what he thinks he was doing as a neurosurgeon, that was good because it benefitted people’s health, but was really just a further attempt to control death and control his own fate and other people’s. He’s still driven by the ego. So he becomes more ego-less, but he’s, I would say, lonelier maybe by the end of the film. He’s a sorcerer by the end of the film, so that’s a major change. But I mean, really, the guy goes through everything you could possibly imagine.”
And with that, Cumberbatch was whisked away. He had to go pretend to fall through a mystical portal and the thing was, watching him do it, you believed him: That awkward stumble, the tremor in his voice from coming from the frigid cold, and the eagerness to continue on his journey of discovery and magical enlightenment. Being on the set of Doctor Strange, I had a similar sensation of glimpsing something truly transcendent, if only for a moment.
Doctor Strange is in theaters in 3D on November 4 and check out the brand new posters for the film below.