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Benedict Cumberbatch attends the 2021 TIFF Tribute Awards Press Conference at Roy Thomson Hall on Sept. 11, 2021 in Toronto.

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

“I play normal people as well,” insists actor Benedict Cumberbatch as he sits down for an interview during the Toronto International Film Festival.

He cites two recent roles, the title character in the Cold War thriller The Courier and the ethical naval prosecutor in the Guantanamo drama The Mauritanian, but neither are the reason why he is in Toronto. He’s in town to accept a TIFF Tribute Award (during a ceremony that will air Sept. 18 on CTV) and to promote two films: In one he plays an unhappy Victorian artist who painted cats and died in an asylum; in the other he is cast as a sociopathic Montana rancher who terrorizes his new sister-in-law. No, “normal” types are not the first roles you associate with an actor who also plays a superhero known as Dr. Strange.

Artist Louis Wain, the title character in the new biopic The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, fits a Cumberbatch pattern of playing awkward geniuses for whom society would do well to make space: the code-breaking mathematician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game; a contemporary Sherlock Holmes in the British TV series Sherlock. On the other hand, Phil Burbank, the viciously macho cowboy in Jane Campion’s gothic period drama The Power of the Dog, feels like a departure: He’s a reprehensible and dislikeable figure. Cumberbatch’s arresting performance in that unusual role is already generating Oscar talk.

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“I think those characters that are more unique pop, because we look into them as things that are other,” he observed of the various eccentrics he has played. “But what I’m always wanting to do is break that away and show what is universal about these people, what is relatable about these people.”

In the case of Burbank – without revealing too much of the plot of a film based on the novel by Thomas Savage – what is universal about the man is a tragic gap between the external and the internal, as the film gradually reveals the extent to which his hard-bitten persona is a disguise.

“He’s deeply isolated and alienated in his experience of not being able to be his full, authentic self. It’s a tragedy of a man who becomes toxically masculine at times in order to dominate, defend and be reactive in the world that would hate on him if he wasn’t hitting out first.”

If an audience’s horror turns to sympathy – and then horror again – watching Cumberbatch play Burbank, his performance as Louis Wain elicits nothing but sympathy, and then some sorrow. Wain had a career as a successful newspaper illustrator supporting his widowed mother and five sisters before he turned to painting sentimental images of anthropomorphized cats. The pictures of friendly animals were hugely popular, but Wain failed to secure his copyrights. In his impoverished middle age, the cats became more abstract, enshrined in colourful mandala. He also suffered some kind of breakdown and spent his later years in an asylum. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic at the time, but some experts now dispute that – and the notion that his psychedelic art reflected his mental state.

“We’re not diagnosing him in this film,” Cumberbatch said. “This is a story of a human being, not of classifiable conditions. So it is a bit vague … you see it in the film as this pressure cooker of circumstance piling in on him. He’s a grieving man [after the premature death of his wife, played by Claire Foy]. He’s a workaholic. ... He’s been taken advantage of. He’s trying to please people. He’s trying to provide for his sisters. It just piles on and on and on.”

Cumberbatch makes the point that the tension between conformism and individuality was particularly acute in a Victorian society rigidly organized around manners and mores, but adds that we are still trying to find a balance between the two today: “A man who doesn’t feel comfortable in this world … to label that autistic or schizophrenia or some kind of anxiety attack, feels very limited and prescriptive for what is a sort of delicate understanding of a human being. We all have that frailty.”

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