Ben Whishaw: Interview

A diminutive presence hasn‘t stopped young prodigy Ben Whishaw making a massive impact. Time Out finds out what fuels the actor

  • In May 2004, a spidery-limbed, hollow-cheeked unknown walked onto the stage at the Old Vic and sent electric shocks of excitement through the auditorium. Playing Hamlet, aged 23, Ben Whishaw was one of the youngest Danish princes ever to commandeer the stage at this theatre, yet some critics felt they had witnessed a performance which could rank alongside those of Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole. One reviewer declared that ‘Whishaw, with his light, tremulous voice, painfully thin body, and the kind of cheekbones that will have adolescent girls swooning in the stalls, presents the most raw and vulnerable Hamlet I have ever seen.’ Fragile-fleshed and clad in a beanie-cap, the actor seemed an ideal twenty-first century Dane – a tragic hero for the iPod generation.

    Although he had appeared in a number of films before May 2003, the calibre of the roles Whishaw was offered soared stratospherically. Matthew Vaughn snapped him up for ‘Layer Cake’, he was cast as the lead in the much anticipated adaptation of Patrick Susskind’s ‘Perfume’, and now he’s about to take the part of Bob Dylan in a film where seven actors, including Cate Blanchett, also play the musician. He’s also tried TV comedy in Chris Morris’s ‘Nathan Barley’, yet theatre remains his passion.

    That’s why two years later Whishaw is spending his time just down the road from the Old Vic at the National Theatre. Director Katie Mitchell has chosen him to play Konstantin in Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’, a play in which the themes, structure, and language are famously inspired by ‘Hamlet’. He won’t be drawn on the parallels between this role and the part that shot him to fame, ‘I’m slightly in denial about that,’ he declares. ‘I hate the feeling of just doing the same thing again, so I’m trying to focus on the differences.’

    At the age of 25, Whishaw retains the waif-like wiriness that made him such an arresting physical presence on his West End debut. Sitting on a balcony overlooking the Thames at the National Theatre, we talk about the influence an actor’s body can have on the direction their career takes. In the past he’s joked that ‘I think being very thin has had a lot to do with how I’ve been cast’ and I’m tiptoeing nervously around the question of whether he manages to eat enough when suddenly his lunch arrives – a plate piled with jerk chicken, sausage, and a small avalanche of chips. He looks at me and we both start laughing as he shrugs: ‘I’m not trying to be this shape, it’s just the way I am.’

    His declaration partly illustrates that despite his strong self-deprecatory air, there’s an unmistakable core of confidence to Whishaw. It is, you feel, a confidence that was there before his major career breakthrough, a sense of a deep and abiding trust in his own instincts. This comes hand in hand with a fear of losing the spontaneity of a performance: ‘One of the things I find very difficult about theatre is the repetition – that something can slide away from your original intentions.’ That worry about repetition means he’s also determined not to be defined by his Old Vic success: shortly after enthralling the critics, he managed to shock them by appearing in ‘Mercury Fur’, Philip Ridley’s disturbing futuristic vision of a world dominated by exploitation and violence. ‘It just felt like a totally unexpected thing to do after having done “Hamlet”, and that was all appealing to me,’ he says emphatically.

    Utterly galvanised by the experience of appearing in ‘Mercury Fur’, he is keen to work with more contemporary playwrights. To an extent that desire is fulfilled even by the project he’s working on right now. ‘Martin [Crimp] has done a very modern adaptation so it feels like we’re doing a modern play. We’re definitely in Russia in 1893, but neither he or Katie are trying to create a precise historical reconstruction.’ There will be tango dancing, anachronistic references including one to Munch’s ‘The Scream’, and the vocabulary will be up-to-the-minute. ‘At one point,’ Whishaw reveals, ‘Trigorin describes Konstantin’s writing as “autistic.” ’

    Given his highly successful career-path, it’s ironic to discover that Whishaw once wanted to be a painter. ‘I started an art course, but dropped it after a month. There was a Samuel Beckett season at the Barbican at the time, and I kept going with a friend to see the plays instead of doing my homework.’ He looks up and smiles. ‘I think it was then that I realised what I should be doing.’

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