Saturday, April 20, 2013

Benedict Cumberbatch, the Cover Image

Finding just the right photograph of Benedict Cumberbatch for a book cover is trickier than I expected. I thought the job would be fun (it was) and relatively simple. After all, the subject is certainly interesting to look at, and thousands of images saturate the Internet. The problem in choosing a single cover image that, to me, summarizes the book’s content turned out to be the very reason why I chose to write this performance biography in the first place—Benedict Cumberbatch can embody a range of characters.

When the talented Mr. Cumberbatch is photographed while filming a role, he often looks like the character we’ll see him portray on television or film. Sometimes he has “Sherlock hair” or the very dark locks to match the apparently equally dark John Harrison shown in Star Trek trailers. Sometimes he changes his physique to match a character’s body type. Chameleon-like, his appearance varies with the role, although that shift is merely window dressing for the in-depth characters he brings to life. Although, for example, I may be one of the few who really liked Peter Guillam’s blond fringe, a head shot of the actor around the time of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy illustrates only one role among many in an already impressive back catalogue and doesn’t encompass the range of characters or media analyzed in the book.

So . . . I wanted a photograph that, to me, seemed to represent the actor, not a character. Photographer Gareth Cattermole’s image does that. It’s straightforward—an attractive, well-dressed man on the red carpet. It’s classy—what one of my friends dubbed “classic glamour.” The expression is thoughtful—and Mr. Cumberbatch’s insights into acting or specific roles are the basis of much of my commentary in the book.

A quotation attributed to photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson suggests yet another reason why I kept coming back to this image. “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.” Many red-carpet photographs capture a pose guaranteed to emphasize an actor’s best features or stylish wardrobe. They highlight wide smiles and high-energy performances before fans. They often illustrate an actor playing a character audiences expect to see on the red carpet—someone flirty, funny, outrageous, or controversial. In the moment immortalized in the image that will become part of my book’s cover, Benedict Cumberbatch seems to be taking in this red-carpet experience without being overwhelmed by it. If I were writing a story about the photograph and knew nothing of this actor’s career, I’d get the impression that here is someone greatly in demand (note the crowd and long lens of a camera in the background) who graciously accepts the attention given him but does not court it. The shot doesn’t seem like a typical red-carpet photograph. It’s different, just like this actor, and, I think, just like my book about his performances.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition: An Unauthorised Performance Biography

Benedict Cumberbatch is an extraordinarily talented actor who shares so many insights into the nature of acting and, inadvertently, into the international obsession with celebrity, that his impressive and expansive body of work should be studied in order to greater appreciate it. On June 10, MX Publishing is scheduled to release my most recent book, Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition: An Unauthorised Performance Biography. This one takes me in a new direction – celebrity studies – but also returns me to familiar territory – analysis of television and film.

Of course, when writing about Benedict Cumberbatch, I also had to discuss his performances in theatre and radio, plus a host of one-time events, like readings or voiceovers. New fans or people just beginning to appreciate Cumberbatch’s talent after they see Sherlock (which, by the way, has its own hefty section in the book) or Star Trek: Into Darkness, or possibly one of his many other film roles yet to arrive this year, can use the book as a guide to the actor’s vast back catalog. Why his performances are worth watching and his interpretation of roles mesmerizing and how he develops characters are integral to several chapters that trace his rise to stardom. Fans who are familiar with these many roles may take away something new from the analysis of specific scenes or the discussion of the way each role figures in Cumberbatch’s celebrity or star status.

Star and celebrity are different aspects of his career. Sherlock certainly has helped Cumberbatch achieve television stardom in the U.K. and made more viewers around the world aware of him. Winning an Olivier award for Frankenstein and bringing more people into the theatre – whether the National in London or cinemas worldwide screening NT Live – ensured his stardom on the stage. How an actor achieves star status in one medium or, in this actor’s case, several media, is discussed in the book, as well as what it takes to become a star at home or abroad, within one nation or internationally. In addition to Cumberbatch’s star power, his role as celebrity has become more prominent as fans and the media take an ever-greater interest in everything he does or says.

Readers looking for a tell-all book or a typical biography are going to be disappointed. Although the first chapter is more biographical than any other, the majority of the book is a thorough exploration of roles, documentation of one highly talented man’s career development, and discussion of Cumberbatch’s often-atypical route to stardom. That all sounds very academic, doesn’t it?

I approached this book seriously – and throughout more than two years, I’ve watched or listened to every television episode, film, radio drama (or comedy), advertisement, interview, theatrical performance, Q&A session, etc., I could find, many of them the lone copies of performances stored in London archives. I’ve read more than that, and I’ve talked with directors, actors, extras, and lots of fans. I’ve done a great deal of research, and I think that comes through in the chapters (as well as endnotes and a lengthy bibliography). But taking the subject seriously and doing my homework don’t mean that the book is boring. As if I could make Benedict Cumberbatch less than interesting or entertaining! There should be something new for every fan (and I count myself in your number), whether it’s a fresh interview, very old newspaper clipping, or different interpretation of a performance.

If you check out the book’s Amazon UK listing, you can read the official description. The comm prof side of me is unhappy that the template doesn’t allow italics or the best spacing, for example, but I hope you’ll understand what this book is all about. I’ll not-so-humbly post the cover design all over social media as soon as it’s ready. Let’s just say I’ve been having a very good time looking for just the right image. Ah, research. More soon . . . .

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Incredible Lightness of Being on Sabbatical

Where have I been since my last blog in September? Wellington. Queenstown. London (twice). Santa Fe. Columbus. And many points between.

My work: Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century. The Doctor Who Franchise. The Hobbits. And a new book to write after the previous three were published in late 2012.

Some favorite places: Coastlines of Ormond, Papailoa, Kaikoura. White Cliffs of Dover. Steaming Tongariro and Ruapehu. Southern Alps. New Mexican mesas. Victoria Embankment.

Before summer ends, I hope to add to these lists of places and publications, all which trigger cascades of memories.

Having a year to do whatever I please is a rare gift. When I concluded my teaching in May 2012, the year before me seemed incredibly long and promising—New Zealand, the U.K., and plenty of U.S. destinations awaited. Now my sabbatical is nearly over, but the past year has brought me professional pleasure and recognition (plus a great deal of work) around the world. In this long overdue update, I’ll share a few highlights from my travels and three of my favorite fandoms: The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings (pretty much of anything Tolkien wrote), Sherlock, and Doctor Who.

New Zealand: Signings, Sightings, and Sunburn

Wellington celebrated the arrival of The Hobbit, and I was there in the middle of the celebrations. My Red Carpet Tour pulled into Wellington during premiere week. Not only did I run around town with my friends—visiting the Middle-earth market and former filming locations, taking photos of the huge Bilbo stamp on the side of the post office, waiting alongside the red carpet to see the stars (which is where I got the sunburn)—but I had a book signing for The Hobbits. As you can see from the photo, I signed in the shadow of a rather large Nazgul.

New Zealand’s beauty and warmth—people as well as places—steals my heart every visit. This time I stayed a month—first with a Hobbit tour of both islands (including Hobbiton, a Hobbit lovers’ playground), then a few days in Queenstown before another week in Wellington spent exploring on my own and, better yet, being able to see The Hobbit at the Roxy on Miramar and spending time with actor/writer/director and all-around good guy Gregor Cameron.

As a result of this trip, I also was invited to talk about hobbits on an Australian National Radio program. So, while back at home, I “talked Tolkien” with an Oxford professor and the Melbourne-based interviewer, making this a most unusual conference call.

This has been a good year for meeting, however briefly, people in the film industry I admire. At a Hobbit party in Wellington a few days before the premiere, I met Peter Jackson, as well as many of the “dwarves.” That must have been a good omen because, months later in London, I met Danny Boyle, as well as got James McAvoy’s autograph. I also talked with Welcome to the Punch director Eran Creevy after a BFI screening. The BFI seems to be my lucky spot—I almost literally ran into Mark Gatiss before a Doctor Who screening.

Locked Away in London’s Archives

London wasn’t just director or actor encounters. In 2012, I conducted research at the National Theatre archives and British Library after giving a paper at the Film and Media Conference. In 2013, I went back to the archives, often submerging myself in research for hours and only realizing it was time to stop when the archives closed. The recordings stored at Blythe House (where I watched performances of Rhinoceros and Hedda Gabler that I wouldn’t have otherwise ever been able to see) were particularly helpful. I was a bit wary of all the security—think of the opening of the original Get Smart—but everyone at the archives was incredibly kind and helpful. So, too, were the staff members at the National Theatre archives, BFI Reuben Library, British Library, and Westminster Reference Library, where I spent hours, sometimes day after day, listening to recordings or poring over old newspapers or theatre reviews. Then it was “home” to my flat to write about the day’s findings. I wrote more than 20,000 words in London, including book chapters and film/television columns.

But London wasn’t all work, no plays—I saw two performances of Macbeth, starring the indescribably intriguing James McAvoy (I learned about acting just by watching his performances); The Audience; Peter and Alice; This House; People: The Judas Kiss; and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Add to that Posh, Antigone, and The Last of the Haussmans, and 2012-13 has turned out to be a great year for theatre.

Celebrating Who in a Variety of Times and Spaces

London is a magical place when it comes to my Who sightings. Captain Jack called me at my hotel—a line I’ll never tire of repeating. More precisely, I interviewed John and Carole Barrowman for my PopMatters column while we all were, for once, on the same side of the Atlantic. When I was planning my trip from home, that opportunity seemed about as likely as walking down the Strand and seeing a near life-sized cutout of the Fourth Doctor promoting an appearance by Tom Baker. He is my Doctor, and so, on a freezing morning, I joined the patient queue outside a stamp shop. Despite the sign inside reading “no individual photos today—people are freezing outside”, Mr. Baker graciously took the time to chat with each person and shake hands. Last summer I met Christopher Eccleston after a performance of Antigone at the National. When David Tennant asks me to lunch, the last of my Doctor Who fantasies will have been fulfilled. Until then, I'm very happy with my cast encounters.

A London Doctor Who tour a few years back also introduced me to the wonderful guide (and now friend) Helen Thomas. Because of Helen and her amazing connections to people with tickets to BFI events, I enjoyed the celebration of the Third Doctor—complete with panels of cast and crew who worked on the episodes or restored them. From the front row, I could see Katy Manning a few feet away on stage.

Much closer to home, Orlando—through Hurricane Who—also has been a great place for sightings. In November I met the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, and reconnected with so many actors, writers, and fans associated with Doctor Who throughout the years. Favorite memories from last year’s convention include my on-stage interviews with Caitlin Blackwood (young Amelia Pond) and off-stage chats with Caitlin and her charming mother.

Another high point from this convention—a book signing. I may never have three books, from two publishers, released within a few months of each other, but I enjoyed chatting to fans about the objects of my fan obsession. Hobbits, Sherlock Holmes, and the Doctor seem like an odd trio of interests, but I wasn’t the only one who could spend hours discussing them individually or collectively.

What's Next

By Monday I should be able to share what I think is exciting news about my latest book, the result of all those hours in the archives and many, many hours of watching or listening to films, television episodes, and radio plays. The sabbatical may be coming to a close, but my journey as a traveler and writer should continue for a long time to come.