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Benedict Cumberbatch has heard your confusion about 'The Power of the Dog'
The actor Benedict Cumberbatch on the Isle of Wight, England, on Oct. 28, 2021. The actor, who just earned his second Oscar nomination for “The Power of the Dog,” says a little ambiguity is “a good thing.”Robbie Lawrence/The New York Times.

by Kathryn Shattuck

NEW YORK, NY.- It wasn’t because he had already experienced the hoopla surrounding the Oscars or that fame has left him blasé. But Benedict Cumberbatch dozed through the announcement this morning that he was up for his second best-actor Academy Award nomination, this time for his portrayal of Phil Burbank, the cunning and cruel cattleman at the heart of Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.”

“I think everyone heard about it but me,” he said rather sheepishly in a call from Los Angeles. “I was asleep and I didn’t turn my phone on. I got an email last night from someone at Netflix saying, ‘Look, no matter what happens we’re so proud, it’s such a great movie and such a great performance.’ I mean, it was a lovely, beautiful email. And I went, ‘Oh, God, it’s happening tomorrow.’”

No tossing and turning for the man who has played one of the most abhorrent characters on-screen this season.

Unwashed, mean-spirited and deeply enigmatic, Phil is lord of the cowboys at his family’s Montana ranch, where he bullies his younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons), and eventually George’s new wife, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose lack of traditional masculinity enrages the alpha Phil. Even though, it turns out, Phil studied Greek and Latin at Yale.

A gothic thriller lurking in a 1920s western, “The Power of the Dog” was lavished with 12 nominations — more than any other film this year — including best picture, best director for Campion, best supporting actor for Smit-McPhee and Plemons, and best supporting actress for Dunst, Plemons’ real-life wife.

Some critics have hailed Cumberbatch’s portrayal as the performance of a lifetime in a career that already features an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the mathematical genius Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.”

Did he think Phil was his apex?

“Well, I’m 45 and I’d like to work for another 40 years or so, so there’s a lot of life to still give,” he said. “But that is a turn of phrase that’s a massive compliment, so that’s how I take it. What it means is I’ve bettered myself, I’ve bettered my standards, and that’s all you can try and hope to do as an artist, and leave the rest to fate.”

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: How could you sleep on such a big day?

A: I’m a dad of three small boys and I’m on my own — my wife’s in New York — so I’m trying to get them ready for school and get them in a car, get them going. But I kind of realized, “Oh, my phone, I better get it,” just as we were finishing breakfast. So I turned it on [starts to laugh] and explained to three slightly confused little faces what it meant and why I was giggling and smiling a lot, and they had varying responses. I don’t talk about my private life, but that it is something I’m willing to share. It was a lovely moment to have with my boys.

Q: Is the feeling any different the second time around?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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 where 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 reins around it. I can’t watch that moment.

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

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

Q: So how will you be celebrating tonight?

A: I don’t know that I can. More important things and more important people might take precedence. [Laughs] But if anyone out there is near me at a point where I’m in a bar or something, a spicy margarita is my flavor.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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