He’s best known to superhero fans around the world as “Doctor Strange,” a leading star of the multi-billion grossing Marvel films.
But Benedict Cumberbatch relished stepping into the arthouse world of “The Power of the Dog” — complete with a painstakingly recreated 1920s Montana cowboy ranch — for his latest Oscar-tipped film, he told the Toronto film festival Friday.
“To play something as diverse as those two characters are, apart from each other, is fantastic,” said Cumberbatch.
“I loved swapping the cloak for a horse,” he added.
Doctor Strange’s trademark cloak will be next seen in the Spider-Man movie “No Way Home” in December, while Cumberbatch is also starring in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” in March.
But far away from the world of blockbuster franchises, “The Power of the Dog” — out in theaters in November, and on Netflix from December 1 — is already seen as an early frontrunner for next year’s Academy Awards.
Based on a novel about a closeted cowboy, it earned rave reviews at the Venice and Telluride festivals before moving onto Toronto.
Its selection in multiple major festival lineups is itself an indicator of likely success — last year’s best picture “Nomadland” toured the major fall events that went ahead.
So is the presence of director Jane Campion. The New Zealander was only the second woman ever nominated for the best directing Oscar with 1993’s “The Piano,” and “The Power of the Dog” is her first feature in more than a decade.
“It’s quite far away from my normal wheelhouse and I was just thrilled that someone as mad as Jane wanted me to do it!” said former “Sherlock” star Cumberbatch, who learnt to ride horses and rope steers, play the banjo and blow a piercing cowboy whistle for the part.
He paid tribute to Campion as “this amazingly strong woman, in a very male-dominated world — this person who has this incredible weight of work.”
The film is Campion’s first to feature a male protagonist, something the director has said she felt freed up to do after the #MeToo movement paved the way for more female-centered movies elsewhere in Hollywood.
Toxic masculinity, as well as sexual repression, is a key theme of the film with Cumberbatch’s sadistic, sinister ranch owner Phil Burbank disguising his own sexuality behind a constant barrage of insults toward others.
Burbank also terrorizes and pours malicious scorn on the widow (Kirsten Dunst) who has married his more congenial brother (Jesse Plemons) — driving her to alcoholism — and her effeminate son (Kodi Smit-McPhee.)
“Phil’s tragedy is he can’t be his authentic self, in the time he’s in but also the culture he’s in,” said Cumberbatch.
“It is a tragedy of intolerance in many ways.”
The second day of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) also saw the North American premiere of time-hopping psychological horror “Last Night in Soho,” from British director Edgar Wright.
After the successes of films like “Baby Driver,” Wright has continued to pursue original projects including an acclaimed recent documentary on eccentric musical duo Sparks.
He co-wrote “Last Night in Soho,” and has so far shown little interest in following the likes of Cumberbatch into the superhero universe.
“I wouldn’t be so silly as to say I would never do that,” he told AFP.
“But right now I feel very proud that, given the opportunity, I did another original movie after ‘Baby Driver.'”
“I think when you have the opportunity to do that, you should take it.”
TIFF, North America’s biggest film festival, runs until September 18.