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An Open Letter to Benedict Cumberbatch: Seven Lunatic Roles You MUST Play

January 6, 2014  |  2:39pm
An Open Letter to Benedict Cumberbatch: Seven Lunatic Roles You MUST Play

Dear Mr. Cumberbatch,

I think you’re great.

No, that’s wrong. Too safe, too mundane. You never hold back in your roles, and I shouldn’t hold back when writing to you.

I love you.

I love your style. I love your name, of course. I love that you’re not above expressing an undiluted opinion about certain pieces of dreck like, say, Downton Abbey. I love that beneath the calm British exterior, you’ve got some crazy energy happening. How many actors have that wild, manic undercurrent anymore? Jack Nicholson’s not in his 30s anymore, so maybe none?

And look, I know you can play interesting “normal” characters. You were fantastic as the plantation owner Tom Ford in 12 Years a Slave, and you nailed your supporting role as Peter in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. August: Osage County was kind of a clunker, but that wasn’t your fault. You’ve proved you can do just about anything.

That being said, you’ve got that thing we talked about; that rampant, unharnessed quality that makes you so unforgettable in Sherlock. You even tapped into it as the philosophical dragon Smaug in the latest Hobbit movie. And anyone who hasn’t watched clips of you portraying Vincent Van Gogh in the TV movie Painted With Words should hasten to do so now.

We’re living in an increasingly stifled world, and our performers (not to mention our dramas and comedies) reflect that. What you have is a valuable commodity, and for my money it simply can’t be wasted playing anything but the most restless, ardent, irrepressible characters the world has to offer. You’re the essence of the word ‘personality,’ and I have a few suggestions for you, along the writers and directors of the world, as to which roles you could translate into immediate genius.

1. Sebastian Dangerfield

J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man is one of the funniest works of fiction ever written, a true picaresque featuring a main character so controversial that the book was immediately banned in Ireland and the U.S. Johnny Depp has been all over this film, meeting time and again with Donleavy in Ireland to get it started, but nothing’s come of it. This is ripe for the picking, Benedict. Nobody can play the carousing, amoral, drunken Dangerfield like you.

2. Dean Moriarty

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is basically the bible of the Beat generation, and the best attempt to capture a freedom of spirit that even in 1950 was being suppressed by the conformity descending on America (and the world). And Dean Moriarty was the ultimate expression of that freedom impulse—someone Kerouac described as “tremendously excited with life” and the inspiration behind that roman candle quote everybody’s always posting on Facebook. Moriarty was a stand-in for beat eccentric Neal Cassady, and you would be the best at breathing life into a truly captivating literary figure.

3. Withnail

This is pretty simply. Withnail & I (1987) is one of the greatest dark comedies ever made, and though Richard E. Grant was truly wonderful as the philosophical drunkard and exuberant ne’er-do-well Withnail, I think you’d be the perfect man for the remake. It would also let you indulge whatever anxieties plagued you in the days before you became famous; Withnail is a struggling actor doomed to fail, and I have a feeling you could tap into your own buried insecurities to bring him to scintillating life.

4. Ignatius J. Reilly

They’d have to stuff you into a fat suit, but I like to think the repeated failures to make A Confederacy of Dunces into a film (John Belushi, Will Ferrell, John Goodman, John Candy, Chris Farley and Zach Galifianiakis are just of the few who have come close to taking on Ignatius) are fate’s hand intervening, stalling the process until you, Mr. Cumberbatch, can assume the role. JFK Toole’s Ignatius is a giant, ostentatious man who yells at movies, dismisses anyone of inferior intellect and generally waddles his way through New Orleans, offending and disgusting all who stand in his way. This role is your birthright.

5. Don Quixote

I’d love to see you challenging windmills to a duel. Really, though, this is the original literary vagabond, the traveling rogue operating by his own bizarre principals. It’s the seminal lunatic by which all others are judged, and for you, Benedict, the role is practically required. And while we’re here, let’s just get Martin Freeman on board as Sancho Panza. The dynamic with those two is basically the same as Sherlock and Watson, minus a bit of credibility.

6. Hunter S. Thompson

It’s probably become clear now that your main competition in the “wild & eccentric” actor category is Mr. Johnathan Depp. And I think Depp was pretty great in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He has a natural advantage in the sense that he’s American, he’s less physically imposing, and he’s spent his entire career training in mumble technique with Keith Richards as a tutor. You, Benedict, are bigger, far more English, and tend to enunciate with some precision. So perhaps this is a stretch. Spiritually, though, I think you’re brothers with the late Mr. Thompson, and I know in my heart you could translate his unique breed of drug-fueled insanity into something glorious.

7. Tristram Shandy

I feel like I’m saddling you with a lot of American roles. And I know you’ve shown again and again that you’re up for the challenge, but let’s head back to the auld sod to give you a bit of relief. When I think of the physical embodiment of Shandy, of course, I picture Steve Coogan, but A Cock and Bull Story was one of those film-within-a-film deals that shied away from really tackling the story on its own. And it’s understandable, of course; the Tristram Shandy books by Laurence Sterne are filled with long streams-of-conscience and other digressive literary devices that aren’t immediately to conducive to film. But even if there were long moments where you marched back and forth in period costume, muttering in Shandy’s untethered dialect, I think the adaptation would be worthwhile.

Benedict, let me know what you think. I can be reached at all the usual avenues, and I’m more than willing to discuss any or all of these roles. I think you’re brilliant, but wasted on roles that don’t emit light at brightness levels that are almost harmful to human senses. You should be the roving, barmy king of cinema, and these roles will take you there.

Yours,

Shane

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