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Patrick Melrose

Interview with Benedict Cumberbatch

How did you get involved with the series?

Michael Jackson and Rachael Horovitz had the rights to the Patrick Melrose series of books by Edward St Aubyn and they came to me. I knew there’d be a broad bracket of actors who had also probably read the books and gone, “Hmm, wouldn’t mind a stab at that.” I was just very, very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I voiced my desire on a Reddit forum and I got a call! They wanted to meet when I was in New York, we had a breakfast and I was a little late and terrified as I was still rushing rereading the final two novels the night before and morning of the meeting! I hadn’t clocked they were only thinking about me for the role at that stage and so I was still nervous even when they were very clearly pitching their ideas about adapting these extraordinary books for television.

Who is Patrick Melrose?

Patrick is a character desperate to distance himself from his terrible childhood and as a result is, psychologically, all over the place. He’s addicted to drugs and near suicidal, but also incredibly funny and brilliant. At the heart of the subject matter was something that I thought angled a world that I thought I knew, and turned it on its head through the perspective of this really unique character who suffers so much and goes on this extraordinary journey from victimhood to survivor, and is a champion of his circumstance in a way. And via the most richly comic, scalpel-like postmortem of an upper-class system that’s crumbling, a power related to that that dissolves as the stories continue. It’s an extraordinary stretch of one man’s life. And the appeal of the character through those shifts from an innocent child, to a terrified, self-destructive 20-year-old to a sober thirtysomething to a husband and father – to an orphan... what a great canvas to play with.

Did you talk to any addicts in playing him?

Yes, a wonderful husband-and-wife team, Cher and Russell from 3D Research. They worked with us in an advisory capacity and are professional advisors to many different professional bodies about addiction and drug abuse. They also have struggled with addiction themselves and were incredibly candid and encouraging and supporting throughout the whole creative process, in rehearsals and for the duration of the production. And of course Teddy himself! The paraphernalia and business of consumption was very complex and important to understand as of course were the physical and psychological effects of these substances. But most important was the drive behind the appetite, the addiction, the psychological need these destructive drugs create. What are they replacing? With heroin, pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to says it’s about the warm embrace you never got from your mother. The relief from the suffering of existence. But it’s not all just abstracting yourself from your reality because some of those drugs, especially the more active rather than the opiate ones, will exacerbate your neurotic tensions and memories and throw you down the well of self into a vortex of your own making. In the instance of cocaine, it’s the jet engine rush of crystal citadels shattering, ie the highest of highs, then the heroin as medicine to ease the landing. Of course, it was important to get the technicalities right. This is a very well heeled and experienced junkie by the time we meet him. So learning how to shoot up and what the effect is on the body and mind was of paramount importance.

Have you met Edward St Aubyn?

Yes – we’d met socially before, but after I was involved I didn’t want to approach Teddy too early. I didn’t want to start scrabbling around and trying to understand him and Patrick too early. Then I bumped into him at a party; he said, "Are these books happening?" I said, "Yes, they definitely are." He was generous and incredibly good company. He’s incredibly erudite, intelligent and witty, but he’s also amazingly empathetic and genteel. He’s more generously ironic than the bitter self-loathing irony that permeates the more unattractive elements of the character in the book – which you enjoy from a distance, but I don’t think you’d really want to be around. He makes no bones about Patrick being an alter-ego. How someone that good has come out of something so bad is a miracle, so I respect him for that alone, let alone how he’s imbued his art with it.

Back in 2012, you said this was the one part that you wanted to play...

I remember saying it at a fan convention in Australia. I also said Hamlet – those are the only two roles that I’d ever bucket listed. The last novel had been published in 2011 and that was the year I’d started to read the series. It’s an awful thing to say, considering how monstrous some of these people are, but I just felt that I had a slight lock in to the world. I had a little understanding of that milieu – the brilliance but coldness of the cynicism and the irony. I remember my grandmother once saying, "Oh what a bore, oh darling, don’t let’s talk about that, it’s such a bore." A bore, like no one’s investing any kind of emotion or genuine care in things. It’s all so flippant. My grandma, I should emphasise, was a caring, friendly person. There was just this social pressure to keep it all light and bubbly like cocktail conversation.

So the abuse and drug addiction in the story takes place in the aristocracy?

Yes, so one fear about this was, are we looking at high-class champagne problems, is this going to ostracise people or alienate people? The type of person who struggles with addiction, the type of person who has experienced abuse, sadly ranges across all class divides and so there is a universality to this that I think will translate, plus this scalpel laser-like examination of the death throes of the old-world behaviour and attitudes of the worst of the upper classes. They can have the most extraordinary ideas of ownership and property and what wealth is – but this story is about how the true wealth is love, and how true, pure, good, innocent love can win through. But boy does it struggle to get there.

You’re also producing...

Yes, we came on as a production company quite late after I got involved. We had been getting a lot of long material that just wouldn’t suit a two-and-a-half, two-hour compression into a film format so it made more sense to start looking at books and adaptations. It makes sense that this is part of our calling card, but I’m as interested in developing material that I’m not in as I am being in material that I develop.

What are the challenges of being the producer and the lead actor?

You have to wear different hats at different times. On some occasions I found that a little bit confusing, but mainly I was more of a producer in prep and pre-production, helping whenever my acting prep allowed to assist with putting the production team together to the cast. Then you let everyone else take over, and by the time you start shooting there’s not that much producing you can or need to do. When I’m not busy as an actor, I do look into the producing and directing side of things – but seeing the amount of work that Edward had directing all five episodes, right now is not a good time. I have two small children and acting in that part was quite enough.

It’s a great team, from the Deutschland 83 director Edward Berger to David Nicholls and the cast.

Yes. We considered a lot of wonderful directors, but Ed was always our first choice. When I met him he said, “I see these books as five very, very different films and not just the camera energy, but the focus of storytelling”. I was slightly worried about humour and class, which is so key to getting this right, but then Ed has a great sense of humour. German humour is quite close in a way to British humour. Although I think he’s actually more Swiss/Austrian… oh well. He has a great sense of humour in any case!

And did you hire David Nicholls?

No, Michael and Rachael had already started adapting the material with him, but Ed wasn’t on board, nor James Friend who shot it, the superlative Karen Hartley-Thomas, who did hair and make-up, and lovely Keith Madden, our costume designer.

I guess you didn’t actually perform that much with Hugo Weaving as your father?

Sadly, no and I adore him. He’s got formidable talent and he’s just extraordinary in his role – a charismatic, terrifying, powerfully present tortured soul who tortures back. What he does to Patrick is pretty cataclysmic – you get a sense of the fact that he’d been destroyed as a child. Hugo tackled the part all guns blazing, but is the sweetest, mildest, funniest man. I think he was the most loved member of the cast by the crew.

How about Jennifer Jason Leigh?

I did get to work with her more as the aged version of Eleanor and she was amazing. She made an extraordinary transformation and gave a great performance on camera. I didn’t get to work with her younger Eleanor but I watched the rushes for those scenes while I was somewhere in Atlanta doing a bit of Avengering as Doctor Strange. She makes such bold choices and because they have a deep foundation they translate so beautifully on screen. A really remarkable actress to watch in action. Pip Torrens has been extraordinary throughout as Nicholas Pratt. A man always armoured with the bons mots and wit of a seemingly invincible social predator who without spoiling things ends in a moment of feeble vulnerability that breaks your heart. And Holliday Grainger has been spellbinding as a young, hippie, anti-establishment stoner who then turns very establishment and materialistic. A masterclass from her. Prasanna Puwanarajah, a friend who I haven’t worked with for a long time, plays Johnny, and Anna Madeley, who plays my wife, I’d worked with on The Child in Time, so she was a no-brainer and she’s just extraordinary as Mary, Patrick’s long-suffering wife. It’s a hard part and she gives it such a beautiful journey and is terribly moving and strong. And the fantastic Jessica Raine, who is the wonderfully waspish Julia, Patrick’s long-term friend and fling. Her journey from ironic detachment to lost depression is just exquisitely realised. The women in this series are astonishing, as you’ll see.

Was it a difficult role to play in terms of the tough subjects tackled?

The hardest task was containing that amount of hurt and pain, having to go to a place where that was coursing through his veins and tipping him towards chaotic, self-destructive behaviour and finally a meltdown during his mother’s memorial. Some of the scenes in the hotel room in Bad News are pretty tough. It’s like a one man show when he starts trashing the hotel room – these schizoid voices come out and start dialoguing with one another, so I’m talking to myself. That was a weird day at the office, let’s put it that way. I’ve learned over many occasions to leave the work on screen, go home in the car, turn on the radio and start to let go so that I walk in the door and it’s not: “How was your day?” “Well, I was looking at my dead dad, thinking of him raping me and then I injected cocaine into my left ankle and smashed up a hotel room before near overdosing on heroin and waking up surrounded by blood, vomit and needles. You know, the norm!”

We’re aware we’re putting this question to the man who’s played Sherlock Holmes, but Patrick Melrose has a dedicated fanbase – is there any pressure there?

Yeah, there really is and that’s a bit daunting. Of course I’ve experienced that with other iconic literary figures, but we did something very radical with Sherlock – I think we also brought it to a massive new audience. And there have been a fair few before me and will be a fair few to come. It’s literally the most adapted character in fiction. This is one of only two attempts. Every reader has their own cinema playing when reading fiction this good, and because it is a long narrative of salvation reading becomes a very personal thing. No one can be everyone’s Patrick Melrose – although maybe with this new face technology they could stick other actors’ faces on my head to make that come about. Nicolas Cage as Patrick Melrose, perhaps?

What should people expect?

Well… I hate this bit because you’re asking me to sell myself as I’m very tied up in this but… I think people are in for a bit of an unexpected treat. I hope they’ll be really entertained by some extraordinary material rendered by some of our most loved actors, young and old, and shot in a novel and beautiful way. Visually it’s going to be very different from episode to episode and there’s the obvious originality of the screenplay. I hope people are going to want to read the books. I remember when we first made Sherlock there was a spike in the sales of those books, and it brought Conan Doyle to a new generation. The Patrick Melrose books are an extraordinary achievement in 21st-century literature. They’ll stand the test of time, so let’s hope our adaptation does.

By BBC Australia