Cumberbatch, playing Assange, praises WikiLeaks founder's achievements

By Mary Milliken

TORONTO (Reuters) - Actor Benedict Cumberbatch didn't get any help from Julian Assange in his preparation to play the founder of WikiLeaks in the film "The Fifth Estate," and guesses Assange probably won't like his portrayal, even though the actor sees it as celebration of the activist's achievements.

Cumberbatch said he didn't have access to the polarizing figure behind the whistleblower website after Assange "stated very clearly at the beginning of the project that he didn't want to condone the film."

"I am not a betting man, but I imagine he won't particularly want to support the film," the 37-year-old British actor told reporters on Friday, the morning after the film opened the Toronto International Film Festival to somewhat mixed reviews.

Trade publication Variety called the film "stimulating but overly frenetic" and Cumberbatch's performance "a somewhat one-dimensional turn," although it did praise his ability to "capture Assange's slightly otherworldly air."

"The Fifth Estate" follows Assange as WikiLeaks racks up its first successes as a conduit for whistleblowers from Africa to Iceland on the way to its biggest disclosure in 2010 of American intelligence: war logs from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and thousands of diplomatic cables.

Assange's pursuit of transparency at all costs, potentially including the lives of government informants named in the disclosures, alienates some of his most loyal supporters, including his top lieutenant.

Despite Assange's rejection of the film, Cumberbatch believes "The Fifth Estate" recognizes "his idea and integrity and self-sacrifice" that yielded WikiLeaks' achievements between 2007 and 2010.

"I think there's a lot to celebrate about his achievements," he said.

Cumberbatch said he was careful to not have a "thumbs up, thumbs down" approach to playing Assange, who remains holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, fighting extradition to Sweden over accusations of rape and sexual assault.

And the actor didn't want to speculate about how Assange's situation would play out.

"What I would like to see is the man able to carry on doing his work as the founder of WikiLeaks, and due process has to take place in whatever shape or form that happens," Cumberbatch said.

In addition to his lead role in the opening film, Cumberbatch has smaller roles in two of the most anticipated movies opening at the Toronto Film Festival: slavery drama "12 Years a Slave" debuting Friday and dysfunctional family drama "August: Osage County."

Cumberbatch, best known for his role as a contemporary Sherlock Holmes in the BBC television series "Sherlock," has been called by organizers "the man of the festival," a label that he says makes him feel uncomfortable.

"Variety is very much a prerogative for me," the actor said in his first showing at Toronto, a festival that can make a huge difference for a film's ability to garner top awards like the Oscars. "I am thrilled that three so different and extraordinary films that I am involved with are showcasing at this festival." (Editing by Eric Kelsey, Piya Sinha-Roy and Vicki Allen)

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