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Benedict talks Letters Live with Variety

Ahead of tonight’s show at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Benedict talked with Variety about his history with – and the joy of performing at – Letters Live . Check it out below:

Benedict Cumberbatch Says Participating in His ‘Letters Live’ Stage Show Is ‘An Immediate Shot in the Arm for a Performer’

By K.J. Yossman

In 2013 Jamie Byng, CEO of publisher Canongate, gathered a host of familiar faces including Nick Cave and Gillian Anderson in a disused London church and persuaded them to read a bunch of letters in front of an audience for charity.

Cave selected the message he’d sent to MTV turning down a nomination for Best Male Artist while Anderson re-enacted a letter Katharine Hepburn wrote to Spencer Tracy decades after he’d died. Benedict Cumberbatch, fresh from shooting “The Imitation Game,” also took part, reading a letter from Second World War cryptanalyst Alan Turing, whom he’d just finished portraying on screen.

Read more: Benedict talks Letters Live with Variety

Initially, Cumberbatch tells Variety, he felt “wary” about reading the dispatch, which Turing had written during one of the lowest points of his life, when he awaiting trial for homosexuality. Feeling protective of the computer science prodigy, “I didn’t really want to display him outside of the context that I’d been performing or inhabiting,” Cumberbatch explains. There was also the awkwardness of working out how to read the letter aloud. “Do I have to do him, be him? Or is it my own voice?” (Eventually the “Doctor Strange” actor decided to “lean in” to the characters of the letter-writers, especially if they speak in a particular dialect or voice).

By the end of his reading, Cumberbatch was a convert. “It was such a thrill,” he says. “It was such a beautiful, profound way to honour [Turing] in a different form.” So moving was the experience, Cumberbatch also came on board as a co-producer alongside Byng for what has since become an annual event called “Letters Live.”

Ten years on, “Letters Live” is a bona fide extravaganza sponsored by Montblanc which this year is taking place at London’s Royal Albert Hall (home to dazzling events including the world premiere of “No Time to Die” in 2021) on Thursday evening local time. Letter readers include Emma Watson, Olivia Coleman, Stephen Fry and of course Cumberbatch himself.

“It is a bit like doing a skydive,” Cumberbatch explains. “Once you hit the ground you want to go back up again; once you’ve read a letter, you want to go and read it again. We have a lot of actors who say it’s their favourite part of their diary. They always ring us to check on our availability rather than the other way around.” It doesn’t hurt that there is also a philanthropic component to “Letters Live,” which fundraises for literary organization The Reading Agency.

Audiences won’t know in advance which letters they’re going to hear (they’re curated by a brain trust that includes Byng, Cumberbatch and “Letters of Note” author Shaun Usher) and often even which celebrities are taking part. (When Variety catches up with Byng and Cumberbatch during rehearsals they reveal Woody Harrelson has just been added as a last-minute surprise guest.)

“It allows us an incredible blank canvas when we’re putting a show together because you’ve got such a deep well in terms of the history of literary correspondence,” says Byng. This year’s missives include a typically eclectic selection, ranging from a 2,000-year-old letter from Roman philosopher Pliny to a message sent just a few weeks ago to British politician Suella Braverman from comedian Joe Lycett.

Do the “Letters Live” producers worry that with traditional letter-writing fast becoming a dying art, there’ll be far less correspondence to choose from in years to come? “Very much so,” Cumberbatch says. “It is a slow art. And it can distil a moment in a way that allows for more space and reflection rather than reaction. We live in a very heated, polarized time and a letter — not least because it is more than 140 characters — allows for nuance and greyness and discussion and a far broader bracket of empathy or understanding for whatever it might be about.”

“It’s a window into the lives and times and relationships that you can’t really get in any other medium,” he continues. “It’s quite unique in that form. It’s so intimate and revealing and particular and it’s an immediate shot in the arm for a performer.”

In terms of Cumberbatch’s next performances, he is currently gearing up for Dylan Southern’s adaptation of Max Porter novel “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers,” which is set to go into production in the new year as well as Bob Dylan biopic “A Complete Unknown.”

“And beyond that, I don’t want to say because nothing’s really that certain, even without a strike,” he says. “But I’m very happy for the industry at large that the lifeblood can flood back into it and, hopefully, help people who’ve really struggled over these last few months to have an income, to be able to support themselves and have a better future in our industry as well thanks to the things that have been secured in the negotiations.”

As for the future of “Letters Live,” it already boasts a YouTube channel and, Byng says, he is in talks about a podcast. “We’re very, very careful about what we do that because it is about a live experience,” the publishing mogul says. But he adds they are considering ways of broadening the event. “It’s extremely versatile as a format. All we really care about is making people laugh and making people cry and making people feel connected with one another in the audience as well as connected with the performer and the material that they’re bringing alive. That’s our thing. We bring letters alive.”

Source: Variety