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The Rise Of Benedict Cumberbatch: 5 Key Early Performances Before ‘The Imitation Game’ & ‘Sherlock’

The Rise Of Benedict Cumberbatch: 5 Key Early Performances Before 'The Imitation Game' & 'Sherlock'

Benedict Cumberbatch began to take Hollywood by storm as no other debonair Englishman has done since the early days of Ralph Fiennes, around 2010, when he landed the title role in BBC‘s modern take on “Sherlock.” The following year, he started a string of memorable supporting roles with “Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy” and “War Horse,” and in the year after that he turned critics’ heads with an Emmy-nominated turn in “Parade’s End.” That was two years ago, and since then he’s been in five feature films (including “Star Trek Into Darkness” as every Trekkie’s favorite villain, Khan) and lent his multi-million-dollar-worth vocal chords to a number of projects (including Peter Jackson‘s ‘Hobbit’ trilogy as every Tolkienite’s favorite dragon, Smaug). And that’s not all. He has a walloping nine projects in development, including the third season of “Sherlock,” and a venture into yet another cherished universe as every Marvel fans favorite neurosurgeon, Dr. Strange. Ok, we’re panting for breath here, and one thing is overwhelmingly obvious: no Englishman in recent memory has ever been this hot in Hollywood. 

But what about Benedict Cumberbatch before 2010? He was appearing on television and films, and while the general public wasn’t noticing, he was carving a path toward leading man status. This fall he’s got the awards season buzzing with his turn as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” (our review), while also returning as the fearsome voice of Smaug in “The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies.” Those two poles are an indication of his talents that can anchor character based dramas, while not getting lost in the razzle dazzle of blockbuster filmmaking.

If you’ve wondered where the seeds of this talent first formed and flowered, we’ve decided to run back the clock and single out five pivotal performances which helped put him on the industry’s radar. Before you go into the theaters to see him deliver, arguably, one of his best performances as Turing, track down these five roles when the actor displayed a skill set and charisma that you couldn’t exactly put your finger on, but you knew was something special. 

Hawking” (2004)
Role: Stephen Hawking
Why It’s Key: Well, if playing Stephen Hawking isn’t key enough, how about being the first actor to play Stephen Hawking? That’s right, Eddie Redmayne might be getting all the Oscar buzz right now for his portrayal of the genius theoretician in “The Theory Of Everything” (our review), but the first man to put the specks on and search for the beginning of time while struggling with motor neuron disease was Redmayne’s good friend, Benedict Cumberbatch. Tracing back the steps on Cumberbatch’s career, it’s clear as crystal that this was the first of the pivotal early performances. Before 2004, his biggest role was a reoccurring, comedic stretch as Rory Slippery on TV’s “Fortysomething” (opposite Hugh Laurie, a match-up we’d pay dear money to see repeated). But then, a BBC Two production of the life and work of Stephen Hawking came along, and the Cumberbatch we know today began to break through. “Hawking” takes a much more direct approach with the physicist’s theories than the current biopic, which gave Cumberbatch the opportunity to prove his mettle and play not only a physically demanding part, but one that very much suits his innate ability to convey introversion. The turn was a success with critics, and he was nominated for a BAFTA TV Award, but he still had a long road to go and, ironically enough, Redmayne’s portrayal this year made Cumberbatch’s earlier performance that much more popular.

To the Ends of the Earth” (2005)
Role: Edmund Talbot
Why It’s Key: Two reasons. It was the first time Cumberbatch lead an ensemble in a TV mini series, and aside from a few inconspicuous bit parts in a couple of earlier period pieces (“To Kill A King,” “Dunkirk”), “To the Ends of the Earth” was the first proper time the world saw how smoothly Cumberbatch fits into a period piece. The miniseries is an adaptation of William Golding’s trilogy of the same name, split up into “Rites of Passage,” “Close Quarters,” and “Fire Down Below,” and set in the early 19th century. It details a British voyage to Australia, narrated by Edmund Talbot, a young aristocrat aboard the ship, and it gave Cumberbatch his biggest chance yet to pull viewers in with his silky smooth vocal abilities. In the production notes of the series, director David Atwood said he found Cumberbatch “ideal” because they needed “someone young enough to be believable as an aristocrat…almost slightly dislikeable…hold the screen for four and half hours…with terrific comic timing.” Edmund, perhaps even more than Stephen Hawking, allowed Cumberbatch to start showing off how refined with a capital “R” he truly is, tapping into several qualities all at once.

Atonement” (2007)
Role: Paul Marshall
Why It’s Key: He plays a creep, superbly. Yes, that thing Atwood said about Cumberbatch and the tinge of a dislikability is utilized quite brilliantly in Joe Wright’s Oscar-nominated “Atonement.” He turns up the arrogance tenfold as Paul Marshall, family friend and chocolate factory owner, who (spoilers for those who haven’t seen or read “Atonement”) was the real monster Briony (Saoirse Ronan) sees with 15-year-old cousin Lola. It’s a small, yet crucial, part in an ensemble piece, and the film is mostly remembered for spring-boarding Benedict’s ‘Imitation Game’ co-star Keira Knightley and getting the young and talented Ronan a supporting Oscar nomination. However, we think it ranks as one of Cumberbatch’s key performances because it shows just how seamlessly he can blend into the background of a stupendously lavish production. He’s done it recently in “12 Years A Slave” and “August: Osage County,” playing small-yet-crucial supporting roles and never outshining anyone around him, but, like a genuine chameleon, merging into the material. It’s an essential point to remember about the allure of Cumberbatch, a showy, lead, performance is only as good as a modest, supporting, one. In fact, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, creators of “Sherlock,” were interested in Cumberbatch after seeing this very performance. Versatility goes a long way.

The Last Enemy” (2008)
Role: Stephan Ezard
Why It’s Key: We know that Moffat and Gattis liked him in “Atonement,” but if they needed further proof when deciding to offer him the part of Sherlock Holmes, here it is. We’re at our penultimate performance, but it should already be obvious that these roles are evidence, among other things, of how versatile Cumberbatch is, and how his extensive range is near-invisible thanks to his commingling abilities. However, the dangers of typecasting threaten even the most resourceful of actors. The role of the introverted-recluse-genius is Cumberbatch’s bread and butter, and in the 5-part BBC drama “The Last Enemy,” he shows us just how evenly that butter is spread. Set in a not-too-distant Orwellian future, “The Last Enemy” is a political thriller about government cover-ups told through the eyes of reclusive mathematical genius Stephan Ezard. But, wait, you say, isn’t that what Alan Turing is? Yes, and Cumberbatch’s uncanny knack for portraying brilliant minds who talk at 20 words a second and process thoughts even faster, is first truly seen in “The Last Enemy.” In fact, Ezard is different than Hawking, Sherlock, Assange, and Turing in that he is a completely original, fictional, creation. Without the weight of history or previous material over his head, the young bon vivant is given the opportunity to make his most typecast role entirely his own.

Small Island” (2009)
Role: Bernard Bligh
Why It’s Key: By the time “Small Island” aired in December 2009, the pilot episode of “Sherlock” had already been filmed and Cumberbatch’s meteoric rise had shifted into high gear behind the scenes. Audiences wouldn’t see what all the fuss with Sherlock Holmes is until 2010, however, and before then, it’s fair to say that the English actor was still a relative no name. But, for those who saw BBC One’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel “Small Island,” all the signs pointed in one direction. He plays Bernard Bligh, an awkward, young, well-to-do gentleman who marries Queenie (Ruth Wilson), feels obliged to enlist in World War Two, and returns years later to find how circumstances have changed. It’s a role that hangs on the brink of his public breakthrough, and it’s key because perhaps more than any other part in his career up to this point, it shows exactly why bigger things were on the horizon. It’s a deeply emotional turn of a man battling with insecurities, masculine impotence, PTSD, and a realization that he cannot be what his wife needs him to be. Bernard Bligh hints at that dislikability factor in more ways than one (he is, among other things, a closeted racist), but only someone with the presence of Cumberbatch could make a weak character so sympathetic. And when we start talking in such singular terms, you know we’re talking about someone who is bound to make it big.

We hope you enjoyed these five blasts from his past. Do you think there was another key Cumberbatch role we missed? Let us know in the comments, and since you’re there, why not tell us what your favorite Cumberbatch performance is overall.

“The Imitation Game” opens on November 28th.

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