How Benedict Cumberbatch brought his extraordinary empathy to two new films screening at TIFF

By Zach Harper

Benedict Cumberbatch is capable of extending empathy to almost anyone.

In new films The Power of the Dog and The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, both screening at TIFF 2021, he plays two people who couldn't be more different. The former, which is Jane Campion's adaptation of the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, sees him play rancher Phil Burbank, who terrorizes his own brother (Jesse Plemons), sister-in-law (Kirsten Dunst) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

In the latter, he portrays the 19th century artist best known for his anthropomorphized and proto-psychedelic drawings of cats and kittens, who spent much of his life in mental institutions. He brings whimsy and deep compassion to the film, which also stars Claire Foy.

Not only do these performances breathtakingly showcase his acting depth and breadth, but they demonstrate just how easily he's able to place himself into anyone's shoes – when their circumstances are either wildly different from his own, or completely fictional.

Benedict is often falsely seen as a man who solely plays brilliant, cerebral geniuses – and to be fair, his portrayals of Wain, Sherlock Holmes and World War II codebreaker Alan Turing are exactly that. But each of those roles also contains significant emotional nuance as well – albeit a much different kind from characters such as Phil.

Despite the character being very dislikable due to his shocking behaviour, Benedict said he was still able to empathize with him and understand how he ended up that way.

"The moral of toxic masculinity is often born out of repression and feelings of being gaslighted or washed out or not allowed," he's widely reported to have said at a panel during the festival. "There's no space or cultural space or tolerance of them – not just his sexuality, which is a huge part of that, but also the performative nature of his masculinity."

Benedict and Jesse Plemons play brothers in The Power of the Dog. Photo courtesy TIFF

While shooting the Electrical Life of Louis Wain, Benedict said he was so overwhelmed by his character's circumstances that he cried on set. Indeed, his eyes appeared to well up as he described the experience during an In Conversation With... event held as part of TIFF on Sept. 12.

"It wasn't just acting, I was also just thinking of him and mourning for him and feeling for him," he explained.

That's not been a one-time experience for him, either – it's something he said he also went through while playing Alan in his Oscar-nominated role in The Imitation Game.

"There was a moment where I was triggered by grief for him... And I couldn't stop crying," he said. "I couldn't control the emotion because it wasn't his – it was mine, reflecting on his predicament."

That ability to connect with anyone is one of Benedict's biggest strengths as an actor. But it can pose issues sometimes, he said.

"You do pull on your own emotions – you have to – your life experience, to a degree," he said during the In Conversation With... event. "But then, if you're stepping in somewhere that's foreign territory... you have to lean heavily on those who've had those experiences and ask them to help you and be naked in their honesty and truth and get as much insight as you need to try and manifest those experiences...

"There are these fine lines – some of it made its way into my performance [as Alan] and I had this empathetic connection," he said. "But if you start going into grief that's outside of the storytelling... then it can get quite blurred."

You can see Benedict in The Power of the Dog and The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, which are both screening at TIFF now.

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