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Life is a long, seemingly endless series of choices. It’s a hodgepodge of largely meaningless pick’ems like whether or not to order waffles or pancakes, and defining forks in the road that alter our basic path like whether or not to say “I Do”. Through his own brilliance, Benedict Cumberbatch is rapidly approaching one of those forks. He’s about to use Star Trek Into Darkness to expose himself and his talents to a large group of casual movie fans, and more than likely, many of them will leave the theater whispering about the villainous dude they just watched. When that happens, a stream of nice men in expensive suits will descend upon him with huge checks and big promises, and at that point, he’s going to need to decide what type of actor he is.
Is he a dashing and popular leading man capable of fronting big budget event films? Is he a strange, hyper-talented weirdo better served playing supporting friends or foes in larger films and eccentric main characters in smaller films? Given his upward career trajectory and his impressive acting chops, those are really the only two choices on the table (apart from pulling a Rolando McClain). So, the question is which way will he go? Will he try and be some amalgamation of Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe, Matt Damon, George Clooney and Jake Gyllenhaal, a good-looking leading man at the center of any movie he pleases? Or will he try and be some amalgamation of Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H Macy, Paul Giamatti, Steve Buscemi and Jeff Daniels-- a scene-stealing character guy who makes the most of every role, big or small?
There are people out there who will tell you there’s more honor in that second category-- that there’s more value in being the creatively rich scene-stealer than the handsome leading juggernaut. I disagree completely. People should ascend the ladder of stardom to the level that matches their skill set without any fear of whether movie snobs will think they’re selling out or not. Fortunately or unfortunately for Cumberbatch, however, his skill set is a far better fit for that second category. Everything about him screams quirky town, not sprawling metropolis. He looks, behaves and relates to the world like a mad genius, and there are few worse places for a mad genius to be than illuminated as the central face of a movie that needs to play to a very wide variety of people to make its money back. Take James Spader. Audiences love him as the principal weirdo in things like Secretary, Crash and Sex, Lies and Videotape. They even love him as a key supporting player in a broad movie like Lincoln or Stargate, but ask him to personally carry a ninety million dollar budget and you wind up with something like this.
To date, Cumberbatch has won almost universal raves playing men like Sherlock Holmes and Stephen Hawking. I can excitedly imagine him playing thousands of quirky and emotionally deep roles in an expansive range of genres and time periods. What I have no interest in seeing him play, however, are men like Danny Ocean or Maximus Decimus Meridius. I don’t want to see him play a handsome, smooth-talking alpha male that turns heads the moment he walks into the room, and I don’t want to see him play a brutish, aggressively masculine fighter. There are other men who already do those things far better than he likely could. From his unconventional handsomeness to his mannerisms to all of the moments of promise he’s given us so far, everything points to Cumberbatch being most at home dealing with the peculiar. He's an English export who thrives when given complicated and curious material to work with.
Think about every role Matt Damon has played for the past decade. Now think about every role Philip Seymour Hoffman has played for the last decade. Which one of those two men's careers would you rather see reimagined by Cumberbatch? For me, that choice isn't even close. Here’s to hoping he feels the same way.