Sony Emails: Benedict Cumberbatch Wanted to Play David Bowie in Stalled Freddie Mercury Biopic

The Freddie Mercury biopic has been stuck in development hell for nearly a decade. Until yesterday, the most recent update Queen fans had to go on was the news that Sacha Baron Cohen had not signed on to write, produce, direct, and star in the film; manager Jim Beach had simply said so at the Artist and Manager Awards on March 26 as what Brian May called a “small joke.” Now that Wikileaks has made last year’s leaked Sony emails publicly available, however, there’s some new information on a certain hopeful costar — and Amy Pascal’s blind adoration for “Under Pressure.”

The now-deposed chairperson of Sony’s Motion Pictures Group evidently met with Sherlock star, whitewashed Star Trek villain, and biopic favorite Benedict Cumberbatch in January 2014. A follow-up email from Tracey Jacobs, a partner at the United Talent Agency and co-head of its talent department, has the same found-poetry style that makes so many of the hacked emails such a bizarrely entertaining read (emphasis ours):

Benedict loved you.
Hed be right for cleopatra and god knows what else.  He mentioned something about bowie.
He loved you.  And you? Xo

That would presumably be the same Cleopatra, starring Angelina Jolie, that was at the center of one of the more memorable exchanges of the Sony leak. While Pascal and producer Scott Rudin’s thoughts on that project are well known, Cumberbatch wanting in on the Mercury film is news. The actor has, however, expressed a desire to play the musician before; less than three months after his meeting with Pascal, he described Bowie as his dream role in an interview with British Airways’ in-flight magazine, High Life: 

The hardest character to play? WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. ‘There is such moral ambiguity there. Also, he wouldn’t meet me although we had an email relationship to try to get his perspective.’ The character he’d most like to play? ‘David Bowie.’

Take a moment to appreciate that a conversation about the man who played WikiLeaks’ founder onscreen ended up on… WikiLeaks, then let’s get back to the emails.

Pascal then passed on the news in an email to Graham King, a producer of several Martin Scorsese films, including Gangs of New York and The Departed, as well as Argo and World War Z. She memorably refers to Cumberbatch as “cum batch,” an abbreviation that manages to be funnier than anything this parody name generator could come up with:

Benedict cum batch wants to play bowie

Graham’s response was… less than enthused. In fact, he seems to assume that Pascal hasn’t even read the script, penned by The Queen and Frost/Nixon writer Peter Morgan! Burn!:

He’s not a character in script.
Let’s talk after you’ve had a chance to read it.

For the record, Pascal appears to have read the script by March. Here are her notes on it, typos included:

ISNT IT THE IDEA THAT HIS WHOLE FAMILY HAD TO LEAVE ZANZIBAR NOT THAT HIS PARENTS SENT HIM TO SCHOOL  IN INDIA .OTHER KIDS SHIPPED OFF TO BOARDING SCHOOL . DOESNT GIVE YOU THE FEELING THAT HE WAS A REFUGEE AS WE DISCUSSED
THE OPENING OF PETER MORGANS SCRIPT IS STILL THE BEST WITH HIM SNEAKING OUT OF THE ORDINARY HOUSE AND NEIGHBORHOOD FHE GREW UP IN AND TRANSFORMING INTO  THE FUR COAT EYELINER SKIN TIGHT OUTFIT  BECOMING THE OUTRAGEOUS CHARACTER HE REALLY WAS ….
WHAT WAS IT ABOUT SMILE THAAT MADE HIM CONSTANTLY GO TO SEE THEM TAHT WOULD BE GOOD TO KNOW
ALSO THE WAY HE TALKS THEM INTO LETTING HIM IN THE BAND TELLS US WHO HE WAS  IN A GREAT WAY
AND WHEN BRIAN SAYS WE NEED  A SINER… FREDDY SAID” OH NO MY DEARS YOU NEED SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT.
ALSO WHAT FREDDY REALLY DID SAY ABOUT HIMSELF FROM THE BEGINNING IS IM NOT GONNA BE A STAER IM GONNA BE A LEGEND WEAND WE ARE GETTING NONE OF THAT IN THE SCRIPT
P5: THE BIOPIC STANDARD OF THE FATHER WHO DOESNT

But at the time, Pascal was undaunted:

We have to have that scene
Just a musical moment for under pressure
Just had lunch with him
Mates with ben

That’s a reference to Ben Whishaw, who was briefly set to replace Cohen until director Dexter Fletcher backed out in March of 2014. This meant production couldn’t start that summer, as planned, but Whishaw had already committed to reprise his role as Q in the James Bond movie that began shooting that fall. Hollywood logistics are complicated!

Cumberbatch doesn’t come up again, but Pascal’s enthusiasm for the Queen-Bowie collaboration “Under Pressure” appears to predate his potential involvement. Back in November 2013, she sent a link to Mercury and Bowie’s isolated vocal tracks to Creative Artists Agency co-chairman Brian Lourd. When she nudged him for a response — “Did you listen? Is that the greatest thing ever?” — Lourd offered this anecdote:

I make the New York driver play it everytime I am drunk and going home

And thus the Sony hack has given the world two more immortal images: Benedict Cumberbatch as a glam rocker, and an industry power player drunkenly rocking out to Queen and Bowie in a private car.