In preparation of his performance as the sadistic and repressed rancher Phil Burbank in Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog, Benedict Cumberbatch opted to take on all of his character’s hobbies and habits, including cigarette smoking. His dedication to method acting resulted in the actor developing nicotine poisoning on three separate occasions during filming.
In the film’s source material—the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage—the author emphasizes Burbank’s nicotine habit, adding the detail that the rancher prefers his cigarettes “perfectly rolled with one-hand.” Cumberbatch felt compelled to roll the same way with real tobacco. He used none of the easy, nicotine-free herbal cigarettes everyone else uses during filming.
“That was really hard,” Cumberbatch tells Esquire. “Filterless rollies, just take after take after take. I gave myself nicotine poisoning three times. When you have to smoke a lot, it genuinely is horrible.”
In the novel, Savage further describes the elder Burbank as “a great reader, a taxidermist, skilled at braiding rawhide and horsehair, a solver of chess problems, a smith and metalworker, a collector of arrowheads (even fashioning arrowheads himself with greater skill than any Indian), a banjo player, a fine writer, a builder of hay-stacking beaver-slide derricks, a vivid conversationalist,” all of which Cumberbatch took to heart.
He went to work on developing this set of rugged Western skills for Burbank. The actor learned how to carve out derricks, worked on braiding, roping, ironmongery, hide-treating, hay-stacking, whistling, whittling, and even plucking the banjo. Prior to filming in New Zealand, Cumberbatch attended an intense ranch training in Montana.
In his full-method approach to Burbank, Cumberbatch learned how to castrate a bull, refused to speak to co-star Kirsten Dunst on set, and maintained a low drawl when speaking. However, to really capture Burbank’s aura, the actor chose not to bathe.
“I wanted that layer of stink on me. I wanted people in the room to know what I smelt like,” Cumberbatch tells Esquire. “It was hard, though. It wasn’t just in rehearsals. I was going out to eat and meet friends of Jane and stuff. I was a bit embarrassed by the cleaner, in the place I was living.”
Campion brought the cast to New Zealand three weeks before shooting started with plenty of time for rehearsals. In a conversation with IndieWire, the director commended Cumberbatch’s dedication to the role.
“He had to do castrating, and learn how to do everything,” Campion said of Cumberbatch during Telluride. “It’s such a big step for him. It’s a fantastic demonstration of his capacity and his courage.”
Cumberbatch stars in The Power Of The Dog alongside Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. The film will debut in select theaters on November 17 and is set to arrive on Netflix on December 1.