Ben Whishaw Network
Your world wide source about the actor Ben Whishaw.
From Paddington Bear to Mary Poppins — but don’t call Ben Whishaw cute

The Times – We are in a pokey costumier’s workshop somewhere in the bowels of the Almeida theatre in Islington in north London. It’s not much more than a broom cupboard really, and Ben Whishaw sits on a stool amid the clothes and faceless Styrofoam wig-stands sipping a cup of tea. He seems happy.

All actors — particularly once they become successful — like to go on about how much they just love doing theatre. With Whishaw this is genuinely, honestly true. Ever since he arrived, fully formed, as Trevor Nunn’s Hamlet aged only 23, he has continued to return to the stage even as his screen career has blossomed. It’s almost impossible for him to do TV without being at least nominated for some award — Criminal Justice, The Hour, London Spy — and his film roles are as varied as they are acclaimed: John Keats in Bright Star, Keith Richards in Stoned and supporting turns in Suffragette and The Danish Girl. There are also his regular gigs as Q to Daniel Craig’s James Bond and, of course, the voice of Paddington Bear. Yet for all that here he is, backstage and back in rehearsals, drifting contentedly through the organised chaos of theatre company life.

“I love that about doing plays,” he says softly. “I love being part of a group of people, part of a troupe. It suits me. There’s no etiquette. It’s a profession that is really accepting of everyone’s oddities.” He smiles. “All sorts of people are actors.”

What sort of person is Whishaw? This has not always been an easy question to answer. Over the years a composite image has emerged of a fierce talent who is nevertheless guarded, opaque and fragile. His appearance (skinny, elfin) and manner (gentle, modest) add to this perception. Only, he explains, we’ve got the wrong idea. “Sometimes I get really annoyed because people think I’m going to be cute. And nice. And I’m not very nice sometimes. And I’m not very cute really,” he says, frowning in a way that, to be honest, is quite cute. “There’s this notion that I might be sensitive and shy. Which is partly true. But I can be grumpy and angry and irritable.”

He chuckles and drinks his tea. Still, it’s only fair to point out that these preconceptions about Whishaw are not totally unfounded. Now 36 years old, he says that during his twenties he struggled badly with performance anxiety. “I suffered a lot of awful, terrible nerves and stomach pains,” he says. “Really debilitating things. You realise that other people are dependent on you doing well. Money. All sorts of things become part of the equation. I remember not sleeping because I was so stressed.”

For a very long time he was by his own admission anxious about submitting himself to scrutiny. We knew he grew up in Hertfordshire, went to Rada and has a non-identical twin brother who doesn’t act? Beyond that? Not loads. Talking about himself is still not his favourite thing in the world. “I find interviews quite nerve- racking,” he says apologetically, but explains that he’s trying harder to not get stressed about them or to second- guess what people might make of him. He stops and regards me with what looks a lot like sympathy. “I understand,” he says. “It’s the pressure of your job to capture an essence of somebody, which I suppose is very difficult.”

He thinks he used to use his reputation for shyness as a defence mechanism. “Maybe you can end up playing a role or something?” he says. “Behaving in a certain way because you think people are going to expect that of you. And it becomes a place that’s quite comfortable because you’ve been there before. So you just trot it out again.”

One big change — perhaps the big change — came in the wake of Whishaw coming out as gay in 2011. “I definitely feel like I’m more relaxed as a person,” he says. “I don’t know if that makes you a better actor or more available or anything, but it’s certainly lovely not to have to be worrying about keeping something private. That’s a really, really good feeling. It makes me realise that I spent a long time — too long, really — in a private agony about something. About it.”

So that’s good. He’s also “become really obsessed with this amazing Buddhist nun who teaches meditation practice that is all about acceptance of whatever comes up. About being OK with things being uncomfortable.” This has also helped him to become more sanguine. “You see yourself. Your own mad thoughts, your repetitive thoughts and your own blind spots. It’s very easy to think that everyone else is nuts and you’re sane, but you’re really not,” he says cheerfully.

Madness, as it happens, permeates the play he is about to appear in. Against, by Christopher Shinn, is about a Silicon Valley tech magnate called Luke who believes he is in communication with God, who has given him the task of ending all violence on Earth. It’s a powerful work — occasionally frightening and certainly not the satire it could be — with this well-meaning but eerily detached protagonist at its centre.

“He is vaguely modelled on someone like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos, and he’s involved in AI and rockets and thinking about the future. But before the play begins he has had this revelation and God has spoken to him and issued an instruction to him to ‘go where there is violence’. So we meet someone at the beginning of the play who is a changed man.”

Whishaw says that, to prepare for the role of Luke, he spent a lot of time on YouTube. “I did begin by watching a lot of TED Talks, people being interviewed, Elon Musk showing people around his factory. And actually, in that sense, it feels very much a play of the moment because there are so many of these people talking about mankind with a messianic, visionary zeal. But the biggest challenge is trying to understand what it feels like to really, truly believe you have been spoken to by God. That’s the thing. That’s the centre of it.”

Whishaw admits what most actors don’t: that he’s competitive when it comes to his career and getting the roles he wants. “I’m definitely competitive, yeah. And I definitely want things for myself. Yeah. Definitely. And I think that’s good.” Has he ever gone up for parts and missed out on them, and felt angry about it? Pissed off? “There are one or two things,” he says a little airily, smiling to himself. “One or two things where I’ve thought . . . I could have done that. I should have done that.”

For a long time he was down to play Freddie Mercury in a forthcoming biopic. The Queen guitarist, Brian May, had said that he hoped Whishaw would get the role, because “he’s fabulous, a real actor”, but that’s fallen through, Whishaw says. He was up for it, but he says there’s no hard feelings. “I don’t really understand what happened myself, but just one day I wasn’t doing it. And somebody else was. And it’s fine. It was just one of those funny things that happen sometimes in the way that films get made.”

Whishaw will be back in the theatre in the new year when he plays Brutus in Julius Caesar, one of the eagerly awaited productions in the first season of Nicholas Hytner’s new London start-up venue, the Bridge Theatre. He has also just finished filming Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel to the classic 1964 musical in which he plays a grown-up Michael Banks. The film is released at the end of next year. “I sing in it,” he says, but then backpedals slightly. “Well, it’s more like talking-singing. It’s Emily Blunt playing Mary Poppins and my sister, Jane, is played by Emily Mortimer. It was wonderful fun.” In fact, he says that doing these big Hollywood numbers are invariably a laugh. “I don’t think a job is more noble or valuable for not being fun. Although I think I used to.”

Playing Michael Banks was a particular pleasure given that Mary Poppins was the first film he saw. “My dad taped it off the telly. I watched it in the way that my niece and nephew watch Frozen. Over and over and over again.”

In 2012 Whishaw entered into a civil partnership with the Australian composer Mark Bradshaw. They met during the filming of Bright Star and live together in east London. “We’re quite weird. Music relaxes me, but it doesn’t relax Mark because it’s Mark’s thing,” he says, meaning that the last thing Bradshaw wants at the end of a long day of listening to music is to listen to more music. “So we always have a tussle about when I can play my music. He’ll hate me for saying that.”

Bradshaw produced the score for the latest season of Top of the Lake, the crime drama featuring Elisabeth Moss. Whishaw says that he recently gorged on it. “I just watched the whole thing in one day and what Elisabeth Moss did in it was really inspiring to me. I thought: ‘F***! That’s reminded me why this job is such a great thing to do.’ ” Was the music any good? He nods with faux-solemnity. “The music was good as well.”

Someone knocks on the door to say it’s time to go back to rehearsals. Whishaw seems slightly relieved, but he’s trying his best. “In the past I might have been very defensive about a whole load of things. And I’m telling myself not to be that,” he says. He’s still shy and sensitive and all the rest of it, but nothing like he used to be. “I’m probably a little bit more confident in myself. A bit more relaxed in myself. More relaxed in my own body.” He is, despite his protestations, every bit as cute and as nice as we imagine. He’s also a brilliant actor. All said, there are worse things to be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *