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Interview: Ben Whishaw

Ben Whishaw is noted for the huge range of his work, from Hamlet to Paddington. But, as he tells Dave Calhoun, being a big movie star doesn’t interest him.

Rob Greig

It’s late morning when Ben Whishaw arrives at Hackney Picturehouse, five minutes round the corner from his house, hair still wet from the shower. Last night he was on stage at the Almeida in Islington playing the Greek god Dionysos in Euripides’s Bakkhai. But it’s cinema we’re here to talk about. The 34-year-old actor is famous around the world for playing boffin Q in Skyfall and Spectre. He also stars as Carey Mulligan’s gruff cockney husband in the upcoming Suffragette. This month, however, he comes before us in The Lobster, a bonkers black comedy from Dogtooth writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos in which Whishaw is one of several guests in a hotel who must find a soulmate in 45 days – or risk being turned into an animal of their choosing. And you thought the dating scene in Istanbul was rough

You’re in one of the year’s strangest films, The Lobster, which is all about humans who get turned into animals – pigs, flamingos, donkeys – if they don’t find a mate. What grabbed you about the script?
“I loved it from the opening image, when a woman gets out of a car and mysteriously shoots a donkey in a field. You want to know what’s going to happen. It invites you in to make of it what you will. It isn’t trying to bash you over the head with a message. It’s very funny. And also it’s weirdly poetic. The surrealism of it is so beautiful.”

You’re part of a big ensemble of actors in the film, including Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly and Rachel Weisz. Did you have fun making it?
“It was unusual. We didn’t rehearse. The director, Yorgos Lanthimos, didn’t tell us anything about his ideas. Nothing. Not a whisper. He trusts that you have some instinct for it. Which I really liked – eventually! But it was odd at first. Also he had us all actually living in that same hotel in Ireland for a month, so you couldn’t help but think there was some method in his madness. We were all there in the bar every night together.”

It’s a film totally open to interpretation. What did you think when you saw the finished movie?
“I was surprised that it wasn’t as bleak as it was on the page. There was at least the possibility of reading some belief in romance and love in it. There was something more romantic and moving about it than I’d expected.”

Would you say its weirdness is your sort of humor?
“Yes, I would, actually. It makes me laugh.”

Would you like to do more comedy?
“I never really get asked to read comedy. People probably don’t think of me as being a very funny person. But I enjoy doing it. I’ve done some: Nathan Barley was funny. I like it when it’s at that darker end of the spectrum.”

Suffragette [which opens next month] isn’t so funny. You play Carey Mulligan’s husband, a pretty severe working-class Londoner. How was that?
“It was difficult because that character does something in the film which sounds so cruel, so weak. My thinking was to try and understand what might have led him to make that decision – to understand a man of that class in that period. None of the men in the film, as you’d imagine, come across very well. Only one man is supportive of the cause and sees that these women are not hysterical or mad but passionate and engaged and extraordinarily brave.”

You’ve also got Spectre, which was released last month. Do you enjoy playing Q and the circus around Bond? The secrecy, the hype…
“I love doing it. He’s a funny character, so that’s nice. You’re not having to dig around in subtext, it’s all on the surface. It’s all about timing.”

You don’t seem to take much time off. You’re in a Euripides play in London right now…
“I like time off too, but I also feel like I want to move into being more proactive about making things. So many of my friends are writers or directors or aspiring to be. I’m very excited by that too, by not waiting for things to come to me, but trying to get things off the ground. You start to develop a taste for what you like, or what you want cinema to be or what it could be. At a certain point, you think, ‘Well, why shouldn’t I be more involved in making those things happen rather than just being receptive to other people’s stuff?’”

And what kind of films do you want to be more involved with?
“I find I’m drawn to very small stories, undramatic ones, really. Tiny things. Because I’m an actor, my primary interest is in behavior, character. In some of those bigger films that stuff is secondary to a plot that’s fast-moving and wide-ranging or whatever. I’m personally more interested in smaller things, smaller details. Those things get me excited.”

Which films have excited you recently?
“I loved Carol, the Todd Haynes film. I felt that was like magic. It was absolute magic. Masterful. It works on you without you being aware of what it’s doing. I was surprised by what it generated in me, what I felt. Moment by moment I didn’t know where it was going. I love things that surprise you like that.”

The Lobster opened on Dec 25.

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