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Patrick Melrose: How Benedict Cumberbatch Climbed Inside His Favorite Antihero

To prepare for his harrowing role as an addict in the Showtime limited series, Cumberbatch had to ask the tough questions: “Injecting cocaine: what is that like? Why would you do that?”

Benedict Cumberbatch on the set of Patrick Melrose
Photo by Julian Broad

As Emmy nominations approach, Vanity Fair’s HWD team is once again diving deep into how some of this season’s greatest scenes and characters came together. You can read more of these close looks here.

PATRICK MELROSE, PATRICK MELROSE

When a fan asked Benedict Cumberbatch during a 2013 Reddit A.M.A. what literary character he’d most like to play, he offered a definitive answer: Patrick Melrose, the brilliant, damaged vortex around which Edward St. Aubyn’sdevastating quintet of autobiographical novels swirl. The books—and now Patrick Melrose, the gorgeously harrowing Showtime limited series based on them—trace the life of this charismatic upper-class Englishman as he tries to wrestle free from the damage imposed on him in childhood by his monstrous father and learn how to lead a meaningful adult life.

When Cumberbatch rhapsodized about the character on a recent phone call, he spoke so quickly that my ear could hardly take it all in. Which was appropriate enough, since Patrick Melrose wraps himself in language, using words as a both a shield and a life raft. “They are very, very funny novels,” Cumberbatch said, “and there are very funny bits which turn on a knife’s edge, 180 degrees, into tragedy.”

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As an example, Cumberbatch pointed to a scene in the first episode in which the drug-addled, twentysomething Patrick views his father’s corpse at a funeral parlor. He unwraps the body, which has been discreetly covered with tissue paper, turning a grim moment into an exaggeratedly comic scene. “He starts having this dialogue with somebody who’s not there, thanking them for the present of his dead dad—and then he’s fully triggered into this memory of the trauma of being raped by his father. . . . That happens in the space of about 20 seconds him on the page,” said Cumberbatch. “When you get prose as deep and rich and profoundly revealing of a character’s nature, you’re really spoiled as an actor. So much of your background research, your development of deeper psychology, and internal-thought processes and psychology—it’s there on the page. And this man’s salvation comes through a huge amount self-examination. So I just always, always went back to the book on pretty much every level.”

HOW HE CAME TO LIFE

St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels have been picking up fans since he published the first in the series, Never Mind, in 1992. (The fourth installment, 2005’s Mother’s Milk, was nominated for a Booker Prize). So much of their pleasure derives from St. Aubyn’s prose that adapting them for the screen seemed like a doomed undertaking. Yet screenwriter and novelist David Nicholls bravely took on the challenge—which wound up consuming more than half a decade. The resulting limited series covers Patrick’s life from sensitive child to middle-aged parent struggling to break the cycle of abuse, with his debauched, twentysomething years serving as fodder for the intense opening episode. Certain essential qualities run through Patrick’s entire life, Nicholls pointed out in a separate interview: “The desire to be better, to be less separate from the world, to be less ironic and sardonic, less disengaged.”

Nicholls said he always had Cumberbatch in his head as he wrote Patrick Melrose,even before the actor independently expressed interest in an adaptation. The two men had worked together on Starter for 10, the 2006 British film based on Nicholls’s novel, in which Cumberbatch played a supporting role as the prissy captain of a university quiz-show team—an amusing but two-dimensional character, the kind of work Cumberbatch was beginning to find frustrating and limiting. “Benedict was clearly something special, but everyone also had the sense that he is one of those clowns who could also play Hamlet,” Nicholls said.

As it happens, the tormented Danish prince is precisely who came to mind when Nicholls embarked on translating Patrick Melrose for the small screen. The two characters have a lot in common, not least father issues and a complex relationship with their mothers. There’s also “the potential for frighteningly cruel behavior coupled with a desire—I think it’s a sincere desire—to do the right thing. And certainly the soliloquizing, the playing with ideas, is so much a part of [the books].”

Cumberbatch spent a great deal of time getting to know the author, “Teddy” St. Aubyn, while immersing himself in the role of Patrick. “I asked him about things I won’t go into in an interview, of a very personal nature,” Cumberbatch said, as well as more specific questions about drug addiction. “For example, injecting cocaine: What the fuck is that like? I mean, why would you do that? Why would you do that, and how would you do that? What would happen when you did that? How longwould it happen?” He rattled off those queries at top speed, as if tapping into a sense memory.

“There’s a sort of ringing quality to the way Teddy speaks—everything is very carefully considered, and you’ll drive through until the end of the sentence,” Cumberbatch continued. “They are beautiful sentences. He speaks with the same language he writes with. It’s a joy to be in conversation with the man.”

Patrick Melrose is more than just a character study; it’s also a harsh dissection of British mores. “It captures so much of the hypocrisy and cynicism and sickness” of the upper class, which “hides its secrets and confesses to nothing,” Cumberbatch said. Patrick’s father, David (Hugo Weaving), is a sadistic aesthete who has taken up cruelty in place of a profession. (“What redeemed life from complete horror was the almost unlimited number of things to be nasty about,” David proposes in Never Mind, the first book in the sequence.) His mother, Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is a crushed heiress who has seceded from reality.

They are surrounded by equally horrifying members of the aristocracy—most notably, Princess Margaret (Harriet Walker), who in one episode appears as the guest of honor at a fancy dinner party. Far from the chic figure we know from The Crown, the princess here humiliates the French dignitary sitting next to her and callously dismisses the hosts’ young daughter when the girl shyly approaches in hope of meeting a royal. It is Patrick who kindly comes to the little girl’s rescue, seeing in her traces of his old sweet self, ignored by the adults and neglected by his parents.

Cumberbatch said that he too had glimpsed the codes and rituals of high society, through the posh world of his grandmother (“not that she was like that—she was a deeply caring and loving person,” he hastened to add) and his time at Harrow, one of Britain’s most elite boarding schools. “That world was definitely around me, but I wasn’t ever really fully engaged in it.”

Making sure Cumberbatch looked the part was also crucial. According to costume designer Keith Madden, Patrick comes from a British upper class that doesn’t follow fashion, but favors traditional dress that might be embellished with a twist of eccentricity. Colored socks, he said, are “the seal of the aristocratic upper classes.” Patrick may look imperturbable, but Madden hoped to suggest a juxtaposition between his fancy dress and his sordid reality—meetings with drug dealers, descents into a speedball-induced state of madness.

Beyond that, Madden looked to St. Aubyn himself for guidance. “I was privy to some photographs that Benedict showed me of Edward St. Aubyn as a young boy, and then as a young man in the 80s. So, that’s where a lot of the inspiration came from—even the shape of the sunglasses, and the striped shirts, and the pale stone-wash jeans of the time,” he said. Sometimes the author himself would visit the set, “and it would be funny, because he would be wearing something very similar to what Benedict would be wearing in the scene,” Madden said. “I would say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got it right!’”

Cumberbatch confessed that it’s a great relief to have done justice to St. Aubyn’s creation. “I felt a sort of double responsibility,” he said—not just as an actor bringing the character to life, “but also as a reader to other readers of these novels. I do think he’s written some of the best prose of the 21st century, if not the best—and one of my desires is to bring these works to the widest audience.”

Photos: On the Set of Showtime’s Patrick Melrose

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the title character in the forthcoming mini-series *Patrick Melrose.*
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the title character in the forthcoming mini-series Patrick Melrose.

Photo: Photograph by Julian Broad.

Cumberbatch with *Patrick Melrose* co-stars Blythe Danner and Allison Williams.

Williams, Danner and Cumberbatch with author Edward St. Aubyn.

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