Marianne Gray

In love with Hamlet, Dylan, Keats . . .

Marianne Gray talks to Ben Whishaw about how he finds an affinity with the characters he plays

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Ben Whishaw sits unrecognised, wearing a black T-shirt and drinking red wine in a dark corner of the Royal Court’s café. He has just come off stage from rehearsing Mike Bartlett’s new play Cock — in which he plays a chap who takes a break from his boyfriend and accidentally meets the girl of his dreams — and he’s still all buzzed up.

I had been warned that giving interviews isn’t Whishaw’s favourite occupation. But it certainly doesn’t show here. There’s no sulkiness or distractedness on his part. Perhaps his recent jaunt around the US, to promote his hotly tipped performance as John Keats in the film Bright Star, has acclimatised him to the rigours and demands of a celebrated life.

He leans towards me as I sit down, and says conspiratorially, ‘I think it’s important for an actor to remain surprising. It is very hard to watch an actor if you know too much about him. There need to be unknown areas, otherwise it’s just a “star” playing a role.’

He’s quite right, of course. But, even with his reluctance to become a household name, it seems that Whishaw is set for stardom.

Bright Star — the affecting love story of Keats and his Hampstead next-door neighbour Fanny Brawne (played by Abbie Cornish) — could tip the balance. It has gone down fabulously well with American ‘tastemakers’; it drew an enraptured response at last month’s London Film Festival; and it opens worldwide around now, with the words ‘Oscar’ and ‘nomination’ hovering around Whishaw’s performance in particular.

Playing Keats, he says, was a bit like playing Hamlet — which he did to searing effect, a year out of college, in Trevor Nunn’s 2004 production at the Old Vic. Both roles gave him an opportunity to explore gigantic, stormy emotions; from the deepest love to the deepest despair. He fell in love with Hamlet and now with Keats — as he did with Bob Dylan when he played the singer in Todd Haynes’s film I’m Not There.

‘I always look for an emotional response to something and Keats did that for me,’ says the quietly spoken Whishaw. He’d never read any of Keats’s work before making the film, preferring 20th-century poets like Ted Hughes and T.S. Eliot. But he was soon converted.

‘After reading Keats’s poems and letters and saying them, I found him very human, very passionate. I love their luxury and sensuality. He’s so playful with words and rhymes. I’m aware that he had a sense of softness but he also had a toughness with which he dealt with life. His words are honest, hard-edged and yet sensitive. I was inspired and engrossed and certain things have stayed with me.’

Whishaw even sees some parallels between him and Keats — at least when it comes to their working patterns. He recalls how Keats talks, in one of his letters, about trying too hard to reach some elusive ‘it’, before adding, ‘I think I do that. During the shoot, Jane [Campion, the director] had to tell me to calm down and relax. “There’s a lot of stuff blocking you,” she said. “Stop trying so HARD!”’

Whishaw, a young-looking 29, is articulate, impish and thoughtful. Campion describes him as ‘as beautiful as a cat... almost not real’. I mention it and he looks perplexed, twisting a forelock of dark hair embarrassedly. It’s clear that he’s no natural celebrity, but his enthusiasm for his work — and his daring in choosing new roles — are naturally appealing.

Born in Bedfordshire, he’s one of a set of fraternal twins. His brother has been a body double for him in a TV programme but is not an actor and, until recently, worked in finance. His father played football for Stevenage and now does something in IT, and his mother works at the cosmetics counter in a branch of John Lewis.

Despite all that, Whishaw is not entirely the typical Brit. He describes his mother as ‘thoroughly English’, but his paternal grandparents were Russian/German and French. He enjoyed childhood trips on the ferry to St Malo to see his French grandmother, who lived in Brittany. And the family didn’t even know their real surname wasn’t Whishaw until his grandfather died and they discovered they were Schtelmachers and Vassilloviches. He’s not sure of the spelling of either name.

‘My parents never once planted a seed of doubt about the precariousness of acting,’ comments Whishaw. ‘They’re not particularly interested in the arts but I’d always loved dressing up and playing characters as a kid. There are all these pictures of me, aged about three, dressed up in funny clothes, my mother’s frocks, costumes.

‘They sent me off to youth theatre in Hitchin and I did loads of plays at school, although when the time came to choose a profession I went to art college. But I didn’t finish the course. It wasn’t for me. Now I paint for fun.’

Whishaw trained at Rada and says, almost with surprise, that the work just sort of happened. He has built up a career playing doomed youths: a gangling Hamlet at the Old Vic; the louche Sebastian Flyte in the recent film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited; a man accused of murder in the BBC drama Criminal Justice. He has also played Spud in Enduring Love and was the lead in Tom Tykwer’s beguiling film adaptation of Perfume. He so enjoyed working with director Tykwer on Perfume that he told him he’d perform any role for him, and ended up in Tykwer’s thriller The International, carrying a bundle of Clive Owen’s files up a flight of stairs. ‘Blink and you miss me,’ he laughs. (I did.)

It was Hamlet that brought him an American agent, although he has no ‘particular urge’ to conquer the States. That may come anyway, though. In January, he goes to New York to work on the Royal Court play The Pride, with Hugh Dancy and Andrea Risborough. In it, he plays a 1950s gay writer and a 2008 sex addict — a pairing which sums up his affinity for rather androgynous roles.

But after that? Whishaw thinks that a change of pace may be in order: ‘I suppose I need to do something else now, like a comedy, so people don’t think of me as being a bit “difficult”. In America, because of Brideshead, Perfume and Bright Star, they kept asking me if I wasn’t worried about becoming typecast in “these literary roles”, especially as my next film is as Ariel in Julie Taymor’s take on The Tempest, with Helen Mirren playing Prospera. But they probably wouldn’t say that about me if they saw me in Cock!’

With that, he smiles, and you see precisely where Campion was coming from with her ‘beautiful cat’ description. Yes, this particular specimen is on the verge of getting every drop of cream. And all I can think is: good luck to him.

Bright Star is released on 6 November; Cock opens at the Royal Court on 13 November.