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THE FIFTH ESTATE

The Renegade: Julian Assange
"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
-- Oscar Wilde

At the heart of "The Fifth Estate" is a man who remains a captivating enigma, perceived alternately to be a savvy hacker, an antiestablishment revolutionary, an impassioned idealist, a historically significant media pioneer, an arrogant troublemaker, an eccentric, paranoid personality, and an outlaw. This is Julian Assange, the white-haired, Australian-born digital whiz kid who established WikiLeaks. He is a man with some 36 million Google entries and multiple unauthorized books about him, yet his broad-ranging intelligence and veiled personality have made him a confounding difficult man to analyze or know. Assange has always been the core of WikiLeaks. As he once said: "I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier, and all the rest." Indeed, without Assange, WikiLeaks may never have existed or changed the landscape of global secret keeping as it has.

For Bill Condon, Assange is someone so full of light and dark, he might have been dreamed up in a Greek theater. "He has the qualities of a classic, tragic figure in drama," he notes. "His background led him to become a visionary who changed the world, yet perhaps within that past also lay the seeds that led to a downfall."

Casting an actor to play a man who is at once idolized and despised, endlessly scrutinized and perpetually mysterious was a task filled with risks. Going in, Condon knew he wanted someone who would not merely resort to imitation, but would come up with his own original and accessible interpretation of a man resistant to revealing himself.

As the search got underway, the filmmakers agreed that one actor seemed to best embody Assange in all his mix of geeky cool and single-mindedness: Benedict Cumberbatch, who has come to the fore this year in diverse roles ranging from an interstellar villain in "Star Trek Into Darkness," a guilt-stricken slave owner in "12 Years a Slave," an unemployed black sheep of the family in "August: Osage County," and as the dragon Smaug in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." This performance would, however, be like no other.

"Benedict is an actor we still want to know more about and that is so very appropriate for Julian," says Condon. "There were obvious hints in 'Sherlock Holmes' of his incredible intelligence. And he has that kind of otherworldly quality that makes him and Assange so fascinating."

Cumberbatch was instantly attracted to the material. "The story is about a massive moment we are going through in politics, media and contemporary history," he observes. "But it is also the story of a friendship going through a shakeup in the middle of it."

He certainly knew Assange was a divisive figure, but he also was enamored of many aspects of the man, particularly his willingness to lay his ideals on the line, to act when others remained silent.

"It's one thing to have an idea like WikiLeaks, and it is another to carry that kind of idea out with the level of skill and tenacity that Assange has," Cumberbatch comments. "I have a great deal of respect for that. He had this idea of maximizing the flow of information to achieve just reforms and no matter how you look at him, that idea will now be a major part of our history going forward."

At the same time Cumberbatch understood he faced a daunting task. He was acutely aware he would be taking on the portrait of a man who also inspires anger -- and who has personally rankled at almost every depiction of him by writers, documentarians and others.

"After a brief spell of euphoria, I spiraled into panic about how on earth I was going to do this," Cumberbatch recalls. "There was so much to take on -- vocally, physically and just confronting the full import of the story. I did a lot soul searching. Reading the source material books was exciting, but at the same time I was aware that Julian himself despises the people who wrote those books, so I went back to other material, including interviews he had given. And then I went through a process of marrying this person I was discovering to the script."

The more he watched Assange in action, the more Cumberbatch found empathy for him. "I would often be seduced by what he was saying and the image he was projecting. He is striking in the way he takes control of his interviews, refusing to just give good television," the actor observes. "He has an impassioned integrity and holds his line very firmly.

That unwavering quality, which can be perceived either as bold commitment or stubborn disregard, became one of the keys to his performance.

"There was no excuse for not having a somewhat detailed level of verisimilitude in his body language, so I was keen from the beginning to do that as much as possible and Bill was too," Cumberbatch says. "But we didn't want him to be in any way two-dimensional. We didn't shy away from exploring the human elements that Julian might prefer to keep private, because it was also about creating a film character in the most fully rounded way."

Everyone on set was impressed with Cumberbatch's dedication to the task. "Benedict found Julian's emotional core -- a very relatable core -- and created something that is not an imitation of Julian but his own impression of the man," says Michael Sugar.

Equally key to the breadth of Cumberbatch's performance is Julian's relationship with Daniel, which turns from a heady, youthful partnership to a serious war of ideals. "I think in a platonic way, Daniel fell in love with Julian and his ideas," observes Cumberbatch. "They became very close at the crucial, formative time of WikiLeaks, and they shared an extraordinary adventure. But it came down to a battle of principles between two very different men."

Cumberbatch collaborated closely on the inimitable look of Assange, donning prosthetic makeup, colored contact lenses, bleached eyebrows, and of course the trademark ice-white hair to fully take on the persona. He also did extensive vocal work to latch onto Assange's very particular way of speaking -- his fast pace, his soft sibilants, and his quietness -- all in an Australian accent.

Throughout what was a never-ending web of complexities trying to get to his own interpretation of Assange, Cumberbatch felt the steadfast support of Condon. "You feel Bill's focus is tailor-made for you," he says of the director. "It's not just about him getting his shot; he is really going through your beats. He also had a real concern for the morality and responsibility involved in telling this story. He deeply cares about the real people in the story. So while he worked to create something thrilling and engaging, it was equally important to bring an integrity that honors the subject matter."

Condon was in turn impressed by Cumberbatch's commitment, which even included ultimately establishing a private, personal e-mail connection with Assange himself.

"Julian has a very insistent take on these events that in many ways no one else agrees with, but his responses to Benedict were interesting and valuable," says the director. "Benedict understood that his job was to morph into Julian and to represent his point of view. He got so into the head of Julian, he brought something beautiful to the performance."

Adds Josh Singer: "Benedict was looking for a way to figure out how to both embody Julian and have perspective on him. I think if he had not struggled so with what was the truth and who Julian is, maybe we wouldn't have gotten this performance."

Like Condon, Cumberbatch ultimately sees "The Fifth Estate" as a story leading into a new era that is just beginning. "WikiLeaks and Assange are an unfinished drama," he observes. "As a storyteller, you can only ever give one version of the events to date, but hopefully this version will motivate people to keep looking deeper into what is really going on around them. In the end there's no such thing as the objective truth, there's only your personal truth."

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