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Performance In a Leading Role

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If he hadn’t already been keenly aware of it, Sherlock Holmes would have known that his career was sliding slowly into oblivion by the way other people acted toward him as he walked through to his agent’s office. Five years ago, the second he walked in, all eyes would have turned towards him. Shy smiles, blushes, eyelash-batting, big proud grins. Rushes to get him tea, take his coat. That sense of communal success that came from one of their actors doing well. Go, team, go. One of the agency’s clients winning an Oscar was like the entire team winning the World Cup. It brightened everyone’s prospects.

Today, it was all avoidance. When your last picture belly-flopped and the previous one was a critical embarrassment, capping off a string of underperforming films, no one wanted to meet your eyes. He wasn’t bringing in the commissions. His asking price was sinking. The directors weren’t lining up at his agent’s doorstep, begging to give him a script.

The only upside to all this was that the bloody paparrazzi were leaving him alone. God, he hated Los Angeles. Not that London was much of an improvement; the tabloids there were even worse. At least there, he knew where he could go and have some peace. The community was tighter. He’d gone to RADA with half of the British film industry. Here, it was every man for himself.

Greg was waiting for him at his assistant’s desk. He smiled and shook his hand. “Sherlock. Come on in.”

Sherlock followed Greg into his understated office. He was one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood, but Greg was calm and efficient. It was one of the reasons Sherlock had chosen him ten years ago, after his first nomination had turned him overnight into a hot commodity. He didn’t need a cheerleader or someone to stroke his ego. He needed a partner, and Greg had been that.

“I’ve got good news and bad news,” Greg said, sitting down. Sherlock did the same. “Which do you want first?”

“I think I already know the nature of the bad news,” Sherlock said.

“I’ve spoken to David. They’re not going to make you an offer.”

Sherlock sighed. “That part is mine, Greg. I would fucking own it. I can already see it in my mind.”

“I don’t disagree. They’re going another way.”

He squinted. “What way are they going?”

Greg hesitated. “Nothing’s been announced, but – I hear they’re going to offer it to Robert.”

Sherlock’s mouth dropped open. “Please, tell me you’re joking.”

“I am not.”

“He’s ten years older than me! The character is supposed to be thirty!

“David knows Robert, they’ve worked together before.”

“The man plays every role as himself!”

“He’s a good actor, Sherlock. And his last two pictures took home tidy profits. And he doesn’t reduce his directors to hysterics on set.”

Sherlock sniffed. “The very idea that Robert Downey, Jr and I could ever be considered as candidates for the same role is insulting.”

“Don’t get up on your high horse. You still have options. Quentin called again…”

“No.”

“It’s a very interesting part.”

“It’s a small part, is what it is. I will not take one of Quentin’s trademarked rescue-the-has-been supporting roles.”

“He’s saved careers in worse shape than yours, you know.”

“I am not yet in a position to have to go begging to that video store clerk.” He frowned. “Am I?”

“No, I wouldn’t say so.” Greg folded his hands on his desktop. “But it’s getting there, Sherlock. You pay me for honesty, so here it is. The Oscar curse is real.”

Sherlock sniffed. “No, it isn’t. It’s merely a manifestation of regression to the mean. An exceptional result is a statistical outlier, therefore subsequent data points will tend back towards the average, which will give the impression of a decline.”

“However you explain it, you’re not immune. The bloom is off the rose. Kanisza was five years ago. No one’s forgotten what you’re capable of. You’ve proven it time and again. But the money isn’t there, and that’s the only currency that matters.”

“May I remind you that no one predicted that Kanizsa would achieve the financial success that it did? And that part of the reason it made money was the Oscar bump it got from my performance?

“I don’t need reminding. I make that very point to directors and producers every day. But recapturing that isn’t easy. And some of your choices since then have been – unorthodox.”

Sherlock sighed. “Go ahead, say it. I told you so.”

“I won’t say that. I’m your agent, you pay me to make deals on your behalf, not to dictate your creative choices. But you’re not making it easy for me.”

“I don’t care about the money. All that matters to me is the work. I just want something interesting, something challenging. If all I cared about was money, I could take period dramas or action-movie-villain roles until I retire, or die of boredom.”

“You just described Alan Rickman’s career. Don’t knock it.”

“Alan has Potter residuals to live on until the end of time. His worries are over. All I care about are roles worth my time and effort.”

“But if your films aren’t making money, you’ll be taking those roles in tiny self-financed independent films and you’ll have to move to Burbank. You can talk about money like it’s not important because you have it. For now. Box office success is directly translatable to artistic freedom. I know you want to help produce scripts you think are interesting. I know you want choices. For that, you need marketability. And yours is bleeding away fast.” Greg took a deep breath. “We cannot afford another disaster like Schrodinger Paradox.

Sherlock tightened up, his jaw clenching. “That was not my fault.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“The studio butchered that film. Paul damn near lost his mind. The rewrites killed the script.”

“No argument. But the reviews…”

“My performance was the only thing that got positive notice.”

“That wasn’t enough to save the film. It lost two hundred million dollars, Sherlock. And you were supposed to be a draw.”

“I can’t buoy up an entire production! I signed on for a thoughtful speculative piece and the studio decided they wanted a futuristic actioner!”

“Nobody’s blaming you.”

“Nobody’s hiring me, either.”

Silence fell. Finally, Greg sighed. “Well, we’re not done yet. I’ve got a couple of interesting prospects.”

Sherlock braced himself. “All right. Let’s hear them.”

“The first could be a franchise.”

“A franchise? Surely you jest.”

“No. A somewhat atypical one. It’s based on a series of books, the Shadow Unit series. It’s about a team of FBI behavioral analysts who investigate paranormal phenomenon.”

“Sounds ridiculous.”

“Actually it’s quite fascinating. Gritty and noir and intelligent. There’s a fantastic character for you, he’s a bit younger than you, but I think you can play it. He’s the team’s resident genius.”

“How appropriate. Who is directing this piece de resistance?

“Well, hold on to your chair. It’s the Coens.”

Sherlock’s eyes widened. “The Coens are starting a paranormal franchise?”

“It’s pretty much the only genre they haven’t covered.”

“Hmm. I’ll have a look at the books. Is there a script?”

“Not as such. They’re in development.”

Sherlock made a face. “So that’s several years off, if it happens at all.”

“They’re making casting decisions, it can’t be that far off.”

“What’s the other prospect?”

“Well, this is the one I think you should consider the most. I had a call from Ang Lee. He’s very interested in meeting with you about a role in his new film.”

“What’s the film?”

“It’s about a gay couple.”

“Oh, going back to that well, is he?”

“This isn’t Brokeback Part 2. Ang’s very interested in making a film about the life of a gay couple that isn’t a ‘gay film,’” Greg said, making air quotes.

Sherlock frowned. “How do you mean?”

“He doesn’t want the film to be about the traditional gay-film topics. AIDS and homophobia and coming out and religion and family discord. He wants to make the sort of film one might make about any couple, except that this couple is two men. I’ve read the script. I think it’s astonishingly good. Very honest, very stark.”

“I don’t know, Greg. Playing gay is a risk. It shouldn’t be, but it is.”

“Look what it did for Heath Ledger.”

“Unfortunate example. The poor bloke died.”

“Yes, but before that his career was through the roof.”

Sherlock sighed. “Who wrote the script?”

“It’s a first-time screenwriter, Molly Hooper. Apparently she wrote the script with you in mind.”

“Grand. A treatise by a fan.”

“That’s not how it reads.” Greg reached into his desk and pulled out a script. He tossed it across to Sherlock. “Take it home. Read it. Call me when you’re done and we’ll talk.”


Sherlock took the script home to the condo he maintained in Los Angeles for the time he was forced to spend there. He set up camp on his patio with some wine and his laptop and started reading.

Four hours later, he dialed Greg.

“Lestrade.”

“Greg, it’s Sherlock.”

“Well?”

“I must be in this film. I must.”

“I knew you’d say that.”

“The title has to be changed, though. ‘Silence and Death?’ Bloody grim. Sounds like a Jim Jarmusch film, and we all know the audiences stampede to those.”

“I’m with you on the title. I believe that’s open for discussion. So, you want me to call Ang?”

“Tell him I’ll read for him if he wants.”

“Oh, you’re condescending to read for a role?”

“For this one, I’ll read.”

“I don’t think you’ll need to. You’re the actor he wants.”

“I don’t care if he pays me scale. I must do this.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you this excited about a part.”

“It’s a fantastic part. I can see where this Hooper woman drew some inspiration from me, but Benjamin is – he’s not me. He’s in a cocoon, and there’s this fantastic cyclical development she’s drawn for him. It’s interesting.”

“I’m glad you’re reacting this way. And I don’t think you’ll have to settle for scale.”

“Have they cast the other role? Who do they want for Mark?”

“I’m not really…”

“Because I have some ideas about that. Oh, I should call Jimmy, he’d love this part – but I think he’s committed to the Wanted sequel. You know who’d be fantastic, is Matt Goode. I did an episode of Buzzcocks with him once, he’s lovely.”

“Sherlock.”

“What?”

He heard Greg sigh. “I fear you’re not going to like this. There’s been no offer made, but the casting director told me that Ang wants John Watson.”

Sherlock’s stomach dropped. “What?


John blinked. “Pull the other one.”

Mike grinned. “I’m not having you on, mate.”

“Stop it. Stop it right now.”

“I’m serious! Would I kid you about something like this?”

John grabbed Mike’s lapel, grinning. “Ang Lee wants to talk to me about a part? A part in which I will not have to make googly eyes at a mindless starlet fifteen years younger than me?”

“You heard me correctly.”

“Call him back! Tell him I’ll meet him now, today! Anywhere he wants!”

“Don’t you want to read the script?” Mike said, laughing.

“Oh, does it matter?”

“You’d be playing half of a gay couple.”

“I’d play a transgender serial killer if he asked me to. Is the script good?”

“It’s mind-blowing. This could revolutionize your career, John.”

“Don’t tease me, Mike.”

“You could escape the rom-com ghetto.”

John sat down heavily. “How did I get there in the first place?”

“Well, the first one was actually good. That’s the seductive part. And it made money. And then the offers all went in that direction, and…”

“Before I knew it, I was taking the parts that even McConaughey wouldn’t touch.” John sighed and raked a hand through his hair. “It’d just be nice to act in something real, something with substance, with a co-star I could actually act with, not at.

“Well, you might just get that. Guess who Ang wants as your co-star?”

“I couldn’t possibly.”

“Sherlock Holmes.”

John’s eyes widened. “Bloody hell.” He sagged. “Well, that’s that, then.”

“What do you mean?”

“A project with Sherlock Holmes attached to it isn’t going to cast me, King of the Date Movie.”

“Don’t be so quick to think so. It’s awhile since Kanizsa, his star’s not shining at brightly as it once did. I don’t think he’s in a position to dictate casting. I mean, did you see The Schrodinger Paradox?

“Yes. He was the only thing in it worth watching. That disaster had ‘studio interference’ written all over it. I hear that Haggis nearly had a nervous breakdown during the shoot.” John sighed. “Damn. The chance to act with Sherlock Holmes. Pinch me, will you?”

“I’m going to call Ang and set up a meeting. He’ll want you and Holmes to screen test together. The two of you will have to carry this entire movie and it will live or die on the strength of the chemistry between you, so he’ll have to make sure it’s there.”

“Email me the script, I’ll read it tonight. But if it’s as good as you say, you can tell Ang I’ll work for free coffee and a donut.”


“I can’t believe I agreed to this,” Sherlock muttered, rolling and unrolling the script in his hands.

“Shut your face,” Sally snapped, handing him his tea. “You’ve got to play this part.”

“If they cast this buffoon, the movie’s sunk. All this potential? All this brilliance in these pages? John Watson will piss all over it with ham-handed acting and obvious choices. This calls for subtlety, not the dramatic stylings of a man accustomed to trading so-called adorable banter with the starlet du jour.

“He did some really interesting character work when he started out, you know.”

“And how long has it been since he’s been asked to do anything more challenging than a Meet Cute?”

“He’s an actor, just like you.”

“He’s a generic boy-next-door, the die-cast Unthreatening Male. I need a co-star with a bit more edge to him. Give me something to act against! He’s a bloody blank white wall!”

Sally sighed. “And you wonder how you acquired a reputation for being difficult to work with.”

“I am difficult. All the great ones are.”

“Point and match, I think.”

“This script requires heavy lifting. There is a scene in which Mark discovers his twin brother’s body after he’s committed suicide! That isn’t material for a man whose films have soundtracks with Top 40 hits on them!”

“You’re just nervous because you’re going to have to film love scenes with him.”

“I’m a professional. I can handle it. I’ve done love scenes before.”

“Not with another man, you haven’t. Here, give me your coat, you know you get sweaty before a screen test. Do you want to look all red-faced on camera?”

“What would I do without you?”

“You’d never find another PA, that’s for sure. Being your assistant ought to qualify me for the diplomatic corps.”

“So, have you ever met him? Watson, I mean? Perhaps when you worked for that dreadful publicist?”

“I met him once, at the SAG awards. He’s very nice.”

“Nice. How delightful,” Sherlock said. He squared his shoulders as they approached the production office. “All right, game faces on.”

They were shown into an office which had been set up for the screen test. “Hello, Jim,” said Sherlock, shaking hands with the producer, Jim Schamus. He looked around. “Ang isn’t joining us today?”

“He’s on a location scout. We’re going to livestream the footage to him.”

“I see,” said Sherlock, irritated. He would have vastly preferred to have the director present. “You’ve met my assistant, Sally Donovan.”

“Yes, hello, Sally,” said Schamus.

“Jim, is Ang really serious about John Watson?” Sherlock asked, seizing the chance while they were alone. “For this material? We might as well cast that Timberlake chap.”

Jim chuckled. “You know, nobody thought that Jim Carrey could handle Eternal Sunshine either, when we cast him. Nobody thought Michelle Williams was right for Brokeback.” He winked. “Trust me, Sherlock. Our casting directors know what they’re doing.”

Sherlock had his doubts about that, but he didn’t have time to object further. The door opened again and in strode John Watson, smiling and flushed with excitement. He was trailed by a woman, obviously a relative, who seemed to be his PA.

“Ah, John. Lovely to see you,” said Schamus, shaking Watson’s hand.

“Jim, hello. Good to meet you in person, finally. This is my sister Harry, she’s my PA.” Schamus shook Harry’s hand. Watson turned and looked up at Sherlock. Way up. The man was short. “Mr. Holmes!” he said, sticking out his hand.

“Sherlock, please,” he said, keeping his tone no more than cordial. He shook the man’s hand.

“Crikey, you are tall! John Watson, please call me John. It’s fantastic to meet you, I’m a huge fan. I think I’ve seen Rotisserie a dozen times.”

Sherlock couldn’t help but soften a bit, hearing that. Rotisserie was his personal favorite of his own performances, but no one ever mentioned it because it was an obscure art film he’d done early in his career. “Thank you. I’m fond of that film.” Watson smiled eagerly up at him, clearly hoping for a reciprocation of praise for one of his own films, but to Sherlock’s dismay, he could not dredge up the name of a single one of them. “And you, of course – I’m a…fan,” he managed, hoping he sounded convincing.

John’s smile fell a bit. Didn’t look like he was buying it. “Well, I’m very excited about this project.”

“As am I.”

John shuffled a bit. “Well, Jim, shall we get to it?”

“Yes. We’ve got the cameras set up here, double coverage so just go through the scene as naturally as you can.”

John set his script on the table. Sherlock arched an eyebrow. “Are you off book?”

“Yes, of course.”

Sherlock sniffed. “I wouldn’t go off book until after the full cast read-through. It’s pointless to commit a preliminary draft to memory.”

“I prefer to work off book. Gives me more room to breathe.” John rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck, one direction, then the other. Sherlock set down his tea, rolling his eyes behind John’s back.

He stepped into the camera’s view, script in hand – he did have at least part of the scene committed to memory, but he wasn’t ready to discard the print – and he and John sat down at the table set there as a stand-in for the park bench where Benjamin and Mark meet.

“Whenever you’re ready,” said Schamus.

John had the first line. Sherlock waited, settling into something like Benjamin. This test wouldn’t be about how he’d eventually play Benjamin, but more about how he and John clicked on screen. Sherlock hoped it would be a dismal failure, frankly. He himself had already signed a contract for this film, so it was really John who was testing here. If their interaction wasn’t what Ang wanted, they’d cast someone else as Mark. Sherlock was already imagining other actors he could perform this script with. The possibilities were tantalizing.

And he was still waiting. John was just sitting there.

He was about to say something when abruptly, John’s posture shifted and his shoulders kicked back a notch, and – he was different. Hard to say how, exactly, but he was. He looked up at Sherlock and delivered the first line. It was like a tennis serve, lobbed across the table, and Sherlock found himself volleying it back with his own line. John caught it with a gesture and an uncertain smile, his character unsure of who he was dealing with, and continued the dialogue.

Sherlock forgot how badly he wanted John to fail. He forgot that he was screen testing with this man. He just sat back and acted the scene. It was easy, like falling into step with a longtime dance partner, like settling into the dip you’ve worn into your mattress. He barely glanced at his script. Some of his lines weren’t exactly on-book, but John ad libbed responses that fit and kept the scene going. Sherlock felt his character shaping, but shaping in tandem.

It was only a three-page scene. It was over in five minutes.

John grinned, the character he’d just put on falling instantly away and leaving him behind. Sherlock blinked. “That was jolly good,” John said. “Great script, isn’t it?”

“Indeed it is,” Sherlock said, gathering his self-possession around him. He stood up. “Jim, does Ang want another scene?”

“No, I think that’ll do,” Jim said. “We’ll be in touch.”

John practically leapt to shake Sherlock’s hand again. “It was a real thrill to read with you, Sherlock. I hope we’ll be working together on this project.”

In spite of himself Sherlock found himself hoping so, too. “Quite,” was all he said.

“Must be off. I’ve got press junkets this afternoon,” he said, making a face. Everyone hated press junkets. “I’ll be expected to wax rhapsodic about my co-star, who never got off cue cards the entire shoot, incidentally. Afternoon!” he said, with a wave. And then he was gone.

Schamus was already on the phone. He waved goodbye to Sherlock as he and Sally left the production offices. “I thought that was quite good,” Sally said.

Sherlock snorted. “Please. The man’s a hack. Barely a notch above soap opera acting.”

“You liked him, didn’t you? You’re just saving face, now. What, worried about being out-acted by the Everyman?”

“You are ridiculous. Please go and be elsewhere.”

Sally grinned. “I love it when you get insecure. I get the most delicious turns of phrase.”

They climbed into Sally’s car. “What’s on for this afternoon?” Sherlock asked.

“Afternoon’s free, actually. You’ve got a reception tonight at the Paley Center. What do you want to wear?”

“Oh, I don’t care. Pick something out.”

They’d barely gotten two blocks away before Sherlock’s mobile went off. “Holmes.”

“Jim Schamus here, Sherlock. I thought you’d like to know. Ang loved your screen test. We’re going to sign John to the picture. You’ve got your Mark. We’ll be in touch for pre-production meetings.”

“All right, Jim. Thanks.” He hung up, heaving a weary sigh. “Looks like I’ll be carrying the Everyman hack on my shoulders for this shoot,” he said.

“I wouldn’t count that guy out yet.”

“If he ruins this picture, I will make sure he never works…”

“…in this town again,” Sally finished with him, laughing. “Where have I heard that one before? Oh, that’s right – isn’t that the last thing Lars said to you before he kicked you off his set?”

Sherlock fumed. “And look how that picture did without me. Ridiculous Danish minimalistic masturbatory navel-gazing.”

Sally shook her head. “Maybe what you need is a John Watson to take you down a peg, Sherlock.”

“I don’t need anyone, Sally, least of all you, so mind yourself.”

“I’m not scared of you, you know. And neither was he.” She merged onto the freeway, cranking down her window. “I think I’m going to enjoy this.”