Patrick Melrose rides the roller-coaster life of an abused, addicted, upper-class Englishman, but you don’t have to be listed in Burke’s Peerage to understand what makes him tick.
Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Melrose in Showtime's five-part miniseries (Saturday, 9 ET/PT), a passion project for the British actor, says that despite Patrick's privileged background, his problems are universal.
“The truth about these issues, whether it’s abuse or addiction, (is) they affect all of us, whatever your class, gender, race, ethnicity or creed,” he says.
Cumberbatch, 41, has a far larger audience in box-office smash Avengers: Infinity War, but Melrose is one of his two bucket-list roles, along with Hamlet, which he played on the London stage in 2015. Each weekly installment is based on one of Edward St. Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical novels. (The first two episodes reverse the order of the first two novels.).
Cumberbatch rattles off the dizzying extremes of Patrick, a product of upper-crust society who plummets and then seeks redemption as he matures into adulthood. (Sebastian Maltz plays a 9-year-old Melrose in the second episode, which also features Hugo Weaving as his abusive father and Jennifer Jason Leigh as his aloof, alcoholic and ultimately unprotective mother.)
“I really felt for a man who goes on such an extraordinary journey, from being an abused child to a full-blown drug addict to a listless, aimless sobriety to ... becoming a father and husband,” he says.
Executive producer Michael Jackson said Cumberbatch's "ability to be both emotional and comedic and pass between them in a millisecond" made him perfect for the role. "He's very intelligent, and he understood the class position of the character. Also, he's got this innate charisma. Patrick might be very screwed up, but he's charismatic and funny."
Melrose opens with twentysomething Patrick on a drug-fueled rampage, flying from London to New York to pick up the ashes of the abusive father he despises. The high-as-a-kite young man goes on a horrible dinner date with an American woman (Allison Williams), binges on alcohol and drugs and is savaged by his demons.
“It is a moment in which the self becomes unraveled, a schizoid episode of acting out all these voices and thoughts and personalities and ghosts of his life (that) shift him towards near-suicidal doses of cocaine and heroin,” followed by an epic trashing of his hotel suite, says Cumberbatch.
Even seasoned crew members were awed by Cumberbatch's hotel tour de force, Jackson says. "There was a moment on set where he did a read-through for a three-minute scene in one take and everyone spontaneously applauded, just because he was so convincing ... doing a half-dozen different characters in Patrick's head."
Much of Cumberbatch's earlier TV work, including Sherlock, Parade's End and The Hollow Crown, is adapted from literature. "Maybe I need to mix it up more," he jokes. (As for future editions of Sherlock, he says, "God knows how or when, but we never say never on that. I love that character, so maybe.")
Because Melrose echoes the life of St. Aubyn, who experienced childhood abuse and drug addiction before becoming a sober husband and father, it has special resonance, Cumberbatch says.
It's "very uplifting and inspiring. One of the characters says you have to have special equipment to pull free of that gravity (of addiction) and (St. Aubyn) has it and he shared that with the world and that's an incredibly positive thing to do," he says. "That's the story of salvation and hope that the whole arc of this character ends on. Sorry if that's a spoiler."