It seems unfair that a film should be branded by the scandal it played no role in, yet was still left sitting on the shelf for two years as a result. But that is exactly the case with The Current War. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s new film about the titanic struggle at the turn of the 20th century over who “owns” the lightbulb, and the varying types of electric currents therein. The movie stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse, the two men who battled to bring electrical lighting across the United States… and who ensnared the genius of Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) along the way.
The film was originally under the banner of The Weinstein Company, and before the hammer of justice fell on Harvey Wenstein, he tore the film from the director’s hands, recut it, and put it into the festival circuit. The movie premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival to a lukewarm reception. Then after damning allegations came out about decades of misbehavior by Harvey, the film vanished into limbo before being sold to 101 Studios. However, it also found its way back into Alfonso’s grip there, and he restored the film he wanted you to see.
With its official release now right around the corner on Oct. 25, we spoke with Cumberbatch and Shannon about stepping into the skin of their real life counterparts, the storied relevance to the world today (beyond just the tangible effects), and just how the Director’s Cut differs from the version screened at TIFF.
This might be the case when it comes to playing any historical character, but does your conception of the performance change after the historical research you’ve done? Or did the media image of them you had of them change?
Benedict Cumberbatch: Oh, that’s a good question. Do you want to go first?
Michael Shannon: Yeah, I don’t know. Westinghouse; as omnipresent as his name seems to be, was kind of a mysterious person. People really didn’t know all that much about him. I don’t think he had quite as much of a footprint as Edison. So a lot of it was me using my imagination more than anything. Just imagining what it would be like to be him, but I didn’t have a lot to go on, really.
BC: As [Edison was] self-promoted as this feted hero of American invention, with all of those accolades he received, and at the height in which he believed in himself, there was a lot of stuff to cut through to just find who the human was, beyond the list of achievements and patents he filed. For me, the biggest hook was sort of what formed him; the child he was, “the sevens,” you know his hearing being so inflected through seven bouts of scarlet fever, seven bouts of ear infections, an accident where one ear got pulled.
There are different stories depending on what era of Edison your telling, but basically he was utterly deaf in one ear and profoundly in the other, and that was an important understanding for me to have. What that does, what that closes down, and how he used it for his work to focus in a very tunnel vision way, and how that also made him very defensive and belligerent, choosing not to hear things that he could have heard–in this instance, the friendship with Westinghouse, the relationship with Mary [Edison’s wife played by Tuppence Middleton], not to judge him through 21st century morals or a changing attitude toward the partnership of collaboration–Mary was the rock to him. She raised the children and kept the house going, the family going, to support him in that way, but I think with her death, there was great grief that carries all the way through the film, and there is that missed opportunity of the love that is lost, the thing you never know you got till it’s gone. For me, these tragedies are the same for how he treats Westinghouse and Tesla, that idea of what could have been had he reached out and not been defensive or fearful and combative.
I’m wondering how the film also fits into our current social climate? Because that seems to be the problem, that we can’t properly communicate with each other anymore.
MS: Definitely. I think this is a phenomenally appropriate time for this film to be coming out. I think there are a lot of lessons in it, and a lot of reminders not to take things for granted and to understand that we can accomplish more by being unified than we can competing with one another all the time. As Benedict kind of pointed out, this is the advent of “fake news.” Like you said, using media as a weapon. Everybody thinks this, including myself, that this idea is something new, but it’s not new at all. It’s been going on for decades.
BC: You know the demagogue’s tactic of garnering the popular opinion through fear mongering. We see that left, right, and the other. We can blame all for creating suspicion, and gaslighting as well. Like Michael says, it really is a remarkable alarm bell, and sadly one that continues to be sounded and not heard. There’s something in certain aspects of human nature and cycles of history that kind of erupts and flourishes, and sadly we’re living through another era of that now. In amongst that, there’s good things. There are shining examples of how to do things right, and in our story it comes mainly from George, while I try to humanize Edison to make it understandable why he lost his way, and the way I personally feel he did, doesn’t necessarily excuse his behavior, but it contextualizes it. I hope.
MS: The thing I found yesterday watching the film was, and it kind of surprised me; I feel like the ending of the film is–I don’t know if optimistic is the right word, but there’s an acceptance, which I found to be not all doom and gloom. It seems like there has been some evolution in these people. Which could also be beneficial to see in our current climate.
In regards to trying to humanize Edison’s actions, was there any thought put into the possibility that he may have lived with something along the lines of Aspergers or something that wasn’t diagnosed?
BC: Well, there we go with labeling things, which had become sort of an obsession but we are kind of moving away from now, which is good. There’s more respect in our attitudes towards mental health, where it’s not just a means of categorizing something. There’s gray territory and things we still don’t understand. I don’t feel that about him, I don’t think he is necessarily sociopathic, or lacking social skills, or empathy. I really do feel that his hearing had a massive deal to do with the belligerency in the character, but also his humble beginnings. He fought so hard to get where he got.
Listen, he worked his men really hard, and I don’t know that they ever had a five day week like Westinghouse initiated with his men, who loved him for that, along with many other acts of kindness and care. They loved Edison because he was exciting to be around and he did show great warmth and loyalty to them, even though he dragged them into the ground whilst his anger could be incredibly belligerent. Does that label him as being sociopath or autistic, or anything else? I just think it is too easy to lay that on him. I think he saw things in a black and white way, not because he might have had Aspergers, just because he had to have certainty.
These men were at ends because they both believed they had the right [electrical current] system. It’s initiated by Edison rejecting the idea of collaboration and friendship because he fears Westinghouse is just another J.P. Morgan, and moneybags is only after one thing, and that’s to have ownership and make money out of him, and he’s not interested in that. Through that, he doesn’t hear who Westinghouse actually is; he’s a fan and wants to collaborate and do something great together. Once that moment is lost, he doubles down on his idea is the best method of delivering the new electrical system, and it gets lost in the battle and all his tactics.
On the opposite side, we do see this flashback of a situation Westinghouse was caught in during the Civil War. I think while it is straightforward, there are multiple metaphorical connotations that can be made from that situation. Did that story help build a background for your portrayal?
MS: These people were frontiersman. They were pioneers, they were going into areas and realms that had yet to be explored. They had to be tenacious, they had to be clever. What better example of that than finding yourself in the middle of the forest with a gun in your face, thinking, “Oh, I’m seconds away from being dead. How do I get out of this?” I think, Westinghouse to me, was a very beguiling combination of curiosity and wonder, and creativity; but if you pushed him, if you put his back against the wall, he would take you down. Not necessarily out of some sort of bloodlust, but just because that’s how you survive.
Given the years since you finished production, did you feel the need for a solid revisit to absorb what has changed?
BC: It is now Alfonso’s vision that you get to see, and it’s a markedly different experience for the moviegoer and as a participant in making this film. Yes, it is fresh in the memory like any film is when you go back to how you created it. Talking about it, or however the narrative gets fictionalized or gets stretched from what the actual day to day was–that always happens when you have a distance from the creation to the completion of work, when it comes to the publicity of it.
But I think, in all honesty with this one, I was persuaded with what I saw last night; this is not the film that came out before under really difficult circumstances, and that was taken from a director and hacked into something that wasn’t ready, that was forced into a race it could never win; just because that was the way the disruptive influences that were around at the time operated. I just feel it’s really worth supporting Alfonso and being able to talk about this film, and what a joy it was to work with him.
I’m really proud of the end results I saw last night. It’s a beautiful film; it’s a remarkable story, and it’s delivered with what we’ve come to know of Alfonso’s talent. He’s a really lucid, intelligent, imaginative, and illumitave filmmaker. Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl kind of defied a genre classification, because it had a depth and a heart that puts it beyond the rom-com or a teen-adult flick. It was everything, including a love letter to cinema itself.
This has that quality, that sort of rich depth you get with these wide shots, sort of fading off at the edge, the use of light to create wonder. You, at night when it’s dark and see the wonder of the light as it becomes electric. This promethean light that does that, it’s sort of remarkable. It is a very, very different beast from what it began as, and it feels like it’s finally come home, and I really hope it finds its audience, because it really deserves to. This is the film he made in his mind and with us, and finally, we’re going to see it.
You both are at a point where there are large sections of the public who will mainly identify you with very specific characters. Do you find that all the hype about those characters change your own perceptions of your careers?
BC: It’s weird, isn’t it, because really I’m still in the middle of it. We do this until we can’t remember the lines or we don’t want to, or find something better to do. The story continues and of course you make certain choices to keep yourself fresh and to invigorate your career, but my strategy is more about time management. There are so many things that I want to be a part of, or am already a part of, it’s just about time management rather than going, “Oh, what will be next?” Hopefully the choices are always going to be led with the idea of doing something to surprise myself, I don’t feel like I’m repeating myself. I can definitely draw parallel lines to certain characters I’ve played. I think as long as there’s a certain amount of reinvention without doing it just to reinvent myself, then I feel fine with you remembering me as whichever character you like.
MS: It is tricky at a certain point. Like how many people can I convince other people that I am? I’ve tried to pull off Elvis, Richard Kuklinski, and Kim Fowley… I mean, can you just keep going or at a certain point do you just say, “Okay, that’s all my personalities, you’ve seen them all.” I don’t know, but I think the wisdom is, as long as the phone keeps ringing, you keep picking it up. You do get more selective, things come and you’re not so sure if you need to do that. It seems like maybe it is too much like that other thing I did. For me, it’s much more about the artist. Like with this particular project what sealed the deal was actually meeting Alfonso face to face and talking to him, and seeing his passion and seeing how palpable his vision was. He had so much heart invested in this; I’m a real sucker for that. It almost supersedes what the actual part is and whatnot.
BC: It’s true, your criterias do change. With the more opportunities you get, you start being more selective. I’m the same, it is much more now about who I work with, finding that person who is just going to take me on that fun journey; that’s the stretch, not just, “Oh, I haven’t done that genre or that type of character.” It’s really about trying to work with the really rarified talent and exceptional directors that are out there. That’s the exciting thing, and Alfonso is one of them.
The Current War is in theaters Friday, Oct. 25.