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Benedict Cumberbatch is so over Zoom. But a new spike in COVID-19 cases with the omicron variant has meant that his planned sit-down with Penélope Cruz will instead unfold over a screen. It’s a change that’s causing some technical hurdles. A vacationing Cruz (who is somewhere in Spain) is battling a weak internet connection, and Cumberbatch is grappling with instructions that require him to upload video to the cloud, check his microphone levels and make sure that his iPad battery doesn’t run out.
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“Is there an actor who enjoys this process?” he asks with an exaggerated sigh.
But once the conversation gets going, the two performers — who briefly appeared together in 2016’s “Zoolander 2” — quickly fall into a familiar rhythm as they talk about their most recent films roles. In Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” Cumberbatch stars as a sexually repressed cowboy. Cruz, too, is harboring her own secrets as a single mother in Pedro Almodóvar’s drama “Parallel Mothers.”
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: This is so surreal. Of all the moments in my life to meet you and talk about your work, the fact that there is a pandemic and I’m having to do it through computers, it is a slight tarnish on what is a very lovely thing to be in your company.
PENÉLOPE CRUZ: You know, we met briefly during “Zoolander 2.”
CUMBERBATCH: Did we? Did we just cross paths on that night shoot?
CRUZ: Yeah, exactly. We saw each other in Rome briefly. It was funny what you did.
CUMBERBATCH: There was a lot of contention around [his role as a nonbinary fashion model named All], understandably now. And I think in this era, my role would never be performed by anybody other than a trans actor. But I remember at the time not thinking of it necessarily in that regard, and it being more about two dinosaurs, two heteronormative clichés not understanding this new diverse world. But it backfired a little bit. But it was lovely to meet you in that brief moment and to work with Ben [Stiller] and Owen [Wilson].
CRUZ: I’m happy we are talking, even if it’s through electronics. But I hope to see you in person soon and to be able to give you a hug and congratulate you on this amazing performance.
CUMBERBATCH: I just thought “Parallel Mothers” was both of you at the height of your — I mean, it’s what, seven films that you’ve done with Pedro? And the range of emotion that you express. You are always so grounded. I always know who you are when I’m watching you. How do you collaborate with Pedro? I know for example, with “Volver,” you rehearsed for three months. Did you have a long rehearsal period for this as well?
CRUZ: In “Parallel Mothers” it was even a longer period. We rehearsed four and a half months. I love having directors that want to give you that time. I enjoy every single moment of the process with him — of trying everything, making mistakes, not being afraid of doing it all wrong.
CUMBERBATCH: I had a similar experience with Jane. It wasn’t just rehearsing. It was just letting the character marinate, talking about him, trying to discover him and his past. And like you said, all the kinds of skill acquisition I had to master, from the accent to the roping to banjo playing and whittling. But really the most important thing was just excavating him and his psyche. The only time I’ve really experienced that before, certainly not in a film, was in the theater. And I wonder if you had any theater background?
CRUZ: I never did theater professionally. I haven’t been brave enough yet — that’s the truth. But someday when my kids are older.
CUMBERBATCH: It is hard to do it when they’re young.
CRUZ: Pedro and Jane have something in common that is very rare. They are two of the directors that are also visually stronger and very particular. Nothing is there in a capricious way. I can see in every shot from Jane, it’s like Pedro: Everything is calculated. Everything is there for a reason. Nothing is there just because she feels, “Oh, that’s pretty.” And Pedro is the same. Even the selection of the colors.
CUMBERBATCH: He’s such a master colorist. And like you say, it feels natural. Jane is a master of that as well. Every choice of her frame is sometimes subconscious, sometimes poetic. I was thrilled that you wanted to talk, because every time a scene would evolve in “Parallel Mothers,” I’d think, “This is great because there’s a huge crossover.” I have this all the time as an actor: I have this imposter syndrome, especially for a part like Phil Burbank. I’m so far away from him. I’m like, “Is this really me? Can I do this?” And when I read the book, I was like, there are better actors for this role.
CRUZ: I 100% have imposter syndrome.
CUMBERBATCH: You do?
CRUZ: I understand you very well. I wanted to talk to you a little bit more about your character Phil, because I’m fascinated by him. I was terrified of you, but I also understood his pain. You never approach him as playing the bad guy.
CUMBERBATCH: No. A couple of people commented to me and said, “I couldn’t watch your film because your character is so mean. And you’re such a bad person in this. How was it to be so mean to people?” I always dive into a role trying to understand why somebody does something. The minute you try and build a bridge between behavior and the cause of it, you start to empathize through an understanding, through reasoning, which doesn’t condone that behavior necessarily, but it at least explains how it occurred. For me, he’s a very tragic figure. He’s suppressing his sexuality.
CRUZ: You make it easy for us to understand the trauma.
CUMBERBATCH: The trick of the film is that by the end, you should feel for Phil. You should, in some ways, mourn his loss as much as the inevitable conclusion to his behavior. The arc of that.
CRUZ: And you do feel for him, because it really makes you think about all the people still today in 2022 trying to be themselves who cannot express their real feelings. That’s what breaks my heart about the movie. I have friends in that situation in 2022, and they have not been able to share with their own parents, out of fear of being rejected, who they really are.
CUMBERBATCH: I was given full permission to be Phil at his worst as well as his best. Jane introduced me to the crew as the character and said, “You’ll meet Ben at the end of the shoot. He’s really nice. You’re working with Phil.” So the English bumbling me could kind of just go: OK, no apologies, no people pleasing.
CRUZ: You also have children. I have two. My approach to work really changed because before I was a mother, I used to make myself suffer on purpose — like the extra, gratuitous amount of suffering. But now I really try not to bring that darkness or that energy home. Some days I just had to stay with Pedro for an extra hour and just cry it out right there with him and hug him and slowly come back to reality.
CUMBERBATCH: What sort of hours does Pedro do? Let’s get to the granular detail.
CRUZ: Pedro has the most perfect, amazing schedule because you can take your kids to school and then go to the set and then it’s like 10 hours. He doesn’t like starting too early or finishing too late.
CUMBERBATCH: Jane’s the same. She also likes nap time in the middle of the day, which is great.
CRUZ: Pedro doesn’t, and he doesn’t like the long breaks in the middle of the day, which I hate also because all the concentration goes away. An important teacher for me was Ben Kingsley. When I worked with him in “Elegy,” if we were in a middle of a very emotional, difficult scene, I would get mad if there was a noise or something. We would have to stop the take. And he would look at me and with no words, remind me to include whatever happened into the scene. It was the most inspiring thing, because I’m a control freak and you can’t do that with acting.
CUMBERBATCH: You talked about Ben Kingsley. Are there other actors who have influenced you?
CRUZ: My husband [Javier Bardem], because I have such an amazing actor at home. Sometimes we read scripts together. I read his, he reads mine and then we give each other ideas. We don’t talk about work all the time. But to be able to have that to go and ask, “What do you think about this?” or “What do you think about this scene?”
CUMBERBATCH: Some of the greatest acting lessons I learned from Meryl Streep. I had a small part in “August: Osage County.” I’d already done some bigger stuff by then, but it didn’t matter. To me, this was it. To be in a company like that was extraordinary. I watched in that dinner table scene where Meryl’s character is battling with grief, drug addiction, drunkenness and a family secret. To watch her play with the full orchestra of her ability, every single take was completely different. I was on a balcony having a cigarette with her. She smokes, folks. I used to, but I’m sure she doesn’t anymore. Anyway, the point is, we were having a cigarette and chatting, and I went, “Do you have a singular way of approaching things?” She went, “Oh, no. I don’t have a method. It’s different every time. Isn’t it for you?” And I went, “Yeah, and I’m getting nervous that I don’t have armor to fall back on.” But every job is different. Every director, every demand, every person you work with in front of the camera and behind, it’s different.
CRUZ: She’s my favorite of all time. I also wanted to congratulate you on the incredible success of “Spider-Man: [No Way Home].” How did it feel to be part of that?
CUMBERBATCH: Amazing. I’m very spoiled because Tom Holland and I had petitioned that the neighborhood superheroes should cross paths again. To have those three films culminate in that moment was extraordinary to be a part of. And to let my character make some hefty mistakes out of love — really, out of generosity towards someone he realizes he really cares for. From a stand-alone success of a movie, of a franchise, it’s phenomenal. I genuinely sat there entertained, thrilled, really moved. I laughed a lot. I cheered. It’s a fantastic feeling to be back in a cinema, being able to do that and to prove that not everything has to be streamed. And I think that’s important moving forward. It’s not just for exhibitors but for the social gain, the excitement of being in a crowd of people experiencing that live thing of watching it.
CRUZ: I get so excited to be in a room with strangers watching a movie. I talk and I comment on everything. People get really annoyed with me when I go to the cinema. For me, it’s such an incredible experience. Imagine a world where the younger generations or the ones to come don’t have that ritual in their lives. Nothing compares with watching movies in theaters, not being at home with a hundred interruptions.
CUMBERBATCH: You’re invested in those two-plus hours. You’re there for the ride, and you can’t really get off it.
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