Benedict Cumberbatch is enjoying a rigorous fall festival workout. The British actor started at Venice with the world premiere of western “The Power of the Dog,” in which he’s earning raves as a volatile cattle rancher in Montana, followed by a tribute to its writer/director Jane Campion at Telluride, and now he’s getting his own Tribute Actor Award at the 46th Toronto International Film Festival (September 9-18).
Every year, the festival anoints a chosen few award winners who tend to go on to win Oscars, including Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”), Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”), Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit”), Roger Deakins (“Blade Runner 2049”), and director Chloé Zhao, whose “Nomadland,” like “Jojo Rabbit” and “Green Book,” went on to win the coveted People’s Choice award, often an Oscar Best Picture bellwether.
Also accepting a Tribute Actor Award is Jessica Chastain, who also went to Venice (to promote HBO limited series “Scenes from a Marriage,” and who made a red-carpet splash), and then flew to Toronto to promote her new movie, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (Searchlight). Chastain will likely score her third Oscar nod (“The Help,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) as she makes the most of this rich and challenging title role as a sincere televangelist married to shyster Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Chastain not only sings, dances, and emotes, but endured hours in the makeup chair (which didn’t hurt Gary Oldman in “Darkest Hour”).
The two stars were joined at a Roy Thomson Hall press conference Saturday morning by filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (TIFF Ebert Director Award winner), who looks forward to showing Venice debut “Dune” in IMAX in Toronto, and fellow Québécois, documentarian Alanis Obomsawin (Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media); “The Power of the Dog” cinematographer Ari Wegner (TIFF Variety Artisan Award) via Zoom from Dublin, where she is shooting Sebastián Lelio’s “The Wonder” with Florence Pugh; Danis Goulet (TIFF Emerging Talent Award), who premiered her feature debut “Night Raiders” Friday night; Grammy-winning pop icon Dionne Warwick (TIFF Special Tribute Award), the subject of TIFF documentary “Don’t Make Me Over”; and Variety moderator Matt Donnelly.
Villeneuve, who has been open about his anguish at Warner Bros. releasing $165-million sci-fi epic “Dune” day and date in theaters and on HBO Max, is showing “Dune” twice at TIFF in IMAX.
“The movie we dreamed was made and shot for IMAX,” he said. “I saw the movie in multiple formats, but the full cinematic experience can only be received on the big screen. It’s difficult times for theaters. I am profoundly, totally convinced that the future of cinema is on the big screen. We need it as human beings, to have the communal experience. We have the responsibility to make sure we bring the best of the cinema and theatrical experience to the screen. We need to improve the systems. Frankly, if your theater has a 1979 sound system and smells like piss, it will be difficult to bring people to the cinema. The future of cinema is Dolby Atmos, and it has to bring scope.”
Toronto veteran Chastain has shot six movies in the city and attended the festival many times over the past decade, when she first debuted “Take Shelter” in 2011. “I feel like I’m Canadian, if you guys will have me,” she said, recalling the intense anxiety she felt 10 years ago “when everything came out at once. I got so much attention. Immediately my life changed. There was no slow gradual entry for me. I had the opportunity to grow my career in all aspects of the industry. I was the ‘it girl,’ which is such a short life, a death sentence as an actress. I’m back now with a huge passion project that I produced and developed for a decade.”
Clearly, Chastain is on the side of Tammy Faye Bakker, who never got a fair shake. “She was never tried or convicted of any crime; her husband was,” said Chastain. “She wasn’t. Society for some reason finds women guilty of their husband’s crimes. She was labeled with that, so many people were judging her makeup, not what she was doing at the time. She was going on TV and saying, ‘Wrap our arms around AIDS patients, we as moms and daddies need to love our children when they come out to us as gay.'”
Cumberbatch admitted to being this year’s “it girl,” with multiple releases including producing and starring in “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” at the festival. To prepare for the role of Phil Burbank in “The Power of the Dog,” he went to a dude camp in Montana to learn such ranching skills as working with animals, horse-riding, horseshoe hammering, rope-braiding, and castrating a bull calf. He also had to master whittling wood, whistling, and playing the banjo.
“I felt secure and emboldened,” said Cumberbatch. “Campion gave me that dance floor, and left the camera on me to let things come up. I got full rein to be [Phil Burbank], that freedom opened up our creativity. It’s a unique lens on toxic masculinity.”
When Cumberbatch joined the cast and crew in New Zealand, Campion kept him socially separate from his castmates. Throughout the production, he was “Phil.” Wegner, who had worked with Phil on set every day, told Cumberbatch via Zoom that she looked forward to actually meeting him.
To prep for “The Power of the Dog,” Wegner and Campion “worked a year before we shot,” she said. “The big picture, the details. And we spent one month in a tiny cabin in New Zealand planning the shots and the visual style.” That meant starting with the script, “breaking down what is important, how to tell information and emotion. A lot came from the photography of the time, a wealth of beautiful photos [from the 1920s] was more influential than films or anything else: how to do them justice, get that intensity and authenticity on the screen? The visual style came from hours of talking about what we want the experience to be for the audience. That’s super important, projecting yourself forward to the future of someone watching, who doesn’t know what you know, hasn’t read the script. You almost have to forget everything you know. What’s their experience going to be? The film has strong architecture. It required a lot of planning to get the information and emotions across the way we want it.”
Dionne Warwick first got to see her new documentary alone at the Apollo in Harlem, which inspired a few “wows” and tears. “It was quite interesting looking at my growth from the beginning to the present,” she said. “A lot of things I forgot: ‘Oh dear, I remember that!’ I must say, I enjoyed getting to know me. I’m a pretty good girl, you know!”
After a hardscrabble upbringing on the reservation, Obomsawin made a resolve: “Nobody is going to beat me again,” she said. “I made myself laws. I went by it all the way. And guess what? I won!”
For the second straight year, the TIFF Tribute Awards are co-produced by Bell Media Studios and will air Saturday, September 18 at 7 p.m. ET/8 p.m. AT on CTV, CTV.ca, and the CTV app on the final day of the festival and will be streamed by Variety. Presenters for the TIFF Tribute Awards include other three potential Oscar contenders: “The Power of the Dog” star Kirsten Dunst, “Dune” star Rebecca Ferguson, and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” director Michael Showalter.