Not only is Showtime’s five-part mini-series “Patrick Melrose” a superb cinematic adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s five searing novels, it marks Benedict Cumberbatch’s best performance ever. While some may prefer his Oscar-nominated “The Imitation Game,” star-making Emmy-winner “Sherlock,” or little-seen Emmy-nominated role in “Parade’s End,” it’s “Patrick Melrose” that feels like a role he was born to play.
The 42-year-old British star, who moves easily from comic-book roles like Marvel’s Doctor Strange to the BBC’s urbane “Sherlock” and the high drama of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” scored his sixth Emmy nomination (one of five for the series) for his tour-de-force portrayal of a not-so-functioning drug addict with icky family secrets. The series, written by David Nicholls (“One Day”) and directed by Edward Berger (“Deutchland 83”), is entertaining and moving in equal measure, thanks to Cumberbatch’s careening yet precise performance. He nails this guy.
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“This was a harder task than ‘Parade’s End,'” he admitted in a late-night phone call from London. Cumberbatch came late to the books, which were recommended by his friend Patrick Kennedy (“War Horse”), but first had to get “Hamlet” out of the way, “It was time-sensitive,” he said. But he stuck with “Patrick Melrose.”
“These books are the finest prose of the 21st century,” he said. “I thought they’d be extraordinary as dramas. This incredibly funny and brilliant man is so damaged early in his life, and becomes suicidal in his drug addiction — he’s psychologically all over the place — yet he still manages to achieve salvation. It’s a story of hope, with great dramatic turns in it, shifts of tone. It’s a better mirror to life’s extreme circumstances than a lot of stuff.”
In 2014, Cumberbatch went to meet husband-and-wife producers Rachael Horovitz (“Moneyball”) and Michael Jackson (“Civilizations”) in New York, bleary-eyed from staying up all night re-reading the books. “I was desperate to impress,” he said. “Luckily, we were pitching to each other. They had me in mind, it was a lovely meeting.” The duo also brought him in as an executive producer, and pacted with Sky Atlantic and Showtime.
Producing was fun for Cumberbatch. “I put in a fair amount of creative time and enjoyed making contributions,” Cumberbatch said. “I took my name off the call sheet, so the cast and crew could focus on what I had to do day by day. There were a couple of crises, but other producers were around and heads of department to help out.” While Cumberbatch saw early cuts and spent time in the editing room giving notes, “it is Edward Berger’s final cut. We all listened to one another to have a conversation.”
Was Cumberbatch attracted to a character he knew how to portray, or was it a high-dive challenge? He certainly hadn’t experienced what Melrose went through. “You never know if you can do something,” he said. “Sometimes you can cast yourself: ‘I know who that person is, I want to do them justice.’ That was not the case with this. The heart of the subject matter was something I thought I knew in some ways, but I wanted to turn it on its head though the perspective of this unique character who suffered too much on his extraordinary journey of victimhood. He was a survivor.”
Nicholls and Berger designed each of the five episodes to be distinct in style. They turned the 80s-set second book “Bad News” into the first hilariously rip-roaring episode, as 22-year-old Melrose smashes through New York City for the funeral of his father (Hugo Weaving), drugged to the gills on everything from speed, heroin, cocaine and alcohol to limb-flopping quaaludes. He winds up crawling on the floor like a squealing seal.
“The book is such a subjective point-of-view that it makes your heart beat faster,” said Cumberbatch. “It’s a tough read, a pressure chamber. It was an amazing challenge as an actor to live through all of that. But the satisfaction is so rich.”
St Aubyns is “an inventive shaper of irony and sarcasm and purposeful wit,” said Cumberbatch. “Even at its darkest moments with Chilly Willy, when the horrible syringe drops and misses the vein, there’s something funny about it, watching a man go through hell. It’s a horrible black comedy, and if you add into that situation what those drugs do to someone psychologically and physically, it’s very funny. Despite his worldliness and what he’s attempting to do to end his life in a spectacular way, there’s innocence in his arrested development.”
Cumberbatch became an expert in the effects of different controlled substances — without experimenting himself. “Alcohol takes him into the worst form of addiction, with delirium tremens and dangerous withdrawal,” he said. “I had thought opiates and cocaine were harder to deal with.”
Cumberbatch demanded that the on-set drug experts take a scalpel to his performance to make sure he got everything right. “You try to push it too much, or too little,” Cumberbatch said. “I kept going back and asking for feedback and honesty.”
Executing those turns was exhilarating but tricky–it took chops. “You get to be dramatic,” Cumberbatch said. “‘This is a serious moment.’ Or undercut with humor. I love how tragedy and humor flip in one scene. There’s no comedy that doesn’t have serious beats and no good tragedy that doesn’t have comedy. They exist side by side.”
He liked to try new things, giving Berger many choices in the editing room. “It’s just amazing how he comes to set with very little preconception, but just loves to explore it in many different ways,” Berger told IndieWire. “He loves to experiment and he loves to try out different takes. And none of them are the wrong path, they all feel right. The immense energy and the immense variety of ideas and immense explosion of ideas. It was just wonderful.”
Episode Two, “Never Mind,” goes back to 1967 and young Melrose at his quiet family villa in the South of France, where bad things are going on behind closed doors. He then struggles through recovery and tries to manage the women in his life, including his increasingly addled mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Playing Melrose in later episodes was about “slowing down the flashy freneticism and chaos and how to contain all the influences physically,” Cumberbatch said. “The challenge was balancing the humor against something far more sober, it was incredibly nuanced. You are meeting a man on the precipice through having given up the only thing he was good at: taking drugs. He’s meeting his fate: boredom and ennui. He’s purposeless.”
In Episode 4, “Mother’s Milk,” his mother is senile and wants Melrose to help her to commit suicide. Luckily for Cumberbatch, St Aubyns was available to talk while he was prepping the role. “It was easier knowing the story is based on the thinly disguised alter-ego of the author who lived a lot of what he wrote,” said Cumberbatch. “You have as Patrick Melrose an immediate audience to be authentic to and deliver a story for. His experience speaks to a very wide section of society who have either suffered abuse or struggled with addiction.”
The actor admits he did a “bit of borrowing” from St Aubyns, who he counts as a friend. “Teddy has an upright quality, and leads with his chin,” he said. “He’s aristocratic, convivial, approachable, not off-putting. He speaks deliberately, beautifully articulated English, with an upper-class drawl. He leans on a word to push through the sense of it. Every actor wishes for such fantastic source material with such psychological subtext and deep internal monologue descriptions and thought processes. He sums up a character in a line, a relationship in a page, the whole world in a novel.”