Friday, May 10, 2013

The Road to Stardom is Paved with Talk Shows

We can’t know an actor by his public appearances, on a red carpet or through a television interview, but the images and sound bites left behind do a lot to track changes in an actor’s public persona and audience expectations for the way stars should act.

Benedict Cumberbatch was talking to the Huffington Post UK about his privacy in light of so much media attention when he commented that “You can't control perceptions any more.” The intense interest in everything he does, whether in front of the camera or behind closed doors, results in dozens of online and in-print articles every day, especially during the double whammy of Sherlock filming and national premieres of Star Trek: Into Darkness.

In the U.S., Cumberbatch has previously been in the entertainment news, ranging from media reports (like those in Variety or The Hollywood Reporter) that tout his heavy work load or television interviews most often broadcast from red carpets or seen on cable networks like MTV or E!. But then came Star Trek.

Although many (most?) Cumberbatch fans had already found a way to watch the actor on The Graham Norton Show recorded soon after the London Star Trek premiere, the episode was first broadcast in the U.S. on BBC America on May 9, which proved to be the start of a very busy few days for talk show-following American fans. In addition to Graham Norton, Cumberbatch fielded questions on NBC’s Today (in the 10-11 a.m. EDT time slot, outside the viewing time of many 9-to-5ers) and CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman and will do so later on May 10 on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon—three top shows reaching a wide demographic in different time slots. Ratings published for the week of April 22-26, the latest I could find by the time of this blog, showed that Letterman averaged 2.8 million viewers during that time period, and Fallon was watched by 1.7 million, especially impressive in the latter case because he won the late late time slot in all measured demographics (18- to 34-year-olds, 18-49, and 25-54, men and women).

What does that mean for Cumberbatch? He made it to mainstream U.S. entertainment media that reached millions of potential moviegoers (and new fans) within the span of a couple of brief television appearances. Many U.S. viewers likely had never seen or heard of him before those talk show appearances. Whereas the BBC America audience should already include more Sherlock or Cumberbatch fans, it also is more of a niche cable audience. NBC and CBS are network “biggies” with a wider broadcast area; most homes in the U.S. with televisions can see these networks on basic cable. Add to that the later viewings, such as full online episodes of the Fallon show (not to mention YouTube and media or fan website videos), and Cumberbatch potentially will reach the widest audience ever to see his interviews.

Now the important questions regarding his celebrity and fast-track to film stardom: What do viewers perceive or learn from watching these talk-show interviews? Although those interviewed on television can’t control the show’s content or the host’s approach to the interview, actors can largely control their performance and, in Cumberbatch’s case, he can introduce himself as he wants the American public to see him. His wardrobe, demeanor, and body language are just as important as his words.

Please note that the following comments aren’t critical of Benedict Cumberbatch. He is doing exactly what he should do to develop his image during this transitional stage of his career and smoothly enter what he jokes he has been warned about—a career “blast off” after Star Trek.

The Graham Norton Show and Today

Cumberbatch’s appearance on The Graham Norton Show is a good indicator of the Cumberbatch-as-budding-movie-star persona. Immaculate in a dark suit, the actor looked formal and professional, his demeanor relaxed to the point that, late in the show, he lounged (well, as much as someone with such wonderful posture can slouch). When Norton teased him about the name of his fans, he “acted” embarrassed with obvious mannerisms at the term “Cumberbitches” and suggested an alternative: “The Cumber Collective.” He’s made similar comments (and told the neutron cream story) before, but during much of the show he gave the expected responses—all safe, little to nothing new (depending on the fan's prior knowledge).

During one segment, Norton asked fans how far they had traveled just to be in the audience. When a few who traveled hours by bus or plane just to see Cumberbatch identified themselves, the actor bounded up the studio stairs to briefly hug and kiss cheeks—a move guaranteed to endear him to fans. It also encouraged fellow Star Trek actor Chris Pine to do the same for those “Pine Nuts” who came a long way just to see him. The fan activity seemed unscripted, spontaneous fun, but it also reinforced the image of Cumberbatch as a man who publicly thanks his fans for their support. The Graham Norton Show also provided an opportunity for Cumberbatch to initiate an interaction with fans in a controlled environment (i.e., he wasn’t going to get mobbed on camera). That’s not a cynical comment—it’s a reality of Cumberbatch’s new level of fame that he must walk the proverbial tightrope of communicating directly with fans without putting himself or others in a dangerous position. Recent comparisons have been made between Cumberbatch or Sherlock fans and Beatlemania, as ever-growing crowds await his arrival, whether on location shoots or for an interview.

Cumberbatch’s humorous, self-deprecating anecdotes about working on Star Trek, which most fans have heard before, are safe, funny stories new audiences can remember (and the media can repeat). They provide brief insights into behind-the-scenes antics, and they show that Cumberbatch has a sense of humor, including about himself, and is not as all-knowing as Sherlock or Star Trek’s evil mastermind. In personality, the actor seems more like one of us, or like a friend we’d like to have. Unlike some television interviews, in which the actor displayed a few nervous mannerisms (e.g., the thigh rub/pat, hand-brush over his head), with Norton the actor’s speaking pace was conversationally slower, his tone evenly warm and inviting, his gestures far more controlled. In short, Cumberbatch came across as friendly, humble, humorous, and appreciative—everything the public could want from one of its stars, especially one now representing British actors (perhaps even the U.K.) in global media.

It was an excellent appearance, but it also made me a bit sad because it lacked the spark of something unexpected or “natural” happening between host and interviewee. Even when Cumberbatch was prompted to show how he could make even an innocuous teaser sound threatening, he showed off his talent for improv and a good cold reading while being a good sport. It was entertaining, but I enjoy listening to this actor talk because he is thoughtful and expressive, sometimes taking a long time to answer questions, sometimes getting so caught up in explaining a role or project that he stumbles over a word or rushes through sentences in his enthusiasm. He might fidget, depending on what is happening in the interview. I like a less polished, more free flowing interview that seems a bit riskier or spontaneous.

Granted, talk-show appearances may always be simply another performance, but Cumberbatch's previous interviews (or lengthier Q&As about films or plays) often gave at least the illusion (and I hope the reality) that audiences see more of the actor than the celebrity or star. Now that Cumberbatch faces more media every day and, in the past few years, has learned some hard lessons about the nature of celebrity, he is doing very well in developing a professional persona for the world’s broadcast media—but such personas can become bland because they become what the public expects to see. I enjoyed seeing London premiere photos emphasizing Cumberbatch's huge grin as he posed on the red carpet. (I doubt I’ve seen so many photos published in which he is smiling so widely that he looks fit to literally burst with happiness.) I liked reading that he cried when overhearing a cast member’s praise. Those expressions of emotion aren’t typically shown or discussed in the press about long-time movie stars. They still are a bit unexpected and different than the usual red carpet stories.

On May 10, Cumberbatch’s brief appearance on Today was again polished and relaxed. Dressed more casually than on Graham Norton or Letterman, Cumberbatch seemed more laid back. His sound bite-sized answers in the brief couple of minutes allotted to his interview gave audiences 1) the neutron cream story, 2) brief identification with a key role in Star Trek, but more important and almost a throwaway line, and 3) mention of his roles as scientists Hawking and Heisenberg. Now, to some fans who want Sherlock included in that list, Cumberbatch’s unprompted comment is sure to rankle. However, from a career standpoint, within about 90 seconds, the actor did a few great things to introduce himself to a potentially new, mainstream U.S. audience (a different crowd at 10 a.m. than at 12:30 a.m.): He mentioned two roles that Americans just getting to know him may not have seen or even known about; he was succinct, well spoken, well dressed, confident, still humble, and sexily deeper voiced. This is the persona that his PR team will want to emphasize Cumberbatch’s star power.

Late Night with David Letterman

Very early on May 10 I posted on Facebook my conclusion that Cumberbatch’s “performance” with Letterman was sweetly endearing. I praised Letterman for complimenting the actor after watching a brief Star Trek clip (“No offense to the rest of the cast, but you really don’t need much more than you.”) Then I headed to bed, figuring that I’d check fan and critical response a few hours later. Not surprising, within a few hours the Cumbernews provided a mix of reviews—with one website giving the interview a 2 (I assume 1 isn’t first place). Others talked about Cumberbatch’s nervousness or possible tiredness, the otters, and Letterman’s confusion between Star Wars and Star Trek. Cumberbatch received fashion kudos for his personal style when he arrived at the Ed Sullivan theatre more than for his formal attire (that London red carpet look), which became a topic of discussion during the interview.

Of these three interviews within 24 hours on U.S. television, the ones from The Graham Norton Show and Today are by far the better as far as development of that movie star persona. Cumberbatch looked suave, confident, yet still reachable from those reach-out-and-hug moments with fans or his perfectly timed responses to Today’s questions. His voice was lower and sexier, and he looked like a man in charge of his destiny, reaping the public benefits of some very hard work.

However, I prefer the Letterman interview because it presented a self-effacing yet still confident actor who was thrown into some unexpectedly silly situations (such as a bogus Star Trek clip, after a too-long session with the otter photos) but who gamely dealt with whatever the host did.

Letterman often is silly, which results in some awkward moments, but he always brings the interview back on track. (Note how he slyly got laughs from Jack Hanna’s explanations or answers but yet introduced animal facts when Hanna didn’t and kept the show rolling along.) When Cumberbatch answered questions rapid fire or surfed the changing conversational currents, his voice was higher, his speaking rate faster, and his syllables sometimes bouncy as he repeated a word or stuttered a bit through sentences. He fidgeted a lot more—rubbing his thigh, scratching the back of his neck, clasping his hands. Only when he talked about his role as John Harrison did he slip into “interview-speak” with smoothly delivered lines used in press junkets (e.g., “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”) He poked gentle fun at himself with a story about an early audition and, after receiving that amazing compliment from Letterman, looked down frequently. He noted that he couldn’t do high kicks like the actor in the cheesy fake ST clip preceding the real clip proving his command of a scene if not of the Enterprise. “No, you’re fine,” Letterman corrected. And Cumberbatch was—he came across as more jittery than on Norton's show but more genuine. He looked pleased about Star Trek but humble about his talent. He went with whatever Letterman asked or showed him, even if such an interview gave him fewer opportunities to plug his work or let the late-night audience get to know him on his own terms.

With Letterman, Cumberbatch’s “Britishness” was also on display—he admitted he “overdressed” for the occasion “in honor of” Letterman, and his audition story was about playing James Bond. When first introduced, he quietly asked the host where he should sit and later to which monitor to direct his attention. He looked like a Letterman newbie (which he was). Those aren’t criticisms, but they separate Cumberbatch from the glib, flamboyant, often supremely outgoing (usually American) guests sitting in the interview chair. Some people might find that reason for concern, but I found it refreshing and endearing—a term I seem to be overusing in response to Cumberbatch’s Star Trek interviews. He was different than most actors promoting a movie and, like he does with his acting, kept me wondering what he would do or say. He was interesting to watch.

Not everyone will dissect these appearances, but, in light of Cumberbatch’s rise to fame, they emphasize that transitional period I keep harping on. The man sitting next to Dave on Thursday night seemed much younger and more eager than the man who chatted with Graham Norton or Billy Bush. If I hadn’t been aware of his long CV of excellent roles, I would’ve been intrigued by the menace and focus of the villain in the ST clip contrasted with the talkative but self-deprecating guy who looked down almost as often as he made direct eye contact with Dave, the one who (when Letterman called him a “kid” and said he didn’t know the actor’s age) immediately affirmed that he still is a kid (pause . . . “at heart”). The difference between the man on the couch and the villain on the screen would make me want to know more about the actor—and that, really more than promoting ST, is what the Letterman appearance was all about.