Benedict Cumberbatch, director Toby Haynes, and writer James Graham explain why this Brexit story had to air while its ramifications are still unspooling.
Three days before shooting started was when Benedict Cumberbatch really committed to the Brexit movie. Sitting in his house with director Toby Haynes, the Oscar nominee, global superstar, and $600 million-face of Marvel’s Dr. Strange said four words he couldn’t walk back: “Take off the hair.”
“We were nibbling away at his hairline, taking bits off here and there, and suddenly he just looks really weird,” Haynes said in an interview with IndieWire. “The makeup artist had a wig prepared, but the only way the wig would work is if we shaved his head. […] I looked at Benedict, he looked at me, and he said, ‘Take it off. Take off the hair.’”
“It was a bit crushing at the time,” Cumberbatch said, chuckling. “I had what’s called a ‘no hawk’ — no hair around the middle, and then I had my normal hair at the sides. Then we put a shrinky [on top], which is a kind of three-piece wig. […] I just went for it. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.”
It’s a good thing it did. Haynes said he was so nervous about shaving off his star’s hair that he didn’t tell anyone they were even considering it. His producers gave explicit instructions to “take off as little as possible” and “not turn him into an alien.”
“People funding the film would’ve been horrified if we said we’re gonna cut all Benedict Cumberbatch’s hair off,” Haynes said. “[But] that’s the thing about Benedict: If he does something, he really does it full pelt. I was really impressed by his commitment — his integrity to authenticity when it came to Dominic Cummings. He really wanted to do him justice and not do a fake TV version of him.”
“Brexit,” the feature film distributed by Channel 4 in the U.K. and HBO in the U.S., tracks the Remain and Vote Leave campaigns for the 2016 European Union membership referendum through Cumberbatch’s Campaign Director Dominic Cummings. Socially volatile but strategically brilliant — and, of course, bald — Cummings is shown in the film as the mastermind behind simplifying Vote Leave’s strategy and implementing advanced data mining techniques to understand how best to motivate voters.
Those same voters are still wrestling with the ramifications of their decision to leave the E.U. — a decision guided by Cummings’ campaign. In the last week alone, Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to carry out the Brexit deal was rejected by Parliament, and a no-confidence vote was called for her government’s ouster. Though that didn’t carry either, there’s no clear path for Britain to exit the European Union before the March 29 deadline.
Because Brexit’s ultimate aftermath has yet to be seen, screenwriter James Graham said plenty of people wondered why they were making a movie about it now.
“I think people couldn’t quite believe it was happening,” he said. “And the question came up time and time again, is it too soon? Is this the right time to be doing this?”
The issues dealt with in the fast-paced, 92-minute film are vast, and Cummings’ chosen techniques carry extensive consequences for the world at large. (Ask any American about hacking elections and you can bet they’ll have a few thoughts.) But “Brexit” was made with urgency.
Graham, who first pitched the idea, said it was the assassination of Parliament member Jo Cox that convinced him to start writing.
“It was a political murder based on the fact that something appalling had been unleashed in our politics,” he said. “And maybe it was always there and we hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it, but something clearly had gone wrong. It was a huge failure of our democratic system that somebody lost their life in a democratic exercise.”
Graham settled on Cummings as the story’s protagonist after realizing he’s a “classic antihero.” “He’s a transgressor, he’s unpredictable, he’s surprising, and he’s the agent of change,” Graham said. “He’s the person that made decisions that affected a nation.”
Cumberbatch was the first actor pitched the role, but no one expected him to say yes. “Send it to him, but he’s not gonna do it,” Graham remembered saying. “He’s Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s off being a superhero in the Marvel universe.” But Dr. Strange was ready to commit to the less notable role, the 23-day shoot, and the bald head because this story needed to be heard, now.
“Everything is so continuously in flux at the moment,” Cumberbatch said. “Every day there’s a new potential drama or film plot or stage play out of the current political events, but to get some perspective on how this all began and what wasn’t right about it at the time, resulting in what might not be right about it now — I think there are things to be learned from watching it.”
Haynes said he’s far from a political “geek,” and he expected viewers to be suffering from “Brexit fatigue” by 2019. But he was still compelled to make this film and show it to an audience “as soon as possible.”
“People are asking this question all the time: How did we get to this point? How did we get to the point where our country voted in a way that we didn’t expect it to? This film goes some way to answer that question,” Haynes said.
“The main thing is how divisive a referendum that’s just about ‘in or out’ is,” Cumberbatch said. “Whatever side of that argument you’re on, you’re not going to be particularly satisfied by the result because it’s too simplistic. As we already know, the Brexit the people voted [for] was probably unattainable.”
Explaining the complexities of the original deal became a high priority for the filmmakers, but they were still making a movie. It couldn’t turn into a “man-splaining lecture” where a bunch of men in suits talk for two hours, as Haynes said. Graham’s script addressed this by labeling each new character with an onscreen nametag, quickly explaining who they represented and which side (Leave or Remain) they were on. Haynes, meanwhile, said his original pitch to producers was all about making the story “dynamic, visually interesting, and compelling.”
“If you hire me, I will make this understandable for a broad audience,” he remembered saying. “I’ll ask all the questions that they’ll all be asking, and I will make sure that their attention is held by gripping them in the opening moments.”
Haynes also knew not to rely on the movie’s facts — about data mining and how it was used in the campaign — because they would come out before the film did. Luckily, Graham took this into account, too.
“What James has managed to do is make it a digestible message — just as Dominic Cummings made the message for the argument for leaving Europe a digestible message that people could understand and can vote for,” Haynes said.
When asked what that message is, Cumberbatch fumbled for a moment. He talked about wanting the audience to have a “better understanding” of what happened, but also to see things from Cummings’ point-of-view. He mentioned how , and even said there’s no simple takeaway — “no tagline” — for the movie at all.
But that’s when he found it.
“I can’t reduce it to a phrase,” he said, before pausing and adding, “Maybe that’s it. That certain massive moments in history cannot be simplified and are worth having a little deeper look at, and this is hopefully what that’s about.”
“It’s so hard to just sort of define one takeaway when the issues are that complex and the characters are that intriguing. It’s very, very hard to have one take away. If you’re asking me about ‘The Grinch,’ I would say that the takeaway is that it really pays to be kind to people and give people a second chance. But this isn’t ‘The Grinch.’”
“Do you know what I mean?” he asked, and when told he provided a very good answer after all, Cumberbatch seemed relieved.
“I got there,” he said. “I got there.”
So too, hopefully, will Britain.
“Brexit” is available now on HBO.