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Benedict Cumberbatch: 'History judges us on how we treat those who are most vulnerable'

The new Netflix series Eric tackles big issues with a little help from an enormous blue puppet

Benedict Cumberbatch in Netflix series Eric with his monster pal

Benedict Cumberbatch in Eric. Image: Netflix

If Benedict Cumberbatch was to explain all the reasons why he wanted to star in Abi Morgan’s new
Netflix thriller Eric, it would, he says, take all day. But near the top of the list is the chance to really explore the inner trauma of his latest alter ego, puppeteer Vincent Anderson.

“It’s rare that you pick up a script and read that your inner self is made manifest as a 7ft tall blue and white monster puppet walking around,” says the actor. It certainly didn’t happen in Sherlock. Or 12 Years a Slave.

“He’s a very rich character to play,” continues Cumberbatch. “I had to be quite fearless about playing another seemingly unlikable character. But I’m interested in the layers that make us human. In diving through the depths of depravity and darkness of mental health issues, drug addiction, and the near-abusive neglect in his childhood to get to a position of understanding him. It’s such a unique journey.”

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Although the six-part series features its central character in regular dialogue with Eric the giant blue puppet, it is also shot through with big, real-world issues.

Set in 1980s New York, Eric skilfully weaves City Hall’s brutal treatment of its burgeoning homeless population – including the so-called ‘mole people’ living in disused subway tunnels – the early days of the Aids epidemic, institutionalised police racism and homophobia into the story of Vincent and Cassie Anderson (Gaby Hoffmann, surely one of the most brilliant, truthful actors on the planet right now), and the search for their young son who goes missing on his way to school. 

Vincent (Benedict 
 Cumberbatch) and 
 shaggy pal Eric
Vincent (Benedict Cumberbatch) and shaggy pal Eric. Image: Spencer Pazer / Netflix

“It tackles the structural failings of that time – whether it’s healthcare, policing or even the domestic sphere of the family,” says Benedict Cumberbatch. 

“History judges us on how we treat those who are most vulnerable. And the family is a microcosm for everything societally that’s going on. Vincent’s mental health is the trauma of a loveless childhood, brought on by this totalitarian father who’s greedy. It’s about the Gordon Gekko ‘greed is good’ thing that started in ’85 and has carried on for the next 40-odd years. 

“That breeds a harshness. And that’s when care goes, and people start falling through the cracks. The things that are supposed to help us, hinder us – whether it’s gentrification and people being priced out, whether it’s the many crises that can bring about homelessness, whether it’s a disease that is not understood and therefore brings about more fear, prejudice, anger and alienation or that fear and anger resulting in institutional, societal and individual homophobia and racism. That’s what it feeds off.” 

New York City in the 1980s was a place in flux. 

“It’s coming after the death of the dreams of the ’60s and ’70s and the death of our heroes that were making this call to arms to do better: MLK, JFK, Malcolm X, RFK,” says Gaby Hoffmann, who grew up in Greenwich Village in the 1980s.

“We had less than a couple of decades of being able to see what we needed to do as a country, as a world, as a society. And those ideas – and those men – were assassinated.

“What came up in the 1980s was the power structures that are in place now. Corporate greed, money-money-money, building-building-building, power-power-power at the expense of humanity at large.

“It begins when characters like Robert Anderson are evicting people to put up big fucking towers. It’s the era of Donald Trump, really. The era of profit over people. And it is the beginning of the period we are in now.

“I’ve never seen as much homelessness as I’ve seen in the last few years in New York,” she adds. “I’ve never walked down the street in New York City and been afraid until the last two years. I have never felt that so many people are on the edge of so much desperation and thus capable of anything – and I trace it all back to the 1980s.”

It’s quite a departure for Morgan – best known for BBC dramas The Hour and The Split, her adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, and films such as The Iron Lady, which starred Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. 

But it’s born of firsthand experience of 1980s New York, a time that left a huge imprint on her mind. 

“I had a desire to go back to 1980s New York, which I spent a small amount of time in and had been
fascinated with ever since,” she says. “Also, I grew up with creatives. My father ran theatres my entire life, my mum is an actress, so I was always backstage,” says the writer. “I liked the feeling that you saw behind the magic.

“So I wanted to write from the perspective of a boy in the middle of that brilliant intensity, but also watching a marriage fall apart. And it became a metaphor for that period when New York and all those institutions – City Hall and the NYPD and the property developers who are meant to help you get somewhere to live rather than price you out – were falling apart.”

Benedict Cumberbatch is at his best in Eric. We see the fierce intelligence and obsessive energy he brought to Sherlock, the propensity for cruelty he showcased in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, the arrogance and charisma of Doctor Strange and the unravelling into addiction and breakdown from Patrick Melrose. It is a mature and smart depiction of a man unmoored and flailing. When Edgar vanishes, Vincent is fully adrift and begins to believe that only bringing his son’s drawings of a misunderstood monster called Eric to life will bring his son home.

McKinley  Belcher III as Ladroit, cradling his partner William (Mark Gillis) who is suffering from Aids
McKinley Belcher III as Ladroit, cradling his partner William (Mark Gillis) who is suffering from Aids. Image: Ludovic Robert / Netflix

Detective Michael Ledroit (McKinley Belcher III) is leading the search for young Edgar – but he is also struggling with his own shadows and secrets.

“We also see what he’s managing as a Black queer man in the ’80s in the middle of an AIDS epidemic who is, in real time, mourning a partner who is still here but quickly deteriorating,” he says. 

“We see how his life is compartmentalised. He has a safe space at home where he is just able to be. Then we see him step out into a hostile world in which it is dangerous to be queer, it is dangerous to be open, and watch him manage the very real mask of the public and private self.”

Another missing person case – involving a young black boy called Marlon – is not getting the same level of public attention or police scrutiny as Edgar’s disappearance. This undermines Ladroit’s vision of himself as changing the NYPD from within. 

“It’s exciting to tackle that very real way institutional racism shows up in the real world,” says Belcher III.
“As evidenced by the last few years, there’s so much that needs to change with the NYPD specifically, and the relationship between communities and the people who police them in general. Ladroit has to land in a place in which he is brave enough to rage against the machine.

“Ultimately, we see him stepping fully into himself, embracing himself – and there’s great power in that.
He can be the change he wants to see in the world by loving himself.”

Gaby Hoffmann plays 
Vincent's wife, Cassie Anderson
Gaby Hoffmann plays Vincent’s wife, Cassie Anderson. Image: Ludovic Robert / Netflix

Hoffmann is moved to tears. It could be the jetlag, but more likely it’s her co-star’s powerful words. 

“Hearing McKinley talk about his character brings me to tears because his performance is so beautiful – and it’s a reminder of that,” she says. 

Hoffmann, best known for Transparent and Girls, having begun her career as a child in Field of Dreams and Uncle Buck, rallies. 

“This show is about us as individuals, but also societally, having to go through a dark night of the soul to find the light,” she says. “And that dark night of the soul is full of unbearable suffering and tremendous grief and pain.”

Eric, then, is a supremely well-observed New York story. But writer Abi Morgan, director Lucy Forbes, and lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch are all from the UK. They see parallels back home. 

“Last night I walked past Tottenham Court Road station [in Central London] and I must have counted 50 tents,” says Cumberbatch. “It was like the cardboard cities of the 1980s and ’90s.” Abi Morgan joins in: “So it’s about leaning into the fact that history is repeating itself. I wonder if that’s why the 1980s is so evocative, because so many of those thematic strands we’re playing with are as relevant today as they were then. 

“We’re playing with the idea of who has the responsibility to look after those people. We saw the post-Thatcher period where so many institutions that had cared for people with mental health issues were closed down, when Care in the Community led to a lot more homelessness on the streets.”

Hoffmann was impressed with Morgan’s depiction of her native New York and Cumberbatch’s of a native New Yorker. “Abi has written this from a place of real love and a great deal of experience,” she says. “And Benedict’s a one-man circus. He’s just a masterclass. He can inhabit anything. I couldn’t care less that they come from the UK if they come at things with so much humanity and so little ego.”

As for the puppeteering, Benedict Cumberbatch – a lifelong fan of Jim Henson – took his homework home to entertain his three children.

“It’s such a particular skill,” he says. “I loved it as a child, as an adult, and as a parent. That thing of making the unreal real and animating the inanimate is magic. It is very exciting. But the dog was very unhappy and utterly freaked out every time I got the orange practice puppet out.”

Good Day Sunshine, the show within the show that Vincent created (and on which he works through his childhood trauma), has new and original puppet creations. It also features a beautiful mantra that bears repeating. ‘Be good, be kind, be brave, be different.’

Cumberbatch sits back, splays his arms wide, and grins. “It’s a good thing to have stamped on your heart. It really is…”

Eric is on Netflix from 30 May.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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