Benedict Cumberbatch smells like a winner.
The British actor has been showered with praise for his performance as a brutish cowboy in “The Power of the Dog,” with most Oscar pundits predicting he’ll earn his second nomination for best actor (after 2014’s “The Imitation Game”).
But when he first arrived on the New Zealand set of the 1920s Western (in theaters now, streaming Wednesday on Netflix), Cumberbatch avoided any actual bathing as a means of getting into character. Jane Campion, the film’s director, initially encouraged it.
“My family had yet to arrive and I thought, ‘I’m just going to go for it,’ ” Cumberbatch recalls. “But then she’d invite me out for sushi or a walk and I was literally emanating – I had a biohazard zone around me. It was not a good time to cuddle up to Cumberbatch and take a selfie.”
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Although the “no showers” experiment was short-lived, he did ask the wardrobe department not to wash his costumes: “Every now and then, they’d spray them with a bit of alcohol so they weren’t lice-ridden, but I was peeling them off and on in all sorts of weather.”
For Cumberbatch, 45, how he smelled was a huge part of connecting to the “amazingly sensual” and “animal nature” of Phil Burbank, a volatile rancher who works alongside his meek brother, George (Jesse Plemons). When George meets and marries a benevolent widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil becomes consumed with jealousy. He starts to incessantly belittle the newlyweds and Rose’s sensitive teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who forms an unexpected connection with his harasser.
“(Phil’s) behavior is aggressive and abhorrent, but there’s a taste of vulnerability,” Cumberbatch says. “This woman comes into his brother’s life and he sees his brother glowing with love, and he can’t stand it. He’s terrified, he’s fearful and he acts out. That usually comes from a place of insecurity.”
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The slow-burning drama, adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 book, wrestles with potent themes of toxic masculinity, gaslighting and repressed desire. Phil bitterly watches from a distance while his fellow cowhands roughhouse, bathe together and chase prostitutes at a local saloon. Campion gradually reveals that Phil is mourning a lost relationship.
“Jane’s script really makes you lean in and see a man who’s been unable to love or be loved in his lifetime,” Cumberbatch says. “He’s a tragic figure.”
In his novel, “Savage explores the frailty in the alpha and the complexity behind who Phil really is: the secret he had to hold and how the core of him was not allowed to be shared,” Campion says.
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The filmmaker recalls seeing Cumberbatch’s charismatic leading turns in TV series “Sherlock” and “Patrick Melrose,” and knowing that he’d have the “big personality” and “emotional tenderness” necessary to embody Phil. She also liked that the London native wasn’t an obvious choice to play a gruff Montana cowboy.
“I thought of the person that would have the hardest time doing it,” Campion jokes. “But it’s true that if you give an actor a big challenge, it’s almost that they dig deep to meet that challenge, more so than if they think, ‘Oh, I’ve got this.’ We all knew this wasn’t in his back pocket, but he’s got the acting chops all right.”
Cumberbatch learned a variety of new skills during the production of “Dog,” including playing banjo, braiding ropes, lassoing livestock and rolling cigarettes with one hand. He also practiced whistling, which Phil uses to intimidate Rose as he enters or leaves a room.
“That took a long time and a lot of patience from the people around me, particularly my family,” says Cumberbatch, who has three “exceptionally beautiful, extraordinary” children with his wife, theater director Sophie Hunter (Kit, 6, Hal, 4, and Finn, who’ll be 3 in January).
The actor is currently in the midst of reshoots on next year’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which marks his second standalone Marvel film and sixth movie appearance as the magical Dr. Stephen Strange. He is well-trained in not spilling any details about the upcoming “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (in theaters Dec. 17).
“You know it’s a dead end, but I can tell you this: It’s a riotous film,” Cumberbatch says with a grin. “I don’t want to give anything away – and I haven’t actually read the whole script! I did that on purpose because I just want the ride.”
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