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Ben Whishaw: ‘It’s fun playing Paddington Bear — I just don’t like marmalade’

The Times — Shock, horror! Paddington Bear hates marmalade. “I really don’t like it at all,” says Ben Whishaw. The 37-year-old actor voiced the bear in the big-screen 2014 hit Paddington. Whishaw’s firm but gentle enunciation, already familiar from his pedantic Q opposite Daniel Craig’s Bond, is indivisible with the animated ursine hero. He has voiced him again for Paddington 2, in which the little bear’s attempts to buy a present for his Aunt Lucy land him in jail. Critics have widely adored it, as have the public. Last weekend the film was number one at the UK box office.

It feels odd to be talking to Whishaw about a bear in a duffel coat because I last met him 14 years ago when he had just taken London by storm with a coruscating Hamlet at the Old Vic, directed by Trevor Nunn. He was 23, not long out of drama school and seemed skinless, so close were his emotions to the surface. He shut down any talk of his private life — although gay, he had not spoken publicly about his sexuality — and would gain a reputation as a charming, but elusive interviewee. Today he has a string of impeccable stage and screen roles under his belt, and although still fine-featured and youthful, he has gained solidity and certainty. He came out in 2013, announcing that he had been in a civil partnership with the composer Mark Bradshaw since 2012.

How does he think he’s changed in those 14 years? “It’s hard to quantify, but I am just more confident as a person,” he says. “Dealing publicly with [my] sexuality was a big thing, that was probably a weight last time I met you. The world’s really changed in that respect. If I was 23 now it would probably be different, it might be easier to talk about it. I hadn’t told my parents then or even some close friends.You don’t want to lie. But at the same time you don’t know how to discuss it, and it is all quite painful and weird and unresolved.”

Whishaw grew up in Bedfordshire where there was little gay culture in the Eighties and Nineties, he says, especially in his home village of Clifton (population 2,878 in 2011), where he grew up with his non-identical twin, James, and his mother, a former cosmetics saleswoman, after she split from his father, an IT specialist.

When Whishaw did come out, he didn’t know how his parents or his brother (who is tall, blond and straight, and the father of two young children) would react. “But you know, it was great,” Whishaw says. “It made me wonder why I had given myself such hell about it for so long, because it was fine. And I suppose because I had a partner, I was with someone, and they could see him and they liked him and could relate to him.” He and Bradshaw live in Hackney, east London, and have no desire to be married. “Mark is Australian so civil partnership is something we had to do in order to be together,” he says. “But I don’t have a strong feeling about marriage. It’s great that there is equality, but for myself I don’t need it.”

He has no wish for children, although he is an enthusiastic uncle. “I don’t have any desire at the moment, not the slightest inkling or urge, although I am told that sometimes changes,” he says. Does Mark feel the same? “We don’t really talk about it so I am guessing he doesn’t feel much either.”

When he was doing The Crucible in New York, a journalist mentioned a yoga mat and a crystal in his dressing room, fuelling speculation that he had gone all spiritual; this only grew when he mentioned a Buddhist nun he knew. “Someone gave me the crystal and I just liked it aesthetically,” he says with a sigh. “I am not a Buddhist. I am not an anything. My partner grew up in a Pentecostal church, so it is something we talk about a lot because that is a big thing for him. But I wasn’t raised with any religious belief.”

For the record, he has stopped doing yoga, and he got into that only because he was bored with the gym. Everyone used to go on about his smoking and his early wish to be a painter, but he seems to have given these up, can’t cook and rarely listens to music at home (as it’s Mark’s job). What does he do for fun? “I have been working a lot this year,” he says, “so for me what’s fun and relaxing and reviving is just getting out of the city and seeing friends.”

When I ask which actors he remains on good terms with, the names he mentions — “Andrew Scott is a really dear friend; Romola [Garai] is a very dear friend; Anna Chancellor” — remind you of the diversity and depth of his career. He was Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, John Keats in Bright Star. He was a chainsmoking hack in The Hour alongside Garai and an out- of-his-depth gay druggie in London Spy.

On stage he has played earthy John Proctor in The Crucible in New York and the great god Bacchus in north London. Then, of course, there’s his Q in the Bond films. “I like being that foil to 007,” he says with a smile. “I really never imagined I would be in Bond films and I still can’t really believe I am doing it.”

Now he is an animated bear once more. He says: “It’s really fun but it’s actually quite hard to do the voice.” Paddington 2 is a worthy successor to the first film, a clever mixture of wit, slapstick, emotion and social comment. The writer/director Paul King again gently reinforces the point that Paddington is not only a bear, but an orphan refugee. “I think what triggered the idea for [Paddington’s late creator] Michael Bond was seeing refugees back in the 50s,” Whishaw says. “So how we treat outsiders is in there. It’s about a human impulse to have open arms and look after people in greater need than yourself. And to see the good in people, which is really Paddington’s primary characteristic.”

Which makes it all the more bizarre that Paddington 2 has been touched, albeit indirectly, by the storm over sexual exploitation in the entertainment industry. Its producer David Heyman is trying to wrest the film’s American distribution rights back from The Weinstein Company. “It seems unfair to drag Paddington into that discussion when he [Weinstein] had nothing to do with the making of it,” Whishaw says. “It’s fantastic that people are speaking out about this kind of experience, and that there is no tolerance for it. Hopefully things will change now.”

Q&A

Ben Whishaw’s perfect weekend

Berlin or the Bahamas?
Berlin

Suit or tracksuit?
Suit

Country life or city slicker?
I’ll go for city on balance

Poetry or bonkbuster?
Poetry

Twitter or snail mail?
Snail mail. I have an Instagram thing, but it’s private

Social butterfly or lone ranger? 
Maybe both

I couldn’t get through the weekend without . . .
Red wine. Well, I probably could, but it would be much less fun

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