Benedict Cumberbatch has acted alongside many Hollywood greats, but the English actor was “geeking out” when it came to working with Jodie Foster in The Mauritanian. Benedict did not plan on starring in the film. He thought he would stay behind the camera as a producer. The script, however, developed over time and the role and moral dilemmas faced by US military prosecutor Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch in the Guantanamo Bay-set film expanded and intrigued Cumberbatch. In this interview he discusses [the film’s protagonist] Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s horrifying story, working with Foster, battling illness on the South African set and having to wear a skull cap after the late decision to play Lt Col Couch.
Can you please talk about Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch, the US military prosecutor you play in The Mauritanian? He has to make some intense moral, legal and personal decisions.
I imagine a lot of people in the legal profession would have taken the same route as Couch. He had plenty of reasons motivating him to prosecute Mohamedou. Couch was a Christian, a patriot and someone who was friends with one of the co-pilots killed by the hijackers who flew one of the planes into the World Trade Center. But I also think that, like him, few could stand by their oath to protect democracy as lawyer, patriot or Christian while building a case against a man through his confessions, extracted while being tortured.
Would you agree Mohamedou’s case reflects the climate of fear not only in the US but around the world after September 11?
You understand, through watching the film, the psychology of the US at that time. It was to maintain democracy and have all-out closure via watertight cases and to lock up terrorists who potentially could do second attacks. It was such a climate of fear. Jodie [Foster] said something salient. She said, “You can not only measure a democracy by how it treats the most vulnerable in society, but also how it reacts under duress and fear.” If that drives you towards understanding and empathy and a way to heal, good for you. If it drives you towards fear and rage-driven retribution, then you can get into real trouble, because the cycle of violence just deepens. It just goes on and on.
Mohamedou was held in US custody for 14 years without charge. Most of it was in Guantanamo Bay. It is hard to comprehend how that could happen.
Fourteen years! It was just appalling. His case continued to bounce around in the courts. You think, “Why? Was it for public relations? He can’t be released because he was accused of being a terrorist?” I think it was all tied up in the psychology of 9/11; the Western world and the spearhead of an aggressive liberal democracy being seen to be under attack. Any means were justified to stop another attack. We all watched thousands of people go to their deaths live on television. It is hard as a non-American, let alone an American, to quantify what impact that had on the collective psyche of the West. I think films like this and stories like this serve as a reminder that history will judge us. We have to protect the best of ourselves and not just answer fire with fire.
You were also a producer on the film?
I was first involved in this film as a producer. I read an excerpt from the book and was hooked on the story. We got the rights to it. As an actor, it was Stuart Couch’s journey that later drew me in. The script took a long time to develop and it was when Kevin Macdonald came on it really sharpened up. Kevin and the other writers masterfully turned the first-person narrative into a drama that portrays Mohamedou’s story and the world where he was tortured, restrained and unlawfully imprisoned. We constantly had to strategise how we could bring the story to reality and what we could do in terms of how we could shoot it on such a small budget. It is not something you can go with a begging bowl to a major production house. The film has a niche market. Kevin is naturally adaptable. He is a documentary filmmaker, but also as a creative mind framing a narrative and solving budgets, locations, cast availabilities. He was brilliant at it. He turned every disadvantage into an advantage.
Can you talk a little more about your late decision to play Couch in the film?
As a producer, I had no hesitation to make the film. As an actor, I originally did not think there was a part. The Stuart Couch role developed as the script developed. I was growing my hair out for the Jane Campion movie The Power of the Dog, so that Marine crew cut is completely fake.
I have a huge amount of hair underneath a skullcap. It took about two hours to put on every morning. We had an amazing prosthetics team. We also had the South African summer heat. I was also incredibly ill at the time. Actors complain about their hardships, but of course it pales into insignificance compared to anything Mohamedou experienced.
Can you talk a bit more about your physical transformation and accent? You are almost unrecognisable.
We have an amazing team of researchers and our costume designer was a stickler for details. To get the pleats in my shirt right they had suspenders to connect to the socks. It was all very particular, including the belt buckles. Stuart also lent me his gold marine wings, which his father, who is a dentist, smelted himself by hand out of gold. It was pretty heavy. I look nothing like him. I have the accent and dialect. It is a particular thing; that North Carolina twang. His voice is different. His comport is different. It was never about that and Jodie would say the same thing. We are not into impersonations. It is all about interpretation and representation. Just to be with him and hear what it was like as a human being to go through that for me was enough to understand where I needed to take this character.
How supportive was Lt Col Couch of you portraying him in a movie and where did you meet?
We spoke to him during the production and before that we had a meeting in London in person. He flew over from North Carolina and was a delight. So polite. He was humbled his story was part of Mohamedou’s story. His wife was with us. They are a sweet couple. They would have come to South Africa if it was pragmatic. They were supportive of the film and how he was portrayed in the film. He has seen it and is thrilled.
What did you discuss with him?
He was keen to offer advice whether it was to do with etiquette, the haircut, how to comport yourself as a lawyer and a Marine. He was forthcoming about the emotional journey he went on. That was the hook for me. He said, “Go and do your thing. I’ll give you as much help as you want, but you are a great actor, and I am so humbled you want to play me”. I told him, “You did the right thing under really difficult circumstances and faced being ostracised in your own community. Good on you for listening to your heart, your conversation with your God and your idea of what your civic and patriot duty is. You answered that and are a great example to all of us. It is not right to seek justice within any framework. You have to do it the right way otherwise the whole thing you are defending becomes indefensible. There are not many of you out there.”
The film has an amazing cast with yourself, Jodie, Shailene Woodley and, of course, Tahar Rahim. Can you talk about the discussions you, Kevin and others on the producing team had in choosing the cast?
Jodie came up early in conversation. Shailene was incredibly supportive of the film from the get-go for a part that she completely fills up on the screen. It didn’t match on the page. She really got behind the project. Tahar, the minute he was recommended, I was all over it. I think he is such a subtle actor. He is so sublimely cool and charismatic, seriously intelligent and you know you are always going to get a range of choices on the day from him. Kevin had worked with him before and told me what a talent he was. We also went about getting the blessing of the protagonists in the story: Nancy Hollander; Stuart Couch and Mohamedou.
Can you talk more about working with Jodie?
I was completely geeking out about it. She is so smart. She was subtly shifting her performance all the time. You feel the dance and the thing you feel when you work with an incredibly good actor. She was also so supportive when I was sick. In between takes I was trying not to throw up. I was flat out on my back and trying too cool down and not sweat. We also had to get up incredibly early to get a particular, low level light in the South African summer. It is a blast of hot light over the ocean. It worked a treat. It is the surreal scene in the Guantánamo gift shop canteen where the off-duty Marines are surfing and Nancy and Couch are having a beer arguing their points of view.
Mohamedou was also a producer on the film and visited the set when you shot in South Africa. What was it like to be able to talk to Mohamedou?
Mohamedou is an extraordinary guy. He is a light of hope in a darkened world. He shows how the human spirit can triumph over adversity. The fact he comes out of this a stronger human being is testament to the incredible presence he has. We can all learn from someone like that. He could look to his aggressors with compassion and understanding and turn fear and hatred into love and hope. It is a resonant message in this time. Instead of seeking to exacerbate the divide that was clearly costing him his freedom, he manages to give us this witness statement on how the human spirit can endure in the harshest circumstances. He is proof of the beauty of his faith, his nationhood, family and as a person.
Can you talk about the “penny drop scenes” in the film for Couch where he begins to understand Mohamedou’s alleged confessions were made while being tortured?
He sees the bolt holdings in the floor and cold temperatures in the cell. We were constantly debating it in the editing. Luckily, I was a producer, so I had a view of cuts and could use my producorial notes on it. There was one cut I was moved by where Nancy says, “What if you are wrong? How will you sit with that?” I show a momentary shudder. “Yes, what if?” I said to Kevin, “No, no, no. Please calm me down. They sit down. He reveals himself to her as a much more charming version of what she imagined him to be. He was very self-aware and knowledgeable. I wanted him to end that scene with Nancy saying, “No, I know what I know. You don’t know what I know. I’m doing the right thing.” I wanted the line in the sand to be drawn and for the penny drop to start happening when he asks the general in the next scene and begins to get to the truth that the confessions were all garnered under duress. The general was my Bible. He was the guy who I was going to for the truth and he wasn’t giving it to me.