It’s 4pm on a cold afternoon and Benedict Cumberbatch is stuck in a loop. Though he has gained notoriety through a slew of award-winning performances – think brilliantly complex men such as Alan Turing, Hamlet, Julian Assange – today he is trapped in a cycle of repetitive motions that he reenacts in the hangar-sized studio. Throw a punch. Block a punch. Flick the wrist just so. Throw a man through an extra-dimensional portal merely by manipulating the very fabric of reality. Then repeat until it’s perfect. Punch. Block. Flick.
Cumberbatch is squaring off against the film’s villain, played by Mads Mikkelsen, the Danish actor whose eyes are doused in iridescent purple make-up, intricate and scaly, looking like a dazzling, gorgeous eye infection. Later, we spot him in the canteen eating a Thai green curry with an accidental air of menace.
Once the fight is done, Cumberbatch ambles over. He’s not as posh in person, much less lofty than his film roles would suggest. He’s developed a habit of gently touching the facial hair that’s glued to his face, which makes him seem erratic and overstimulated, excited and neurotic. “I can grow one, actually,” he says. “But you know how it is. Continuity is important.” Pausing again to carefully pinch the fluff between his thumb and forefinger before launching into an explanation of why, after all this time and having already cemented himself as a global success story, he’s taking on a superhero franchise.
“It wasn’t on my bucket list,” he says. “But I was into superhero comics when I was younger – I liked Tim Burton’s Batman. I had the posters on my wall. In the playground we’d listen to the Prince soundtrack and do imitations of Jack Nicholson.”
He adopts a grizzled American accent and screws one eye shut to mimic Michael Keaton. “‘I’m Batman’, you know?”
Power of hippies
“I thought this could be a really interesting thing to do. This character could be very hokey – but part of our job in cinema is to take people beyond imagining. [Strange] gets stretched into this bizarre fight, which is beyond our understanding of, you know…” he gently tugs his beard, “sensory perceptual reality.” He say the words like an incantation.
As superhero films go, Doctor Strange is a tough sell. While earlier Marvel films didn’t rock the boat with their superheroes – Iron Man is basically a rich dude who can build robots, Captain America is a regular guy jacked up on steroids – the story of Doctor Strange was conceived during Marvel’s hippy era, when Stan Lee obsessed over cosmology, incantations and alternative dimensions.
The story sees an arrogant neurosurgeon who, once his hands are damaged in a car accident, looks to ancient teachings to restore himself to his former glory. In doing so, he discovers the ability to bend reality, warp our very existence and do the sort of things someone might postulate after taking a heap of acid. Reverse time. Manipulate probabilities. Astral projection. It’s a concept that flourished in the Sixties, but in 2016 could easily sink or swim.
“I was intrigued by all of this,” the actor says. “The experimental drugs, cults, psychedelics, spiritualism. Back then, people used those ideas to explore stuff they didn’t understand. It was a form of bargaining. Now, we know a lot more.” He seems quite sad when he says that, as if humanity’s relentless pursuit of understanding has made modern life a bit boring.
Cumberbatch’s own hippy phase was brief – a year teaching at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal. “I used to teach English to monks in the morning,” he says. He’d go hiking with his friends at weekends, until they got lost in the mountains during a particularly grim trip that saw him nearly break his neck.
“We drank rainwater squeezed out of moss, we got altitude sickness, I had dysentery.” He had bad dreams, dreams of being robbed.
“I’m not rational at all,” he says. “I hit walls trying to understand things in the universe. Things on a molecular level, or circadian rhythms. Those are fascinating, they’re hard-wired into us. Every form of life has a circadian rhythm, from a cellular fungus to a human, to regulate our body clock. I think there’s spirituality in science, there’s wonder in logic, and the world just gets bizarre the more you think about it.”
When he goes off on a sciencey tangent he’s fascinating, hard to follow, still touching his facial hair. “It’s extraordinary and unfathomable that we only have five senses to understand and appreciate [the world],” he muses. “When I was at the monastery I read Fritjof Capra’s book The Tao Of Physics.” He must get the impression I have not read The Tao Of Physics. Someone calls his name. “Well, the thing about it is,” he says, like an elevator pitch, “even if we can explain everything, the explanations are wonderful.”
With a theatrical flourish, he gets up, showing how flexible his superhero costume is (“I’ve got pretty stiff hips”) and returns to the stage for more. Punch, block, flick. Just like before.
Doctor Strange is at cinemas nationwide from 25 October
Image credit: August Image and Disney