Looking back, he acknowledged "there was a lot of contention" around his casting.
Benedict Cumberbatch admits that if "Zoolander 2" were made today, he most certainly wouldn't be cast as the non-binary model he played in the 2016 comedy.
During an interview for Variety's Actors on Actors series, Penelope Cruz had to remind Cumberbatch that the two had met and actually worked together in the past -- on the bomb of a sequel to Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller's cult classic.
In the film, Benedict had a minor role as "All," who is described as being "the biggest supermodel in the whole world." When pressed by Zoolander whether they're male or female, the model responds, "All is not defined by binary constructs" -- leaving Derek wholly confused, while Hansel offensively asks if All has "a hot dog or a bun."
Benedict Cumberbatch opens up about his role in the #Zoolander sequel, saying that it “backfired a little bit.”— Variety (@Variety) January 28, 2022 @Variety
“I think in this era, my role would never be performed by anybody other than a trans actor.” https://t.co/5kbfFbCUwe pic.twitter.com/TAid8aHkmk
While Cruz told her former costar that "it was funny what you did" in the film, he opened up about some of the backlash his role generated at the time. When the first trailers for the movie came out, the film was criticized by LGBTQIA activists for appearing to mock transgender models.
"There was a lot of contention around that, understandably now," Cumberbatch said to Cruz. "In this era, it would never have fallen to anybody but a trans actor to play the role. But I remember at the time not thinking of it necessarily in that regard, and it being more about two dinosaurs, two heteronormative clichés not really understanding this new diverse world."
"But it kind backfired a little bit," Cumberbatch admitted. "But it was lovely to meet you in that brief moment and to work with Ben and Owen and the craziness of that film, being such a huge fan of the first one."
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During initial press for the film, its writer Justin Theroux had a similar defense of the role.
"The joke is squarely aimed at two aging models and two idiots," he said, pointing to Hansel and Zoolander's outdated reactions to the evolving world of fashion. "And, strangely, the character is incredibly powerful. The most famous model in the world. I thought it was a cool idea. I was a little alarmed at the reaction."
The movie wound up being a box office flop, making less than its predecessor and its estimated budget -- which was twice that of the first film. Of course, Cumberbatch's career didn't stall at all -- and went on to star in the first "Doctor Strange" movie later that year.