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Actor tried to interpret, not impersonate Assange

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TORONTO -- Embattled free-speech warrior Julian Assange is dogged by a "kind of tabloid-gossip characterization" that actor Benedict Cumberbatch says he hopes to dispel with the WikiLeaks film The Fifth Estate.

The Sherlock star says he worked hard to reveal "a more three-dimensional human portrait" of the platinum-blond provocateur, who resolutely disavowed the film in its earliest days and labelled it a massive "propaganda attack" on himself and his whistleblowing website.

Cumberbatch dismissed any talk of Assange's notorious personal oddities while promoting the film at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, telling journalists he really focused on examining how multifaceted the Australian could be.

"I wanted to escape two-dimensional pigeonholing him of either being a 'goodie' or a 'baddie,"' Cumberbatch said.

"And I wanted him to be a complex, rich individual who's performed a near-miraculous feat, and even evolving the way we think about media. That comes with a great deal of complications both personal and political, so that's what, at heart, is constantly shifting -- because obviously this fear in the drama is personal and in private and political and public."

In approaching the role, Cumberbatch says he sought to interpret -- rather than impersonate -- the man. Although they briefly exchanged emails, Assange made it clear he wanted nothing to do with the film and refused to offer any counsel.

Cumberbatch turned to -- where else? -- the Internet to find video of Assange he could analyze, but while an "acreage" of footage revealed what the man was like at speaking events or in interviews, nothing revealed what he was like in private moments.

"The challenge, I guess, was to try and find what he'd be like once the door closes and camera turned off," Cumberbatch said of the highly intelligent figure -- considered a hero by some, a dangerous radical by others.

The Fifth Estate traces the early days of the WikiLeaks website, which provided whistleblowers with a way to anonymously reveal government secrets and corporate crimes.

Much of the film concerns Assange's relationship with early supporter Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played here by Daniel Brºhl. Their collaboration ended bitterly, with Domscheit-Berg claiming to have destroyed thousands of unpublished WikiLeaks submissions in the wake of their split.

Josh Singer's script is largely drawn from two books that Assange has dismissed: Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website by the disillusioned Domscheit-Berg, and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding.

Director Bill Condon says he's drawn to "the outsider nature of Assange," who is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London trying to avoid extradition to Sweden on sex assault allegations, as well as possible extradition to the United States over a massive military leak.

"He has always felt, I think, a step removed from the world and that's a position I understand and those are characters that I find myself drawn back to," says Condon, whose other films include Dreamgirls and Kinsey.

The film examines the massive disclosure of military war logs and diplomatic cables that brought WikiLeaks its greatest notoriety, and on the flip side also depicts a frantic White House scramble to protect secret sources and undercover spies in the fallout.

Condon says he was mindful of presenting a balanced look at the hot-button issues Assange raises.

"Every time there was a point of view you present the opposing one," Condon says of his strategy."

The Fifth Estate opens today.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2013 D7

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