Cumberbatch: 'The hardest task was containing that amount of hurt and pain'

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in Patrick Melrose, a series based on the novels by Edward St Aubyn. He tells Gemma Dunn more about his character, who suffered an abusive childhood and drug-addled adulthood.

Cumberbatch: 'The hardest task was containing that amount of hurt and pain'

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in Patrick Melrose, a series based on the novels by Edward St Aubyn. He tells Gemma Dunn more about his character, who suffered an abusive childhood and drug-addled adulthood.

How did you get involved?

Michael Jackson and Rachael Horovitz [husband and wife] 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.

Tell us about your character:

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 angled a world that I thought I knew, and it 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.

Did you talk to any addicts?

Yes, a wonderful husband-and-wife team, Cher and Russell from 3D Research. They worked with us in an advisory capacity and are professional advisers 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.

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.

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 [Patrick Melrose] 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.

You’re also producing the series — what challenges did that bring?

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. 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 [director] Edward Berger 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.

Was it a difficult role to play?

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. Some of the scenes in the hotel room 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.

How easy is it to switch off once the cameras stop rolling?

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!’

- Patrick Melrose will air on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV from Sunday

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