Saturday, 28 April 2018

Benedict Cumberbatch, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Hugo Weaving talk "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 - Patrick Melrose and executive producer

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.

Did you talk to any addicts in playing him?

Yes, a wonderful husband-and-wife team, Cher and Russell from 3D Research. They worked with us in an advisory capacity and are professional advisors 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. And of course Teddy himself! The paraphernalia and business of consumption was very complex and important to understand as of course were the physical and psychological effects of these substances. But most important was the drive behind the appetite, the addiction, the psychological need these destructive drugs create. What are they replacing? With heroin, pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to says it’s about the warm embrace you never got from your mother. The relief from the suffering of existence. But it’s not all just abstracting yourself from your reality because some of those drugs, especially the more active rather than the opiate ones, will exacerbate your neurotic tensions and memories and throw you down the well of self into a vortex of your own making. In the instance of cocaine, it’s the jet engine rush of crystal citadels shattering, ie the highest of highs, then the heroin as medicine to ease the landing. Of course, it was important to get the technicalities right. This is a very well heeled and experienced junkie by the time we meet him. So learning how to shoot up and what the effect is on the body and mind was of paramount importance.

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. He’s incredibly erudite, intelligent and witty, but he’s also amazingly empathetic and genteel. He’s more generously ironic than the bitter self-loathing irony that permeates the more unattractive elements of the character in the book – which you enjoy from a distance, but I don’t think you’d really want to be around. He makes no bones about Patrick being an alter-ego. How someone that good has come out of something so bad is a miracle, so I respect him for that alone, let alone how he’s imbued his art with it.

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.

You’re also producing...

Yes, we came on as a production company quite late after I got involved. We had been getting a lot of long material that just wouldn’t suit a two-and-a-half, two-hour compression into a film format so it made more sense to start looking at books and adaptations. It makes sense that this is part of our calling card, but I’m as interested in developing material that I’m not in as I am being in material that I develop.

What are the challenges of being the producer and the lead actor?

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, helping whenever my acting prep allowed to assist with putting the production team together to the cast. Then you let everyone else take over, and by the time you start shooting there’s not that much producing you can or need to do. 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 Edward 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.

It’s a great team, from the Deutschland 83 director Edward Berger to David Nicholls and the cast.

Yes. We considered a lot of wonderful directors, but Ed was always our first choice. When I met him he said, “I see these books as five very, very different films and not just the camera energy, but the focus of storytelling”. I was slightly worried about humour and class, which is so key to getting this right, but then Ed has a great sense of humour. German humour is quite close in a way to British humour. Although I think he’s actually more Swiss/Austrian... oh well. He has a great
sense of humour in any case!

And did you hire David Nicholls?

No, Michael and Rachael had already started adapting the material with him, but Ed wasn’t on board, nor James Friend who shot it, the superlative Karen Hartley-Thomas, who did hair and make-up, and lovely Keith Madden, our costume designer.

I guess you didn’t actually perform that much with Hugo Weaving as your father?

Sadly, no and I adore him. He’s got formidable talent and he’s just extraordinary in his role – a charismatic, terrifying, powerfully present tortured soul who tortures back. What he does to Patrick is pretty cataclysmic – you get a sense of the fact that he’d been destroyed as a child. Hugo tackled the part all guns blazing, but is the sweetest, mildest, funniest man. I think he was the most loved member of the cast by the crew.

How about Jennifer Jason Leigh?

I did get to work with her more as the aged version of Eleanor and she was amazing. She made an extraordinary transformation and gave a great performance on camera. I didn’t get to work with her younger Eleanor but I watched the rushes for those scenes while I was somewhere in Atlanta doing a bit of Avengering as Doctor Strange. She makes such bold choices and because they have a deep foundation they translate so beautifully on screen. A really remarkable actress to watch in action. Pip Torrens has been extraordinary throughout as Nicholas Pratt. A man always armoured with the bons mots and wit of a seemingly invincible social predator who without spoiling things ends in a moment of feeble vulnerability that breaks your heart. And Holliday Grainger has been spellbinding as a young, hippie, anti-establishment stoner who then turns very establishment and materialistic. A masterclass from her. Prasanna Puwanarajah, a friend who I haven’t worked
with for a long time, plays Johnny, and Anna Madeley, who plays my wife, I’d worked with on The Child in Time, so she was a no-brainer and she’s just extraordinary as Mary, Patrick’s long-suffering wife. It’s a hard part and she gives it such a beautiful journey and is terribly moving and strong. And the fantastic Jessica Raine, who is the wonderfully waspish Julia, Patrick’s long-term friend and fling. Her journey from ironic detachment to lost depression is just exquisitely realised. The women in this series are astonishing, as you’ll see.

Was it a difficult role to play in terms of the tough subjects tackled?

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 and finally a meltdown during his mother’s memorial. Some of the scenes in the hotel room Interview 7 in Bad News 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. 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!”

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?

What should people expect?

Well... I hate this bit because you’re asking me to sell myself as I’m very tied up in this but... I think people are in for a bit of an unexpected treat. I hope they’ll be really entertained by some extraordinary material rendered by some of our most loved actors, young and old, and shot in a novel and beautiful way. Visually it’s going to be very different from episode to episode and there’s the obvious originality of the screenplay. I hope people are going to want to read the books. I remember when we first made Sherlock there was a spike in the sales of those books, and it brought Conan Doyle to a new generation. The Patrick Melrose books are an extraordinary achievement in 21st-century literature. They’ll stand the test of time, so let’s hope our adaptation does.

Jennifer Jason Leigh - Eleanor Melrose

How did you get involved with the project – had you read any of the books?

Yes, I’d already read the books – I loved them, and I thought they would be impossible to make a movie or TV series out of. They are so dense and brilliant, and they cover so much ground. Two years later I got the call and they sent me David Nicholls’ screenplay – it was a beautiful adaptation. I was completely there.

How would you describe Eleanor Melrose?

She’s a complex and deeply flawed character. She’s very much a woman of her time – she comes from new American money and, as a result, she has an odd relationship to money... she doesn’t like seeing what it does to people. She marries a man she thinks is brilliant – but he’s actually a horrible human being and it’s a very abusive marriage. She buys him the most beautiful chateau – but the prison of her marriage means she feels trapped and oppressed by the place. Patrick is her son – a son she loves but can’t protect. It’s a character study in denial – she drugs herself and drinks too much and numbs out the pain as well as any love she can give. You can see how much she loves him and how much she wants moments with him. She loves taking him with her out of the chateau but with alcoholic parents alcohol always comes first. You come a close second – but the drink comes first.

How does she feel about her husband?

She’s terrified of David and is in deep denial – she doesn’t think it’s possible to do what he does to a child. When they met I think he had a brilliant mind and was very different from all the other men she was meeting – he had a sense of freedom and a willingness to think outside the box. But as we see from the scenewhen he makes her eat off the floor, she’s afraid of him and thinks she’s not strong enough or even entitled to have better. She has so much guilt about the money – in the book there’s a scene where she’s following beggars in Rome and giving away money and they mob her and suddenly she’s in terrible danger but she’d far rather be there than at the party she’s just sneaked out of. I don’t think she derives any pleasure from his cruelty and I don’t think that she’s complicit. She’s just in denial – we all want her to take Patrick away sooner than she does.

What impact does Eleanor have on Patrick’s life?

She has a tremendous impact. There’s a phrase ‘good enough mothering’. She’s not good enough at mothering but there’s some good to her mothering – which is one reason he chooses to marry Mary. The only tenderness he gets as a child is from her even if he doesn’t acknowledge it. The fact that she doesn’t leave him anything in her will or give him any money is actually a sign of love although it’s not seen that way. She didn’t want him to become an inheritance brat. She wanted him to have to earn his way – he becomes a magistrate and she is so proud. Although Edward St Aubyn is sometimes rude about her, he did a beautiful job of describing her in the books and with so much love. He describes the taste in her mouth when she wakes up, how she tries to breathe – it’s all in there, her weakness and her love but his wit and our investment in him makes that hard to see.

What was the biggest challenge in portraying Eleanor?

Physically it was very challenging. She’s a different age in every episode and I had the flexibility and desire to make it real. The whole thing was challenging in the most exciting way. The way you want to be challenged as an actor. You don’t want to cheat it at all and you hope you stay faithful to the novel.

What was it like working with the team?

Edward [Berger] was amazing. He knew exactly what he wanted – but he was also very open and respectful of the actors. The producers – we had so many dinners and so many conversations. Everyone from costume to cast was giving their all.

What do you hope viewers get from watching Patrick Melrose?

I hope they love it – and him – as much as I do. It’s such an incredible ride – it’s so brilliantly funny and savage and I hope they just can’t turn it off.

Hugo Weaving - David Melrose

How did you get involved with the show?

I just got a, “Do you want to do this role?”, and I thought, yeah. So, it was pretty simple.

Had you read the books before?

No, but I’d heard Teddy talk on the radio in Sydney – he was at a writer’s conference in Adelaide – and I thought he sounded wonderful. It wasn’t long after that I got this offer, so I started reading them immediately.

David is very dark and complicated – very cruel...

That’s the acting challenge. He’s a monster, he’s absolutely monstrous but he’s a human being – and there are monstrous human beings in the world. In the book we understand a little bit of perhaps what has led David to be who he is. Talking to Teddy underlined that for me as well – you have to assume that something similar
happened to David in his childhood. But we don’t really have the room in this piece to delve into those reasons, so we deal with David as a sadistic, misogynistic paedophile, who’s also incredibly charming and creative but deeply damaged and unhappy. So, yes, very complex.

With Agent Smith is the Matrix you made a killer AI into a three-dimensional human character – was this at all similar?

Well I suppose with Agent Smith he’s so inhuman, but the interesting thing about him was the humanity that started to appear in him and that he hated. David’s full of self-loathing as well. Most of the roles I’ve played in smaller Australian films are psychologically complex individuals. I’m fascinated by how we present ourselves and to what extent we’re in touch with our true self. One of the major themes of the book is to what extent we can become free by understanding our own past. Patrick’s journey is coming to terms with or forgiving if he can his parents. David is a monster because he was totally unable to deal with his own damage.

Is there any sense in which you have to protect yourself from the darkness of playing David?

On one level I’m just really fascinated by what makes people tick – but these things do play on you and the more you try to inhabit a character the more that can stick in you to some extent. I’m always mulling over Teddy’s book and the script and thinking, well what are the dots that aren’t there and what prompts that in
someone’s brain? So I’m always prosecuting the character while I’m in his head and I don’t get too lost in it.

And obviously you’ve spoken to Edward St Aubyn more than once...

Yeah, a couple of times. We had a pre-production dinner in London and Teddy was there. I literally bumped into him as we were going in and talked to him for about an hour and a half, which was fantastic. He was very forthcoming and very warm and just delightful. I was absolutely thrilled. And then we had a dinner the next night as well, just a few of us, so it was great to spend time with him.

Did he give you any particular tips?

Just things that I was thinking about anyway, but it was good to hear it from his mouth – things like the humanity of the man. And also, this isn’t necessarily Teddy’s father fully fleshed out. It’s Teddy’s father strongly based on Teddy’s experiences. But he was wonderful, lovely to spend time with.

I guess you didn’t actually play any scenes with Benedict Cumberbatch?

We had one scene, and I was dead in a coffin, so I couldn’t exactly work with him – although he did poke me in the face trying to get me to laugh on screen.

'Patrick Melrose' Premieres Saturday, 12th May at 9pm on Showtime in America and on Sunday, 13th May at 9pm in the UK