Given that the past year has seen him working virtually non-stop, Ben Whishaw is looking remarkably fresh faced. Sporting a thick moustache and a warm, friendly smile, we meet as he approaches the half way mark on his two month tenure playing opposite his Skyfall co-star Judi Dench in Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward Theatre, an experience that has clearly had a profound impact on the 32-year old. “I’m really enjoying myself,” he beams. “Judi and I never got to share a scene together in Skyfall, so I’m loving being on stage with her and hanging out with her and talking to her and listening to her stories.”
At first glance, it’s difficult to place Ben Whishaw the man and Ben Whishaw the actor together in the same room with one another. Having tackled a wildly diverse array of personalities, including musical icons Keith Richards and Bob Dylan in Stoned and I’m Not There respectively and Romantic poet John Keats in Jane Campion’s Bright Star, Whishaw is, in contrast to many of his much more peculiar characters, a quiet, charming and remarkably self-effacing individual, who talks with refreshing candour when it comes to reflecting on his CV.
“I don’t spend a lot of time looking back actually,” he muses. “Except in interviews, obviously. I never had any plan and I never had any particular desire to be doing anything other than acting in whatever way, shape or form it came. I’d like to be able to say that there was some great master plan but there really wasn’t. I’m sure there are some who have a clearer vision for themselves, but I didn’t. And I don’t now. I just wanted to work.”
And work he most certainly has. Having spent the past few years successfully juggling the demands of stage and screen with the tenacity of a seasoned pro, Whishaw has quickly gone from receiving critical acclaim on the stage to becoming one of the most formidably versatile acting talents working across all three mediums. “I don’t have a preference,” he explains. “I love jumping back and forth between them. It’s very important to have that balance and I think I’ve just been lucky that projects have come along in the different areas at good times and good moments for me.”
Born and raised in Bedfordshire, Whishaw’s interest in theatre began at a young age. As a member of a local youth theatre, he would take frequent trips to London to visit the West End, which had an enormous impact on the impressionable young thesp. “Every week we’d drive down and get cheap tickets for these incredible shows, so all my idols when I was teenager, weirdly, were theatre actors. Before that, I remember watching films and I think that’s probably when I realised that there was this thing called ‘an actor’, but seeing Michael Gambon, Mark Rylance and people like that give astonishing performances when I was fourteen – they were the people that I remember seeing and going: ‘Wow, what is that that they’re doing? It’s so powerful.’”
That curiosity eventually led to Whishaw graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2003, with roles opposite Daniel Craig in Enduring Love and Layer Cake following shortly thereafter. Over the course of the subsequent decade, he has divided his time between theatre and screen, working on various television projects, including Chris Morris’s frequently overlooked, yet unnervingly prophetic, hipster pastiche, Nathan Barley.
“My understanding of it is perhaps that there were people who didn’t know that world at the time didn’t get it at that time. Was that the sort of feeling?” he asks. “It’s only because Chris is so observant and sharp and it is a sort of tiny little bubble of a world, but that’s fascinating. That’s what makes it fascinating – that it sort of exists within in a bigger picture but it’s sort of oblivious to the bigger picture. That’s where the absurdity of it kind of lies, I think. I’d love to work with Chris again.”
More recently, his TV projects have included BAFTA award winning drama serial Criminal Justice, the BBC’s acclaimed production of Richard II and the frustratingly short-lived The Hour, cancelled by the BBC after its second series, which remains something of a sore point.
“The sad thing about The Hour is that there were lots of people who really loved the show. I meet them outside the stage door every night and they’re asking me what happens next,” he admits in a solemn tone. “That’s disappointing. And I had fun. I really, really enjoyed that character and that world that Abi [Morgan] created. I thought they’d finish the story off. It sort felt bad to not complete it.”
In spite of the inevitable knockbacks, it’s clear that he still holds an affinity for television as a storytelling medium. “I like that really slow unfurling of a story and it seems to be appealing to more and more writers and directors. It’s interesting that whenever I overhear conversations on buses and in cafes, that’s what people are talking about now – what DVD box set they’re watching. It’s really enormous fun doing a series. You don’t know where you’re heading and there are constant re-writes. At the time it’s infuriating and strikes panic in to the heart of you, but actually, looking back, you realise that it’s quite thrilling, because you don’t really know everyday what’s going to happen. It’s the opposite of theatre where the parameter is very clearly defined as to what you’re going to be doing. In a series you don’t really know where it’s heading and that’s quite fun.”
It was Whishaw’s acclaimed performance in Trevor Nunn’s 2004 production of Hamlet at the Old Vic, however, that led to his big screen breakthrough, piquing the interest of director Tom Tykwer, who would later cast him as the lead in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. An adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s novel of the same name, Whishaw took the role of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an olfactory genius whose quest for the perfect scent leads to his murderous downfall. The role propelled him to public prominence and also led to him forming a close working relationship with the director, which would later lead to him working on Cloud Atlas, Tykwer’s ambitiously divisive yet profoundly fascinating sci-fi epic, co-directed alongside legendary sibling duo, Andy and Lana Wachowski.
“It’s really precious to me, having that familiarity working with someone. You have a history and you have a shorthand. I think the hardest thing on film is being thrown in to a situation with a group of people that you don’t know and there’s no time to really get to know each other, so tensions can arise. But when you already have a working relationship, you can just go further, I think. It’s quicker and easier.”
Cloud Atlas’s ambitious approach to storytelling – casting actors in multiple roles across multiple, intertwining timelines – has polarized critics and audiences alike, but Whishaw freely admits that the wildly unique vision the Wachowskis and Tykwer were striving for made a project of that scale so appealing. “It’s too strange and ambitious and it doesn’t fit in to any neat category and people are never happy if they can’t put something in a category. That immediately disturbs most people,” he says with a wry smile. “I knew that it would probably be divisive and I think that’s absolutely what it should be, but it had been meticulously planned. Andy, Lana and Tom are so close and continue to be so close that it was remarkably harmonious and smooth, from my perspective. The potential for chaos and madness was obviously huge with a project like that, but it was really a very happy experience.”
Equally, there was further scope for madness with Whishaw’s other high profile project last year – Skyfall, now the highest grossing film of all time in the UK, which marked the highly anticipated return of Q, James Bond’s quartermaster, long absent from the series since the death of Desmond Llewelyn, who portrayed the role a total of seventeen times. Impressed by Whishaw’s performance in Bright Star, director Sam Mendes sought him out for the role specially; a responsibility that came with its own fair share of pressures, not least because of the groundwork that Llewelyn had previously laid for the character.
“I think Sam and the writers, particularly John Logan and the work that he did on the script, were so clever to refresh the character and bring him in to the present day. But also, to slyly reference and nod to the previous incarnations of the character, it was great fun and I loved doing it. I’m very excited about the prospect of doing it again.”
Q’s return to the series reunited Whishaw with Craig for a fourth time, something that both parties seemed to enjoy. “I always turn up as these slightly odd people in his films that kind of annoy him in some way,” he jests. “Maybe the relationship will evolve in the next one. It might be quite nice for him, as much as anything else. Daniel’s very good at doing exasperation, but I was always aware that he is the film, you know? He’s an absolute perfectionist – he’s driven and determined that every beat of it will be perfect, but he’s also got a great sense of humour. You have to.”
With John Logan, the writer of Peter and Alice, currently in the process of writing Bond’s twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth adventures respectively, Whishaw is cautiously optimistic about the character and his own future within the franchise. “We’ll see what the scope is. John tells me I’m in them, but I haven’t had an official call,” he says, placing both hands on the table. “I don’t want to jinx anything, because you never ever know, but I’m hopeful. There’s got to be that kind of bickery relationship. Bond and Q are both sort of rolling their eyes at each other, I suppose, and I love that relationship. I think it’s very funny and I think it’s a very important little note to have.”
For the meantime, however, Whishaw’s focus is on the job at hand – his starring role in Peter and Alice, opposite Judi Dench’s Alice Liddell Hargreaves as Peter Llewelyn Davies, the real life inspirations for Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan respectively. “I’m always reminded how thrilling it is to be live and to be viewed by different people every night. It can also be quite terrifying and exhausting in a way, because it’s the same theme and you have to reinvent it every evening. But working with Judi’s been a great lesson in that. She has a sort of really effortless ability, it seems to me, to be able to wipe the slate clean and be entirely fresh and spontaneous.”
Based on the unexpected real-life meeting between the two in a London bookshop at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932, it’s an experience that Whishaw has found particularly enlightening, offering a chance to reflect on his generation of actors in comparison to Dench’s. “When Judi started, acting was an entirely different thing. The idea that you’d be picky or fussy; I don’t think that existed. You went and did your years in repertory theatre and then you did whatever was available. That’s why I think that generation is so fantastically versatile. It’s shifted a bit now for my generation. Maybe it’s because of this celebrity culture that’s evolved since then. Now people want to sort of define you as the guy who does this or the girl who does that kind of thing or has that kind of career, whereas I don’t think that that kind of thing was a concern for actors of another generation. They were just actors.”
It’s somewhat fitting therefore that Whishaw has himself managed to craft a career that is almost impossible to classify or define in conventional genre terms. That he’s able to do so whilst successfully tiptoeing around the vagaries of fame and stardom remains an impressive feat. “To be fair, I’ve never really felt that there’s been an intrusion in to my privacy and I don’t really think people are that interested,” he states self-effacingly. “You can’t really avoid it and it’s fine, I suppose, but you don’t have to engage with it if you don’t want to. You can engage with it as little as possible, which is what I try and do.”
Away from theatre, Whishaw is tight-lipped about the future. “Particularly in film, you just never know. It could all come crashing down,” he laughs. Upcoming projects include Lilting, a low-budget introspective drama made as part of the Microwave scheme by first time director Hong Khaou, which Whishaw describes as “really beautiful,” existential documentary Unity, to which he provided narration – “I loved it, but I really don’t know what on earth I was contributing to completely” – and a brief cameo in The Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam’s latest work. “I got flown in for a day and it was really fun,” he exclaims enthusiastically. “I met him years ago for something that didn’t work out, so it was nice to finally work with him. He just has pure joy in what he’s doing. He spent the whole day on set in bare feet and a pair of pyjamas. He was like a kind of happy Buddha.”
Does he see himself following the familiar route of his peers to a role behind the camera in the future? “I don’t think I have the personality or the nature to do really, but I’d be curious to do it to experiment – something very small, with friends probably. It would be just entirely for myself. Things float about my head, but that’s a great skill – to be able to write a really good script and to tell a story well. I think that’s immensely difficult and I don’t think everyone can do it, but maybe I’ll give it a go.”
Nevertheless, with an enviable range of credits to his name already, as our interview draws to a close I broach the topic of success. Somewhat unsurprisingly, he laughs bashfully, playing down the subject in typically modest fashion. “I never have a feeling of having ‘made it’, he concedes. “That’s such a funny term, isn’t it? It sounds so final and it’s not. You never know what you’re going to do next and you’re constantly hoping and dreaming about what might come up. Looking back, I suppose it’s probably true that doing Perfume really did help people know who I was and open up possibilities, I’m sure…” He pauses briefly, lost in contemplation. “I know it did, but yeah, it definitely didn’t feel then, and I don’t feel now that I’ve ‘made it’.”
I tell him that he’s being modest.
“No,” he replies with a smile. “It’s true!”
A version of this article was originally published in the May 2013 Cannes special edition of Clash.