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Jane Campion: ‘I Didn’t Have a Clue’ What Cumberbatch Was Going to Do in ‘Power of the Dog’ Climax

Exclusive: "When I first saw him let it rip, I was absolutely stunned."

"The Power of the Dog," Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Power of the Dog”

Netflix

“The Power of the Dog” isn’t just a visual triumph for writer-director Jane Campion: The film became a once-in-a-lifetime acting showcase for Benedict Cumberbatch.

IndieWire is exclusively debuting a conversation between Campion and Holly Hunter, during which Campion detailed working with the “Doctor Strange” star. Watch the video below.

“Casting is so stressful because you’re doing it really when you know the story the least,” Campion recalled of the Netflix film.

Yet Cumberbatch immediately enthralled her, despite not obviously fitting the role of Western rancher Phil.

“Just jumping in there and going, ‘I think this guy can do it. He’s English, he’s got no apparent qualities that would work for the story, except he’s charismatic. How’s that going to work?'” Campion said. “But I put my bets on actors, their ambition and their performance, because I think Benedict, in everything that he’s done, has been extraordinary. I really guessed that he was wanting an opportunity to go very deep. I needed someone to feel that ambition that this character can bring into you, because it’s a big, big journey.”

Campion added, “Both of us really, through friendship and curiosity, took that path and I think it deepened our lives.”

The “Bright Star” filmmaker cited that the original “Power of the Dog” novel did “provide the most incredible portrait of a complex man” in a “clean revenge story,” but Cumberbatch still somehow elevated the source material in a truly unique and nuanced way.

“It was a great blueprint for us to work with, for Benedict and myself, and create the script from,” Campion, who also served as a producer, said. “One of my biggest challenges I realized early on, when I started turning it into a script, it was very easy to be turned off completely. The sort of comments he makes all the time, calling [his brother, played by Jesse Plemons] ‘fatso,’ just out of habit: a casual dominance and shaming that Phil has with everybody. On the one hand it’s kind of curious and funny. On the other hand it’s kind of devastating. So it was like, how do we keep people interested in this portrait and not turn them off completely? We don’t want them to stop watching.”

Instead, Campion and Cumberbatch deconstructed the “alpha instinct” behind Phil’s complicated persona.

“As the onion comes undone, we really see this fragile human who’s not living his life because underneath his cover, he’s actually the opposite of what he’s pretending to be,” Campion noted. “He’s a misogynist in the sense that he doesn’t trust women, he doesn’t trust his mother. His mother never saw him, never saw the real Phil, the man who loves men. That’s a very painful and isolating position to be in and I think he makes it his business to isolate and undermine everyone else.”

The climax of the film — during which Phil (Cumberbatch) throws a “rageful” tantrum, after Rose (Kirsten Dunst) sells his cowhides — was mostly improvised.

“I didn’t have a clue what he was going to do,” Campion admitted. “In rehearsal, we never went there. We never went to that place to look at what he might do there.”

Netflix

She added, “What I tend to do is just really work on a 360-degree presence of that character so no matter what happened — if we went off script, anywhere we went — he could be Phil. He could improvise in any situation. When I first saw him let it rip, I was absolutely stunned, thrilled, because I felt like this is what we need, this is what the film needs, to see the threat of Phil explode.”

The analysis of masculinity in the film juxtaposed the assumption of Cumberbatch’s character study, as Campion explained.

“It’s magnificent to see in any actor, but for a man, I think it’s rarer,” Campion said of Cumberbatch’s vulnerable, all-encompassing performance. “I think the secrets that both men have in the story are very important because of the misunderstanding of society at that time, or the cruelty of it…The film demands that you really broaden your ideas and just think about human nature, what it means to be human and other complexities of it, which I think is so much better than judging every character in sort of morally-limited ways.”

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