Benedict Cumberbatch is currently pretty hot property in the film and television industries. He comes across on screen as one of those intense and engaging actors, brimming with confidence and fully conversant with his trade. So it would seem surprising that Benedict Cumberbatch “wobbled” over his role in the WikiLeaks thriller, The Fifth Estate, after reading a ten-page email plea from Julian Assange, imploring him not to take part in the film.
To ask an actor to consider pulling out of such a role would be like asking a rubberneck not to look at an accident scene as he or she drove by. Okay, perhaps a little glib an analogy there, but the real point being that playing the role of Julian Assange while attempting to put across the actor’s understanding and interpretation of the real life character and events would prove too great a challenge not to want to take on.
It is not a matter of whether the real life personality was or was not a threat to National security, the bottom line here is whether anyone can point out another individual who does not like to watch reenactments or reconstructions of real life events, no matter their political leaning, belief or conviction, particularly if it is both portrayed and depicted in as honest a way as possible and puts the entire situation into perspective for the audience.
Back in January, Benedict Cumberbatch received a ten-page email from founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, the day before he was due to go on set to begin filming The Fifth Estate. The film recounts the story behind the journalist from Australia and his highly publicized whistleblowing site. When asked about the content of the ten-page plea, Cumberbatch responded:
“It was a very considered, thorough, charming and intelligent account of why he thought this was morally wrong for me to be a part of something he thought was going to be damaging in real terms – not just to perceptions but to the reality of the outcome for himself.”
Cumberbatch went on to describe how Assange put across to him how the purpose of Assange’s actions and those around him would be completely compromised, should Cumberbatch go ahead with the film. He relayed how Assange had typified himself as a political refugee and that the Manning case, which was still awaiting trial at the time, as well as others from WikiLeaks who were in detention, would all come under threat if Cumberbatch took part in the film. The pressure that Assange had put on the actor was as if everything absolutely depended upon him; as though it would not have done had another actor taken on the role.
Cumberbatch admitted that after reading the long email from Assange, he “wobbled,” as the email was coming from the very man whom he was about to portray. It did not help that all of this came twenty-four hours before the first day of filming. The thirty-seven year old Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek Into Darkness actor went on to suggest that he would not be human if he had not listened to Assange’s plea or felt his protests – so much so that he considered pulling out completely.
After spending hours thinking up what to write in reply, Cumberbatch told the press what he finally managed to muster up in as clear a message as he could to Assange. He said:
“This film is going to explore what you achieved, what brought you to the world’s attention, in a way that I think is nothing but positive. I admit to doing work because I’m a vain actor… yet I’m not acting in a moral vacuum. I have considered this, and whatever happens I want to give as much complexity and understanding of you as I can.”
Cumberbatch told the Daily Record that although he was aware of the Assange story breaking back in 2010, it was not until he was asked to play him that he realized how little he knew of the person himself, which propelled him to investigate further into the challenge. Focusing on sourced news material, Cumberbatch also worked with Assange’s biography and his side of the whole story.
The actor continued that although he realized how on the one side, Assange is portrayed by the press as some “white-haired dude locked up in an embassy over allegations of rape,” he was more interested in appealing to those who would look at the actor’s work and better understand the topic in more detail.
Without attempting to over glorify the man, Cumberbatch did add that the role he took on was one belonging to a catalyst that “has changed the way we view our world and question authority in a democracy, and demand access to transparency of information and accountability.” These are the reasons he gave to justify his taking on the role, all in spite of Assange’s ten-page email, asking Cumberbatch not to.
The film, The Fifth Estate is based on a book by Daniel Domscheit-Berg who is Julian Assange’s former associate. The thriller covers the life of the founder of WikiLeaks from 2007 to 2010, and culminates with the biggest leak by Bradley (Chelsea) Manning, of highly classified US military data in American history. The film opened the Toronto Film Festival last week and is due for general release October 13.
Written by: Brucella Newman