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Benedict Cumberbatch, Gaby Hoffmann Explain Ending

Benedict Cumberbatch, Gaby Hoffmann Explain Ending

[This story contains major spoilers from all six episodes of Eric.]

Benedict Cumberbatch and Gaby Hoffmann liken their new Netflix limited series, Eric, to being about a parent’s worst nightmare.

“It is a fable about the cost of losing sight of what is important, and that is costly to the child within us and the children outside of us that we’re responsible for in the world,” Cumberbatch tells The Hollywood Reporter in a joint interview with Hoffman.

Created and written by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady, The Split) and directed by Lucy Forbes (This Is Going to Hurt, The End of the F***ing World), the six-part series tells the story of Vincent Anderson (Cumberbatch), one of New York’s leading puppeteers and the creator of a hugely popular Sesame Street-esque children’s show called Good Day Sunshine, who struggles to cope with the disappearance of his 9-year-old son, Edgar (Ivan Howe).

Full of guilt and self-loathing, and prone to emotional outbursts, Vincent finds Edgar’s drawings of a blue monster puppet named Eric, which his son had unsuccessfully pitched to him the night before he disappeared on his way to school. Vincent begins to cling to these drawings, believing that Edgar will return home if he sees a life-size version of Eric on Good Day Sunshine. But as Vincent’s progressively self-destructive, narcissistic behavior begins to alienate those around him — including his unhappy wife Cassie (Hoffmann), who has begun to seek comfort in the arms of another man — Vincent begins to see Eric as his only ally in the search for his only child.

“Eric is the voice of guilt or shame or accusation; the persecutory inner critic; the buddy; the reckless id; the kind of farting, burping, fucking crude, impulsive creature monster. And then he’s something much more delicate and loving,” Cumberbatch explains of the life-sized monster that follows Vincent around and enables much of his behavior. “But it just oscillates depending on what frequency Vincent is tuned up to, due to the circumstance of this bizarre, terrifying odyssey to find his son.”

What begins as a simple whodunit gradually evolves into an exploration of the systemic issues that plagued New York City in the 1980s — the AIDS epidemic, homelessness, homophobia, drug addiction, mental illness, institutional racism — that still remain relevant and prevalent in today’s world. “In this drama, we have corrupt policing, corrupt institutions, corrupt leadership, corrupt systemic problems with growth, and [the attitude of] profit over people. It is all still there. We’re still reaping what we sowed in the ’80s,” Cumberbatch notes.

Below, Cumberbatch and Hoffmann — who both have multiple children under the age of 10 — discuss the show’s exploration of parental guilt and grief, how Edgar’s disappearance exposed the fissures in Vincent and Cassie’s marriage, and why they think Eric is, ultimately, a story about redemption and the importance of doing better for one’s children.

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How did Eric align with the types of stories you want to tell at this stage of your lives, particularly as parents of young children?

GABY HOFFMANN I think of this story as a sort of moral fable that is centering on what changes we need to make to do better for our children. As a mother of two, my children are my primary focus, and thus [I feel a connection to] all the children and us grownup children. So I think there is a moral directive in this show that I wholeheartedly believe in and feel really good about mandating in the world, in whatever small way I am by offering my body, voice, soul and hair to this endeavor (laughs). That’s kind of the icing on top, and maybe the most important part. But first, you start with the brilliant and beautiful writing of Abi Morgan and leadership of Lucy Forbes, who is the mother hen that I want behind the camera all the time. Then you have incredible, beautiful actors to work with every day, and the opportunity to dive deep into our humanity and explore what’s there collectively, and try to make something that resonates so we can be in communion toward this end goal of doing better.

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH I can’t really add to that (laughs).

HOFFMANN Oh yes, you can.

CUMBERBATCH I really can’t. Otherwise, it’s just a boring chat about career choices and finding things that are new and different, which Eric certainly is. [The projects I choose] have a purpose, and often that’s a little bit mysterious to me at the beginning. There’s just a draw to the material, and I’m not quite sure why. And then it kind of figures itself out, often because I have to rationalize why I’m leaving home to do my job at all for the same reasons that Gaby was talking about — my family are my primary focus. So yeah, it has to be worthwhile to me, but culturally, too — and I think that I can’t articulate it better than what she said. It is a fable about the cost of losing sight of what is important, and that is costly to the child within us and the children outside of us that we’re responsible for in the world.

HOFFMANN And the violence that is perpetrated [in the world].

CUMBERBATCH Yeah, the violence, the fear and all the other kinds of subtle or not-so-subtle influences that propel us through the story. In the beginning, [we explore the effects of] greed and money in the ’80s, the “more is more” attitude that’s still with us now, although it’s less kind of analog and more digital.

HOFFMANN It’s still material.

CUMBERBATCH In this drama, we have corrupt policing, corrupt institutions, corrupt leadership, corrupt systemic problems with growth, and [the attitude of] profit over people. It is all still there. We’re still reaping what we sowed in the ’80s. We’ve just changed the label on the wine. So it does have a social import, but [I’m also attracted to] the lure of these characters. The brilliant writing of Abi Morgan was a lure for me.

I first got contacted with Abi Morgan’s script — for Vincent, there was a little bit of a log line. They were like, “Do you want to meet?” I was like, “Yes, God, yes. I love her work.” She pitched more of the journey of the character. I met Lucy. I didn’t really talk much to her, but really wanted to work with her, having watched [her direction of] the first two episodes of This is Going to Hurt. All the components were right from the very beginning of this.

And with Gaby coming on board, I was like, “Oh, thank God.” She’s someone who lived in that era in New York. That was one of the enjoyable but frightening things of having an all-English creative team [to tell this story set in New York] until Gaby and other actors came on board. We were shooting in Budapest for New York. There was a lot of stuff that was very different and distant from my lived experience, which is always the lure, I guess. But I can’t say it better than Gaby!

Cassie (Gaby Hoffmann) with her husband Vincent (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Eric.

Netflix

You had the luxury of beginning production with all six scripts pretty much written. Grief is a tricky rollercoaster to play. How did you want to play the different stages of Vincent and Cassie’s paranoia, denial and desperation over Vincent’s disappearance? How did you find a way to mark the progression of that inner turmoil over time?

CUMBERBATCH For Vincent, it’s very much [about] what he holds back, which is utterly contained in his psychological development, his mental collapse and everything else. He deals with guilt — with defensiveness, retreat, compartmentalizing and anger. And then he has to rip the bandaid off and expose himself to the guilt and the shame, and then work through that pain to try and find a way of getting back what he has caused to be lost. So I guess those stages of grief that people write and talk about are slightly corrupted by a very, very damaged psyche navigating it all. And through that, he’s finding and really meeting himself properly for the first time, and he’s being brave enough to start again as a human being, as a father and as a son, and that’s his evolution. That’s what saved him. The ability that we have to possibly try and do better. It has taken him way off course, but he gets there [in the end]. It is a soft, gentle, but pretty profound landing on the moon; it’s a step for him as a character, and it’s all new for him at the beginning. That’s his grief journey.

HOFFMANN I think what happens when you face the possibility of the worst thing, when you’re really confronted with your greatest fear, is you’re able to look at the rest of it. So I think at the beginning, Cassie knows, but she is not living in the truth of the situation of this family, which is that it is not healthy; it’s dysfunctional. It’s not good for her, it’s not good for Edgar, it’s not good for Vincent. But she’s too scared to face that. The grief drops her right to the bottom of that fear, so it’s apocalyptic and it’s revelatory for Cassie. Everything is revealed. The truth is staring her right in the face of what needs to be, what has been; so I think she’s able to confront everything by confronting this worst possibility [of losing her child].

In terms of playing it, I really relied a lot on Lucy to say, “We’re not playing that note again,” because I don’t really know how to track [my emotional performance]. I can’t both be in that state of being the character and be tracking like, “Well, in the last scene, I cry, so, in this scene, I should…” So I really depended on Lucy to say, “This time, we’re going to hold back. I want you to feel this emotion.” I trusted her completely. Otherwise, I would have played the same note again and again. (Laughs)

CUMBERBATCH (Laughs) No, you wouldn’t.

For the first half of the show, you two had many opportunities to spar verbally, culminating in the big fight in episode four. Vincent has just lost his job and learns Cassie is pregnant with another man’s baby and has essentially thrown Vincent out. The fight that they have almost feels like a play, where the simmering tensions bubble to the surface. What did you each want to convey in that scene to mark the clear disintegration of their marriage?

CUMBERBATCH That’s such a good question. I wanted to convey that was it for the relationship. There was no going back. That there was a very disjointed but kind of heartbreaking acceptance of it from Vincent. There’s an acknowledgement that she’s a great mother, and there’s something that he acknowledges is right and just about what she’s doing, and he gives her a blessing [to have another man’s child]. He says, “I’m sure you’ll be a great mother to that child.” I read his reaction in that moment as quite genuine, regardless of however many filters are going on [in his mind]. I did have to track a little bit where he was in his mental collapse, how reactive he is or not to certain things. There’s a lot of shit going on in his head. (Laughs) It wasn’t straightforward.

There were things that made him disengaged, that made him fractured, that made him punch through with honesty in an unexpected way, where maybe normally someone would be defensive, shocked, tearful, angry and betrayed. But in that moment, he was sort of numb or winded, and some other voice was telling her what she needed to hear out of love — a love that he knew he had for her, but was no longer operable as a relationship. And that comes after tearing each other apart over a marriage. Each one of the arguments had to be different, and I think my default [way of playing those arguments] probably would’ve been shouty-shouty and teary-teary, but again, Lucy [tracked that progression]. There was a lot of discussion, and this amazing actress to play opposite, and this extraordinary writing, so all the grappling hooks for the ascent were there.

Do you know what the problem with this question is? It’s such a good one, but it’s a very difficult thing to talk about what you intend for an audience. You’re just playing a moment. So, for me, it really is about understanding where Vincent’s at and his story, as much as the impact of the news he’s receiving and how he responds to it. It’s not like, What do I want to convey to an audience? I think that’s dead in the water, as an actor. As a director, as a producer, as a writer, yeah, you have to think about it. But as an actor doing it, I don’t have that thought in mind. I’m just trying to play something authentic to that person in that situation. But I think having seen it, that’s kind of what’s conveyed in the scene. [Points at Hoffman] Now, over to the much more erudite and succinct actor… (laughs)

HOFFMANN [Closes her eyes briefly, as if to visualize that scene.] I’m trying to bring myself back to that day, and the experience of all of the fights culminating in that one. I’ve been with my husband now for almost 17 years, so I know what it means to be in a fight that you’re having because you haven’t been living in a state of true companionship and respect and love and honesty, which just happens in a marriage. You just go in and out of that sometimes. And I think that Cassie and Vincent have been living quite dishonestly with one another for a very long time. I don’t think that a marriage is able to be successful in any real way unless two people’s primary concern is to take care of the other —

CUMBERBATCH And to have ownership and honesty about their actions.

HOFFMANN Of course. And that’s important to be living in a state of honesty. So, if I recall, in this scene, they’re finally able to be honest, because they’ve been forced into it through this crisis. Cassie is finally no longer afraid of the consequences, because she’s already lost the thing she was most afraid of losing. So, she is liberated, in a sense, to be honest about their marriage. That fight is really devastating, because they do love each other and they do care for one another, but they have lost the ability to actively love one another and care for one another, and Edgar has suffered the consequences of that. They’ve been in that state for so long that they’re no longer able to come back. I think in a healthy marriage, you come back [together], and hopefully, you stay back longer than you don’t. And so, they’re able to recognize that and call it, so that they can both thrive.

CUMBERBATCH And they both have that outsider perspective on it, by that stage. You’re right. Because the conversation has been dropped for such a long time, they’ve lost sight of each other.

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HOFFMANN So, now, actually, there is the potential for Vincent and Cassie to have a relationship — maybe not a marriage, but to have a real relationship born out of honesty and founded in active love.

CUMBERBATCH It made me believe that thing you hear of people you’ve known who were in love and in a marriage, who reached the end of that relationship, and still love one another and have a friendship out of it. I always wondered, How is that possible?

HOFFMANN Oh yeah, I understand that.

CUMBERBATCH And now I completely understand that, in relation to this scene.

HOFFMANN Yeah, because you’re no longer avoiding the truth to protect something, so then you’re able to love.

CUMBERBATCH Exactly.

Eric is the manifestation of Vincent’s guilt and psychosis, but there are times when he is like a funny sidekick and other times when he is more menacing, like Vincent’s father. Benedict, what was your read on what Eric meant to Vincent at different points in the show?

CUMBERBATCH Well, exactly that. Eric is the voice of guilt or shame or accusation; the persecutory inner critic; the buddy; the reckless id; the kind of farting, burping, fucking crude, impulsive creature monster. And then he’s something much more delicate and loving. But it oscillates depending on what frequency Vincent is tuned up to, due to the circumstance of this bizarre, terrifying odyssey to find his son. I think it’s a fair mirroring of [Vincent’s mental state] in a very profound, odd and unusual storytelling way, which is one of the draws of this project for me, and hopefully for an audience. I haven’t seen anything like it before.

Vincent (Cumberbatch) with son Edgar (Ivan Howe).

Netflix

In the finale, Vincent steals the Eric suit from the Good Day Sunshine offices and essentially hijacks the homeless protests to send a message directly to Edgar, who he seems to know at that point is still alive somewhere. Benedict, can you walk me through Vincent’s headspace after he spent that time underground at the end of episode five? Where do we find this father-and-son duo after they reunite and reconcile at the end of the show?

CUMBERBATCH This is maybe a drop of realization, but I don’t think Vincent could ever, ever face the idea that Edgar’s not out there, because Vincent is the cause of Edgar’s propulsion into the unknown. This is a child that ran away from his father. Vincent cannot deal with the idea that that would’ve brought about his death. It’s painful enough having to admit that he’s the reason why Edgar ran away, and I think Eric becomes a conduit, a medium between the father and the son in a really profound way. They both truly understand each other through Eric. As Lennie [played by Dan Fogler] says, “Puppets can say the things that we can’t. Puppets have this sort of magic about them.”

I think all parents have that kind of a shorthand to commune with their kids over a shared field of interest, whether it be soccer, football, baseball, a sport of any kind or an art form. The puppet Eric is a lure for an unhinged man to bring his son back by showing him that he’s seen him, he’s heard him, he’s understood him. And the manifestation of his seeing and hearing and understanding him is in the form of Eric.

There’s this very moving scene at the end where Edgar doesn’t reintroduce himself to his father as Edgar; he reintroduces him to his father as Eric, who’s [Edgar’s] creation primarily. It’s from the imagination of a child, and it’s overwhelming for me thinking about it now. [Growing emotional.] It’s overwhelming for Vincent to see that role play, to see Edgar appear in that thing that has manifested and connected them and made one another find one another again. It’s a brilliant bit of storytelling.

HOFFMANN And Vincent has been offered that redemptive opportunity, in the form of Eric, by his child [to be a better father]. I think that this is something fundamental to the show — that, if we are lucky enough to, one, have a child and then really see and hear your child, they will inevitably offer us redemption and an opportunity to heal, to love, and to be in that moment that we find at the end of the show, which is two people connected again.

All six episodes of Eric are now streaming on Netflix.

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