|Cumberbatch on cover of The New York Times magazine|
At the time I was considering a grand career on the stage — I was maybe 17 — my models were the four British sirs. There was Ralph Richardson, Lawrence Olivier, John Gielgud and Alec Guinness. I watched them closely over the years. They were all bigger than life. Under closer scrutiny, I discovered, with the exception of Guinness, it was hard to separate the actor from the role. We were always aware we were watching Gielgud perform. It was marvelous, but not much different than the American actor as celebrity. The star, John Wayne, let’s say, seeped through any character he played. Some might blame typecasting, but I would suggest that there were limitations having to do with talent, dedication and range. Of the big four, only Guinness was truly able to transcend personality. Currently, only a few of the big names can do it consistently. Daniel Day-Lewis is one. Cate Blanchett is another. So is Meryl Streep. Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to be on his way.
Benedict Cumberbatch is now revealing this range. He is the dazzling, eccentric flamboyant Sherlock on the BBC series. Earlier he was almost invisible, certainly appropriately bland, as a second banana bureaucrat in John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier. Spy, a fine 2011 remake of a highly regarded Guinness film. He also had a low-key heroic role in a three-part period piece based on William Golding’s sea-trilogy To The Ends of the Earth. These were not remotely similar roles, and to each he gave individual life He doesn’t so much inhabit the character as allow the character to inhabit him. Recently, he portrayed such distinctly different characters as physicist Stephen Hawking and political provocateur Julian Assange. He’s also opened up to roles in pop fantasy films and done voice-overs in animated productions. He is an original. My guess is that some day he will be knighted. But that’s the least of it. He appears quite able to transcend the cult of personality and, despite an apparent finely developed sense of humor, join the ranks of very serious, very talented actors.