Benedict Cumberbatch on hand ballet & physicality, working with Tilda Swinton and what he hopes fans will take away from Doctor Strange (EXCLUSIVE)

In the first part of our interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, we discussed what it was like being part of the Marvel universe, the origin story of Stephen Strange as well as the visual effects used to bring the film to life. We delve further into what it was like becoming the Sorcerer Supreme, as well as working with Tilda Swinton and what he hopes fans will take from his performance.

On closer inspection of the trailers, one of things that you may have noticed is a strong focus on Stephen Strange’s hands. They are thematically symbols of his power, but also his tools of the trade. Strange goes from being able to use his hands to save lives, to having his career and life ruined when he can no longer use them properly. But his training as a sorcerer under the tutelage of the Ancient One (played by Tilda Swinton) reveals that his hands become new tools of power in his ability to cast spells. We queried Cumberbatch on whether he was conscious of using particular hand movements to convey that theme and power.


“It’s very important and his hands figure a lot into the beginning of the film. He is a neurosurgeon and you see him practicing that craft. You see him preparing his hands and sanitizing them and using them. And it was important for me that everything he did have a delicacy. There was a moment, I don’t even know if it’s in the film anymore, but when I play a bit of piano. The delicacy of how he pours a drink, I mean not in a mannered way but there’s just an accuracy to his movements. And obviously this mess that the car crash makes of them it should be pretty upsetting for an audience to witness and you get why it means so much for this character.”

You might be surprised to learn that all those finger movements and hand gestures has a name, it’s called “Tutting” and is an intricate form of finger, hand, wrist and arm choreography. Cumberbatch excitedly tells us about learning this new skill in order to make Strange’s spellcasting come alive.

Image courtesy of: Michael Muller
Image courtesy of: Michael Muller

“We had a fantastic champion “tutter” which is this wicked form of, it’s sort of hand ballet or break dancing. It’s these impossible movements of fingers wrists and hand into the most extraordinary mathematical, geometrical shapes or abstractions or figures done at great speed and to music. Julian Daniels guided us through how to sort of manufacture and create those movements and those spells. That was great fun. Very complex especially when you are trying to speak or run away or towards something. Some of them are much more simplified than what we originally started out with, which I’m glad of because in rehearsals I was thinking to myself “I’m never going to get these right” but it was great fun. It was just another one of those moments where you could pinch yourself as an actor going I’m acquiring a skill I never thought I’d need and never thought I’d use and here it is and what a unique one to be practicing. It was great fun. I’m trying to resurrect some of those moves because I know people are going to ask me to do them. And they’re really hard. Really hard. They do look great on camera the ones we have got.”

Further to his tutting skills, Cumberbatch can also add martial arts to his resume. With the incorporation of the mystic arts into the MCU comes a new or more accurately ancient form of fighting. Much of the physical movement and fighting in the film is based off martial arts which was yet another additional new skill to learn. We were quite surprised at how much physicality and sheer physical fitness went into his routine to get himself ready for the role.

Photo Credit: Jay Maidment ©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credit: Jay Maidment
©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

“We had fantastic instructors from JoJo (Jonathan Eusebio) and all the stunt team. So there was three different physical disciplines going on. One was just about keeping fit in life because I was a new father, and playing Hamlet in the evening and rehearsing this film. That was my 24 hrs. And that required a lot of fitness but I also had to get in good shape for any inevitable moments of showing flesh. You know you play a superhero. So this is a guy who doesn’t have supernatural strength. He is human, you cut him and he will bleed. So it’s all about creating someone who is believably tough and strong and conditioned as well as having these powers that are beyond what his body is capable of. Then you have the fight sequences which are choreographed; they’re like dance moves actually. There’s a ritual that is practiced in a sequence of the film with all of the students of Kamar-Taj, we’re all in unison practicing our moves and then from these moves that’s when the spells come out and that involves the tutting and other extrapolated movements. And then finally when you’re in hand to hand combat that’s often with a relic or a weapon that can be manifested or used as an object that’s then brought to life like the Cloak of Levitation for example. It’s complex combinations of all these sorts of things.”

Just when you think you couldn’t stack any more onto Cumberbatch’s workout plate with this film, he also had the addition of doing acrobatic wire work. But it’s all in a day’s work and surprisingly he considered it a lot of fun. Detailing that it’s the end result of a film that encompasses drama, comedy, action and visual effects all in one package.

Image courtesy of: Fame Flynet
Image courtesy of: Fame Flynet

“When you get knocked backwards through a glass cabinet or you’re running or flying you often had to do a lot of wire work, I mean a lot of wire work. That’s a whole different physical discipline when you’re using your core strength and your mobility to create sort of gymnastic or dynamic movements in the air whilst you’re on strings-wires. All of these very very new disciplines so it took a lot of time, it took a lot of work but it’s so much fun. You’re very well looked after in a Marvel film. Whether it’s your diet, your training or the more detailed stuff to do with your fight style and stunt coordination. It’s what you dream of doing as an actor. It’s every single aspect of transformation; physically, mentally, and also just as far as the scope of the drama you’ve got comedy, you’ve got high drama, you’ve got fantastic action scenes and you know it’s all within an envelope that you know is going to be a visual spectacular. So you know it’s really, really good fun doing a film like this.”

Alongside Cumberbatch for the ride is co-star Tilda Swinton and he has no qualms in admitting he felt she was perfect for the role of the Ancient One. He elaborates on the relationship between Stephen Strange and his mentor, as well as what he learned from working with the Academy Award winning actress.

Image courtesy of Marvel & Disney Pictures
Image courtesy of Marvel & Disney Pictures

“Ancient is the word. She’s hundreds of years old. What Tilda does, the note that she plays to perfection in the scenes I got to play with her is the ease of her wisdom, the ease of her physicality. She’s seen it all, done it all before and she doesn’t sweat the small stuff or as she’s been saying the medium stuff even it’s only the big stuff she doesn’t really sweat at all. So there’s just this cool calm to her and yet there is this sort of profound strength in that and to balance that with humor and a lightness as well as a profundity, I mean she just is pitch perfect. It’s a very exciting performance.”

“I couldn’t take all of that on because you know when he first encounters her he’s a very anxious very desperate human being. He’s a blur of incredibly willful energy which is what she sees as potential in him. She sees the great strength and potential he has. She knows that can be turned to good. She can see the power in him. But he’s a wild untamed horse and she’s this incredibly controlled and yet very easy and not precious character. He’s got a long way to go before he can actually learn to become more of what she is. But of course that’s the idea. Of course he takes on some of her mantle and some of her wisdom but he still remains very much Doctor Stephen Strange rather than just becoming a full sorcerer.”

“As an actress who doesn’t love Tilda Swinton? She’s phenomenal, an absolute icon. The way she effortlessly reinvents herself, the joy it is to work with her, how committed she is. She’s very thorough in her work she really thinks it through and then throws herself into it and commits completely so I learned from that point of view completely.”

Cumberbatch has been very enthusiastic in his promotion of the film and it’s clear that he put in a lot of work but also enjoyed the working experience. We ask him what he’s hoping fans will take away from his portrayal of Stephen Strange.

Image courtesy of:
Image courtesy of:

“I hope, I really hope that they’ll enjoy it, it means a lot to us. I’d love fans to be excited by this character to go on the journey with him. I just want people to fall into the film because it’s going to be the most incredible trip not just the character arc but everything that he goes through. Hopefully he’ll take the audience with him because it’s just a fantastic journey.”

Doctor Strange releases in Australian cinemas on Thursday 27 October 2016 through Disney Pictures Australia


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Carina Nilma

Office lackey day-job. Journalist for The AU Review night-job. Emotionally invested fangirl.

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