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.