Facing Demons, Without Superpowers

Posted May 3, 2018 9:46 p.m. EDT

It was a few hours before the premiere of Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” late last month, and Benedict Cumberbatch was not about to violate the studio’s ban on spoilers surrounding the penultimate chapter of the most lucrative movie franchise ever.

“Don’t ask,” he said, in response to a mock-question about his turn as Doctor Strange. “All I can give you is a nice recipe for Aperol spritz.”

But Cumberbatch was happy to speak volubly about another complex work of serial narrative hitting the screen this spring — one that also unfolded over many years, commands an ardent fan base and features him as an unusually intelligent man battling dark forces (albeit armed with vicious wit and bulletproof irony rather than magical orbs).

“Patrick Melrose,” a five-part limited series that debuts on Showtime on May 12, is based on five autobiographical novels by the British writer Edward St. Aubyn, whose exquisite prose and subtle portraiture have won them almost cultish devotion. Published between 1992 and 2011, they follow an upper-class Englishman on a 40-year journey of recovery from horrific childhood abuse, addiction and the soul-killing snobbery of his milieu.

OK, Patrick may not quite recover from that last affliction, as some dissidents from the reverence surrounding the St. Aubyn universe have noted. But Cumberbatch has little patience with those who hold it too much against him.

“I got very shirty recently with a British journalist who said of Patrick, ‘He’s a bit of an unlikable posho, isn’t he?'” he said. “It’s too easy to dismiss him as just another well-heeled drug addict gone wrong.”

Even as the show revels in its stunning locations (including a magically situated farmhouse in the South of France) and louchely glamorous characters, the promotional campaign leans hard on its “relatable” themes of family, trauma, addiction, recovery and forgiveness.

“I don’t think snobbery, self-loathing, cynicism and hypocrisy are exclusive to that class,” said Cumberbatch, a graduate of Harrow (and a great-grandson of Queen Victoria’s consul general in Turkey and Lebanon). What St. Aubyn’s novels do, “with great humor and painful insight, is lay out the extremes of the human condition.”

St. Aubyn’s literary alter-ego has been a dream role for Cumberbatch, who since coming to fame with the BBC’s “Sherlock” has tended to toggle between blockbusters (“Star Trek: Into Darkness,” the coming “Dr. Seuss’ the Grinch”) and artier fare like “The Imitation Game” and the recent television adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel “The Child in Time.”

In an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit in 2013, he named Patrick Melrose as the literary character he would most like to play. The comment made its way onto Twitter, and soon he got a call from the producers Michael Jackson and Rachael Horovitz, who had acquired the rights to the novels and were working on scripts with the screenwriter and novelist David Nicholls (“One Fine Day,” “Far From the Madding Crowd”).

The only other role on Cumberbatch’s bucket list, he has said, was Hamlet — a character who shares Patrick’s brilliance, arrogance, wit, cruelty, self-destructiveness and, in his reading, not dissimilar daddy issues.

Hamlet’s father “was a cold man, someone very distant and difficult to love,” he said. And as with Patrick, “it’s the undoing of the myth of the father that brings Hamlet into a more loving relationship” with the world.

Cumberbatch played Hamlet in London in 2015, in a production that sold out almost instantly and generated the pitched fan frenzy that has come to surround this 41-year-old star, whose off-kilter Byronic handsomeness has drawn some deeply strange tributes. (Take heart: Patrick may be fattened up via prosthetics by Episode 4 and heavily weathered by Episode 5, “but it’s my hair all the way through,” Cumberbatch noted.)

While that role may have seemed inevitable, the road to “Patrick Melrose” was more uncertain. Jackson said he had been given the first novel by a mutual friend of his and St. Aubyn’s. St. Aubyn’s novels may come with sexy plot elements and guillotine-sharp dialogue, but it took the final installment, “At Last,” which came out in 2011, to convince Jackson that an adaptation seemed possible. “Only then could you really follow the cause and effect of childhood over a sweep of time, which is the classical television format,” he said.

Even then, translating the long passages of interior reflection, sometimes dense philosophical rumination, and quicksilver leaps of memory and association were challenging. “I’ve never written so many drafts of anything in my life,” Nicholls said.

Each episode, like four of the novels, takes place on a single, pivotal day in Patrick’s life. Early on, Jackson and Horovitz hit on the notion of making each of the hourlong episodes a distinct minimovie, with a different visual style and tone. (They briefly toyed with the idea of hiring five directors but ultimately settled on Edward Berger, a German whose credits include the Stasi drama “Deutschland ’83.”)

The first episode, the antically comic “Bad News” (based on the second novel), in which Patrick visits New York to pick up his father’s ashes and goes on a bender, plays like an upmarket “Trainspotting,” complete with hallucinations and at least one indelible bathroom scene. The second, “Never Mind,” loops back to a particularly nightmarish day in Patrick’s childhood at the Melrose family home in the South of France, capped off with a Pinteresque dinner party with dialogue so dryly vicious it nearly vaporizes the roast.

The third episode, “Some Hope,” set at an elaborate country house party where the guests await the arrival of Princess Margaret, is more of a social satire in the “Gosford Park” vein.

“It’s just this wonderful circus of the very worst behavior of that class, with everything toxic coming to the surface,” Cumberbatch said.

Filmed at West Wycombe House, a stately home in West Sussex that also appeared in “Downton Abbey,” it features long Steadicam shots that weave from room to room (including one four-minute sequence that took 17 takes) and more than 150 extras. Among them is St. Aubyn, who can be spotted listening as an unbearably snobbish Melrose family friend talks with the French ambassador.

“I felt a terrible impulse to introduce a spontaneous new line of dialogue,” he said.

Some scenes were reworked on the fly, like a sequence in the first episode where Patrick undergoes a drug-fueled dark night of the soul in a hotel suite, unleashing a torrent of differently accented voices before collapsing. Cumberbatch collaborated with St. Aubyn and Nicholls on an on-set “manic rewrite,” as he put it, switching different lines from the novel (which unfolds largely as dialogue in Patrick’s head) in and out.

“I was rewriting it and learning it at the same time, and I thought: This is crazy. I feel like I’m doing a one-man show in Edinburgh,” he said. “It felt like I, as Benedict, was coming undone.” As Patrick’s father, David, a thwarted pianist whose snobbery is topped only by his cruelty, Hugo Weaving (best known as Agent Smith from “The Matrix”) manages to be terrifying from the first moment he appears, lying stock still in his coffin in Episode 1.

“Benedict was poking me, trying to get me to raise from the dead,” Weaving said of the sequence where Patrick touches the corpse’s face (the only seconds in the series where he and Cumberbatch are on screen together). “But I wasn’t giving him anything.”

As for Eleanor, Patrick’s mother (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), the novels depict her, unforgivingly, as a monster of neglect and deluded self-pity. But Leigh, whose own mother died two years ago, said that she wanted to draw out her tender, thwarted core, especially in the later scenes, where a stroke has left her struggling to communicate.

“People are going to vilify Eleanor,” she said. “To me, it was very crucial to be faithful to the vulnerability and the nakedness of that time in life, when all your defenses are stripped away.”

Cumberbatch said that he hoped the humanity of the characters would pull people through the sometimes unbearable darkness of the story.

“What Patrick is arcing toward as a character, the ultimate shift is letting go of his father’s ghost,” he said. “He behaves abominably, but he’s evolving from being a victim to being a survivor.”