Tuesday, September 30, 2014

TIFF 2014: Benedict Cumberbatch, Transition Completed

Benedict Cumberbatch’s fans began lining King Street hours before The Imitation Game’s first screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The women who graciously let me stand behind them had arrived about 9 a.m. I arrived far later, after a delayed flight from Orlando, but by about 3 on a warm Tuesday afternoon I, too, waited for the stars to arrive. My new friends had secured a prime spot slightly diagonal from the press area at the Princess of Wales theatre. Before long, and well in advance of the stars’ arrivals, both sides of King for a block either side of the theatre were at least six people deep.

Some fans brought signs (which the crowds behind them repeatedly urged to be lowered so more people could glimpse Cumberbatch the moment he arrived). Other fans held copies of the Entertainment Weekly cover of Cumberbatch as Sherlock, Sherlock posters, or postcards for Cumberbatch to sign. Some simply wanted a photo. During the long wait for the black cars to drive up, fans bonded over stories of meeting other actors or standing beside other red carpets. “We should ask him to guess our passwords,” one young woman suggested. “And they’ll all be the same word,” smirked another. Students in a film studies course suggested that they say they someday would be working with him.

Shannon, the TIFF coordinator, said she would signal who was arriving—if the crowds behaved. However, when Cumberbatch turned out to be in one of the first cars, all sense of organization (and in a few cases, all sense) was abandoned. Cumberbatch sprinted from the car and started posing and signing far down the line from where I was standing. The crowd across from the theatre surged forward to the point that security pleaded with everyone to step back so that the first row would not be squished against the barricade. When the actor was only a few yards away from me, a photographer peeled off from the press section to urge him and a section of faithful followers to pose for a few shots—the ones that made all the newspapers the next morning, in Toronto and around the world, alongside news of the film.

Cumberbatch was friendly but not chatty as he interacted with the people around me. He signed my Sherlock card—even returning to sign it because my pen (likely overwhelmed to be in the actor’s presence) failed to work at the crucial moment. He posed for a selfie with a woman a few feet away. He rushed down and up both sides of the street to greet as many fans as possible. When he finally turned toward the media photographers about 20 minutes after arriving, he kept waving at fans as he walked to the press area.

This Benedict Cumberbatch looked very different from the man I watched interact with the crowd and his colleagues at the 2011 BFI screening of “A Scandal in Belgravia.” He was physically larger then (while filming Parade’s End), more casually dressed, and a bit wary of the audience. The fans rushing after Cumberbatch were fewer in number, and security did not need to hover nearby as he signed and posed for fans. The man who walked the TIFF gauntlet of highly enthusiastic fans has grown more accustomed to crowds shouting his name. He was styled handsomely for this event, but he somehow looked slighter when he stood in front of me. Perhaps his stature in the entertainment industry this year made him seem impossibly taller and broader in my memory. At TIFF, the man in the blue suit, with perfectly coiffed hair, large dark glasses, and a sincere demeanor was not larger than life. He was not a slick movie star but a very popular actor starring in the film about to be screened at a major film festival. And that is why I enjoy writing about and following the career of Benedict Cumberbatch.

He may not seek the attention, but he knows how to handle it well at a public event and seems to increasingly enjoy interacting with fans. He pleased even those who didn’t get an autograph or a selfie because he went first to the fans, kept moving up and down the street to greet as many people as possible, and spent a long time by red carpet standards with fans. Then he turned to the media.

“He really cares about his fans” is a line I heard quite a few times as I walked back toward my hotel. If Cumberbatch aimed to please, he scored a bullseye.

A few hours later, as I left a theatre district restaurant, I saw people running against the light—much to the chagrin of a traffic officer, who was trying to keep irate taxi drivers from slaughtering pedestrians. “It’s a red light!” he shouted, but people only scooted across the street faster to get near the back door of the Princess of Wales theatre. I could hear cheers and screams from more than a block away. “That must be a huge star,” the guy next to me said. His friend agreed, and when we managed to stand on the edge of the curb to watch who was leaving the theatre, we could see Benedict Cumberbatch, standing on the door frame of his car to address the hundreds who had been waiting for him. My paparazzi-style grainy photo shows him smiling as he slipped into the car. He rolled down the window and waved as he headed for the airport.

When I first started writing a performance biography about Benedict Cumberbatch a few years ago, my agent and I had trouble convincing publishers that anyone would want to read about this actor. The argument went that if you asked people what they thought of Sherlock, they would say that they like the series, and then if you explained that Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes, they would say they like him in the role. However, ask the question about Cumberbatch first, and no one would know who he is. I grinned at that memory when I was asked to write a second book about Cumberbatch.

Similarly, even at last year’s TIFF, when Cumberbatch starred in the gala opening film, The Fifth Estate, and fans screamed for him, the argument against Cumberbatch being a true film star began with the statement that his fandom is principally Internet based—he doesn't have instant name recognition among mainstream movie or TV audiences (no many how many writers and chat/talk show hosts joke about its sound or spelling). When Cumberbatch showed up on the TIFF red carpet at the 12 Years a Slave premiere, the cynics who noted the crowds chanting his name commented that the majority of people were there to see producer/star Brad Pitt, and Cumberbatch was merely a bonus. These comments vied for attention with the media touting Cumberbatch as TIFF's "It" man.

A year, especially one in the life of such a busy actor (with high-profile projects on television, radio, film, and stage), makes a big difference in perception. Like last year, Cumberbatch could only stay in Toronto a few days again this year, but they were filled with interviews and red carpet appearances before he flew back across the Atlantic to work. Last year’s post-TIFF job was The Imitation Game, the film that would bring him back to Toronto in 2014. This year The Hollow Crown called him home for an immediate script reading and filming within days of his return. Despite winning numerous awards (including an Emmy) for Sherlock, gaining a phenomenal amount of attention for numerous film roles in 2013, being named the Britannia Awards’ British Artist of the Year, and now being critically acclaimed for his performance as Alan Turing—all indicators of stardom—Cumberbatch is still very much a working actor. He has numerous projects in progress. Even though he coyly feeds the rumor mill with non-statements about possible roles as part of the industry’s game playing, he most often emphasizes his work instead of his celebrity. At TIFF, he transitioned from one fan’s focus on him (as a "delicious"ly sexy man) back to his screen role and his desire to see Turing’s story told. In some important ways this prolific actor’s public persona has not changed with his increasing fame.

When MX Publishing suggested that I write a second book about Benedict Cumberbatch, because the first performance biography was submitted just before Star Trek: Into Darkness went into wide release and so much has happened since, I wondered how I could write an entire book about one year. Silly me. I was writing about Benedict Cumberbatch, which meant I wrote chapters about Star Trek, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, The Hobbit, the most recent series of Sherlock, Cabin Pressure, Little Favour, lots of awards and honors, and ticket sales for Hamlet—among others. I both loved (because Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Steven Moffat were winners) and loathed (because I had to revise a section of the just-submitted manuscript) the Emmys—that award became my stopping point for this book. I’ve already posted in my blog my review of The Imitation Game, and I suspect I am far from finished about writing about Benedict Cumberbatch’s incredible career.

The new book illustrates how this actor’s transition to star has been completed in the past year—and how celebrity is having an impact on his career and public perceptions of the actor. More than the first book, this second one includes greater analysis of the way Cumberbatch’s celebrity image continues to change and what that means for his career and his place within popular culture. I think the book lives up to its name: Benedict Cumberbatch, Transition Completed: Films, Fans, Fame.

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