Benedict Cumberbatch on Character Development

November 18, 2016

“Yes, I do build up a backstory in my head even if it’s just for me.” –-Benedict Cumberbatch

Marvel’s Doctor Strange actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s resume includes a long, impressive list of awards and nominations for his film, television and theater work. In part, he can boast appearing in four films that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar: Atonement, War Horse, The Imitation Game, and 12 Years a Slave–the last of which won the category. On a recent webchat on The Guardian, Cumberbatch answered fans’ questions about a variety of topics. After sharing what his favorite flavor of coffee is, and which books he’s currently reading, the Sherlock star was asked if he takes the time and effort to create a backstory for his characters. Cumberbatch responded with an admittedly “verbose” answer. But here is his reply regarding processes to build up backstories and specific skills for his prolific characters.

“Yes, I do build up a backstory in my head even if it’s just for me,” he said. “As far as preparation goes, it’s important to understand the who, what, where, why of the character before you meet him.” Cumberbatch continued:

“That helps the character employ those tactics for whatever action they’re trying to perform, which can necessitate a limit of choice as well as a discovery of new things to be learned as an actor to portray the character with. For example, a character I played in a Martin Crimp play called ‘The City’ at the Royal Court [theater], was describing an incident where he was humiliated in his new job to his wife, and I began to [characterize] the voices in his story when Katie Mitchell [director] pointed out that it was unlikely he would have the confidence to do that as opposed to me, because I could. Those differentiations are vital, but often (and this really ain’t no humblebrag) I’m chasing the tailcoats of my character’s abilities, whether it’s their intelligence or professional excellence, or even their ability to sing/play piano/ride a horse/paint some of the great works of modern art! All these things require a heavy tutoring in new skill sets, one of the many privileges of our job, i.e., getting to learn new stuff and continuing with a form of further education, I suppose. And the results, while varied, sometimes work, but it’s all smoke and mirrors, and I often feel like a horrible fraudster. I think the worst is when I played violin as Sherlock–a skill that takes years of childhood and adolescent practice time….But just to finish, vocal and physical differences, prep of any sort, work on a backstory, learning a skill, all has to be given time and when it isn’t you run into [generalizing], and I’m fully aware I’ve done that on occasion, and so aim to create enough space around my work so there is enough space between roles and I have enough time to [honor] the tasks each present me with.”

When it came to developing Doctor Stephen Strange, the English actor delved deeply into the character using the source material as well as relying on president of  Marvel Studios and “superfan” Kevin Feige and the film’s director Scott Derrickson’s encyclopedic knowledge of the character and story. He also referred back to his experiences as a teenager when he taught English in a Tibetan monastery which got him in touch with “the power of the mind to change your reality.”

Here is a clip of Cumberbatch and Derrickson as well as actor Mads Mikkelsen talking about how they prepared to capture the mystical world of Doctor Strange.

Oscar Nominees and The Obstacles They Faced

February 23, 2015

There’s no way to get through a day without them: Obstacles. They come in innumerable shapes and sizes, but they all have the same thing in common–that is, they threaten to stop you in your tracks while in pursuit of your goal. And, as you probably know all too well, an actor’s journey is riddled with them. Now it may seem like this year’s Oscar nominees make their success look enviably easy, but they have had setbacks just like everyone else, and managed to get beyond them. Here are just a few examples of the hurdles that they encountered, and the change in their mindsets that resulted from the challenges they faced.

Julianne Moore just took home the Oscar for her portrayal of Alice in Still Alice. Her father worked in the US Army which meant that the Moore family needed to move around the United States when Julianne was a child. This brought about a strong sense of family unity, but she said she never had the feeling of any particular place being her home. This is understandable when you consider she lived in Alabama, Texas, Nebraska, Georgia, Panama, Alaska, New York and Virginia–all the while attending nine different schools. As a consequence, she was an anxious child and had trouble connecting with her peers. Although Moore didn’t know she would later become an actress, she does credit her nomadic growing years as being a blessing to her career in acting. “When you move around a lot, you learn that behavior is mutable. I would change, depending on where I was …. It teaches you to watch, to reinvent, that character can change.”

It’s hard to turn on the TV these days without someone talking about Bradley Cooper and his performance in the biographical war drama American Sniper. But he was at risk of stopping his acting career early on in its tracks due to substance addictions. Cooper once admitted that that when he was in the television show Alias, he was stuck in a cycle of substance abuse and addiction that lead to thoughts of suicide. At the age of 29 he had the realization, “Wow, I’m actually going to ruin my life; I’m really gonna ruin it.” Fortunately, he sought help and has abstained from his addictions. Ever since then, Cooper’s career has taken off with movies like The Hangover trilogy, and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Benedict Cumberbatch is on fire these days. His work pace is arguably unmatched by any other actor in history, and this year he was nominated for a Best Actor by the Academy for his portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. But in 2005, things weren’t looking so good for Cumberbatch and a couple of his friends. The trio went on an adventure in KwaZulu, South Africa only to be abducted overnight by a group of locals. Indeed, they were held at gunpoint! For some unknown reason, the abductors brought the three men into unsettled territory, and released them. Upon reflecting about this noteworthy obstacle, Cumberbatch said, “It taught me that you come into this world as you leave it–on your own. It’s made me want to live a life less ordinary.”

When Rosamund Pike was catching the acting bug, she applied to several stage schools hoping to pursue an acting career. Unfortunately, she received rejection notice after rejection notice, and ended up being turned down by every stage school for which she applied. Instead of giving up, Pike then postponed her aspirations, and instead studied English Literature at Wadham College in Oxford. But after graduating, she took a year to get back to her dream career of acting in theater, amassing stage experience in a number of productions including several Shakespeare plays. Good thing she didn’t allow the school rejection notices to hamper her dreams or else she wouldn’t have starred in, and been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Gone Girl.

The people with the will to persevere, and a flexible and creative mind are most likely to get beyond them. What bumps in the road have you experienced along the way as you develop as an actor? Did those challenges hurt or help bolster your resolve to be a working actor?


What Real-Life Person Would You Love to Portray?

October 24, 2013

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave.

Films about fascinating, real-life people are always in style, and currently a slew of significant real-people roles are in full effect. Bravely taking on the responsibility of pulling off the essence of another person is always a little risky because you can never completely resemble another human even with the industry’s top makeup artists and hair stylists. After all, you are you, and you will always get in the way of being someone else. But audiences have an insatiable curiosity about charismatic people’s lives, so they are eager to give actors a fair chance at assuming a new identity. The drive to know what daily life is like for remarkable individuals will keep this art form alive forever.

On a hot streak and becoming a household name, Benedict Cumberbatch played the controversial Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange in the recently released, The Fifth Estate. He underwent numerous tricks to appear like Assange including a bleach-blond wig, blue-grey contact lenses, as well as prosthetic teeth. Cumberbatch acknowledges he did “a lot, an awful lot” of research on Assange which seems to have paid off as many reviewers assert he managed to convincingly portray Assange.

Naomi Watts was challenged to pull off Diana, Princess of Wales in the biopic Diana to be released early November. The mostly fictionalized account of Diana’s secret love affair with Pakinstani surgeon, Dr. Hasnat Khan has received a number of poor reviews from the U.K.–including criticism from the real-life Khan–often because of problems stemming from the dialogue. But Watt’s ability to capture Diana’s essence has been praised, as well.

Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays a freeman named Solomon Northup who was abducted before the Civil War in 1841, and sold as a slave in the recently released drama, 12 Years a Slave. The film is based on the real Northup’s memoir. Ejiofor says, “To tell someone the story is one of the most deeply enriching experiences that I have ever had as a performer or an actor.” As the real-life Northup is not someone instantly recognizable to most Americans, Ejiofor didn’t need to go to great lengths to match a specific look. But he did need to deeply delve into the tragic experiences of a real person. Historian David Blight liked the film very much, saying, “Slavery is only rarely ever depicted effectively in Hollywood pictures. This film stays quite loyal to the narrative itself. It’s accurate in that sense. I also found the acting terrific.”

Helena Bonham Carter plays Elizabeth Taylor in the BBC television movie, Burton & Taylor. To prepare for the role, Bonham Carter explains, “I felt I couldn’t do an impersonation because I don’t really look like her, and my job was to capture some essence. I read her biographies and met with some girlfriends of hers, and I met with an astrologist to help distill somebody and their qualities. My aunt analyzes handwriting so she was a great distiller of somebody’s character. I went around collecting characteristics.” Ultimately, she sought to create a hybrid of herself and Taylor, saying her portrayal was going to be its own kind of creature. “It was not going to be Elizabeth. It was as if Elizabeth and I had a baby. A collage,” she laughed.

Additionally, Tom Hardy has been cast to play the pop icon, Elton John, in the upcoming biopic called Rocketman. And considering the recent award-winning films such as Lincoln, My Week with Marilyn, and The Social Network, Hollywood seems to be on a biopic role.

Is there anyone you’re itching to play? If so, who? And is it because you believe you look like this person or because you feel you could convincingly capture his or her essence in another way?