Benedict Cumberbatch’s superhero sorcerer Doctor Strange has to deal with a maddening multiverse. But while filming his new Marvel movie, the actor was supremely tested by an apple orchard full of allergens.
In a key early scene of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (in theaters Friday), Stephen Strange reaches out for help from witchy Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). They meet in a sprawling tree-filled setting in Somerset, England, a great idea until the weather channeled its inner supervillain.
“There was a sudden frost, and all the buds that were supposed to be open at that time had closed up,” Cumberbatch explains. “So they had to dress thousands of blossoms into the trees and then blow this kind of ash to fake the blossoms falling in the sky. We were a little bit tickly in the back of the throat after the first day, but then the second, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m feeling pretty worn out and weird.’ Not COVID! Six weeks later, though, I was still kind of hacking up a good lung full of whatever.”
Nature called for that scene, but the rest of director Sam Raimi’s sequel is a wild combo of crazy creatures, dark fantasy, trippy alternate dimensions and multiple character variations, including different Stranges for Cumberbatch. (One has a ponytail, one’s a zombie and one’s straight up living on the dark side.)
“Madness,” along with an integral appearance in last year’s hit “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” offered Cumberbatch a return to the Marvel universe after his Oscar-nominated performance as a cruel cowboy in Jane Campion’s Netflix Western “The Power of the Dog.” He enjoyed everything about his awards season run, “from the first moment we had in Venice (Film Festival) to the very last moment of dancing our socks off around Jane’s Oscar.” But he appreciated being back in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for his seventh turn as the persnickety magic man.
“There’s a kind of marathon element to it,” Cumberbatch, 45, says. “There are long hours where you are just standing around waiting … and then you have to go a million miles an hour and commit fully in the same way you would if you were playing Phil Burbank in ‘Power of the Dog.’ You just have to make that moment believable in that fantastical realm of sorcerers and monsters. I like being able to bring the world fun as well as more serious fare.”
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Cumberbatch is quick to defend his Marvel hero from detractors who offer a “crueler analysis” of his do-gooding prowess, such as questioning why Strange surrendered the Time Stone to Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War” – “it’s the only way to defeat Thanos, and it worked” – or his actions helping Spidey in “No Way Home” that broke the multiverse.
“He’s a human being and is frail and breakable, but he’s also adaptable and a maverick (who) does act outside of the rules. That sometimes has consequences,” Cumberbatch says. “What makes him an interesting character is the fact that he is imperfect, that he can learn from his mistakes and he’s not afraid to make them or embrace throwing the dice and taking a chance.
“Reckless? Yes. Wrong? Sometimes. Useless? Absolutely not. He’s pretty damn brilliant at his job.”
Raimi says Cumberbatch’s “firm grasp and knowledge of who he was as Doctor Strange” was essential to play the character’s multiverse variations. “He knew to tweak one little aspect of it, and understood what those changes would be.”
Reimagining Strange in different ways was “joyous,” Cumberbatch says. “It’s a very crowded film, let’s put it like that, and I’d love to have done more of those characters. There’s one moment where I had to switch between two of them, and that was pretty hell for leather. It was very concentrated work, some more subtle than others in their shifts. but they’re all visually different. It wasn’t like a complete horrible schizophrenic mirror jam of not knowing where I was or who I was, but some moments were more challenging than others, for sure.”
Cumberbatch is less confident when you ask him to imagine what traits he’d find in every version of himself in a multiverse. “I can talk about my characters as if I’m some kind of closet armchair psychologist but I’m really crap at doing self-analysis,” he says with a laugh. “I talk too much, so I’m pretty sure most of them would be overly loquacious. Maybe some would just be a lot more pithy and not worry so much about what they’re saying and just get on with the job. I could learn from that.”
But he offers “a sappy answer” that’s “probably the truth: that the priorities would be the same, that family comes first (and) would make that the foremost aim of their lives to be a good partner and father,” says Cumberbatch, who has three sons (Kit, 6, Hal, 5, and Finn, 3) with wife Sophie Hunter.
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He just finished filming Wes Anderson’s Netflix comedy adventure “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” playing the title character in the Roald Dahl adaptation. And next up is a return to New York City to host “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, his second stint following a 2017 appearance that featured the game-show sketch “Why Is Benedict Cumberbatch Hot?”
“It’s so odd because it’s live and there’s cortisol and adrenaline in play, but also it’s very late in the day,” Cumberbatch says. “I really underestimated quite how tired I would be before stepping on to do the opening monologue. I was sort of yawning backstage with nerves and exhaustion. So this time around, it’s just a bit more of the marathon strategy and also being present enough to take it in and enjoy it.
“I’m not gonna try and overthink anything else too much about it because the experience needs to be fresh. That’s when the magic happens.”