Interview: Benedict Cumberbatch on Sky Atlantic's Patrick Melrose
Benedict Cumberbatch stars in Sky original production Patrick Melrose, a new five-part drama based on the much-loved novels by Edward St Aubyn. Adapted by David Nicholls (One Day), each episode depicts a chapter in the life of the troubled Melrose, from his abusive childhood to his drug-addled adulthood.
Hugo Weaving and Jennifer Jason Leigh also feature among an outstanding ensemble cast in a tale that’s sometimes dark but always bejewelled with a sparkling wit.
Benedict Cumberbatch tells us more..
How did you get involved with the series?
Michael Jackson and Rachael Horovitz 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. I voiced my desire on a Reddit forum and I
got a call! They wanted to meet when I was in New York, we had a breakfast and I was a little
late and terrified as I was still rushing rereading the final two novels the night before and
morning of the meeting! I hadn’t clocked they were only thinking about me for the role at
that stage and so I was still nervous even when they were very clearly pitching their ideas
about adapting these extraordinary books for television.
Who is Patrick Melrose?
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 I thought angled a world that I thought I knew, and 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, and is a champion of his circumstance in a way. And via the most richly comic, scalpel-like postmortem of an upper-class system that’s crumbling, a power related to
that that dissolves as the stories continue. It’s an extraordinary stretch of one man’s life. And the appeal of the character through those shifts from an innocent child, to a terrified, self-destructive 20-year-old to a sober thirtysomething to a husband and father – to an orphan… what a great canvas to play with.
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 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. I remember my grandmother once saying, “Oh what a bore, oh darling, don’t let’s talk about that, it’s such a bore”. A bore, like no one’s investing any kind of emotion or genuine care in things. It’s all so flippant. My grandma, I should emphasise, was a caring, friendly person. There was just this social pressure to keep it all light and bubbly like cocktail conversation.
So the abuse and drug addiction in the story takes place in the aristocracy?
Yes, so one fear about this was, are we looking at high-class champagne problems, is this going to ostracise people or alienate people? The type of person who struggles with addiction, the type of person who has experienced abuse, sadly ranges across all class divides and so there is a universality to this that I think will translate, plus this scalpel laser-like examination of the death throes of the old-world behaviour and attitudes of the worst of the upper classes. They can have the most extraordinary ideas of ownership and property and what wealth is – but this story is about how the true wealth is love, and how true, pure, good, innocent love can win through. But boy does it struggle to get there.
We’re aware we’re putting this question to the man who’s played Sherlock Holmes, but Patrick Melrose has a dedicated fanbase – is there any pressure there?
Yeah, there really is and that’s a bit daunting. Of course I’ve experienced that with other iconic literary figures, but we did something very radical with Sherlock –I think we also brought it to a massive new audience. And there have been a fair few before me and will be a fair few to come. It’s literally the most adapted character in fiction. This is one of only two attempts. Every reader has their own cinema playing when reading fiction this good, and because it is a long
narrative of salvation reading becomes a very personal thing. No one can be everyone’s
Patrick Melrose – although maybe with this new face technology they could stick other actors’ faces on my head to make that come about. Nicolas Cage as Patrick Melrose, perhaps?
Patrick Melrose continues at 9pm, Sunday on Sky Atlantic. Watch on demand via Sky TV and NOW TV with new episodes available weekly.