Sunday, December 8, 2013

Six Performances, Five Weeks

During October and November, I was privileged to see a range of Benedict Cumberbatch’s stage and screen performances. Of course, because I’m in Florida, I had to see the stage performances as they were shown on screen in Vero Beach or Palm Beach, but the effect was the same—I was mesmerized. I had previously seen some performances, most notably, Frankenstein. However, that did not reduce my joy at seeing a favorite once more. During five weeks, I watched bits, if not all, of six performances: in Frankenstein, The Fifth Estate, 12 Years a Slave, Little Favour, the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebration (broadcast in the U.S. as part of NT Live), and the trailer for August: Osage County. These pivotal roles in his career illustrate that no matter when they were recorded or where they took place, whether they were part of a larger ensemble cast or a starring role, Benedict Cumberbatch is truly one of his generation’s best actors. Even among those who noted, as several movie critics have, that The Fifth Estate did not perform as well as expected, Cumberbatch performed superbly. His performances in recently released films prove that this year’s Britannia award was no fluke, and this autumn’s range of roles appealed to an equally wide range of Cumberbatch fans.

Different Skills for Different Roles

Comparing Frankenstein and The Fifth Estate is truly the apples-and-oranges of comparisons, but think of them as equally important but opposite ends of a scale “measuring” physicality. Although some critics seem to think both productions were “monstrous” (a positive for Frankenstein, not so much for Fifth Estate), they illustrate oppositions in the requirements of a role and Cumberbatch’s performance to meet these requirements. In Frankenstein, as the Creature, Cumberbatch is a miracle of movement. He crawls, bounds, leaps in the air, stretches, and sinuously moves his body around the circular stage. Those who have read Benedict Cumberbatch, in Transition know that the Creature is one of my favorite Cumberbatch roles because of the actor’s physicality and dramatic intensity. Seeing Frankenstein on Halloween was especially key to my enjoyment of the holiday this year. I already knew the performance and the story intimately, at least from an audience perspective, but on the drive home from Vero Beach I thought about the connections among humankind, God, that which we create, and our responsibilities for our acts of creation. That Cumberbatch’s performance still made me think of connections among life, death, eternity, and immortality says a lot about a production that, to date, I have seen more than 20 times.

As WikiLeak’s Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, Cumberbatch’s is an interesting performance for a completely different reason. I see this as a physically confined role, the opposite of the physically demanding, movement-liberating role of the Creature. Although in Hawking, Cumberbatch was often confined to a wheelchair and had to brilliantly convey Hawking’s emotions within a delimited range of motion, in The Fifth Estate, the actor’s movements are instead constrained by the script. In fact, many critics complained that the story became boring because so often the lead characters were shown only typing on a keyboard, looking at a screen, or, like the audience, watching instant messages scroll. The “action” in The Fifth Estate is intellectual, analyzing the conflicts inherent in determining what should be leaked, when, and by whom. The “chase” is often electronic, as WikiLeaks is shut down, pops up on mirror sites, or releases incendiary information. Cumberbatch’s non-computer activity involves walking, public speaking, or staring moodily at the landscape. (Perhaps his character’s most impressive physical quirk is opening a bottle with his teeth.) The actor’s hands often are either stuffed in pockets or speedily keying information onto a laptop. Because the actor had to rely on subtle facial expression and body language instead of dramatic gestures or displays of physical strength, this performance shows how good Cumberbatch can be on film even when the performance relies more heavily on dialogue and minute variations in body language. The character’s smiles, for instance, tell a lot about his mood and thoughts. When not suffering fools well, Cumberbatch-as-Assange’s tight smile is a mask of forced civility, but when he comes on to a beautiful woman, the smile becomes genuinely animated before turning predatory. Cumberbatch always has an expressive face, but in The Fifth Estate, his body language and line interpretation are even more important in getting the audience to understand Assange.

In 12 Years a Slave, Cumberbatch’s role is one of many in a highly anticipated, highly scrutinized drama that many critics have named Best Picture of the Year long before awards season rolls around. In this large ensemble cast, Cumberbatch’s character stands out as a “good man,” even though he is a slave owner who plays a pivotal role in lead character Platt’s future torture. In period garb once more, Cumberbatch and his dialect convincingly portray Southern U.S. plantation owner Ford. The actor makes Ford’s moral contradictions obvious to the audience, which makes the character all the more troubling to watch. As a Christian, Ford feels compelled to read the Bible to his slaves on Sunday and, in a moment of what many slaveholders would call “weakness,” listens to Platt’s engineering advice and praises the slave when he proves his idea is sound. However, for all the “humane” treatment of his slaves, Ford is still a man with debts and must make a profit from his plantation.

Perhaps what is important to his career is not so much this performance, which, as expected, is note (or accent) perfect, but the fact that Cumberbatch is featured in such an important film. His inclusion in this cast indicates his growing importance in the film industry. Although a small role in 12 Years a Slave will not erase Hollywood’s memory about The Fifth Estate’s poor box office, the film flopped commercially, as many critics also pointed out, because of script problems, not Cumberbatch’s performance. As a fan, I am more impressed that Cumberbatch accepts roles that pique his interest and offer him something new or different to play, even if that role ultimately is not a box office hit. It is unfortunate that Cumberbatch’s first lead in a major motion picture, one that kicked off the Toronto International Film Festival, received so much negative press.

It’s Not the Length, but What You Do With It

Two noteworthy performances fit into the “good things come in small packages” category: Wallace in Little Favour and Rosencrantz in an NT Live scene from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Indie short Little Favor provides another starring role for Cumberbatch. (The amount of his screen time is greater in this 26-minute film than in some full-length features now in theaters.) What is striking about this role is that Wallace is the entry character for the audience. [Often, as in Sherlock, for example, another character (in this case, John Watson) is the “everyman” who provides insights into the plot or other characters. In The Fifth Estate Daniel Berg leads audiences to the first glimpse of Julian Assange. However, in Little Favour, Cumberbatch not only plays a lead role and is onscreen the most time, but he also is the character the audience follows.] Ultimately, the audience’s “fate” is the same as Wallace’s—to the surprise of both. Crowd funders who supported the making of Little Favour are rewarded with a shocking (and shockingly well-made) short film. I expected Cumberbatch to be good in this indie, but what pleases me more is that he still is not only willing to act in one, especially a short film, but to personally back it and use his considerable celebrity to help get the film made. Coming off Star Trek publicity, Cumberbatch immediately filmed and helped promote Little Favour, not a project every rising star would take on, even for good friends wanting to make the movie.

Of the many Cumberbatch roles seen on screen in Florida during October and November, two originally took place on the stage of the National Theatre. During the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary gala, Cumberbatch tackled a short scene from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The scene allowed Cumberbatch to show off his comedic timing in hitting the right beats to get a laugh from the audience. Although he was only on stage a few minutes during the multi-hour showcase, what was more important to me, as one who documents his performances, was to see him join fellow thespians of his generation on the National Theatre’s stage for the curtain call. Actors from the most recent plays took a bow first, with the progression continuing to actors starring in plays a decade ago, then two decades past, until the audience finally honored those who first performed in the National Theatre 50 years ago. Not only was Cumberbatch applauded for his role during the prestigious anniversary production (and resulting NT Live broadcasts worldwide), but he is being lauded as much for his stage performances as those on television or film. This production/broadcast also reminds audiences and critics that Cumberbatch’s career is not going to be that of the typical “Hollywood” star. Not only have some of his most memorable roles to date been on stage, but he seems eager to return, perhaps as early as next year.

He’s Everywhere This Season

Even when I went to the cinema to see a movie that does not star or include Benedict Cumberbatch in its ensemble cast, I was made aware of yet another of his projects coming to a screen near me in the next few weeks. A longer trailer for August: Osage County played before Philomena during the Thanksgiving holiday. I haven’t decided whether it is fortunate for Cumberbatch’s role as Little Charles Aiken to be shown so fully in a trailer. His total screen time in the movie is far less than that of many A-listers, such as Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts, but his “trailer time” is disproportionately greater. Audiences can hear Little Charles’ noticeable Oklahoma accent, see that this sensitive soul is willing to cry in public, and wish to hug him for that shy, endearing smile.

Moviegoers who heard or read bad reviews about The Fifth Estate or worried about watching the brutality of 12 Years a Slave and stayed home may go see August: Osage County. This may be the first time that many U.S. moviegoers will see Cumberbatch in a key role—and know who he is before they go to the theater. Audiences may have found Cumberbatch’s performance memorable in War Horse, for example, but, unless they were already Sherlock fans, few in the U.S. holiday crowds were likely to know his name back then, much less to go to the movie simply because he was in it. Cumberbatch’s higher media profile—including U.S. interviews on talk shows like Katie (in October) and Jimmy Kimmel Live (in December), as well as his appearance at the recent The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug LA premiere and in all those Hobbit trailers—pretty much guarantees greater recognition among a wider audience by the end of this year. Having two roles in much-hyped holiday films Hobbit (December 13 in the U.S.) and August: Osage County (opening on Christmas Day in the U.S.) will only add to his international fame.

Although it is easy to joke that Benedict Cumberbatch may have provided something for everyone during the latter months of 2013, from the intellectualized The Fifth Estate to the star-powered adaptation of August: Osage County, many of these films (12 Years a Slave, Fifth Estate, August: Osage County) are rated R and theoretically limit the audience to adults, which, granted, is a large portion of his fan base. Under-18 fans who came to Cumberbatch because of Sherlock primarily can look forward to The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (as well as the return of their favorite consulting detective in early 2014). Additionally, because in the U.S. NT Live broadcasts are limited to one-time screenings in a few venues per state, many Cumberbatch fans have to travel miles if they want to see one of the recorded stage performances. I am fortunate to be able to drive 3 to 5 hours to see NT Live broadcasts. If my conversations with audience members before and after Frankenstein and the National Theatre’s anniversary celebration are anything to go by, many new Cumberbatch fans have been made through these broadcasts. (People who attend NT Live screenings may not be film aficionados or may not be aware of PBS’s Sherlock.) If Cumberbatch is not truly providing something for everyone, simply because not everyone can easily view his most recent work, at least he is showing his range of professional interests and skills.

These six performances released in October and November (as well as trailers promoting holiday films and TV series) illustrate that Cumberbatch is an actor who will not limit himself to “either/or” acting challenges: to roles in mainstream films or indies, leads or supporting roles, theatre or film (or television). His is the actor’s quest to stretch himself as a performer, sometimes quite literally, and to take on characters who might not be fashionable or easy to like but are thought-provoking and illuminating. Perhaps that diversity is what Benedict Cumberbatch can uniquely offer the entertainment industry.

Lynnette Porter is the author of Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition: An Unauthorised Performance Biography, available through MX Publishing, Amazon US and Amazon UK, among other booksellers and book sites.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Cancer, Survivorship, and the Power of Film

Even when life seems incredibly dark, I find refuge in film’s remarkable power of storytelling and revel in sharing movies with a beloved storyteller, my brother, Bart.

Cancer doesn’t discriminate, but it does seem to enjoy being hosted by some families more than others. Three grandparents and my father died with cancer. My brother is terminally ill—his second round with colon cancer, but this time it’s Stage IV. Bart has a remarkable vitality of spirit and a strong faith, and so the upcoming holidays are just another season among many that we’ve shared.

“The cancer is mine, but the tragedy is theirs,” terminally ill James tells the audience of Third Star, the movie a bottle of pinot grigio and I probably shouldn’t have watched on the evening after the phone call to tell me that Bart’s cancer had returned. It doesn’t help that I’m far more of a Miles—who is too busy working to be a caregiver but demolished in his own way by grief—than faithful helper, Davy. I don’t handle tragedy well. I easily deal with the logistics of making appointments or arrangements, managing flights and visits, and, some of the time at least, being a good long distance listener. But I still cringe in fear at facing the prospect of being the lone survivor of my childhood family of four. As the older sibling, I should still be able to protect my little brother.

Bart not only has known me longer than anyone else on the planet, but he knows me best. We share memories of a Hoosier childhood filled with pop culture references. We know what it’s like to house a book in our head and struggle to bring it to life on our laptop.

But Bart is a storyteller, and, around chemo and its side effects, his work schedule, and a loving household made hectic with three generations living together, he still writes. He is impatient to make tangible his latest story, but he also painstakingly returns to early chapters to smooth the rough places and polish the words. One way or another, this novel will be published.

Blessed are the storytellers, for they show us both truth and hope through their talent with words and ideas. Bart is a gifted writer, and fiction is his specialty. By day, his job requires his writing to be factual and technical. Off the clock, however, his creativity comes out to play.

Although writing fiction is not my gift (if you’ve ever read my dialogue, you understand that well), I can illuminate and guide, explain not only what is key to a film or a performance but why it is significant. Unlike Bart, whose health has become a catalyst for further creativity, his cancer ate away at my interest in writing.

In the past few months, people I know well and those who only know me from my writing have asked why I haven’t been publishing online as frequently. It’s nice to know that people read what I’ve written, but my answer has been “I’m not in the mood.” Writing something new seemed rather pointless, when I considered the Meaning of Life and my top-priority relationship with my brother. Nothing much mattered beyond the day-to-day needs of my students and my conversations with Bart. When I should’ve been helping him, he instead helped me to start getting back to myself—by returning me to our mutual love of story, especially those on film.

In October, Bart and I watched Star Trek: Into Darkness together. We’d seen it individually during the summer, of course, and discussed it thoroughly in our Sunday afternoon phone marathons, but we hadn’t seen it together. Curled in our loungers in the living room, we transported onto the Enterprise for a few hours and returned to being just Bart and Lynnette—two long-time Star Trek geeks who have seen every movie together . . . and gone to cons and listened to Nimoy and met Next Gen and classic Trek cast members. When I worked at an Ohio radio station years ago, Bart sometimes drove to visit. Once I knew he was in range, I switched from adult contemporary to Nimoy’s or Shatner’s Greatest Hits, which partly explains why my career in radio was rather short lived. Sharing a movie with Bart, and making plans to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in December, was an important part of our most recent visit.

Since then, films, more than ever, have become a way of coping. When I go to a cinema, I’ve forced myself to leave the house—as if not going out just because Bart often can’t is a reasonable “punishment” for being healthy and free from chemo pumps and 17 daily medications. When I see a movie, I escape from worrying about what might happen tomorrow. And specifically when I watch a film, I know that someday I’ll feel like writing about it again. In October and November, I became notorious for taking notes during multiple screenings of The Fifth Estate or the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special—and someday I’ll incorporate what I noticed, and applauded or questioned, into my ongoing book projects.

Going to a movie also connects me to other people and reminds me that we all face death but what is more important is how we embrace life. I haven’t felt like being around my friends as often as usual, because all that’s on my mind is Cancer. It doesn’t make me the most scintillating companion. Nonetheless, I need to remind myself that life goes on, and all around me are people with their own tragedies and joys. Talking with strangers connected by interest in film helps.

Standing in line outside the Enzian for an early screening of 12 Years a Slave brought me into discussions with fellow film buffs and historians. Seeing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 from a child’s perspective (and hearing my friend’s daughter giggle next to me) gave me permission to laugh, too. On an afternoon when I couldn’t stand to be at home yet didn’t have the motivation to write, I drove three hours south to see—yet again—the NT Live broadcast of Frankenstein and ended up having a lovely conversation about theatre, Shelley, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance with a half dozen women attending the matinee. A few weeks later I drove even farther to watch the NT Live’s 50th anniversary performances and, while waiting out the monsoon so I could go to my car, was pulled into a conversation about favorite scenes. I enjoyed introducing my film class to some of my favorite shorts--Dog Eat Dog, the Guerrier brothers’ The Wizard and Cleaning Up, and Little Favour--and seeing my students' reactions. Next week, for our final class meeting, we’ll “bond” over a movie—this time going to see one together at a local cinema. When I went holiday shopping this week, I picked up the extended edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My brother and I liked Tolkien first, but our shared admiration of Sherlock adds a new dimension to our enjoyment of Martin Freeman’s Bilbo. Bart and I want to watch the first movie together again before we see the sequel. Given his determination and upbeat attitude, I’m confident that we’ll find a way to see it at the cinema.

Movies are an integral part of my life—and my brother’s. He introduces me to b&w classics from the ‘30s on and shares his research about actors. I forced him to listen to more about LotR than he could possibly ever want to know. We learned from the commentaries of Fritz the Nite Owl and the MST3K 'bots. When I play Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in my film class, I remember three consecutive nights in the mid-‘70s when Bart and I watched it in an art house cinema a few blocks from where our dad grew up. So perhaps it’s natural for me to find a way to express my emotions by finding a corollary to a movie character’s, or to turn to film as often as to a friend.

Writing and film are "immortal," and by feeling connected to storytellers past or current, and to one storyteller in particular, I am reminded that each of our life stories is important--moving, remarkable, unique--even though the stories inevitably come to a conclusion. I wouldn't revise mine, even this autumn, when I begin to see the back cover looming behind pages or sense the credits approaching. I do, however, want more chapters or sequels with my brother.

Unlike Bart, who’ll spend part of this weekend diligently writing a new chapter, I’m still trying to find my way back to the keyboard for long stretches of time. But I am in the mood for a movie, and Philomena has a matinee only a few blocks from home.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Quick Review of Little Favour

Please note that this review contains information about plot and performance. If you want no details about either, CONSIDER THIS REVIEW SPOILERY AND DON’T READ IT. I have not revealed anything that I believe will diminish your enjoyment of Little Favour, but if you prefer having no knowledge of a film before you see it—please wait to read this review until you’ve seen the film.

At 26 and a half minutes, nearly 3 and a half of them credits, Little Favour may be a short, but it’s big on packing action—and symbolism—into a few scenes. A first viewing reveals the violent, shocking plot details, but a second look shows the careful way that plot has been developed, shot by shot, line by line. That “second look” makes the film far more intriguing and proves that writer/director Patrick Victor Monroe not only has a suspenseful story to tell, but, more important, knows how to frame it with specific shots that, on second viewing, unveil a deeper meaning to dialogue or a lingering close-up. This layering makes Little Favour far more than another example of Benedict Cumberbatch’s acting skill or testament to his popularity. (The film received immediate, overwhelming support from Cumberbatch fans, who contributed £86,240 last spring so that it could be made. True to Cumberbatch’s recorded promise to funders, the money was well spent by first-time filmmaker Monroe.)

Like any good short film, Little Favour prompts its audience to ask questions and want to see more. Just what is the “favour” that Wallace, known as Ace (Cumberbatch), owes old friend James (Colin Salmon)? What is the history between them, and why, as so many old friends do, did they become estranged? When James calls in the debt, he surprises Ace with a request--to look after his little girl, Lilah (Paris Winter Monroe, a talented young actor making her film debut). Of course, the cliché is that this job is not as easy as it sounds.

Monroe gets good performances from his actors but also reveals more about these characters from the shots he chooses. Even wardrobe tells part of the story. In the opening scenes, emotionally compressed Ace walks stiffly next to the much looser limbed, more confident James. Ace’s wardrobe--a form-fitting, tightly zipped leather jacket--matches his tense demeanor; he keeps his hands stuffed into pockets as he warily walks into an unknown situation. That James and Ace are opposites is clearly delineated in a silhouetted profile shot of the pair standing in front of a brick wall, separated by the visual line of a girder. Once Ace goes into action, however, the now-famous image of Cumberbatch-as-Ace, stripped to undershirt, shows his apparently natural state as a fighter.

The camera angles ably direct the audience’s attention to important details. Monroe relies on close-ups of expressions (through which James and Ace hold an entire conversation) or frequent rack focus shifts between points of view, for example. In a few places—such as intercut images reminding the audience of Ace’s promise to James—the editing seems a bit heavy handed, but overall the film easily holds audience attention, and its style keeps the story moving briskly.

By the time the lengthy credits roll and the film’s many supporters are duly thanked, viewers are aware that there’s a much deeper story yet to tell (especially for those who have not read the Indiegogo plot synopsis that reveals more backstory). Here’s hoping that SunnyMarch, including the trio of actor/producer Cumberbatch, executive producer Adam Ackland, and writer/director Monroe (who, with Will Hensel, even composes the original music), either turns Little Favour into a full-length feature or gets busy with another transfixing tale.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Benedict Cumberbatch and the Fairy Tale of the SwedArt Band

Entrepreneur Margareta Lidskog is no stranger to Hollywood events, and her line of bracelets/leather bands now graces the wrists of the entertainment industry elite. But when Benedict Cumberbatch was frequently seen wearing a silver “Swedish band . . . my friend gave me ages ago . . . for good luck,” her business – and by extension, the popularity of traditional Lapland artists who make this culture-based art – gained new fashion stardom and a fandom of their own.

In many ways, Margareta Lidskog’s success story seems like a modern fairy tale. In the past few months, her business, SwedArt, has exploded in online popularity and, consequently, international sales. Her inadvertent benefactor is rising international star, Benedict Cumberbatch – the man recently touted as the Toronto International Film Festival’s “It” man starring in opening gala The Fifth Estate (as well as two other highly anticipated films) and the forthcoming recipient of BAFTA Los Angeles’ Britannia award as British Artist of the Year. When Cumberbatch was frequently photographed wearing what he described to a reporter as a "Swedish band, a silver band my friend gave me ages ago, which is for good luck,” his fan base took notice. Fan sites like Cumberbatchweb discussed the actor’s fashion statement. Fans began asking what he was wearing on his wrist and, more important for Lidskog’s business, where they could get one. Word traveled rapidly throughout fandom about the small company specializing in unique, wearable cultural art.

Lidskog and her friends/partners in Lapland collaborate regularly and design jewelry together. The business side of her creative company, including jaunts to Hollywood, takes up most of Lidskog’s time these days, especially since the flood of Cumberbatch-inspired orders. To assist her, in the past two years she has trained an “invaluable young lady who lives near the Arctic Circle,” but “designing new styles is [still] something I love doing. We are a small team, and we work very well together.”

These Sami artists follow traditional methods to craft each handmade piece, adding, for example, silver beads or swirled patterns of pewter thread to the vegetable-tanned reindeer leather. (Lidskog reminds me that reindeer are not an endangered species, and “everything from the animal is traditionally used for different purposes.” She also has used alternate materials for bracelets requested by vegans.) Lidskog takes online orders of items listed in her catalog, but the B12 Sami band in black leather is the one that Cumberbatch’s fans, now called the CumberCollective, want to wear. From her home base in Boston, Lidskog makes bracelets as often as time permits and forwards some orders to the artists back in Sweden.

Making jewelry is more than the Lapland artisans’ livelihood; their art makes its wearers aware of the historic significance of the friendship band and the culture it represents. Lidskog includes a printed history with each purchase. This document explains that the “indigenous Sami (Laplanders) have lived in northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia for 10,000 years” and today “17,000 Sami live in Sweden but only 3,000 still have reindeer herding as their livelihood . . . . Skilled Sami artisans have been embroidering with spun pewter wires on reindeer leather and textile for hundreds of years.”

During the past few years, Lidskog has begun introducing Sami jewelry to Hollywood through gift lounges preceding important industry ceremonies. She notes that “there are gift lounges prior to all the major film festivals and all the major award events in a bunch of countries. Some are held over three days and others just one day. After my company did the Emmys in 2010, I have kept getting invitations” to showcase the jewelry line around the world--“places like Dubai, Paris, Cannes, Toronto, and Los Angeles.” Although larger companies with bigger budgets for promotions can more easily afford to send representatives to far-flung festivals, SwedArt, like many companies represented in gift lounges, is smaller, “and organizers like to present new, cool, up-and-coming, and unique products from small companies.”

Such industry-related gatherings are “held by many different companies, often started by people who have been in the entertainment industry for years and are well connected with actors, producers, agents, stylists, and media. Some have worked with events planning for celebs for a while or are still doing that as well. Without connections, it´s probably hard to attract the right kinds of celebs, because agents only want their clients seen at the best organized and best publicized events.”

To date, Lidskog has accepted two U.S. invitations to gift lounges scheduled before major awards shows--the Golden Globes and Emmys. These occasions are often “exclusive in the sense that only nominees, presenters, well-known stylists, and top media [are invited].” Often a charity element is attached to the gift lounge, “so we were required to gift a certain number of products to charity. I think the organizers of by-invitation-only gift lounges often invite around 500,” although fewer may RSVP to attend, and some famous guests may simply show up.

As might be expected, gift giving to celebrities can become expensive. The hierarchy within gift lounges begins at the low end with a company’s product being included in a gift bag. Lidskog explains that, in the events in which she has participated, the organizers suggested that a business send at least 100 products, “plus pay a few thousand dollars, [but] there is no personal representation” accompanying the merchandise. The next higher level of product placement “is usually a table presentation, but no company representation is allowed.” From there, the next levels include both a table and one or more representatives. Tables “with a rep or owner present often start at $5,000. After that, it´s a bigger space [and] several reps, and it can cost $15,000 to $40,000 for a big sponsor.”

Lidskog managed to negotiate down the fees so that having a table and two representatives would be affordable for her small business. She learned that it helps to have a unique, highly coveted product to display, because organizers may consider negotiating prices if they really want to include something new and cool. She also had help from her two children, who work within the Los Angeles entertainment industry.

“When A-listers arrived at my table, I would whip out a more exclusive bracelet from my extensive collection of over 100 different styles. I had a nice assortment displayed on my table, but those were teasers and for display mostly for media and stylists. I was able to stay within my budget for how much I gave away, and I was proud of that. My kids were a big help because they were excellent at guiding me about how ‘big’ the celebrity approaching my table was so I could prepare for their visit to my table.” Lidskog admits that “I´m terrible at remembering names and who was in what movie or show,” and her children’s assistance was much appreciated.

When one of the famous approached Lidskog’s table, “an escort introduced the guest to me”. Usually that escort was carrying “a huge bag that was filling up with swag. Some [guests] even came with their own cameramen, and I was interviewed on camera several times.” Being close to the stars comes with rules, however, and Lidskog could not ask a Hollywood heartthrob for a phone number. “At the Emmy event, we were strictly forbidden to ask the nominees and presenters for their contact info, but we were encouraged to ask media reps and stylists for their business cards.” Photo ops, on the other hand, were expected. “Each event had three to five professional photographers covering the tables to make sure at least one photo was taken of each guest with the product. We were not guaranteed to get a photo of each guest with our product, but I did, and I was happy about that. The guests are very well aware of the fact that our payback and purpose is to get their photo with our product.”

Lidskog found that the majority of famous people wanting to check out the jewelry were “easy to chat with” and “friendly and relaxed. Some wanted us to be in the picture as well, and there were many laughs. If a celeb or important guest said something I could use later for marketing purposes, I asked my assistant to write it down.”

Publicizing SwedArt is key to her job, but Lidskog simply gets a kick out of seeing guests enjoy the jewelry. A benefit of these bracelets/bands is that they can be custom sized, and Lidskog loves “meeting people with tiny or huge wrists, because they always have trouble finding bracelets to fit their wrists. I love seeing their happy faces when I tell them I can custom make any size and that I might even have their size in stock. At the Emmy event, the smile of talented Quinton Aaron, from the movie The Blind Side, was priceless when I placed an XXL bracelet around his wrist that was a perfect fit.”

Candy Spelling also “said she loved” the bracelet she received. “She asked very sweetly if she should hold up her hand so that my SwedArt sign would be visible in the picture”. Such encounters not only are good for business but create lasting memories. Lidskog says she fondly recalls that meeting “every time I take my grandkids to the playground near Bel Air,” a few minutes away from the house where Spelling used to live. (Another “pretty special” memory is “a kiss on the check” from “charming and handsome” Eric Roberts.)

Among the company’s famous clientele is Sheryl Crow, who Lidskog met before a concert six years ago. Crow bought several bracelets, which she can be seen wearing on tour. Look closely on television and in movies, too, for more SwedArt. Lidskog “designed custom pieces for Drea de Matteo, worn in Desperate Housewives,” and Rachel McAdams wears SwedArt in The Vow.

Then the CumberCollective arrived. “For a small company like mine, I felt that I had been very lucky to be able to have that many celebs wear SwedArt jewelry already. . . . And then along comes Benedict Cumberbatch,” and his fans “are even more excited” and appreciative of the bands.

Before this year’s Emmys, Lidskog considered sending Sami bracelets with a friend who would be working with gift bags in the hope that Emmy-nominated Cumberbatch might visit the gift lounge and learn more about the band he has so elegantly, if unexpectedly made more famous. She decided against relying on serendipity and learned later that Cumberbatch did not make it to this year’s ceremony because he is filming The Imitation Game in England. Nevertheless, Lidskog would like for Cumberbatch to know more about the band he so often has worn in public and contacted the actor’s London agency to present a thank-you gift of additional styles of Sami art.

Despite meeting A-listers and knowing they wear her bracelets/bands at home as well as in public or on screen, Lidskog is humble when discussing her business. “My company is just me, a couple of Swedish artisan friends, and my husband helping out”. Nevertheless, she estimates she has sold “thousands of bracelets to more 30 countries, maybe even close to 40 now. Orders are coming in on my computer around the clock, seven days a week. Right now, it´s a lot of ‘Benedict Cumberbatch’ bracelet/band orders,” but the business also benefits from repeat customers pleased with their initial purchase.

In addition, the celebrity factor plays a role: “I do know for a fact that many of my customers are impressed, intrigued, and even feel part of the excitement around my participating and being able to tell stories about the celebs I met in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. I love sharing stories”. Still, much of the company’s success can be attributed to “the passion and pride I feel for my bracelets and the ‘journey’. Even people who have never seen or heard about these tribal bracelets will often buy one after they have stopped at my table at a show, listened to me talk about their interesting origin, and heard me explain why so many celebrities shown [on my] posters wear SwedArt.”

Like most fairy tales, this story has a happy ending for everyone. Fans from Pac-Asia, North America, and Europe now sport matching bands that are becoming a tangible symbol of their fondness for Cumberbatch. Their wrist art also marks them as fans of SwedArt--and supporters of artists thousands of miles away.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

It's Elementary, Sherlock: U.S. and U.K. Interpretations of the Popular Mr. Holmes, Plus Writing News

Lots of new Sherlock Holmes- or Benedict Cumberbatch-related writing news:

On Saturday, October 5, I'll talk about Sherlock Holmes and John/Joan Watson during the Popular Culture Association in the South's conference in Savannah, GA. Entitled "It's Elementary, Sherlock: U.S. and U.K. Interpretations of the Popular Mr. Holmes," my Saturday morning presentation illustrates the very different approaches to Holmes and Watson taken by, respectively, the BBC and CBS. (I might even have a few things to say about the season premiere of Elementary, filmed in London, and #setlock rumors for Sherlock S3, so I probably should issue a spoiler alert at the beginning of the discussion.) If you're planning to attend PCAS, I hope you'll come to the lucky 13th session (13.3 Television Sights and Sounds), where I'll be a panelist. To give you a better idea of my topic, here's the conference abstract:

Since 2010, the BBC’s hit television series Sherlock has intrigued audiences and accumulated numerous awards for the series as well as its lead actors, Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes) and Martin Freeman (John Watson). This modern adaptation emphasizes Sherlock’s bromance with John almost as often as it twists Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon into interesting new stories. Although Sherlock became a cult favorite on PBS, U.S. producers approached Sherlock’s creators to discuss developing an American version of the British hit. When that approach failed, CBS went ahead to modernize its own Sherlock Holmes adaptation, Elementary, which debuted in 2012. In part to legally separate itself from the BBC’s series, Elementary’s Holmes (played by Jonny Lee Miller) is a former New Scotland Yard consultant now living in New York City following a stint in drug rehab; Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) begins the series as his sober companion. Elementary primarily emphasizes Holmes’ addictive personality and his passionate mood swings. The series fits well with CBS’ preference for CSI-styled detectives and hour-long police procedurals, whereas Sherlock builds movie-length story arcs that often involve a growing personal threat to its title character (e.g., that posed by Moriarty, S1-2). Sherlock underscores the detective’s “otherness,” but Elementary often strives to make Holmes seem more “normal.” As viewed through the lens of very different cultural expectations for a modern Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock and Elementary say a great deal about their creators and audiences and our expectations for a modern Sherlock Holmes adaptation.

I'm thrilled that author/editor Carlen Lavigne allowed me to develop a much more in-depth look at both Sherlock and Elementary in a chapter for her new book, Remake Television: Reboot, Re-use, Recycle, which will be published by Lexington Books. In my chapter, "Smart, Sexy, and Technologically Savvy: (Re)Making Sherlock Holmes as a 21st-Century Superstar," I cover not only character development in and comparisons between characters in Sherlock and Elementary, but I also draw comparisons between Cumberbatch's and Miller's portrayals and that of Jeremy Brett in the popular Granada series.

And, while mentioning Miller and Cumberbatch, I'll introduce the article recently published in the scholarly journal, Studies in Popular Culture (35.2, Spring 2013, pp. 1-21). "It's Alive! National Theatre Live's Frankenstein" offers my analysis of the phenomenon of NT Live's famous broadcasts of Frankenstein, starring Cumberbatch and Miller. I consider whether a recorded theatrical presentation broadcast to cinemas worldwide can ever meet the definition of "film" (even as a recording) or whether it always will remain a unique hybrid of live theatrical and filmed performance. For those who want to read the article but aren't members of the Popular Culture Association, just be patient a few months longer. Back issues "come alive" online for public viewing, and--ever self-promotional--I'll be sure to post the link when it's available.

I've had some good news this week about future presentations/publications.

"Khan Games: Benedict Cumberbatch and Star Trek: Into Darkness" will be my presentation at the Popular Culture Association's annual conference, which will be held in Chicago in April 2014. Not only do I enjoy researching Cumberbatch-as-Khan, but now I have to read IDW's Khan comic book series that starts in October. Life as a researcher/writer is difficult....I guess I'll also have to review how many fan sites include the Cumberbatch shower .gif--you know the one. The text of my presentation most likely will become a book chapter during the next year.

Finally, I can't quite announce officially but will say that it looks very promising that my next academic book will be about Vincent Van Gogh. And you thought I only write about television, film, literature, and actors.

In the name of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I'm fond of "Vincent and the Doctor." And there's Benedict Cumberbatch's lovely performance in Painted with Words....However, the Van Gogh book is the result of a glorious trip to the Netherlands and Belgium this summer and my research at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in particular. (Remember my FB posts featuring chocolate hedgehogs and wheat fields blowing in the breeze? All research.)

Now I merely have to find time after teaching and developing a new course about film/television adaptations from literature (The Hobbit? Sherlock? Elementary? Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?) to take the books and papers from inside my head and get them onto my laptop--and eventually to you.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Playing Politics: Benedict Cumberbatch and the Actor’s Role in Political Debate

Do an actor’s political concerns warrant media publicity? More important, do an actor’s comments have an impact on the way the public thinks—or the government reacts?

In the past few days, photos surfaced from the Sherlock set showing Benedict Cumberbatch holding up signs to the paparazzi. That alone is an interesting act that seems to have burgeoned into both an effective way to get information to the global media and to “interact” with the media without talking with them (and increasing the possibility of being misquoted or badgered into saying more than Cumberbatch intended). A Wales Online article first reported the actor, head down, in a dark hoodie and shades, holding a white sheet of paper with a political message in front of his face. The photo wasn’t the focus of the article about Sherlock’s latest filming around Cardiff; in fact, the headline emphasized a new cast addition and featured several upbeat photos of Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington. Nevertheless, as you might expect, media quickly picked up on the Cumberbatch photo and the message clutched in his hand: “Go photograph Egypt and show the world something important.”

Within four days, approximately 50 news outlets around the world had republished the photo and commentary, and websites had received thousands of hits each. Some comments regarding the photo were positive, praising Cumberbatch for wanting to focus on an increasingly volatile situation in Egypt and underscoring why he is many fans’ favorite celebrity and justifiably the “thinking woman’s crumpet.”

An Esquire blog on August 19 summarized the potential of using celebrity for political awareness. Lt. Col. Robert Bateman wrote about Cumberbatch’s Egypt sign: “Yes, it is a futile gesture. Holding up a sign? . . . But, what if ALL celebrities started doing this? . . . What if all of the stars, hounded by the dogs of photography, started blocking their image and holding up signs about what is really important in the news? . . . There is no shortage of topics that matter more. And I suspect, being humans before they were celebrities, some of those [actors mentioned in this blog] might agree, regardless of their PR apparatus. . . . That would renew my faith in the nation that I defend--if her stars, her glitterati and her icons set the people of Egypt before themselves. But perhaps, maybe, possibly, those public figures that make their living by being public, can earn their acclaim by doing something that is right. Redirect social attention to places and people that need this attention.”

Others, however, raised questions about the propriety of an actor (in this case, Cumberbatch, who has been the focus of media criticism for his words in the past) stating his politics, especially when such a famous man knows that the paparazzi waiting for him to emerge from his trailer will photograph his every move once he stepped outside. On August 19, Now Daily asked, “What gives Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch the right to take the moral high ground?” The article questioned why Cumberbatch should trivialize the photographers’ jobs and added “one could argue that his job isn't exactly doing much to change the world either.”

Both writers note that one man’s—even sought-after Benedict Cumberbatch’s—words or the rather passive action of holding up a sign may not change anything. However, Cumberbatch’s recent “sign posts” are far more than most of us do, whether we are celebrities or actors or people seeing the photos online. Cumberbatch occasionally explains during interviews that he admires the careers of Brad Pitt or George Clooney. Perhaps part of that admiration and desire to emulate their success and film-making power is also respect for these stars’ political actions, whether overseas (e.g., Darfur) or at home (e.g., post-Katrina New Orleans). Even Clooney’s direct action of smuggling cameras into refugee camps in an effort to show the world what’s really going on in Darfur failed to generate the public outcry or intervention the actor had hoped for. (See a 2010 article for more Clooney comments about his “greatest failure.”) Pitt’s innovative, affordable housing development has not had quite the impact on residents that he (and some vocal residents with whom I’ve spoken) envisioned. (See a 2013 article for more information about the New Orleans homes.) Nevertheless, actors—no more, no less than anyone else—have the freedom-of-speech right and moral obligation to stand up for causes in which they believe. They may be no more successful than any of us non-celebs, but they surely will get more publicity for their political activism.

After the initial success of the Egypt note, Cumberbatch followed up with a four-page note concerning a political issue closer to (geographically, his) home. On August 21, Metro published a photo of Cumberbatch, dressed in Sherlock’s trademark form-fitting suit and his own shades as he prepared to film more scenes. He stood out in the open, holding up a page at a time and, in the Metro photo, almost seems to be smirking in the sun as the media photograph his message. It is a very different look from the presentation of the Egypt sign. This time, too, the media—such as the Metro article—focused solely on Cumberbatch’s political statements and his “silent protest” against the government’s decision to detain the partner of a Guardian journalist under anti-terror laws. The four pages illustrated “Questions we have a right to ask in a democracy – [David] Cameron, Theresa May, GCHQ, teachers, parents, each other . . . Hard drives smashed, journalists detained at airports. Democracy? Schedule 7 Prior restraint – is this erosion of civil liberties winning the war on terror? What do they not want you to know? And how did they get to know it? Does the exposure of their techniques cause a threat to our security or does it just cause them embarrassment?”

Whereas video from Egypt has been on most global television news for weeks and Cumberbatch’s fans were at least somewhat aware of what is going on (or at least being reported) in that country, they collectively may not have been as aware of David Miranda’s detention without arrest over the weekend. Now they are more likely to follow this news story and its political implications.

Again, the signs ask questions without Cumberbatch positing any answers, but the tone and phrasing of the questions indicate the actor’s political disquiet about the journalist’s detention and surrender of personal property. Cumberbatch would hardly put himself in an increasingly prominent media position to state a political message if he didn’t believe in what he is doing.

Given the intense interest in his first message, Cumberbatch expanded his delivery style and message content for the next political photo op. This isn’t a criticism—it is merely an observation that Cumberbatch now understands exactly how much media attention his political views will garner and chose to use the same forum to further ask thought-provoking, perhaps action-promoting questions. It will be interesting to see where, publicly politically, he goes from here.

A very cynical interpretation is that the escalation of printed messages has garnered Mr. Cumberbatch more publicity even during a month when his name is seldom out of the media for a day. Furthermore, it has won over, I suspect, the majority of his fans who have a new reason for adoring him. It further establishes him as a “thinker” aware of world issues. Shortly before the first of three films in which he has a role premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival—with the Cumberbatch-starring “WikiLeaks movie” The Fifth Estate having the honor as the gala opening film on September 5—such alignment between actor and political awareness, especially when the topic concerns journalists tangentially linked with an information “leaker,” can possibly be used to help promote the film. It certainly gives TIFF’s journalists more to ask during press conferences with the actor.

However, waving aside cynicism or pragmatism about the effect Cumberbatch’s printed words will have on his career or the promotion of a film, I think that the actor’s recent time-saving method of discourse works. His message is succinct and not easily misquoted. It gets just as much international attention as his spoken words, with far fewer potentially negative consequences for the actor. (Once he committed to holding up those signs, he put himself out there for critical evaluation by the media, public, and huge fanbase.) We have a pretty good idea what Benedict Cumberbatch thinks about the paparazzi waiting outside his door or flocking to Sherlock filming locations. We can’t know the depth of Cumberbatch’s concern about Egypt, Schedule 7, or David Miranda because even a four-page note large enough for the media to photograph doesn’t allow details, analysis, or answers. We can infer that, after so much publicity about the Egypt comment, Cumberbatch is savvy enough to use his celebrity to bring up something timely and provocative.

Most important, though--he made us think, forcing our attention to his Sharpie-scrawled words. Fans who weren’t aware of these political issues might at least learn more about them. Perhaps education of the fan-masses is a valuable outcome of a favorite actor’s politics, however effective or ineffective Cumberbatch’s recent flurry of messages may be in getting politicians, much less nations, to change course. Cumberbatch may have reached in particular young Sherlock fans who avidly follow him, and their awareness of recent political developments may have more of a long-term personal impact than the Esquire or Now Daily writers, anyone who questions an actor’s political clout, or even Cumberbatch himself can imagine.

Oddly enough, when the actor is mute and relying on written messages, he has the loudest voice of all.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Script, Performance, and Authorial License: Alan Dean Foster’s Novelization of Star Trek: Into Darkness


Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of Star Trek: Into Darkness gives readers insights into the film’s script, the actors’ performance, and the author’s own development of iconic characters. In particular, this novelization offers a slightly different interpretation of Khan even from the screen version—one much closer to Benedict Cumberbatch’s description of his role during the many press interviews surrounding the film’s many international premieres.

As Foster mentioned in an interview, he wrote this novelization at a time when e-publishing permits changes to be made nearly to the last minute before official publication, which gave him the ability to merge the script and information gleaned during filming and post-production with his own take on the story. In particular, characters could be significantly expanded in print—a film audience usually isn’t privy to a character’s innermost thoughts or interior monologue.

Of course, I chose to study Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of John Harrison/Khan, but Foster also gave him special treatment in the novel. As Cumberbatch restated during publicity for Star Trek (but perhaps said best in the Rolling Stone interview), “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Putting his character in a more favorable light, the actor noted that “The care he has for his people, his crew and his family is a complete parallel to Kirk.”

In his novel, Foster expanded upon this idea, not only in descriptions that go beyond script direction or elements of Cumberbatch’s performance. At eight separate points in the novel (I can share page numbers if you’re as obsessive as I am with documentation), the author referred to Harrison/Khan as a savior, whether his actions save a child or a Captain. Harrison/Khan’s “gifts,” ranging from extra firepower to the ability for cellular regeneration, are also mentioned several times. This language balances the portrayal of the story’s villain (although I’ll still quibble that a certain Admiral is actually more villainous). Instead of making Khan only a bad guy, the novelization supports Cumberbatch’s performance that Khan is capable of doing great harm, but he also can use his considerable learned skills, as well as his genetically enhanced body, to save others.

Not all characters accept Khan’s beneficence at face value, however. Both Spock and McCoy caution Kirk about Khan’s possible motivation for saving Enterprise crew members [i.e., McCoy: “If he saved your lives, he did so because he saw something in it for him” (p. 162); Spock: “A man like Khan does nothing without a reason” (p. 221)]. Foster followed the script in providing these warnings, but he repeated savior, save, and gift to remind readers that Khan is not a one-dimensional villain.

Harrison/Khan may seem godlike by deciding who lives or dies by his hand (or blood), but Foster emphasized that his actions are decidedly driven by love of his own crew and desire to be reunited with them, just as Cumberbatch discussed in the Rolling Stone interview. The novel, much more than the film, explains the Spock-Khan chess match late in the film that determines where Khan’s crew ends up. The author’s license to explain actions and motivations in greater detail is a benefit to Khan’s character development. Once the Enterprise is (temporarily) safe, McCoy’s page-length speech elaborates on Khan’s decision to beam his crew aboard the appropriately named USS Vengeance. This monologue provides a great deal of insight into Khan’s reasoning, actions, and time frame for decision making, all which would have slowed the movie’s pace as it built momentum toward the final fights. In the novelization, Khan errs primarily because he is in a hurry; in the film, this mastermind seems suddenly stupid in underestimating Spock. Although I can’t condone Khan’s violence—he is, after all, efficiently ruthless in getting what he wants—I appreciate Foster’s ability to layer Khan’s characterization in print as much as Cumberbatch layered it on screen.

Foster, as readers might expect from such a masterful author, excels at precise word choice. Although Spock’s voice also is emphasized during key scenes when he must be in command or exceptionally emotional, Khan’s is the voice “heard” most forcefully throughout the novel. As in the memorable trailer that introduced audiences to Cumberbatch’s character, readers “hear” his voice before they read a physical description. What Cumberbatch termed Khan’s “scalpel precision” of thought and speech is personified through Foster’s careful selection of descriptors, with verbs like snarl and roar and tones that, at different emotional high points in a scene, are pitying, condescending, firm, sharp, relentless, matter-of-fact, unshakably confident. As Foster illustrated through a crew member’s dialogue, “Listen to him too long, and he’ll have you believing anything.”

Foster’s novelization underscores the nuances that make Cumberbatch’s portrayal of a summer blockbuster villain more than just the typical psycho or megalomaniac. Throughout the novel and film Khan is a man with a plan, one that only hints at the depths of his focus and determination to mold the world according his personal vision. This character could have been one note, but, especially by highlighting Khan’s vocal qualities in this novelization, the author referenced Cumberbatch’s alluring voice, which is key in bringing audiences or Captains under Khan's spell.

What is particularly interesting about this novelization is its close connection not only to the finished film but to specific aspects of an actor’s performance, most notably Cumberbatch’s. This novel is the first book (not script) to incorporate Cumberbatch’s performance in the text’s discussion of the way a character sounds or behaves. Although Sherlock scripters probably write more toward the specific talents of Cumberbatch or Martin Freeman in series three than they did in the pilot, Cumberbatch’s previous roles on film, television, or stage were written long before casting. The novelization was written simultaneously with the film’s production/post-production, and specific aspects of Cumberbatch in the role of Khan, from physical appearance [“His face was narrow, his eyes remarkably penetrating” (p. 36)] to performance [“the tear that ran down his right cheek” (p. 93)], have been included. Wherever the character of Khan goes next in the Trekverse, this novelization clearly blends Cumberbatch’s performance with the scripted characterization, as well as Foster’s own insight into the character. In fact, given Foster’s description of writing a novelization as “work for hire,” far fewer of his original ideas make it into this type of writing than in one of his original works. Thus, Cumberbatch’s performance gains even more weight as a source for this print “adaptation” of the film.

Certainly Khan’s physical appearance mirrors Cumberbatch-as-Khan in the recent teaser cover of IDW’s forthcoming (in October) six-issue comic book series. Star Trek: Khan should provide more than a rebooted backstory for this character—it also may rely more than a little on Cumberbatch’s interpretation from Into Darkness. If so, Cumberbatch will have more of a direct influence on the rebooted Khan, on screen or in print, than he may have imagined when he first signed on to play one of the most interesting Star Trek characters of all time.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

That Voice: Benedict Cumberbatch’s New Voiceover Roles

Think of “that voice”—the one you recognize immediately because it belongs to a famous television or film actor who is now explaining why you should buy a product or believe in a cause. You Pavlovianly respond to the richness and sheer pleasure of the sound. In the U.S., Morgan Freeman is one of the top film actors whose voice is sought for a memorable voiceover. If he tells me I need a new Visa card or explains why penguins migrate, I listen—and, more important, I remember that he was the one who informed me.

In an article about voice acting, Dan Hurst explained why Freeman’s voice is so popular with marketing execs and casting agents as well as audiences: it is unique, comfortable, and confident. It also has that “park bench” quality—as if you and your buddy Morgan were sitting together on a park bench while he explained something important. You trust him; he sounds friendly and approachable.

Cumberbatch has the first three “Morgan Freeman qualities”. His voice, especially in the deeper ranges often used in his narrations, resonates with authority. It’s confident; Cumberbatch sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, whether the topic is scientific theory or dog food. Fans may also associate him with his intelligent, informative interview style, a plus for a voiceover actor trying to gain an audience’s attention. Cumberbatch’s natural enthusiasm for new ideas or experiences provides that “comfort” level Hurst describes; if this actor seems genuinely interested in a subject, listeners will be, too. However, I don’t know that Cumberbatch’s voice has a “park bench” quality, given his previous voiceover work and recent high-profile roles in Sherlock and Star Trek: Into Darkness or his upcoming role as Smaug in The Hobbit. These characters do not exude a “buddy” quality or suggest the easy warmth of a friendly Morgan Freeman.

What Cumberbatch offers, however, is what I call “dark chocolate.” It is rich, deep, and seductive. It’s alluring and compelling. Addictive. His “let the games begin” conclusion to the BBC’s introduction of the Summer Olympics made me want to watch simply because that voice implied Intrigue. It suggested competition, hard-won triumph, and even danger. That voice has a quality other actors lack—it can be informative or persuasive but hint at delightful darkness. That doesn’t mean that his voiceovers are sinister—they simply offer another potential layer of meaning, when appropriate, to pull in listeners.

When Cumberbatch acts a role, rather than serves as a narrator, for example, his voice becomes whatever the character requires. Martin Crieff sounds distinctly different from Islington. That’s why I look forward to meeting his character in a new animated series, Poppy’s Fields, which was announced this week. I’m curious what this character will sound like, what his accent may be, how he emphasizes words or finds the humor in a line. I’m also interested in a travel-doc to Jerusalem, also revealed this week, because, with it, Cumberbatch adds yet another narrator credit to his already-long resume of non-acting vocal roles. I enjoy the actor’s voice as much as that of one of his characters.

Such work adds to the breadth of his career and, quite efficiently, allows him to fill in possible break times between television or film projects. No matter what else Cumberbatch decides to pursue, voiceover work can always be part of his long-lived career. Because his name is seldom out of entertainment news this summer, the Cumberbatch-associated projects announced this week likely will reap a much bigger, more diverse audience. It's a win-win-win, for actor, project, and audience.

I smiled when I read one post to the Benedict Cumberbatch In Transition Facebook page: “Just tell us about his voice.” Certainly that’s not the extent of this actor’s entertainment or educational value, but, within our popular culture that often extols primarily the visual, That Voice is a very good reason to simply sit back and listen.

Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition is available through Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Performance Shines through “Darkness”

SPOILERS for Star Trek: Into Darkness—If you don’t want to be spoiled about plot and character developments, please don’t read this week’s blog.

Although I’ll probably write more about Star Trek: Into Darkness, if not here, then for conferences or journals, this time I’m focusing only on Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance. After seeing the film more than once in the U.S., with a vastly different crowd each time, I was pleased but not surprised that Cumberbatch’s name is the one most mentioned when the movie is over.

When I first saw the IMAX 3D version last Wednesday (the first U.S. screening for the public), I had a long wait from the moment we were allowed into the theater until the show started more than an hour later. Naturally, with hundreds of friendly Trekkers/Trekkies in the same place, we were bound to start talking to each other. In my row alone were fans from the U.K. and Australia—perhaps not surprising when our IMAX venue is located at Universal City Walk in Orlando. “I’m not here for Benedict Cumberbatch. I’m a long-time Trekkie,” one woman confided after our hellos. “But I want to see what he does in this movie.” Her friend said, “I’m a Cumberbabe,” then added, “although I guess we’re now supposed to be part of the Collective. Sounds kinda like the Borg, though.” Could work, I thought—another Star Trek reference.

On the way out of the theater the next time I saw Star Trek on an IMAX screen (a few days later), my friends enthused about Cumberbatch all the way down the stairs to the lobby. Words like “creepy” and “perfect villain” matched the general group assessment that Mr. Cumberbatch is very, very good in this role. There’s something about watching his expression on a screen stories high and hearing that voice surrounding us in the dark that makes an IMAX-sized impression.

In Benedict Cumberbatch: In Transition, I comment that, although Star Trek certainly would gain the actor a much larger global audience—and, more important, a mainstream audience of blockbuster-lovers worldwide—it likely won’t earn him an Academy Award. SF or fantasy movies don’t tend to receive Oscars for acting or directing, or as best picture, no matter how much money they make at the box office or how much media attention they generate. (Return of the King, with best picture and directing Oscars among its 11, is a big exception in Academy history.) That type of recognition may come with Cumberbatch’s work in other films out later this year, closer to nomination time. Of course, only hindsight will tell where Star Trek ultimately ranks in his list of career-changing films. For now, Star Trek (including its media publicity) is doing a great job of showcasing Cumberbatch (whose name truly does take up the width of the screen credits), but the role is only garnering so much attention because Cumberbatch did his job well first.

The role Cumberbatch was given to play is vastly different from the one scripted for Ricardo Montalban in the 1982 Wrath of Khan. That character sought to avenge the death of his wife and beloved friends, exiled by Kirk to what became a barren planet and then abandoned. Khan's motive was simple: revenge. He had a very personal grudge against Kirk. The “superman” of genetic engineering awakened in theaters in 2013 has much more of a motivational problem; he becomes a terrorist working against the Federation, presumably because his crew is being held hostage and sabotaging the Feds after he has been “fired” by them is his best way to free his friends.

Cumberbatch “Khans” us into believing that rather awkward backstory and assumes the role of a prime villain (even though Admiral Marcus is really the evil mastermind catalyst behind much of the plot). What does Cumberbatch do that’s so effective? Consider Khan's eyes, emotional range (which, for the movie’s “heavy,” is surprisingly wide and deep), physical grace and power, and voice.

When Kirk angrily addresses the incarcerated Khan, Cumberbatch lets the moment build before his response. It’s not a long pause by any means, but he drags his eyes slowly up Kirk until he makes unblinking eye contact. Instead of Kirk being in charge of his prisoner, Khan assesses Kirk and decides best how to talk with him. It’s subtle, but it works beautifully to illustrate that Khan is hardly incapacitated. One critic called Cumberbatch’s eyes serpent-like—and there is a mesmerizing quality to his gaze. Without moving, Cumberbatch-as-Khan exudes menace—he seems all-seeing.

Did you notice how many men tear up in this movie? Best teardrop still goes to Spock. (I could hear the splash!) However, most villains never show the emotional “weakness” of shedding even the quietest tears, and, if they do, their emotion is highly suspect because, well, they’re villains. They’re supposed to lie to us. When Khan gets emotional about his crew, he turns his back to his captors, but the audience can clearly see his eyes fill. A single drop overflows down his cheek. Khan seems truly moved by the loss of his crew, his “family.” The believability of every other action he takes in the movie rests on this teardrop. If we believe he genuinely loves his crew and will do anything to get them back, then we accept Khan’s motive for everything from destroying swaths of major cities to surrendering to Kirk to manipulating others to get what he wants. Khan can become a multidimensional character only if we accept that he is more than just a bad guy who mindlessly seeks the Federation’s destruction.

Cumberbatch sells that scene. It’s quiet. It seems real, even if it manipulates our perception of Khan. It makes him human, not just a killing machine.

When Khan takes over Marcus' ship, he again could seem way over the top with avenging anger, but--although looking every inch the Big Bad as he crushes skulls--Cumberbatch never trips over that fine line into silliness. He does look manic when he turns kamikaze—but the emotion still is grounded in the story's reality (well, as much reality as a summer blockbuster is going to give us). All that emotional control in scenes where Khan sits quietly (and with perfect posture) just explodes when there is no reason for him to rein in his emotions.

Speaking of explosions (and in this movie there are many), I was especially impressed with Khan’s (or rather Cumberbatch’s, and in some scenes his stunt double’s) graceful movement and sheer physical power. I love the sweeping motions and dancer's grace as Khan fires weapons to wipe out a Klingon patrol. (That doesn’t seem like a civilized sentiment to write, but I like the battle choreography.) Better yet, on Marcus’ ship, Khan knows the meaning of stealth—he alertly, quietly progresses toward the bridge, but when he encounters a security force, he immediately, violently dispatches them. Those moves made me truly fear Khan. He switches into machine mode and efficiently disposes of anyone in his way—there seems no way to stop such a vicious attack.

I like the man’s moves, but I also appreciate his coiled stillness. Again, in the brig scene, Khan awaits the result of a private conversation between Kirk and Spock. Holding his arm, from which a blood sample has just been taken, Khan watches and waits. When it becomes apparent Kirk is going to talk with him, Khan immediately drops the “weak” stance of holding his arm and instead holds his arms slightly out to his sides. The pose emphasizes his bulk and indicates that he is ready for anything. Even such slight, deliberate movement illustrates the thought behind the performance.

And then there’s the voice, almost a character unto itself. I was impressed with the dark “slithery” quality of Cumberbatch’s delivery—it sounded seductively evil. (I listened to the radio play of Neverwhere a few months ago, and Cumberbatch’s Islington gave me chills because of a similar vocal quality for that character.) One of my favorite Into Darkness lines is “Captain,” a one-word mocking rebuke after Kirk attempts to smash Khan into submission on Kronos. Even two syllables can be nuanced.

Mesmerizing, beguilingly voiced, chilling—Khan compels me to follow him on screen, which is another reason why I continue to follow the career of the captivating Benedict Cumberbatch.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Fast and Furious with Fallon

As an addendum to yesterday's commentary about Benedict Cumberbatch's interviews on talk shows, I’m posting just a few thoughts about this morning's interview with Jimmy Fallon (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon). As far as informative interviews go, the content wasn't the best ever, and the pace was so fast that the audience might not remember details about what was said. So--content-wise, average. However, from a media persona perspective, Cumberbatch was entertaining and more than kept up with Fallon during their mutual fan-fest.

To introduce Cumberbatch to the audience, Fallon mentioned the award nominations that U.S. viewers are more likely to recognize (Golden Globe and Emmy), but he also praised Sherlock at two points in the show, linking the actor with two key projects that American audiences should see. Fallon excelled in elevating Cumberbatch's energy and being so enthusiastic about the actor's work that Cumberbatch seemed empowered. The whole "Who can you impersonate?" game could have led to disaster, because Cumberbatch briefly seemed at a loss for an explanation, repeating his words before launching into a description of a spontaneous impressions game he and Martin Freeman play on set. I wish this moment had smoothly led to more examples of Cumberbatch's mimicry, but at least the guest turned the tables on the host, who then couldn't think of a way to impersonate Hilary Clinton (tough one) or Miss Piggy (at least he tried). The five-minute interview (with Star Trek clip) left little time for long answers or involved stories (although the Harrison Ford anecdote was a winner), but Cumberbatch and Fallon still covered quite a few topics as they ping-ponged words back and forth. Cumberbatch seemed to be with “his people”—Fallon as his greatest fan—and accepted the applause and effusive praise graciously. The nervous mannerisms were still there (at one point upstaging the camera's view of his face), but Cumberbatch seemed to be having fun and was incredibly animated in this interview.

What is interesting is the variety of "Cumbarbatches" U.S. audiences met in just a few days. Of the U.S. television interviews to promote Star Trek this week, Letterman created the most awkward scenarios, which resulted in the weakest “performance,” the Today show only briefly spotlighted Cumberbatch’s film role but presented a well-spoken, confident actor, and Fallon encouraged the hyperactive playmate not everyone in the audience may have yet met. If audiences seeing all three interviews were interested in continuity or had to describe their impression of Cumberbatch based only on these shows, they might have difficulty coming up with a unified conclusion about who he really is (at least in public). On the other hand, the actor showed that he could handle wildly divergent interview styles and present himself differently to each show’s individual audience demographic. It will be interesting to see if, during future promotional appearances, he will present a single “persona,” no matter who conducts the interview or what he is asked, or if Cumberbatch will surprise us with his reactions and responses. Funny, fun, frenetic—a good reason to be watching Fallon and Cumberbatch late night Friday/very early Saturday morning.

The best interview this week—albeit in another medium—is Caitlin Moran’s substantial and well-written article in the Times (full article by subscription here but already available in its entirety on other sites). I enjoy Moran’s books and articles; I admire her style and outlook on life. The new interview is yet another excellent conversation, this time with Cumberbatch and his parents. Moran's word choice is so descriptive that I could "see" the family home and practically sit down to Sunday dinner. For pure enjoyment, Moran's interview is well worth a couple of reads this weekend. It allows Cumberbatch to express himself in depth and to have more control over the way he will be perceived in the media during this incredibly busy time.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Road to Stardom is Paved with Talk Shows

We can’t know an actor by his public appearances, on a red carpet or through a television interview, but the images and sound bites left behind do a lot to track changes in an actor’s public persona and audience expectations for the way stars should act.

Benedict Cumberbatch was talking to the Huffington Post UK about his privacy in light of so much media attention when he commented that “You can't control perceptions any more.” The intense interest in everything he does, whether in front of the camera or behind closed doors, results in dozens of online and in-print articles every day, especially during the double whammy of Sherlock filming and national premieres of Star Trek: Into Darkness.

In the U.S., Cumberbatch has previously been in the entertainment news, ranging from media reports (like those in Variety or The Hollywood Reporter) that tout his heavy work load or television interviews most often broadcast from red carpets or seen on cable networks like MTV or E!. But then came Star Trek.

Although many (most?) Cumberbatch fans had already found a way to watch the actor on The Graham Norton Show recorded soon after the London Star Trek premiere, the episode was first broadcast in the U.S. on BBC America on May 9, which proved to be the start of a very busy few days for talk show-following American fans. In addition to Graham Norton, Cumberbatch fielded questions on NBC’s Today (in the 10-11 a.m. EDT time slot, outside the viewing time of many 9-to-5ers) and CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman and will do so later on May 10 on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon—three top shows reaching a wide demographic in different time slots. Ratings published for the week of April 22-26, the latest I could find by the time of this blog, showed that Letterman averaged 2.8 million viewers during that time period, and Fallon was watched by 1.7 million, especially impressive in the latter case because he won the late late time slot in all measured demographics (18- to 34-year-olds, 18-49, and 25-54, men and women).

What does that mean for Cumberbatch? He made it to mainstream U.S. entertainment media that reached millions of potential moviegoers (and new fans) within the span of a couple of brief television appearances. Many U.S. viewers likely had never seen or heard of him before those talk show appearances. Whereas the BBC America audience should already include more Sherlock or Cumberbatch fans, it also is more of a niche cable audience. NBC and CBS are network “biggies” with a wider broadcast area; most homes in the U.S. with televisions can see these networks on basic cable. Add to that the later viewings, such as full online episodes of the Fallon show (not to mention YouTube and media or fan website videos), and Cumberbatch potentially will reach the widest audience ever to see his interviews.

Now the important questions regarding his celebrity and fast-track to film stardom: What do viewers perceive or learn from watching these talk-show interviews? Although those interviewed on television can’t control the show’s content or the host’s approach to the interview, actors can largely control their performance and, in Cumberbatch’s case, he can introduce himself as he wants the American public to see him. His wardrobe, demeanor, and body language are just as important as his words.

Please note that the following comments aren’t critical of Benedict Cumberbatch. He is doing exactly what he should do to develop his image during this transitional stage of his career and smoothly enter what he jokes he has been warned about—a career “blast off” after Star Trek.

The Graham Norton Show and Today

Cumberbatch’s appearance on The Graham Norton Show is a good indicator of the Cumberbatch-as-budding-movie-star persona. Immaculate in a dark suit, the actor looked formal and professional, his demeanor relaxed to the point that, late in the show, he lounged (well, as much as someone with such wonderful posture can slouch). When Norton teased him about the name of his fans, he “acted” embarrassed with obvious mannerisms at the term “Cumberbitches” and suggested an alternative: “The Cumber Collective.” He’s made similar comments (and told the neutron cream story) before, but during much of the show he gave the expected responses—all safe, little to nothing new (depending on the fan's prior knowledge).

During one segment, Norton asked fans how far they had traveled just to be in the audience. When a few who traveled hours by bus or plane just to see Cumberbatch identified themselves, the actor bounded up the studio stairs to briefly hug and kiss cheeks—a move guaranteed to endear him to fans. It also encouraged fellow Star Trek actor Chris Pine to do the same for those “Pine Nuts” who came a long way just to see him. The fan activity seemed unscripted, spontaneous fun, but it also reinforced the image of Cumberbatch as a man who publicly thanks his fans for their support. The Graham Norton Show also provided an opportunity for Cumberbatch to initiate an interaction with fans in a controlled environment (i.e., he wasn’t going to get mobbed on camera). That’s not a cynical comment—it’s a reality of Cumberbatch’s new level of fame that he must walk the proverbial tightrope of communicating directly with fans without putting himself or others in a dangerous position. Recent comparisons have been made between Cumberbatch or Sherlock fans and Beatlemania, as ever-growing crowds await his arrival, whether on location shoots or for an interview.

Cumberbatch’s humorous, self-deprecating anecdotes about working on Star Trek, which most fans have heard before, are safe, funny stories new audiences can remember (and the media can repeat). They provide brief insights into behind-the-scenes antics, and they show that Cumberbatch has a sense of humor, including about himself, and is not as all-knowing as Sherlock or Star Trek’s evil mastermind. In personality, the actor seems more like one of us, or like a friend we’d like to have. Unlike some television interviews, in which the actor displayed a few nervous mannerisms (e.g., the thigh rub/pat, hand-brush over his head), with Norton the actor’s speaking pace was conversationally slower, his tone evenly warm and inviting, his gestures far more controlled. In short, Cumberbatch came across as friendly, humble, humorous, and appreciative—everything the public could want from one of its stars, especially one now representing British actors (perhaps even the U.K.) in global media.

It was an excellent appearance, but it also made me a bit sad because it lacked the spark of something unexpected or “natural” happening between host and interviewee. Even when Cumberbatch was prompted to show how he could make even an innocuous teaser sound threatening, he showed off his talent for improv and a good cold reading while being a good sport. It was entertaining, but I enjoy listening to this actor talk because he is thoughtful and expressive, sometimes taking a long time to answer questions, sometimes getting so caught up in explaining a role or project that he stumbles over a word or rushes through sentences in his enthusiasm. He might fidget, depending on what is happening in the interview. I like a less polished, more free flowing interview that seems a bit riskier or spontaneous.

Granted, talk-show appearances may always be simply another performance, but Cumberbatch's previous interviews (or lengthier Q&As about films or plays) often gave at least the illusion (and I hope the reality) that audiences see more of the actor than the celebrity or star. Now that Cumberbatch faces more media every day and, in the past few years, has learned some hard lessons about the nature of celebrity, he is doing very well in developing a professional persona for the world’s broadcast media—but such personas can become bland because they become what the public expects to see. I enjoyed seeing London premiere photos emphasizing Cumberbatch's huge grin as he posed on the red carpet. (I doubt I’ve seen so many photos published in which he is smiling so widely that he looks fit to literally burst with happiness.) I liked reading that he cried when overhearing a cast member’s praise. Those expressions of emotion aren’t typically shown or discussed in the press about long-time movie stars. They still are a bit unexpected and different than the usual red carpet stories.

On May 10, Cumberbatch’s brief appearance on Today was again polished and relaxed. Dressed more casually than on Graham Norton or Letterman, Cumberbatch seemed more laid back. His sound bite-sized answers in the brief couple of minutes allotted to his interview gave audiences 1) the neutron cream story, 2) brief identification with a key role in Star Trek, but more important and almost a throwaway line, and 3) mention of his roles as scientists Hawking and Heisenberg. Now, to some fans who want Sherlock included in that list, Cumberbatch’s unprompted comment is sure to rankle. However, from a career standpoint, within about 90 seconds, the actor did a few great things to introduce himself to a potentially new, mainstream U.S. audience (a different crowd at 10 a.m. than at 12:30 a.m.): He mentioned two roles that Americans just getting to know him may not have seen or even known about; he was succinct, well spoken, well dressed, confident, still humble, and sexily deeper voiced. This is the persona that his PR team will want to emphasize Cumberbatch’s star power.

Late Night with David Letterman

Very early on May 10 I posted on Facebook my conclusion that Cumberbatch’s “performance” with Letterman was sweetly endearing. I praised Letterman for complimenting the actor after watching a brief Star Trek clip (“No offense to the rest of the cast, but you really don’t need much more than you.”) Then I headed to bed, figuring that I’d check fan and critical response a few hours later. Not surprising, within a few hours the Cumbernews provided a mix of reviews—with one website giving the interview a 2 (I assume 1 isn’t first place). Others talked about Cumberbatch’s nervousness or possible tiredness, the otters, and Letterman’s confusion between Star Wars and Star Trek. Cumberbatch received fashion kudos for his personal style when he arrived at the Ed Sullivan theatre more than for his formal attire (that London red carpet look), which became a topic of discussion during the interview.

Of these three interviews within 24 hours on U.S. television, the ones from The Graham Norton Show and Today are by far the better as far as development of that movie star persona. Cumberbatch looked suave, confident, yet still reachable from those reach-out-and-hug moments with fans or his perfectly timed responses to Today’s questions. His voice was lower and sexier, and he looked like a man in charge of his destiny, reaping the public benefits of some very hard work.

However, I prefer the Letterman interview because it presented a self-effacing yet still confident actor who was thrown into some unexpectedly silly situations (such as a bogus Star Trek clip, after a too-long session with the otter photos) but who gamely dealt with whatever the host did.

Letterman often is silly, which results in some awkward moments, but he always brings the interview back on track. (Note how he slyly got laughs from Jack Hanna’s explanations or answers but yet introduced animal facts when Hanna didn’t and kept the show rolling along.) When Cumberbatch answered questions rapid fire or surfed the changing conversational currents, his voice was higher, his speaking rate faster, and his syllables sometimes bouncy as he repeated a word or stuttered a bit through sentences. He fidgeted a lot more—rubbing his thigh, scratching the back of his neck, clasping his hands. Only when he talked about his role as John Harrison did he slip into “interview-speak” with smoothly delivered lines used in press junkets (e.g., “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”) He poked gentle fun at himself with a story about an early audition and, after receiving that amazing compliment from Letterman, looked down frequently. He noted that he couldn’t do high kicks like the actor in the cheesy fake ST clip preceding the real clip proving his command of a scene if not of the Enterprise. “No, you’re fine,” Letterman corrected. And Cumberbatch was—he came across as more jittery than on Norton's show but more genuine. He looked pleased about Star Trek but humble about his talent. He went with whatever Letterman asked or showed him, even if such an interview gave him fewer opportunities to plug his work or let the late-night audience get to know him on his own terms.

With Letterman, Cumberbatch’s “Britishness” was also on display—he admitted he “overdressed” for the occasion “in honor of” Letterman, and his audition story was about playing James Bond. When first introduced, he quietly asked the host where he should sit and later to which monitor to direct his attention. He looked like a Letterman newbie (which he was). Those aren’t criticisms, but they separate Cumberbatch from the glib, flamboyant, often supremely outgoing (usually American) guests sitting in the interview chair. Some people might find that reason for concern, but I found it refreshing and endearing—a term I seem to be overusing in response to Cumberbatch’s Star Trek interviews. He was different than most actors promoting a movie and, like he does with his acting, kept me wondering what he would do or say. He was interesting to watch.

Not everyone will dissect these appearances, but, in light of Cumberbatch’s rise to fame, they emphasize that transitional period I keep harping on. The man sitting next to Dave on Thursday night seemed much younger and more eager than the man who chatted with Graham Norton or Billy Bush. If I hadn’t been aware of his long CV of excellent roles, I would’ve been intrigued by the menace and focus of the villain in the ST clip contrasted with the talkative but self-deprecating guy who looked down almost as often as he made direct eye contact with Dave, the one who (when Letterman called him a “kid” and said he didn’t know the actor’s age) immediately affirmed that he still is a kid (pause . . . “at heart”). The difference between the man on the couch and the villain on the screen would make me want to know more about the actor—and that, really more than promoting ST, is what the Letterman appearance was all about.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Potential Spoilers Based on the May 7 Blog--Read this short section only if you have read the long May 7 Sherlock-John blog

S P O I L E R A L E R T This post should only be read if you choose to possibly be spoiled regarding upcoming Sherlock episodes and after you've read the long May 7 blog about Sherlock and John.

Although the team of Gatiss and Moffat have provided fans with a single keyword preview of each episode in the third season/series, some readers may not want to know about them, even if they have been bandied about fandom for months. Also, since filming on series/season three began, photos and media reports suggesting plot and character developments in season/series three have been published in mainstream entertainment news as well as on fan sites. (#setlock anyone?) However, if you’ve avoided that type of information, please stop reading here. I’m trying to be as vague as possible while still adding a few comments about issues raised in the results.


Fans who follow #setlock may know a lot about the first two episodes (but the series’ creators also likely have many more surprises in store that were unable to be glimpsed during location filming). Those who know the one-word descriptor the creators’ provided for the second episode might have certain fears or expectations about this episode in particular. It seems less likely, in light of these revelations, that fans’ “wish list” for John and Sherlock will be fulfilled, at least in the way that much of fan fiction (and there are some excellent reunion or relationship stories out there) envisions as the optimal series’ direction. Because Gatiss and Moffat are on record numerous times as saying that the John-Sherlock friendship is a love story and basically the reason for Sherlock Holmes stories’ longevity, I would hope that the friendship aspects of the series would continue as long as episodes are made. What will be interesting to see (and possibly to record in another survey) is how fans respond to the changing nature of this friendship and the introduction of another cast member.

The survey also generated fan requests for more women in the series, with the emphasis in most comments on Mrs. Hudson, Molly Hooper, Irene Adler, or Sally Donovan. However, within the survey’s context of fan comments, the inclusion of more female characters or characters of color is requested in order to reflect the diversity of modern London. It is not a specific request for female love interests. Whether women brought into the series primarily for this purpose would be construed as a potential threat to the Sherlock-John friendship (or to fans’ perceptions of Johnlock) or whether such female characters would be perceived as playing “stereotypical” roles (e.g., sex objects) for women on television would be interesting to discern. Again, fan comments regarding possible developments in upcoming episodes may be worth studying, from an academic standpoint, because of diversity, sex roles, gender roles, canon v. fanon, or other issues arising from changes to the series over time.