Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Interview: Daniel Bruhl, Benedict Cumberbatch and Dan Stevens of 'The Fifth Estate'

by Samantha Wilson, Assistant Editor;

By now, the public is well-versed in the story of WikiLeaks and its prolific founder, Julian Assange. The Australian visionary is the subject of The Fifth Estate, the new film starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange and Daniel Brühl as his confidant and right hand man Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

While many expected a biopic to emerge based on Assange and his incredible story, it’s unlikely that they theorized the source material would be Domscheit-Berg’s frank and candid memoir Inside WikiLeaks, or that the film would be told largely from his perspective. As the tagline for the movie reads, “you can’t expose the world’s secrets without exposing your own.”

Cumberbatch, Brühl and Dan Stevens, who portrays Guardian reporter Ian Katz in the film, sat down at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about preparing to tell a remarkable true story, their take on WikiLeaks and getting in contact with subjects who are often hard to find.

When Assange heard that the project was being made, he reached out to Cumberbatch and urged the actor not to take the part. Being a consummate professional, Cumberbatch justified his reasons for doing the film with Assange, and “that was where that ended.”

“It was important to me to portray him as a three-dimensional human being and not get into a slagging match about whether he was good or bad,” Cumberbatch said. “I wanted to portray human characteristics about a man at the forefront of an incredible media revolution, with incredible ideas, whose controversy was borne out of that primarily and not get bogged down in character assassinations which is so easy to come by, because people want a headline, they want to grab something and run with a two-dimensional story. And I like the way the film tackles that.”

Cumberbatch believed that it’s easy to perceive Assange as a villain after seeing his portrayal in the media, so he was happy to participate in a film that, while still showing a true representation of his character, also shows what Assange is like when the cable news cameras aren’t rolling

“The character assassinations came hot on the foot of all the kind of shifting perspectives and press war and everything that went on at the time of the leak, so I think a lot of people’s perspective on him is very crude,” he said. “So anything that flashes out who he is as a three-dimensional human being I think is to his benefit, and god knows what he’ll think of that, but as an audience I think you can understand more of someone when they are part of something that’s universal to all of us. And while, you know, I think it’s very clear he doesn’t want the message to get confused with the messenger, and that’s happened.”

For Brühl, speaking to Domscheit-Berg was a little more forthcoming than Cumberbatch’s experience with Assange.

“When I first heard about WikiLeaks a couple of years ago, I was sure that sooner or later they're going to make a movie about it,” Brühl said. “So it was strange to then participate in that project and to play Daniel…He invited me a couple of times to his place and you know explained me a lot about the, this intense relationship with Julian.”

Cumberbatch noted the complex relationship between Domscheit-Berg and Assange is more than meets the eye.

“Daniel is no stooge, you know, he’s not this follower, he’s a smart guy, he’s an activist, he’s incredibly, you know, pragmatic. He’s not just a sort of blind acolyte. I think Julian has a magnetic hold over people and I think he’s an incredible spokesperson for an extraordinary idea that was borne out of his realization of it. And you know, he has very complex relationships with people because of that.”

During his time spent with Domscheit-Berg, Brühl gained an understanding for his character and his perspective in the WikiLeaks affair. Though he seems decidedly “Team Daniel,” he acknowledged how audiences could leave the theater feeling like they should be rooting for both Assange and Domscheit-Berg at the same time, comparing the experience to his film Rush, which screened at TIFF at the same time as The Fifth Estate.

“In a way it's similar to Rush because…you have the villain and the goody and you stay with one and only have empathy with one character,” he said. “But eventually you have empathy with both, in both movies.  I found that quite interesting; that's another parallel. It doesn't make a final judgment, the movie.  And you know it's quite neutral in a way.  And I found it very interesting and a good idea to give Julian Assange the last word, you know, to let the film end like this.”

By portraying a journalist, Dan Stevens got a unique perspective on the privacy versus transparency issue that runs deep throughout the WikiLeaks affair itself, and throughout the movie. His character, he says, comes at this issue differently than Assange, which makes for great viewing.

“There are certain moral judgments that have to be made and I think as a more traditional journalist like say Ian Katz, those considerations were more at the floor than to someone like Assange, who… I guess they sort of… they come at it from slightly different angles you know,” Stevens said. “And that in itself provokes an interesting conversation about how much of the human element do we consider, if this is putting people's lives at risk, should it be out there or actually do people just need to know the truth and damn the consequences and it's a very, very difficult question.  But that in itself makes for great drama, you know.”


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