Ask the next 10 people you meet—or interact with on Facebook or Tumblr—if they've heard of Benedict Cumberbatch, and you're likely to get at least a few affirmative answers. The actor's popularity has been building steadily since he started playing Sherlock Holmes in the BBC's update of the series, and his brilliant turn as the villain in Star Trek: Into Darkness may be the role that finally makes him a household name. (Not an easily pronounceable one, admittedly, but a household name nonetheless.)
But ask people if they've heard of Cabin Pressure, and you'll get more than a few blank looks. It's a pity, but it's not surprising. The BBC Radio 4 sitcom may very well be one of the best projects that Cumberbatchhas ever done, but BBC radio comedies aren't exactly front-page news over here. Until recently, I'd never heard of it either.
However, if you have a Cabin Pressure fan in your circle of friends, trust me, you will be assimilated. My friend Kaitlyn, upon discovering that I was unfamiliar with the show, all but frog-marched me to iTunes and hit the "Purchase" button for me. I'm very glad she did. The show is sweet and funny and thoroughly addictive. And more than that, I think it helps explain what makes Cumberbatch such a rare and compelling actor.
It turns out the man who's rapidly becoming known for playing cold, calculating geniuses has a completely different side. Once you hear him play Cabin Pressure's Martin Crieff, the almost pathologically insecure captain of a decrepit charter plane, you'll never look at him the same way again—and that's a good thing. It shows just what a well-rounded, versatile actor Cumberbatch truly is, and it reminds the rest of us just what an important quality versatility is.
In fact, a lifelong obsession with classic movies has convinced me that versatility is one of the best tools an actor can have. In the course of one Turner Classic Movies marathon, you can go from watching Cary Grant trying to lure a leopard off a roof through song, to suffering deep romantic anguish over Ingrid Bergman, to announcing, "I'm the son of a sea cook!" and charging through a graveyard with Priscilla Lane slung over his shoulder. The man could do anything, and his wide range was among the factors—possibly even the biggest factor—that made him one of the greats.
But this kind of versatility, it seems to me, is becoming rarer among actors these days. The British, to their credit, still seem to encourage it, but Hollywood, not as much. Tom Cruise or Will Smith may start out doing a variety of roles, but once they hit the big leagues as action/adventure stars—which is usually the genre that defines the "big leagues" now—they're tacitly expected to remain action/adventure stars for all time. The occasional excursion outside that genre may be indulged, but not fully approved or rewarded. (Rock of Ages, anyone?) Similarly, Ryan Gosling, typecast for a while now as a "roguish heartthrob" (and star of a hundred thousand Internet memes) will likely be a roguish heartthrob forever after. As Hollywood's range of available genres has grown smaller and more simplistic, performers' options have narrowed. Generally, actors can make a name for themselves in action and/or sci-fi, or in the broadest, basest kind of comedy, or in drippy romance... and that's about it.
I'm not sure we even understand anymore what genuine versatility looks like. Nowadays, for instance, people tend to say of Cary Grant that he was always "playing himself." The same goes for James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, and other actors who brought a recognizable, reliable persona to nearly every role. But paradoxically, that strong persona seemed to allow for greater flexibility. Maybe having a strong sense of who you are—or, as in Grant's case, who you'd like to be—makes you more comfortable in a wide variety of circumstances and genres. And that in turn gives you even greater confidence and security as an actor.
Does the same hold true for Benedict Cumberbatch? It's a little early in his career to say for sure. And it's true that the hilariously awkward Captain Martin Crieff and the ruthless "John Harrison" (I'll use the alias for the sake of those who haven't yet seen the new Star Trek) have little in common. Or is it? Mannerisms and motives—and willingness to wipe out human life on a massive scale—aside, they're both passionate, driven, eccentric loners who are nevertheless deeply committed to the relationships they do have. As is Cumberbatch's Sherlock.
We may have found a pattern here, after all. It looks as if, deep down, there's something much more substantial and consistent to Cumberbatch's persona than an ability to jump down from great heights wearing a long coat.
Also, the fact that he's stuck with Cabin Pressure throughout its run, even while he was busy shooting to stardom on TV and in film, says something about Cumberbatch's dedication to his craft. Drama is impressive, but comedy, as Cary Grant firmly believed, really proves an actor's mettle. Many of the qualities Cumberbatch shows in Star Trek: Into Darkness—the excellent timing, the physicality, the veering between superhuman restraint and uncontrollable emotion—are qualities that may be best developed by sweating to get a laugh out of an audience.
There's no doubt that if you saw that simultaneously icy and ferocious performance of Cumberbatch's on the big screen this past weekend, you saw something special. But if you haven't yet heard him desperately hunting up and down a cabin full of passengers for an elusive lemon, or being tricked into delivering a cabin address in the world's worst French accent, or saying things like "I carried the sheep for you. I climbed the tree. I rode the back of the truck. But now I have to X-ray these geese" ... you're missing out.