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Originally published October 17, 2013 at 5:05 AM | Page modified October 18, 2013 at 12:27 PM

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Benedict Cumberbatch tackles ‘contentious’ character: Julian Assange

An interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, star of “Sherlock,” who plays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the upcoming film “The Fifth Estate.”

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“He’s very interested in the message, rather than the messenger,” says Benedict Cumberbatch, at the Toronto International Film Festival last month for the world premiere of “The Fifth Estate.” The actor is speaking of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whom Cumberbatch plays in the film — and who, quite publicly, did not want “The Fifth Estate” to be made.

Before filming, Cumberbatch contacted Assange privately, hoping they could meet. “There was a brief email exchange at the beginning,” said Cumberbatch, “where he just said, ‘Don’t do this, this is antithetical to me and my institution and those I care about, it may be damaging.’ I wrote back and said, ‘Well, I’m going to try to make sure that’s not the case. I want to portray you in a balanced way.’ ” Nonetheless, Assange declined to meet with him.

(Last week, Assange made his letter public on; in it, he refers to Cumberbatch as a “hired gun” and “a jobbing actor who gets paid to follow the script, no matter how debauched.” Cumberbatch, responding on a Reddit chat, politely defended himself, saying he was “proud to be involved in tackling such a contentious character and script,” and that “The film should provoke debate and not consensus.”)

In Toronto, Cumberbatch described how he immersed himself in the character. “I was very keen to balance out [the script] with [Assange’s] version of events, from his autobiography and other accounts from colleagues and the institution, as much as I could.” With a dialect coach, he practiced Assange’s “very specific accent ... he’s got a sort of hard palate lisp.” He was physically transformed, with a white-blond wig and false teeth that changed the shape of his mouth. And he tried to understand the man, and to avoid easy characterizations.

“For anybody in public life, you need an audience to do what you do. He needs an audience to read what he publishes, and so people are naturally wanting to look behind the curtain and see who this Wizard of Oz is ... People want a sense of control and understanding of the chaos that is life by being able to define things in a very certain way. I don’t know — I keep having exciting encounters with a reality that is a little more complex than that to want to take sides.”

Cumberbatch, a 37-year-old Englishman, is no stranger to challenging roles; recent work includes roles as the villain Khan in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” the troubled aristocrat Christopher Tietjens in the miniseries “Parade’s End” (he loved that role “probably more than any other character I’ve played”), and a Southern plantation owner in the upcoming “12 Years a Slave.” He’ll also be seen later this year in “August: Osage County” (as Meryl Streep’s nephew) and as Smaug/The Necromancer in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”

But the role he’s perhaps best known for — and that one that helped land “The Fifth Estate” — is the title role in the BBC television series “Sherlock,” a contemporary retelling of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Cumberbatch and co-star Martin Freeman (as Dr. Watson) have filmed a third season of the hit series, though it has yet to air, and a fourth season looks likely.

“Really, I can’t claim that it takes a great leap of imagination to imagine Assange in Sherlock,” said “Fifth Estate” director Bill Condon, in Toronto. “There are these ways in which they overlap — the searing intelligence and the kind of almost autistic behavioral patterns. Also I have to say, the charisma.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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