Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst on digging deeper for 'The Power of the Dog' roles

Netflix’s new Western drama “The Power of the Dog,” which released in select theaters on November 17 and is now streaming on Netflix, is already garnering award season buzz for the stellar performances by the cast. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch in one of his career bests as he plays Phil Burbank, a cruel and troubled rancher who torments his brother (Jesse Plemons), his sister-in-law (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Based on the 1967 novel of the same name, the film was written and directed by Oscar winner Jane Campion.

Digging deeper to understand their characters

Cumberbatch sinks his teeth into the rather monstrous role, and admitted that he always tries to bring humanity to the characters he plays, even when he was bringing to life the antagonist in this film.

He tells Yahoo! Canada: “Even if you aren't given the kind of extraordinary gift that there is in this film of having a secret and then revealing it, of being someone to the outside world, and then showing your inner nature as well in a moment of privacy. I feel you have to understand a character by empathizing with them and understanding why they are the way they are. So that backstory exists in my head, whether it's played out or seen on camera is irrelevant. So whether it's someone behaving in the most abhorrent way imaginable, it's about trying to understand their perspective. Otherwise, I guess as a storyteller, you're sort of failing.”

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog. Image via Kirsty Griffin/Netflix
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog. Image via Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Dunst’s turn as Rose is subtle but strong as she embodies a woman who is being bullied, gaslit and tormented by an alphamale in the 1920s. She said she had to revisit her youth and dig up old feelings in order to play this character. “I think I have to visit a very old place in myself like of my young twenties where I definitely had feelings of people trying to control or just feelings of like, I didn't have a voice yet, which I think is common and you know, finding yourself in general as a young adult. Rose is a lot of old parts of myself that I felt like I had to dig up to create this pain of feeling like nothing and not speaking up for myself and creating whatever this monster is for Rose that drives her to alcoholism, because she can't handle it anymore.”

Audiences will be surprised by the moving performance from Kodi Smit-McPhee, who shines by bringing subtle nuances in his role as Peter. It gave him the opportunity to own himself and own the things that maybe are not accepted in society.

“From what I've heard, I'm quite different sometimes, in some ways, in my interests, and the way that I carry myself walk, talk, possibly, I'm not really aware of it, because I'm me. But my life is in a constant state of, I guess, just embracing who I am, especially the more that I'm on the world stage and in front of people. It's all fine and dandy when I'm given a script, and I've given lines and a director tells me how to move and talk and walk, but when it comes to representing yourself, that can be quite the challenge sometimes, especially with social media, and the way that people view you is always expanding. So I think it's really, really important to much like Peter to embrace who you are fully, and try to be something you're not because you'll never be understood in that way,” he revealed.

Cumberbatch was worried about channeling character’s machismo

Cumberbatch shared that he was worried when it came to portraying the extreme masculinity of a ranch man like Phil, one that didn’t come naturally to him. “I think that vulnerability exists with Phil essentially. He's not masquerading masculinity, he is who he is. But he is at the same time keeping something hidden. I was more worried actually about the mask, I was more worried about the masculinity, the sort of machismo of a ranch man and the amount of tools and skills and brilliance that he brings to that from the book and in the script and on film that I am not acquainted with.”

“I had to dig deep for an experience firsthand in Montana – dude campus as we called it – with an amazing real cowboy called Randy and his wife Jan and their homestead in Montana. An amazing experience where I got to be on two or three different ranches, I got to learn on different horses, I got to rope, I got to make rope and treat hyde.”

Cumberbatch said that it was “frightening to be moving into that sort of realm of masculinity.” He added, “That, to me was a real gift. It was hard. It required me to really be completely and utterly lost and not take any notice of where Ari and Jane were – they were the only two people with me. So that was also easier than an entire crew. Just to delve deep into what Bronco meant [Bronco Henry was a mythic figure who taught Phil everything] and where he was still at in Phil and how that would express itself sensually, and all the rest of it.”

Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog. Image via  Netflix
Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog. Image via Netflix

The power of Jane Campion

Campion is the second of seven women ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director (nominated for Best Director for "The Piano" in 1994 and won for Best Screenplay) and the first female filmmaker to receive the Palme d'Or. The 67-year-old is famous for her rigorous pre-shooting preparation that brought out powerful performances from her cast. She had Cumberbatch go method and not break from his character while they were filming. He said: “I think vulnerability and risk-taking as an artist is one of her true strengths. I think to find that with Phil, I think it's very, very apparent in his behavior to be honest.

“My vulnerability kind of, in a way, plays into that. I'm trying to live authentically as this character through an entire shoot. And she introduces me to the crew as Phil and not Benedict. On the first day, I was thinking, ‘You don't deserve this.’ I had a much louder voice in my head saying, ‘These grownups are now having to pretend that you’re a character. This is ludicrous. You can't do that.’ The self-doubt, the self-sabotage, the inner critic was very, very loud in those first moments of commitment as is often the case with first day nerves. I think it's the same for a lot of people and in all sorts of departments. Everyone has a bumpy, sleepless night before they step on set to start sharing and expressing through their work and their efforts.”

Dunst also shared the same sentiments when it came to working with Campion. “She's pretty spoiled Jane, she's worked with the best actresses ever. When you think about Holly Hunter and Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet… I mean, she also has good people she chooses, and I was lucky enough to be one of those women in her in one of her films… was a dream opportunity for me. So I knew I just laid it all out there and was very prepared to do that.”

Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog. Image via Kirsty Griffin/Netflix
Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog. Image via Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Smit-McPhee agreed with the others and shared, “She's amazing, because she has such an amazing intuition for reading people. So in that sense, she adapts to each actor and, and how she thinks she could challenge them, which is amazing, as we didn't all have our own exact same approach.”

“For me, she just had me kind of explore new techniques like the Alexander technique. And these things weren’t new to me; it was more like re-exploring them. You become comfortable with your approach but it's really healthy to be able to surrender your ego and its defiance, and explore new territory, and re-explore things that you think you've may have mastered in the past. We never master anything, we're always a student to our craft and to the universe. So she really enforced that. I find that I always want to be challenged in that way by a director or any collaborator that I'm working with. So that was a real gift."

Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog. Image via Kirsty Griffin/Netflix
Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog. Image via Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

In order to establish brotherly love between Cumberbatch and Plemons, Campion had the duo waltz for rehearsals. Speaking about her unorthodox ways, Plemons said: “It was like a weirdly economic way into familiarity. It was like taking a shortcut, you know, just getting that physicality. And it was really hard because I grew up in Texas, and naturally lead and she wanted Benedict to lead and so that alone accomplished a lot in a very short period of time. So yeah, she's pretty good.”

Grounding the Psyche with Dream Analyst

It wasn’t just the physicality of the characters, but Campion also had Cumberbatch, Dunst and Plemmons work with a dream analyst to get grounded in the characters’ psyche. Speaking about that exercise that was new to him, Cumberbatch said: “It ties your own character with your character. It's like doing therapy between the two. And you know, the archetypes of union dream analysis are very rich, the symbolism that you don't know is telling you something or a supporting an idea or a kind of intuition really helps ground the work in something a little bit more substantial than just a feeling and you can interrogate it in many different ways. Like what is my similarity? What are the things in me that are my strengths to draw and fulfill? What is it about Phil, I need to understand. They'd be very wide questions very specific. And then you keep a dream journal and kind of analyze it… it's a very rich tool. A lot of actors use it, actually. It's something I'd never done before and I was like ‘Hell, yeah!’ I'm all game for trying something new. So yeah, I went there. It was wonderful.”

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons in The Power of the Dog. Image via Kirsty Griffin/Netflix
Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons in The Power of the Dog. Image via Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Plemons spoke about his dream work, saying, “It's just a way of deepening the connection, your connection to your character and rooting it in something that's very real, that's not analytical.” The actor looked at Dunst, his on and off-screen partner, as she has been doing this exercise for a long time.

She agreed and responded: “I started doing it when I was around 27 and it just changed what I did and my approach so much, and it made it more for myself as opposed to like, a performance for other people. It brought it back into myself and made it so much more intricate.” They both added, “and fun!” Dunst concluded that “because your unconscious mind is almost like giving you my presents to open.”

The film is cinematically shot, sensitively and smartly told with performances from a cast whose names will be dropped come award season.