Edison’s smart, compassionate wife Mary is a key figure in the story. Played by British actress Tuppence Middleton, she’s more than just ‘the woman behind the man,’ the designation of many women of that time period.
“I wanted her to be quite a forward-thinking woman,” explains Middleton. “She met Edison when she was working for him — she would have been 16 or 17 — and for her to have been working at that time in history, that’s quite a modern woman. She was a tough lady and didn’t suffer fools, and I wanted that to come across. She loved him and her family, and she forgives his emotional flaws and glitches.”
Middleton’s casting owed plenty to the brief but pivotal scene she’d shared with Cumberbatch in their codebreaking thriller, The Imitation Game and he advocated for her to play his on-screen wife in The Current War.
“There’s a quiet strength and intelligence to Mary Edison and you need an actress of real depth to carry that off and having worked with Tuppence, I knew she could handle it beautifully,” he says.
Middleton returns the compliment. “What makes Benedict amazing for these very intelligent, cerebral characters, is that he’s very quick-thinking,” she notes. “He always brings something new every scene.”
Middleton was delighted that the script allowed exploration into Edison’s home life, a sanctuary away from the politics and power plays of his business world. And it was her first time playing a mother.
“We wanted to show more of his family side,” she stresses. “His wife and kids were a real support for him.” Edison’s interactions with his children, Dot (Sophia Ally) and Dash (Woody Norman), show his playful side.
“It was really important for us to show that lightness, it gives context and contrast to his professional life,” says the actress. “Their family tradition of corresponding in Morse code and nicknaming his kids Dot and Dash were really sweet touches.”
Tragically, Mary Edison would die of a brain tumor aged only 29. The event left Edison both guilt and grief-stricken. “We tried to do her death justice,” recounts Middleton, “but also to underscore that feeling that it was too soon and too quick, and unfair. [We didn’t want to] overdo it or ‘play’ the brain tumor. Because there wasn’t a huge number of scenes to show what was happening to her, we had to figure out a way to show it that didn’t feel too sudden or rushed.”
Katherine Waterhouse plays Marguerite Westinghouse, the lively, outgoing counterpoint to her introverted husband.
“I’d seen Katherine in the Paul Thomas Anderson film [Inherent Vice] and I was a fan,” says Gomez-Rejon. “She and Michael Shannon just seemed like a great rock ‘n’ roll couple.”
Unbeknownst to their director, Waterston and Shannon were already friends. “I’ve known Katherine for years,” says Shannon. “We made a movie called State Like Sleep, and I knew her from doing theatre in New York City. Marguerite was such a big part of George’s life. It was a lovely relationship and it was great to have a prior relationship with Katherine and to work with her again.”
It was a canny casting. “Michael and Katherine look amazing together: tall, stoic but loose and modern,” says Gomez-Rejon. “There’s a warmth and chemistry between them that was effortless.”
Waterston also connected with Marguerite on a personal level.
“When we Skyped about the role, she said it reminded her of her grandmother,” Gomez-Rejon says. “She’d been one of those women who were feminists before the term even existed.” Katherine, he adds, offered “a very striking, regal yet accessible quality” as Westinghouse’s wife.
The role of Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla, the immigrant who ultimately determines the outcome of the War of the Currents, is played by Nicolas Hoult.
“Reading the script for the first time I thought: ‘Wow, I didn’t know how it all played out!’” Hoult explains. “Westinghouse and Tesla were the ones that essentially provided the electricity we use today, whereas I’d mistakenly thought it was Edison. It was educational.”
Initially Hoult as Tesla was only supposed to be a brief cameo in the film.
“I met up with Alfonso and we spoke about the character and that they were going to write more about how his journey intertwined with Edison and Westinghouse,” says Hoult. “Alfonso thought he could be such a fun role.”
The actor didn’t take much persuading. “To work with Michael and Benedict, two of my favorite actors, and being a fan of Me And Earl And The Dying Girl made it a very exciting prospect,” he explains. “He was very different to any character I’d played before.”
Hoult read Tesla’s autobiography as part of his research for the role. “He was a fascinating man,” he says. “He was ethereal and otherworldly and brilliant, and he had quite a rough go of things. He felt like he was from a different time and he could see so far into the future.”
Cumberbatch concurs, adding, “Tesla was the genius among them,” he says. “Where Edison and Westinghouse could see ten years into the future, he could see a hundred.”
Tesla’s preternatural vision deeply impressed Hoult. “We found a quote where Tesla was talking about a time when we’d all have screens where we’d be able to see each other around the world,” remembers Hoult.
Dialect coach Sarah Shepherd, who also worked with Cumberbatch to capture Thomas Edison’s American accent, helped Hoult master Tesla’s East European drawl. “Obviously, it’s my first time doing [that kind of accent],” says Hoult, “but Sarah was fantastic. Alfonso didn’t want the accent to sound Russian or like a Bond villain, and she was there on set to help. Ultimately, you do whatever you think works and just go for it.”
There was some science homework, too. “Benedict and I had a science lesson for this,” Hoult says. “We started out asking questions larger than we could ever comprehend and then going backwards until we could understand what was going on.” In a few hours, the two actors could get under the skin of their more technical dialogue. “It’s important not just to be a blank slate saying things you don’t understand,” says Hoult.
For the role of George Westinghouse, Gomez-Rejon turned to another Oscar nominee, Michael Shannon. “I’d just seen him in Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway and met him briefly backstage,” says the director. “I’d been a fan of his for many, many years. There’s something singular about what he does but I had never seen him tackle someone like Westinghouse and it was exciting to see him go places I hadn’t seen before.”
When the pair first met, Gomez-Rejon shared an antique book about Westinghouse.
“It wasn’t even a biography,” says Shannon, “more a kind of eulogy about what a great man he was and it was a fascinating character study. He seemed to be a gentle and thoughtful individual. I’m not really good at picking out heroes, but he was something.”
Unlike Edison, Westinghouse didn’t court celebrity or try to reinvent himself as a brand. Only 13 pictures of Westinghouse survive, and he also burnt his papers before his death in 1914. Consequently, his fame has dimmed, but in a way, his reticence and innate modesty allowed Shannon some creative freedom.
“Many times, famous people come with the baggage of pre-conceived notions and Westinghouse did not,” says Shannon. “No matter who you play, whether it’s a real person or not, they’re still a figment of your imagination.”
There was a yin and yang to the actors, as well as their characters. “Edison is a showy part and we needed to find a Westinghouse who could go toe-to-toe with Benedict as an actor and wasn’t intimidated by the role,” explains Iwanyk. “It mirrors the movie: Thomas Edison takes up a lot of space in the room; Westinghouse is the more quiet, noble character.”
“Michael is so different from Benedict — one’s AC, one’s DC in their process and approach — and that was a very exciting tension,” says Gomez-Rejon. “It was a pairing I really believed in.”
Edison and Westinghouse barely met in real life — and the movie reflects that. Mitnick took on the challenge of maintaining intense rivalry in which the two rivals share only two scenes. “I had to take on a model closer to Michael Mann’s Heat, where you have two people who despise each other and who never really get to meet,” he explains. “In reality, Westinghouse and Edison did meet, but most of their battle was waged via reporters as front-page news.”
“We didn’t spend a lot of time together,” says Shannon of Cumberbatch, “but there is a scene we have together towards the end of the movie and it’s a wonderful, well-written scene and kind of the moral of the story. That was a lot of fun to shoot.”
Tom Holland plays Edison’s young confidant and personal secretary, Samuel Insull. Holland had met the director for a coffee in 2012, fresh from his breakthrough performance in The Impossible.
“Tom was so young at the time, he had his mother with him,” recalls Gomez-Rejon, “He’s such an extraordinary actor—he was definitely who I hoped for this part.”
A fan of Me, Earl And The Dying Girl, Holland responded immediately to The Current War screenplay. “It’s a fantastic story – I had no idea it even existed — and I was intrigued to find out more about the character,” says Holland. “I, of course, wanted to work with Alfonso and once he told me the cast it was a no-brainer.”
Unlike his fellow Brits in the cast, Holland didn’t have to adopt an American accent for the role.
“Samuel Insull is a kid who grew up in Putney, then moved to Chicago and New York, so it was very interesting to try to keep that British spirit going throughout my performance,” explains Holland. “For me, especially, when I come out to America, my accent slowly to started to change and I say things in different ways. Samuel Insull was the complete opposite of that: he stuck to his guns and kept his Britishisms.”
Many of Holland’s scenes are with Cumberbatch and the pair swiftly developed a rich rapport that helped deepen the dynamic of their characters.
“There’s a great affinity between the two,” says Cumberbatch. “It’s more of a father-son relationship.”
Staunchly loyal to Edison but prepared to stand up to him, Insull adds an intriguing dimension to The Current War. “There is a bit of steamrolling at the beginning,” notes Cumberbatch of their relationship, “but Samuel is a formidable guy and he gives as good as he gets in a couple of scenes.”
Holland remembers one of those scenes particularly vividly. “There was a scene where Insull is really pushing back, so there’s little old me telling Benedict Cumberbatch he’s wrong and in one of the takes Benedict shouted at me,” he charts. “I jumped out of my socks. I was so scared. But it was exhilarating and one of my favorite takes.”
For Gomez-Rejon, Cumberbatch was perfect for the role of Edison. “His curiosity was so infectious and his energy made the set feel so alive. And he went so effortlessly into the dark side of Edison.”
Cumberbatch speaks equally warmly of their collaboration. “Anytime I felt insecurity over the accent or being far away from the experience of Edison and straying into the territory of doing something safe, he’d encourage me to get outside my comfort zone. He’d say : ‘C’mon man, you don’t need to worry. Just go for it.’ I felt I didn’t need to entertain or explain or show; I could just be this character. I absolutely loved working with him,” reflects Cumberbatch.
Familiar with Edison’s broader biography, Cumberbatch quickly discovered a life overflowing with nuance and contradiction. “I think I’d been sold the idea of him as the inventor of the modern age in America, rather than the complexities of what that involved,” he says.
Cumberbatch embodied Edison’s fabled intelligence, showmanship, ruthlessness and creativity but also captured another, less renowned aspect: his human side. Edison understood the power of celebrity and used his fame to great and calculated advantage, but he also suffered greatly after the unexpected death of his wife (later in life, Edison’s invention of the phonograph, allowed him to keep his wife’s memory alive through her voice recordings).
Painstaking research, long conversations with Gomez-Rejon, and much thought prepared the actor to navigate the complex fault lines between Edison and Westinghouse. The Current War doesn’t have a “baddie” or a “goodie”, he stresses. “I just relaxed about siding with one person or the other, and instead thought of George Westinghouse as the quiet, heroic tortoise to the loud-mouthed Edison hare, and Tesla as somehow overseeing the whole show. I stopped dividing them and just really absorbed myself into Edison’s world.”
Of course, Edison’s competitive, uncompromising worldview leads him into murky terrain as the film unfolds. His need to defeat Westinghouse will lead him to betray his firmest principle: never help take a life. “The irony of that guy helping create the electric chair to win the War of the Currents is really sad,” says producer Iwanyk. “Edison disregards his moral compass early in the film and loses his way.”
Cumberbatch regards Edison as the “fallen hero” of the story. “It’s about stripping the man from his image of himself as a god of industry — a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg — into being an embittered loser. But then he dusts himself off and he’s off again in search of a new prize. The wheels don’t stop turning in his head just because he’s fixated with one battle and fighting court cases over patents, he’s still doing the good stuff in tandem. He’s a remarkable man with many, many human flaws.”