The world heard it first on Reddit: Benedict Cumberbatch declared his interest in playing Patrick Melrose during an “Ask Me Anything” interview he did in 2013.
Word soon traveled that he had named Melrose — the protagonist of five semi-autobiographical novels by the British writer Edward St. Aubyn — as the literary character he most wanted to play next, and soon enough, it came to fruition: Five years after telling the internet he wanted the part, Mr. Cumberbatch received an Emmy nomination on Thursday for best actor in a limited series or movie for his role in “Patrick Melrose,” a five-part Showtime series.
From Mr. Cumberbatch’s own telling, it was one of the toughest roles he has ever played: a witty, brilliant but dark human who suffers from the effects of alcoholism, drug addiction and child abuse. There was also the pressure inherent in adapting what he called “some of the most startling prose of the 21st century.”
But Mr. Cumberbatch is no stranger to challenging parts. In a phone call from London, he discussed why the role was of such great interest to him.
You’ve talked about “Patrick Melrose” being a dream role for you. Why was this character so appealing?
There were a lot of appeals, but primarily, I guess, it’s the journey he goes on. It’s the scope of one man’s extraordinary circumstances and the shift of someone who begins as a victim of child abuse and devolves into a drug addict, and the continuing trauma upsetting any stability within his own family.
Finally, being able to deploy the special equipment needed to pull free from that gravity to become someone who has survived and who is going to be integrated into society in a positive way with love and trust. The ghosts are still there, but he can live with them because he’s going to do something good with his life. There’s a profound attraction to the role because that’s quite a journey to go on by any actor’s standards. And then on top of that, you have the most beautiful form in the books and in the episodic structure that David Nicholls manufactured. [Mr. Nicholls wrote the script.] You have the most searing, acerbic, dazzling wit and you have that shifting from hilarity to profundity or tragedy in a heartbeat.
The novels have such a distinct prose. As you began to prepare for the role, were you intimidated at all about bringing those words to life?
Of course, because some of the most profound achievements of the book are deflections or metaphors or reflections of the human condition, or a peculiar aspect of an extreme experience. Not all of those can be turned into dialogue or action, or the kind of things that move the story along.
You’re nervous about what you’re contracting. You’re nervous about what you’re losing in the prose. You have to step into a new art form, which is adaptation, and lean on that adage that an image can speak a thousand words at times.
Yes, it’s daunting but it’s a great challenge to have.
What kind of head space did you have to be in to play someone in such torment?
Quite a few. That’s the thing about him. There’s something innately actor-ish about the role — again, maybe one of the key attractions. When you’re in recovery, it’s about this vast, aching nothingness. There’s very, very specific shifts in tone with each episodic steppingstone.
As far as the mechanics, what drug was acting on him, what stimulus or lack of it, that was something I had to chart very carefully, with people who were profoundly honest about their own experiences with drugs and alcohol. I would try to play stuff out for them before takes going: “Am I in the right zone? Am I in the right ballpark?” They were very, very helpful. I would lean on them.
Obviously, you’re not going to tell me anything about how “The Avengers” ends. Can you at least tell me this: Were you surprised by how the last movie ended? The cliffhanger generated quite a bit of discussion.
I was thrilled. Thrilled, thrilled, thrilled and thrilled with the pitch for the second film. And thrilled by the ingenuity of the whole thing. And to be in an audience and experience that was something else. I’ve been part of “Sherlock,” with a very famous cliffhanger. It’s a very brave thing for movies that are that big, bold and colorful.