This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes, Issue.6, Autumn 2015.
Ben Whishaw is one of Britain’s most respected young actors and has been since the title role in Trevor Nunn’s Hamlet in 2004 catapulted him out of RADA to acclaimed performances on stage and screen. Quixotic, beguiling and quicksilver,Whishaw’s upcoming parts as Q in the new Bond Spectre, the author Herman Melville in Moby Dick adaptation In the Heart of the Sea and Carey Mulligan’s husband in Suffragette are sure to put his singular talent in lights the world over.A private person, it seemed right when his friend and two time collaborator David Morrissey of TheWalking Dead and Red Riding fame agreed to interview Whishaw for So It Goes about his journey from youth theatre to super franchise.
David Morrissey: So Ben - you’re in the middle of a play at the moment aren’t you?
Ben Whishaw: Yes, we’ve opened and just started. It’s going okay. You’re doing something as well, aren’t you?
DM: I’m in rehearsal for the new Martin McDonagh play at The Royal Court, called Hangman. This is our second week of rehearsal, so I’m probably in quite a different place to you. But I’m really enjoying it. It’s a great play.
BW: He’s an amazing writer.
DM: Absolutely. So I wanted to ask you about the play you’re doing – Bakkhai by Euripides. It was written in 405 BC (I looked it up online). But why do you think we return to these plays? Why are they still relevant to us?
BW: What I’ve really loved about doing it is that they’re very savage and wild and strange and impolite and not moralistic. A friend came to see the show and he said that it was like watching something that arose from another planet; it was so weird.You’re getting the taste of human beings from centuries and centuries and centuries ago – and that for me is quite exciting.
DM: So who were they written for? Is there a sense that those plays were originally written for the populace,or were they written for the aristocracy? Were they plays for the people?
BW: They were plays for the people, except the people were just men. Women wouldn’t watch the plays and neither did slaves. But yes, from everything I have read, they were written for the people to come and reflect upon problems, so they had a quite serious purpose. It wasn’t entertainment as such.
DM: Yours is a modern-ish production but what can we gain from them now? You say they’re savage, but do they reflect anything about our own society or our own needs or desires now?
BW: My feeling is that there are certain things that don’t change about people and certain conflicts that exist inside human beings. In this play, it’s a discussion about the need for liberation, irrationality, wildness, and the need for order, control and rationality.
DM: Do you play the irrational side, and Bertie [Carvel] plays the rational side?
BW: It’s that simple, yes.The two things are locked together in this contest, which is another thing that these plays are always about – they are always kinds of contests.At least, often in Euripides. So you’ve got two strong energies, opposing forces, coming together, crashing together. If you try to draw parallels with the contemporary world that are too heavy, you lose something of the mystery of the plays, the strangeness of them that I find appealing.They don’t fit comfortably into the ‘now’. This play is impossible to really put, in a literal way, into the present.We’re doing something a bit more heightened, ritualised and raw.
DM: You’re an actor who returns to the theatre often. When you’re doing movies or TV do you feel a magnetic draw back to the theatre, as an emotional need?
BW: I do, and then I do it, and I think,“Why am I doing this?” Because it is really stressful. I think plays are really stressful to do in a way that filming just isn’t. I don’t quite know why.
DM: I agree, I’m not even halfway through rehearsal and I’m totally knackered.With TV and independent film, you don’t rehearse that much. You have a little bit of a block and you might talk to the director, but you’re not really in rehearsal. Though the rehearsal room is a wonderful place to be, isn’t it?
BW: It is. As you say, it’s very unusual to have anything like that in film. So that’s great. And you need it, don’t you, because you’re going to be remaking the show with that group of people every night. It’s totally down to the actors. And I suppose that is what the appeal is, ultimately. Because it can be more creative for an actor in the theatre. Not always, but sometimes.
DM: In my current play, the script is wonderful. I’m reminded of that David Mamet comment, that the difference between writing for theatre and writing for film is that when you write for theatre – when the actors and director are rehearsing and they hit a problem in the script – they try to solve that problem,knowing that the writer knew what he was talking about. When a problem arises for a director or actor with a film or TV script, they try to solve it thinking that the writer didn’t know what he was talking about.
BW: I think that’s true. It is much more about investigation. I don’t think it’s true that no screenwriters know what they’re doing,but I think the making of a play for a playwright – maybe because it depends solely on words and action – is a much more finely wrought thing. Nothing’s riding financially on plays, so usually someone’s poured their heart and soul into it, so you think what’s here must be worth grappling with, even if it doesn’t yield much to begin with.
DM: Often when I’m doing film or TV, in the early days I’m slightly ‘in it’ and I’m not great to be around, but there comes a time during filming where I can leave it behind at the end of the day. Whereas I find with the theatre, I’m always slightly distracted from my life. I’m in a dreamscape until I get to the theatre.Throughout my day I’m thinking about tonight’s performance or if my throat’s alright or have I got enough energy for this scene.
BW: I totally agree. It’s a really weird thing. It’s live, you’re remaking it every day. It’s a massive ask isn’t it, to re-mint it every night. It’s demanding, in a very different way to film. I’m finding the same exact thing with this. I just drift around all day, half-engaged with the world and my head’s somewhere else.
DM: It’s very strange. Let’s just go back a little for you to where it started, because something very important for me when I was young was youth theatre.When I found the EverymanYouthTheatre, something happened, though I didn’t know what. I was around people I understood, and I was doing things that were asking very important questions of me emotionally.Was that the same for you?
BW:Totally. It was the thing that made me see that it could be my future. I did school plays but my family were not in the arts at all, and I think they were trying to relate to this person who wasn’t really interested in other things. My dad took me to this audition, and it just happened that the amazing guy who ran the Bancroft Players ran it like it was a drama school or something. He was incredibly serious, and quite – well, quite difficult. He was demanding of the people who were involved.
DM: I can hear in your voice that you slightly still carry that with you.
BW:Yes! [Laughs] Rory Reynolds – he was very disciplining. He’s still going, still running it.You’d get an end of year report on how you’d progressed in the last year. But we did amazing plays, including devising our own, and we went to the Edinburgh Festival. He took us to the theatre and we saw amazing things. I was just so happy. It was such a happy part of my life, doing that.
DM: A whole other life opened up for me through The Everyman Theatre, and a man called Roger Hill. Although I never thought of it as a career – did you think of it as a profession or were you just having fun?
BW: Having fun. Definitely just loved doing it. But I suppose you reach an age when you’re starting to think about what you’re going to do with your life. I suppose I did think,“Well,maybe I should give this a go.”Rory,was very good that way,very encouraging. He made it seem like a possibility. Other people in the youth theatre had gone on to do it, so it suddenly felt like a realistic goal.
DM: What about The Big Spirit Theatre? That’s when you went to Edinburgh with If This Is A Man isn’t it?
BW: Yeah, that was a name we gave ourselves to take stuff up to the Edinburgh Fringe. But it was basically the youth theatre;it was the same guy, Rory, directing. [Laughs]
DM: Had you decided to go to RADA before then or was it after that?
BW: Oh, god, no, no, no. RADA was way down the line.
DM: Right.Was that naturally your step-up from youth theatre? Were you always going to go via drama school?
BW: I think so. I think I wanted to be a student for longer. I loved being a student, actually. I didn’t particularly like school, but I liked studying things. I think that’s most of what appealed to me. How was your time at RADA?
DM: It was great.It was like going to Cambridge or something in my head. I couldn’t believe I’d got in. But I was very nervous about going, and I thought everybody would be totally posh – quickly I realised that wasn’t the case. My difficulty was London, this city that seemed quite an unfriendly and boisterous place. In Liverpool, everyone knows each other’s business. It was different. I found it expensive and I got lost a lot. RADA was my saving grace. It really made me think that I could do it. I thought that other people had the secrets and I was just pretending. Once I got into RADA I felt that they would tell me those secrets.When you came out of RADA, how quickly did you go into the Hamlet production, and was that an easy transition for you?
BW: I think about six months after I left RADA. It was a scary prospect, of course. But once you get asked to do something, then you just have to do it, don’t you? And you just try to do it as best you can, and any thoughts of ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I shouldn’t be doing this’ you have to squash somehow. Because you are doing it.You have to get on with it. It all happened so quickly that I just got swept along with it. I can’t remember anything about it, it happened so fast.
DM: Wow. Is it a role that you’d like to return to at some point?
BW: No, no. I don’t feel that.You never feel like you’ve done the role and I really can’t remember
much about what I did, but I haven’t particularly got a desire to return to it.
DM: You didn’t feel like you’d left anything behind...?
BW: No, I didn’t.
DM: Well that suggests for me that it was also quite a wonderful experience.
BW: Well, maybe, or – well, yes, but I also think I was very young. I think that was why it had some kind of impact – I was probably too young, but it maybe gave something to the role that people were unused to seeing.
DM: That’s always the thing about Hamlet: when you’re the right age to play it, intellectually you haven’t matured enough to be able to! Your choice of work is always brilliant.When you do a low-budget film like Lilting and then you’re in Bond, what are the differences between being on an independent project and those big, juggernaut franchises? Not so much in terms of approaching a character, but for you as a person, what’s that like?
BW: On the one hand they couldn’t be more different. As you just described, one is so enormous and such a beast, a powerful thing that has this huge history behind it, and so many people working on it.The sheer number of people is overwhelming, and the length of time you have to make it, and the money, the scale, everything is overwhelming. On the other hand, Bond had this beautiful producing team of Broccoli and Wilson, who are very lovely humans and create,as much as is possible, a family atmosphere. So it’s not as different as you might think. It can feel quite intimate, weirdly, doing a massive film. Bond is the only thing that I’ve worked on at that scale, so I don’t know how unusual it was.
DM: Are you able to keep an eye on yourself?You’re a hugely successful actor and there are lots of things going on.How do you keep a hold of yourself inside all of that noise? There are times when there are lots of people on the phone to you, lots of people trying to get hold of you, lots of projects.These are all the problems of success, of course, but how do you maintain yourself in all of it?
BW: I’m still figuring that out.What I’ve realised is that I’m somebody who needs quite a lot of time alone. I was just listening to this amazing NeilYoung album, On the Beach, and there’s this great song by the same name when he talks about how he needs an audience, but he can’t face the audience day to day. The conundrum of being a person in the public eye – you live off people watching you, but with that conflicting impulse to retreat or to be alone or to be quiet.That’s the only thing I know I have to give myself: time away to be quiet.
DM: I’ve never got away from that place where the idea of saying ‘no’ to work is an alien thing. I’ve had to learn that over the years.That is a high-class problem, one which I’m very lucky to have. But there is a sense of making sure that I give myself time, otherwise I’m good for nothing.
BW: Exactly. I think I’m learning to do that too. And also, your hunger for it can’t be sustained over a long period of time.You have to recharge yourself,you have to get back a desire for something. Otherwise, as you say, you’re good for nothing. You’re just trotting it out.
DM: We’ve had the pleasure of working together twice. I have great memories of The Hollow Crown on Richard II for the BBC. Early on I sat in this church in St David’s and just watched you and Rory [Kinnear] do one of your scenes. It was like having the best seat in the house.That was an amazing project, because here we were doing this wonderful play but making a movie of it.You were doing those speeches six or seven times a day. What I always loved about watching you was there was always something different every time you did it. Sometimes massively different, sometimes subtle.Watching you experiment on film with that character through the speeches was really mind- blowing for me.
BW: Because the filming was very rapid, you really had to know it all well.But I felt like that experience had something special about it.It was partly the play – it’s amazing. I also think it was being down in St David’s in that amazing landscape, which is quite spiritual. It’s got a certain atmosphere.
DM: There you were in this coffin that was actually far too small for you.Your body was broken – such a horrific image.Were you privy to the design and look of those things? I remember early on in my career, I was really angry when I turned up to a location that was my house. I thought, ‘My character would never live in this house.’ When you’re involved in a film like that, how present are you in the creation of other things?
BW: I try to be, more and more, present, and put in my two pennies’ worth. Because, as you say, there’s nothing worse than leaving it unsaid and arriving on the day and then feeling really shitty about it. Then it’s too late. Although, I have sometimes just got there and said something. I think increasingly it becomes important to me to have a voice.
Actually,something I’ve wanted to ask you about was – talking about having a voice – how have you found working as a director and as a producer and how did you get led into that?
DM: Well I got led into directing because I worked with many good directors, then one year with two very bad directors, and I realised that I was sort of a leaf in the wind.When I worked with people I really loved and trusted, I watched the end product and thought,‘That was brilliant.’Whereas when I was working with bad directors, they were slightly asking me not to trust my instincts. I watched the final project and I hated it. I said, ‘Oh, I’ve got to protect myself here and I don’t want to protect myself.’ I feel that there’s a dichotomy to being an actor; you need to be both open to everything, and at the same time grow a thick skin.
So when I worked with these directors I didn’t like, I thought,‘I don’t have any right to criticise a director until I’ve walked in their shoes a bit.’ I need to know what the journey for a director is, from A to Z. Once I started directing, I really loved it, which led me to then working with writers. I loved working with writers.That’s the reason I got involved in directing and producing – because I loved my job so much. Like you, I like being on my own. But I’m not a creative person on my own. I can’t sit and paint or play my guitar or write a novel, I need to be collaborative. Do you have any desire to enter other parts of the creative field as well as acting?
BW: I feel the same as what you’ve just described. I’m intrigued to have a go at directing something, just because – well, you’ve just described it absolutely perfectly. You’re in no position to criticise until... well, you are, but it’s best to have an experience from which to make a judgment on whether someone’s doing it well or not. I would be intrigued to have a go at directing. I really would be. So we’ll see.
DM: I know you’ve recently done Suffragette. Just tell us a little bit about that project.You play Sonny, don’t you?
BW:Yes, I play the husband of Carey Mulligan’s character, Maud, who over the course of the film is becoming radicalised, I suppose. Becoming in a sense both politicised and radicalised. She takes radical action that leads to her husband throwing her out. I didn’t know much about the subject matter before. It’s this beautiful combination of historical recreation and education with really beautiful storytelling and character work.
DM: I think, as a modern audience, as modern people, we’re so far away from that movement, the suffragette movement, that we forget what a terrible time that was. It’s seen as a very nice transition in British law, but it was a very brutal struggle, wasn’t it?
BW: It was brutal and bloody. We have tidied everything up, and it was an ugly thing what happened to those women. And what they put themselves through to make change happen. Extraordinary.That’s why I think it’s an important film.
DM: Tell me about The Danish Girl as well, which I’ve read about, and obviously seen some photographs of Eddie Redmayne in the press. That’s a true story, is it not?
BW:It is based on a true story about the first male- to-female transition, and it’s based on a book – set during the 20s and 30s in Denmark. It’s based on something real, though I think there’s not that much historical information available, so it is a riff on the story. Again, it’s an important subject that people are only just beginning to talk about in a mainstream way.
DM: Now, what’s coming up for you? These films are all in the can.
BW:After promoting various projects until the end of October I’m going to take the rest of the year off to recover. Because then I’m doing another long run of a play in New York, so I’m going to get myself ready for that.
DM:What play’s that?
BW:We’re doing the production of The Crucible with this brilliant bloke called Ivo van Hove directing.
DM: I saw his A View from the Bridge, which was brilliant, so that’s exciting.Are you playing Proctor?
BW: Yes, it’ll be fantastic. I’m excited to have the experience.What about your own play?
DM:We open – oh God – we open in about two and a half weeks!
Photographer: Harry Carr
Styling: Rose Forde
Set Design: Lianna Fowler