Fifth Estate - Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) ©2013 DreamWorks II Distribution, photo by Frank Connor

As the search got underway, the filmmakers of The Fifth Estate agreed that one actor seemed to best embody Assange in all his mix of geeky cool and single-mindedness: Benedict Cumberbatch.

Fifth Estate – Director Bill Condon (left) with Benedict Cumberbatch on the set ©2013 DreamWorks II Distribution, photo by Frank Connor

“Benedict is an actor we still want to know more about and that is so very appropriate for Julian,” says Director Bill Condon. “There were obvious hints in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ of his incredible intelligence. And he has that kind of otherworldly quality that makes him and Assange so fascinating.”

Benedict Cumberbatch was instantly attracted to the material. “The story is about a massive moment we are going through in politics, media and contemporary history,” he observes. “But it is also the story of a friendship going through a shakeup in the middle of it.”

“After a brief spell of euphoria, I spiraled into panic about how on earth I was going to do this,” Benedict recalls. “There was so much to take on – vocally, physically and just confronting the full import of the story. I did a lot soul searching. Reading the source material books was exciting, but at the same time I was aware that Julian himself despises the people who wrote those books, so I went back to other material”

Fifth Estate – Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) and Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) ©2013 DreamWorks II Distribution, photo by Frank Connor

Julian’s relationship with Daniel turns from a youthful partnership to a serious war of ideals. “I think in a platonic way, Daniel fell in love with Julian and his ideas,” observes Benedict. “They became very close at the crucial, formative time of WikiLeaks, and they shared an extraordinary adventure. But it came down to a battle of principles between two very different men.”

Director Bill Condon was impressed by Cumberbatch’s commitment, which even included ultimately establishing a private, personal e-mail connection with Assange himself.

“Julian has a very insistent take on these events that in many ways no one else agrees with, but his responses to Benedict were interesting and valuable,” says the director. “Benedict understood that his job was to morph into Julian and to represent his point of view. He got so into the head of Julian, he brought something beautiful to the performance.”

The Fifth Estate, Benedict Cumberbatch – Acting Biography

Fifth Estate – Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) ©2013 DreamWorks II Distribution, photo by Frank Connor

Benedict Cumberbatch (Julian Assange) is best known for playing Sherlock Holmes in Steven Moffat and Mark Gattiss’ Sherlock, a BBC adaptation of the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novels. It is a role that has earned him international acclaim and several awards, including two BAFTA nominations and a BAFTA Audience TV Award nomination for Best Actor. Most recently on film he portrayed Major Stewart in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of “War Horse” and Peter Guillam alongside Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy and Colin Firth in Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”

In 2011, Cumberbatch returned to the National Theatre, alternating the roles of The Creature and Dr Frankenstein in Danny Boyle’s stage production of “Frankenstein” earning him a shared (with co-star Jonny Lee Miller) Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor and an Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actor.

Cumberbatch studied drama at University of Manchester before training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Early television roles include Tipping the VelvetSilent WitnessNathan BarleyMI-5DunkirkTo the Ends of the Earth and The Last Enemy.

However, it was his powerful portrayal of Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge Cosmologist, in the BBC’s highly acclaimed drama Hawking that brought him to the attention of an international audience and earned him his first BAFTA nomination. His second BAFTA nomination came in 2010 for his portrayal of Bernard in the BBC adaptation of Small Island.”

Cumberbatch’s film work includes Starter for 10Amazing Grace, Third Star, WreckersStuart: A Life BackwardsThe Other Boleyn Girl and the dastardly Paul Marshall in Joe Wright’s Oscar®-winning Atonement

On stage there have been two seasons in Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park with The New Shakespeare Company, Lyngstrand in Trevor Nunn’s production of Lady from the Sea; George in Tennessee Williams’ Period of Adjustment; Tesman in Richard Eyre’s West End ensemble production of Hedda Gabbler, for which he received an Olivier Award nomination and the Ian Charleson Award; Berenger in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros; Eisenring in The Arsonists; and The City at the Royal Court Theatre. In 2010, he took on the role of David Scott-Fowler in After the Dance, the award-winning revival of Terrence Rattigan’s play at the National Theatre directed by Thea Sharrock.

Cumberbatch recently starred in the BBC/HBO drama Parade’s End. Last year, he played the role of the dragon Smaug in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. Recently he was seen on the big screen as the villain in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness. Later this autumn he will star as “Little” Charles Aiken in August: Osage County alongside Meryl Streep, and in 12 Years a Slave directed by Steve McQueen. A third series of Sherlock is in production for 2014.

Colin Davies

The editor of Film Review Online