Friday 20 January 2012

The Benedict Cumberbatch band wagon

Rosamund Urwin
20 Jan 2012
Quantcast In September 2007, I took my best friend to see Ionesco's Rhinoceros at the Royal Court. We were both instantly struck by the man playing the protagonist, Berenger. "Hmmm," she said, scanning the script-cum-programme in the interval. "I think this guy needs a new stage name - it'll never catch on. Ben-er-dict Cum-ber-batch."
The passing of four years has fuzzed my memory slightly, but we later saw him in the Royal Court's bar, either that night or when we were watching another play. He was with friends, and we debated going over to congratulate him on his performance but deemed it "too stalkery". How we rue the day. She and I were two of the original Cumberbitches, in what is now a nation of Cumberbitches.
Technically, even we had jumped on the Benny C bandwagon a little late. Three years earlier, his role as a young Stephen Hawking - a beautiful portrayal of an incredible mind trapped in a disintegrating body - had won him a Golden Nymph award. On top of the regular TV rounds (Heartbeat - twice), this Harrow-educated son of two professional actors, who studied drama at Manchester before completing his training at Lamda, also played Pitt the Younger in the anti-slavery film, Amazing Grace.
But if this ascent has been steady, it is in 2012 that the 35-year-old will be propelled into the celluloid super league - and cement his position as the small screen's most impressive star.
Less than a day into the new year, the fantastic foursome of Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss had already given the BBC television that its rivals will spend the whole year trying to trump. Sherlock, in its two seasons, has won almost nine million viewers an episode, two Baftas and provoked countless Twitter storms - most notably last Sunday, as fans tried to work out how the detective had faked his own death. Those missing their Cumberbatch fix can see him on the big screen in War Horse. Next, he will play the lead in Parade's End, a BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's World War One tetralogy. At the end of the month, he's flying to New Zealand for the Lord of the Rings prequel, the Hobbit, in which he is playing the dragon.
Cumberbatch has also just been cast as the villain in JJ Abrams's Star Trek sequel (maintaining the Hollywood association between an English accent and evil). He's currently so ubiquitous that one of my colleagues (male, married, straight) has started dreaming about him. Even his publicist, Karon Maskill, jokes: "We've seen enough of him! I am sick of his face!"
Why is he the man of the moment? "It's entirely down to Sherlock, obviously," says the series creator Steven Moffat, only half-joking. "If you look at his career, he was everywhere and always being talked about as a coming man, but he hadn't had that breakthrough role. To become a star, an icon, you need that - Sean Connery was nowhere before James Bond.
"The moment [Cumberbatch] saw Sherlock, he knew this was the role that would partially define him. He even looks like Sherlock Holmes - the way we would want Sherlock Holmes to look. Robert Downey Jr was brilliant [in the film version] but no one believes that is what Holmes looks like - he is a tall, posh Brit."
It isn't just his looks, though. Cumberbatch has devoted himself to understanding the part: "He does a great deal of preparation before each of his roles, both mental and physical preparation," says Maskill. "By the time he reaches the set, he is totally under the skin of the person he is playing and [brings] a great deal of emotional intelligence."
When he was preparing for the role of Stephen Hawking, he met the Cambridge professor and also two patients suffering from motor neurone disease.
For Sherlock, he learned the violin: "He has this physical ability to pick up stuff - getting the fingering and bowing perfect," says Moffat.
It isn't his playing that viewers hear, though, of course. Moffat says Cumberbatch uses a silent violin: "Benedict says it is very hard to play a genius when you sound like an idiot - but he can actually play it well."
What is he like to work with? "It is all about the work with him," says Maskill. "On a personal level, he is great fun to be around. People perhaps perceive him to be rather serious but in reality he truly has a wicked, wicked sense of humour. There is a great energy that exudes from him which is rather contagious."
Unsurprisingly, Moffat is another of his chief cheerleaders: "Benedict is one of the best actors of his generation - he'll end up being like Michael Gambon. He's a top-flight actor who has become a major star - that's shown in the range and detail of his work."
Despite peeling everything off in Danny Boyle's stage version of Frankenstein last year ("If you've done it [getting naked] once every other night for about three months in front of 1,100 people in a very cool air-conditioned theatre, you get a bit bolder," he said), it is Sherlock which has propelled Cumberbatch from "thinking woman's totty" to lascivious screaming girls territory - and earned "Cumberbitch" a spot in the Urban Dictionary.
"His screen presence can sometimes be a little geeky," reckons Moffat. "But what has played against him becoming a sex symbol before now plays in his favour - Sherlock makes geeky sexy."
Or as the dominatrix Irene Adler put it (while wearing only Sherlock's coat): "Brainy is the new sexy."
When you stick Cumberbatch into Google, the second suggestion, after "gay" (wishful thinking, lads) is "girlfriend". Cumberbatch, so often called an unlikely pin-up, isn't actually that unlikely a pin-up at all. He calls himself horse-faced, I think it is more beer glass-shaped, with cheekbones that could sharpen knives. He thinks his tousled hair in Sherlock makes him look like a woman, females across the land would sell their soul Faust-style for the chance to ruffle it. He rides a motorbike (arriving late to meet Steven Spielberg because he couldn't find anywhere to park) and is rather endearingly broody - saying he regretted not having children by 32 - a statement which had his more ardent fans offering up their ovaries.
They're no longer lusting after a taken man: Cumberbatch recently split from designer Anna Jones. Among the funniest tributes to him on the internet is a slightly surreal cartoon song with the lyrics: "He's got a posh name and he's on the television so it's no big surprise that all the dirty girls want Benedict Cumberbatch." The song then advises keeping a plate of ham to entice Cumberbatch (to "Cumbersnatch" him).
Ah, back to the name: a punner's dream and a headline writer's nightmare (try squeezing that into a small space). He is surely the only actor ever to play Sherlock Holmes who has a more distinctive name than the detective. Cumberbatch - who says his name sounds "like a fart in a bath" - simplified it to Ben Carlton before being told the original was more memorable. It is a name with endless nickname possibilities, as his fellow pupils at Harrow clearly realised, apparently calling him [look away, children]: "Bend my dick, cucumber patch."
What next for Cumberbatch? He says he would like to do an action film; could he put a new spin on Bond when Daniel Craig hangs up his speedos? There have been weirder castings. One thing is obvious: super stardom beckons.
In an interview with the Times last year, Cumberbatch said he couldn't get a restaurant reservation for his birthday: "I should have said my name was Sherlock Holmes. I guess I'll just have to ... have a picnic." That won't happen this year. And ladies, let's not forget: he's looking for someone to go with him.

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