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Benedict Cumberbatch admits his non-binary Zoolander 2 character ‘backfired’

Josh Milton January 30, 2022
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Headshots of Benedict Cumberbatch and his Zoolander 2 character

Benedict Cumberbatch played a non-binary model in Zoolander 2. (Getty Images/IMDb)

Benedict Cumberbatch has admitted that his non-binary Zoolander Two character “backfired” after the 2016 film courted criticism.

The sequel to the 2001 Ben Stiller comedy about an airhead model forever pursing his lips saw LGBT+ advocates condemn it for ridiculing trans and non-binary people.

In the film, the British actor plays androgynous supermodel All, a protegé to a top designer meant to act as shorthand to fashion’s changing attitudes to gender expression.

After the first trailer dropped in late 2015, LGBT+ activists wrote in a petition to boycott the film that Cumberbatch’s character is an “over-the-top, cartoonish mockery of androgyny/trans/non-binary individuals”.

Now the Sherlock star has opened up about the controversy, saying now that he agrees with critics.

Benedict Cumberbatch saw non-binary Zoolander 2 character as progressive at the time

Joining fellow cast member Penélope Cruz for Varietys “Actors on Actors” series, Cumberbatch said: “There was a lot of contention around the role, understandably now.

“And I think in this era, my role would never be performed by anybody other than a trans actor.”

At the time, the 45-year-old thought the introduction of a gender non-conforming character was quite progressive, with the main stars being positioned as “two dinosaurs” in comparison.

Petitioners, however, saw it differently. They said that the use of Cumberbatch’s character was “the modern equivalent of using blackface to represent a minority”.

“By hiring a cis actor to play a non-binary individual in a clearly negative way,” they wrote, “the film endorses harmful and dangerous perception of the queer community at large.”

“But I remember at the time not thinking necessarily in that regard,” Cumberbatch admitted, “and it being more about two dinosaurs – two heteronormative clichés not understanding this new diverse world.

“But it backfired a little bit. But it was lovely to meet you in that brief moment and to work with Ben [Stiller] and Owen [Wilson].”

Cruz, who played Interpol agent Valentina Valencia, described Cumberbatch’s performance as “funny”.

Benedict Cumberbatch previously defended playing queer rancher, Phil Burbank, in the Netflix film The Power of the Dog, with Kodi Smit-McPhee playing his love interest, Peter.

At the Telluride Film Festival, Cumberbatch told IndieWire that the decision for him to play the role “wasn’t done without thought”.

“I feel very sensitive about representation, diversity and inclusion,” he said.

KODI SMIT-McPHEE as PETER, BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG.
KODI SMIT-McPHEE as PETER, BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG. (KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX)

“One of the appeals of the job was the idea that in this world, with this specific character, there was a lot that was private, hidden from view.

“It wasn’t done without thought. I also feel slightly like, is this a thing where our dance card has to be public?

“Do we have to explain all our private moments in our sexual history? I don’t think so.”

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