Sunday, September 14, 2014

Benedict Cumberbatch and the Case of A Beastly Interview


Via HindustanTimes

I debated about writing since reading Benedict Cumberbatch's interview with entertainment editor Marlow Stern of the Daily Beast last week. What he said, what he meant, how the reporter's questions and opinion influenced the interview - and I hoped that Cumberbatch would say something - anything - in response to reader and fan reaction.

That hasn't happened, so here I am, writing - because the interview still bothers me.

The Daily Beast is an American news/opinion website with more than 17 million unique visitors per month - according to Wikipedia - and was one of many media outlets in Toronto covering the Toronto International Film Festival. This interview was of many Cumberbatch and castmembers took on to promote The Imitation Game (@ImitationGame and @ImitationGameUK). After one of the first interviews since arriving from London, Benedict was complimented by editor-in-chief Steven Weintraub, who Tweeted about Cumberbatch's humor and good spirits:

When talking with @CineplexMovies, Cumberbatch spoke warmly of Alan Turing (who was, coincidentally, working as a Reader in the School of Mathematics at the University of Manchester in 1952 - the same university Benedict Cumberbatch would later attend), and was eloquent and effusive about the film.

As Mark Daniell of the Toronto Sun commented in his interview of Sept. 8, 2014, Benedict would be doing "wall-to-wall press" during TIFF 2014, much like he had the year before to promote The Fifth Estate.

For what it's worth, there may be a method to this media madness. Cumberbatch's performance, along with those of his co-stars, must have been well-received, based on critics' praise of the film and audience reaction: The Imitation Game won the People's Choice Award for Best Feature at TIFF14. Past winners include Best Picture Oscar winners 12 Years a Slave and The King's Speech.

I've not been part of a press junket, but if you're an actor promoting a film, it sounds a bit like being a show dog, taken from place to place, asked to perform for all the nice people so that you can go back to the other strange room that isn't your home to sleep, get up and do it all again the next day until it's someone else's turn. Why? Because they want the nice people to like you and see the nice show you're in and hopefully give you prizes (and make everyone involved more money).

Most of the interviews received favorable attention on social media, with the exception of the TIFF press conference:

Reactions included:

Regarding the film and Alan Turing's life,  Benedict observed: "There's an awful lot of this story that does come as a rude shock to people."

You know what came as a shock to me? His Daily Beast interview. His approach while preparing for a role has been widely reported as involving a great deal of research: reading books written about the subject or person, talking with people involved or well-acquainted with intimate details, watching videos and listening to audio recordings. His directors and co-stars (who become his friends) have described Benedict as hardworking, dedicated, intelligent, well-spoken - all the superlatives an actor would want - and then some.

So, what happened?

The article starts out fairly straightforward, with background on Alan Turing, his work during World War II - and what happened to him (and his place in history as a result of his private life).
Stern: (Turing) would’ve definitely played a larger role in the history books if the crazy homophobic witch hunt after hadn’t happened. And the fact that Turing was only posthumously pardoned by the Queen late last year is pretty insane.
Cumberbatch: It’s disgusting. It gets me very, very angry. 
In other interviews, Cumberbatch mentioned his anger about the pardon, believing that honoring Alan has been long overdue - and that any decision to forgive exclusively belonged to Turing:
"It's hugely important to me because I think he has been remarkably overlooked. There has been recognition of him in the last few years with pardons - in my opinion too little too late.
"The only person who should be doing any pardoning is him towards the people who treated him in such a manner."
This time? Cumberbatch went into a different direction, with a little help from Stern.
Stern: The petition to pardon Turing was actually shot down in 2012 by Lord McNally, then Justice Minister.
Cumberbatch: Who’s Lord McNally? Well, he’s probably gay. They’re always the biggest homophobes. 

To quote Sherlock:

The who, the what, the why, the when, the where? 

Who? He didn't know who Lord McNally was. I confess that I didn't, either (but I didn't research Alan Turing's life to portray him in a film). That's why I Googled McNally - and discovered that he is a Liberal Democrat and former Leader of that party in the House of Lords. (He also happens to share my birthday, but I digress.)

Now, in the U.S., the political party LEAST likely to be homophobic would be the Democratic party. The group within the Democratic party MOST likely to offer passionate and unwavering support for the rights of others, particularly those whose rights have been diminished, violated or virtually eliminated? The liberal Democrats.

Anyone see a problem here?

What? Cumberbatch, it seemed, rather carelessly and personally attacked McNally. Without knowing details of the 2012 decision, he cast McNally as a villain. I recall Cumberbatch expressed displeasure over "posh-bashing" at his expense in the past. Given what he said to the Daily Beast, I think I'd prefer to be profiled as "posh" rather than pilloried as "homophobic."

What was McNally's comment in 2012 regarding the petition when he dismissed the motion? At the time, the BBC reported McNally's statement::
"It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd, particularly... given his outstanding contribution to the war effort," McNally said. "However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times."
Granted, it's not the action petitioners wanted, but McNally's response was based more on precedent than prejudice. It hardly seems that of a fearful, angry career politician who was hiding dark secrets and working to disenfranchise a group of citizens based on their sexuality. Further research of McNally shows his support for same-sex marriage, mediation (rather than going to court) for couples who choose to separate, legal aid, and prison reform.

McNally may not be your cup of tea, but he's certainly not a carton of spoiled milk left on the counter.

Why? Why did Cumberbatch have this exchange?
Stern: The scenes of Turing undergoing the chemical castration are really gut wrenching.
Cumberbatch: And it’s still going on in North America with the Christian far right! There are courses and doctors and meds handed out to “cure” people of their homosexuality, and it’s shocking that it still goes on. 
Okay. The reporter describes his response to your emotionally-charged scenes in a character-driven movie that's impressing critics and audiences. How do you respond?
a) Thank the reporter - and wait for the next question, OR
b) Acknowledge the reporter's reaction and express what it was like as an actor to bring those scenes to life and how it felt to put yourself in that situation, OR
c) Call out a minority group in the host country (North America) where you're promoting your film and neglect to clarify that while chemical castration is a shameful and horrible part of the past, today's "conversion therapy" upsets you almost as much - because it is an attempt to control an individual's personal life, which should be no one's business (except their partner's). 
If you chose c) then you won't be surprised to learn that the reporter followed with his observations on homophobia in the U.S., too, to which Cumberbatch agreed, then added his views regarding American presidential prospects, quoting this song by British singer Morrissey (who, as it happens, grew up in Manchester):

So, yes. Cumberbatch went there, praising our election of Barack Obama, but encouraging us to do more,  as suggested in 2004 by an English singer/songwriter who also wants to abolish the British Monarchy, criticized Hilary Clinton, supports Scotland's separation from the United Kingdom - and has, more than once, been accused of racism. 

When? The reporter asked if there was a time Benedict observed homophobia. Cumberbatch recalled the environment of all-boys school combined with an overall homophobic atmosphere at Harrow School when he was a student there - as he witnessed housemates chasing two boys who'd been caught together in bed. Although he didn't elaborate on those young men, he did discuss chastising the boys who chased them, calling out their diversity within the small group and frankly telling them what they should do: coexist. Heady stuff for a then 18-year-old. I don't find fault with this recollection - only noting a recent documentary about Harrow, which, being authorized by the school, would naturally depict a positive experience for students, reflects the same diversity Cumberbatch mentioned as being in place 20 years ago (fairly progressive) AND that the students who appeared in the program seemed to be free to be who they were. Privacy is key for students in any school, and experimentation is also part of being a teenager. What goes on now at Harrow may not be what it once was, yet Benedict's answer didn't include that.

Where? Where did Benedict go when asked his views on ISIS and allow returning jihadis back into the UK? (Of all the topics to discuss - ask an actor who was a victim of carjacking and can recount being on the ground in execution position, with a duvet cover over his head.) Highlights of his reply include:
"Why wouldn’t we want to learn from them (jihadists) what the hell is going on over there? What made them want to do it? Who recruited them, and how to stop the recruiting?" 
"You can’t kill an idea with bombs—in fact, you often strengthen ideas with bombs. To really understand [ISIS] is how we’re going to be able to start combating it, and changing it." 
"If there was conscription and I was asked, I would go, because it’s fundamental to every person’s ideology on this planet, no matter what race or creed you are. It’s their way, or death."
To me, he answers the dilemma of the first paragraph with his observation in the third. Do you want to understand? Accept that it's THEIR way - or DEATH.  Who do they recruit? People who share their hatred for Americans, their allies, and any country that doesn't follow their belief system because it's THEIR way - or DEATH. Executing civilians from America and its allies? To demonstrate that it's THEIR way - or DEATH.  Their motivation for existence? To prove that it's THEIR way - or DEATH.

(My two cents: Faith-based organizations with extremist tendencies have a history of seeing themselves as somewhere separate from - and almost always better than, those who do not share the same view. The history of many a nation includes such groups, so, it's a bit difficult to be the moral compass for another country.)

Just because something exists doesn't mean it has to be complicated in order to be effective - to devastating effect. 

I believe we can understand that far more than the whims and waffling in this interview. To be an effective advocate, one needn't be effusive or inflammatory. Cumberbatch is known for his intellect and dedication to getting it right. To me, this interview was NOT done right.  An apology to Lord McNally (via phone, email or letter) seems appropriate - with no media attention required. Who knows what happened here. Perhaps it was jetlag or fatigue or distraction. It doesn't matter how it happened, but it DOES matter that his fandom is loyal and protective of him. Fans, of which I am one, shouldn't count their favorite actor's words as gospel or a guide to living, but an opportunity to learn more. Fans can appreciation the passion of his convictions, but can also take the time to do what he often does BEFORE talking or taking sides on a topic:


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