Try saying it five times fast: Benedict Cumberbatch.
He’s the white-hot Brit with the funny name, whose onscreen influence in BBC’s Sherlock has spread across the pond to American audiences (particularly young women), who can’t wait to see him stretch out in upcoming films like The Fifth Estate, Twelve Years a Slave, and The Imitation Game.
Initially, even I had trouble with the name, blurting “Benjamin Cummerbund” and “Bartleby Scrivener” a few dozen times before my hopelessly Sherlocked 14-year old daughter set me straight, convincing me that Cumberbatch—not Robert Downey, Jr.—is the truest embodiment of a contemporary Holmes. Benedict’s turns as a gay secret agent in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the vengeful Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness have reinforced the actor’s range.
Novel as his name might seem to U.S. moviegoers, Cumberbatch has been around a while. Devotee (and Pop Matters editor) Lynnette Porter brings new-cumbers up to speed on the actor’s accomplishments thus far in a new book from the Holmes-happy publishers at MX. The author of well-received books on Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings, and TV’s Lost, Porter chronicles Cumberbatch’s rise to fame her latest tome, Benedict Cumberbatch: In Transition, with an eye on what differentiates the heartthrob from his peers and precisely what poises him for an iconic future.
Lynnette Porter’s Benedict bio is very much a “head and heart” affair, like many of the actor’s career choices, and demonstrates just how completely hard-wrought and not overnight his success has been. And for the time being, it’s the definitive text on the actor in-flux, its factual data and critical analyses strong and thorough enough to stand until Ben cuts a few more films, electrifies another play or two, and delivers the next season (or two) of Sherlock.
Cumberbatch has played artists (Vincent Van Gogh), scientists (Heisenberg and Hawking), spies real and fictitious (Guy Burgess and Peter Guillam), sleuths (Sherlock Holmes), soldiers, super-powered aliens…even a dragon—a remarkable character spectrum for a stage and cinema personality who’s career is only just ripening. Several titles slated for late 2013 and 2014 release seem poised to elevate Cumberbatch’s status and cement his place as a recognized, bankable movie “commity,” but he’ll return to theater next year for a run at Hamlet at London’s West End before pursuing the more conventional Hollywood path.
“For us, like many, it all started with Sherlock,” confesses Porter, alluding to Cumberbatch’s lead role on the acclaimed BBC / PBS series that re-imagines Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective in a modern-day London. The writer displays a giddy enthusiasm whilst dissecting her subject’s already-remarkable career over the course of two-hundred pages, highlighting Benedict’s many accomplishments and glossing over his (apparently few) flaws. But Porter maintains some objective here; she’s a detail-oriented critic concerned with performance over star power, and her sophisticated prose distinguishes this work from gossipy, speculation-based bios by run-of-the-mill “Ben Addicts” and “Cumberbabes.”
Indeed, In Transition is often so dense and its performance appraisals so intricate that younger fan-girls may be put off by the level of scrutiny Porter lavishes upon Cumberbatch’s efforts in film, TV, theatre, and radio programs they might not have known existed. Porter considers Cumberbatch’s wardrobe, hairstyles, every facial twitch—she even rakes over the brand of cigarettes ordered for one of the actor’s many productions. But again, it’s the glee with which she evaluates Bennie’s resume that’ll draw readers in, and her exhaustingly comprehensive overview that informs and educates as much as it entertains.
A requisite biography follows the introduction, with Porter outlining Cumberbatch’s birth to actor parents Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham in Hammersmith, London. We learn of Ben’s aptitude for acting as early as Brambletye and Harrow Schools, and how the precocious lad expressed a desire to “be up there” with his mum.
The author charts Benedict’s lengthy—and ongoing—tenure with British theater, with no small amount of editorializing on how plays are still much bigger in the UK than USA, and how Cumberbatch’s involvement in them afforded fans much greater access to their hero. Notable parts in productions of Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet mark Ben’s early years at Open Air Theatre (Regent’s Park), while roles in Hedda Gabler and Rhinoceros evinced his ability to stretch at Ameida Theatre. But Porter dedicates more pages to 2007’s The Arsonists and Bennie’s breakout roles in director Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (at Royal National Theatre), wherein he portrayed both Victor Frankenstein and the mad scientist’s humanoid creature on alternate nights (opposite Jonny Lee Miller). The author praises Cumberbatch’s ability to not only tackle dual characters in a single production, but to convince as a naked, infantile monster testing his limbs anew.
Of course, the book examines every Cumberbatch film, placing emphasis on lead roles, supporting slots in Hollywood blockbusters, and “turning point” assignments. Porter digs into Ben’s brief appearances in The Other Boleyn Girl, Creation, and Whistleblower, but cites the 2004 BBC drama Hawking (in which Cumberbatch played the well-known theoretical physicist with a debilitating disease) as a more significant project than even 2007’s Atonement.
An argument is made for the ease with which Cumberbatch slips into “period” roles, his pasty complexion and generally thin frame facilitating his spin on World War I soldiers, everyman English workers, pompous aristocrats, and plantation owners. Conversely, Porter offers evidence against the pigeonholing of Benedict as a “posh” actor / celebrity who represents everything snooty about the film industry. Citing the actor’s rapport with fans, almost childlike sense of humor, and shyness when left alone too long in the spotlight, Porter paints Cumberbatch as a budding—if not entirely comfortable—celebrity whose ever move is tracked, recorded, and disseminated (whether personal or public).
The book lauds Ben’s fastidiousness on set and marvels at his willingness to physically alter his appearance for roles, swimming to slim down for Sherlock and working out two hours a day to bulk up for Khan. Amazingly, she doesn’t reference another English (Welsh) actor who set the standard for shedding and gaining pounds—Christian Bale—but Cumberbatch’s commitment to his parts is commendable. To her credit, Porter admits Benedict is more unique-looking than conventionally handsome, his piercing eyes and chiseled cheekbones augmenting his scholarly demeanor and schoolboy charm.
Porter identifies tardiness as one of B.C.’s few personality deficiencies, along with an inability to censure himself during interviews. Her analysis of the razor’s edge on which celebrities dance while marketing themselves and their work is crucial to better understanding Cumberbatch as a thespian—and as a person. The author also notes how Benedict has a habit of letting his hyperactive leg reveal itself on film.
Porter also surveys Benedict’s work as a voice actor (logging his hours on BBC Radio fare like The Odyssey, Cabin Pressure, Neverwhere, and Copenhagen), editorializes his pop culture cameos (The Simpsons), and gushes over forthcoming titles featuring Cumberbatch’s velvety baritone (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug).
The bibliography and index—archiving hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and television quotes—encompasses another sixty pages. So let it not be said Porter didn’t do her homework. In Transition is the world’s first bona fide Encyclopedia Benedict.