Ben Whishaw (London Sunday Times Magazine, March 24, 2019)
Ben Whishaw is wearing a navy shirt, dark wool trousers and a fluffy knitted hat. It’s a strange combination of quirkiness and elegance – he’s a one off. Lush, dark curls. He’s all cheekbones and large eyes. The eyes look so intense. They could be the eyes of a very intelligent animal, but perhaps that’s just because you can imagine him so easily as Paddington Bear – he is the voice of Paddington.
He’s also brought a new quirkiness to the quiet genius that is Q in the Bond movies and he’s just fresh from picking up the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award for his portrayal of Norman Scott opposite Hugh Grant’s Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal. He was achingly good. Everyone thinks so.
Did he expect this double win? “No idea. You never know how these things are going to work out but it was very nice.”
Is it career changing to have a Golden Globe winning prefix to his name? “I don’t know if it changes anything but it feels nice. They make you feel great being the winner,” he smiles and sips on herbal tea.
We are in a photographic studio in East London where I’ve just seen him drape himself so elegantly and effortlessly over an old-fashioned gymnasium horse and a British flag.
Does he think that winning awards in Hollywood means he will be spending more time there? “I don’t feel it’s my world out there. I just sort of dropped in and it was a lovely thing. I would like to drop in more often. Maybe it opens doors. I guess we’ll see. I haven’t directly communicated with Norman Scott but I gather he was happy and he asked for a signed photo of me holding the award.”
He speaks of Scott affectionately. In the mini series which sees Scott involved with horses and dogs, relating to them perhaps more easily than people? “He definitely feels a kinship with animals. A security that maybe he didn’t have with people.”
He is in London rehearsing a play called Norma Jean Baker of Troy. It will open in New York early April. The director (Katie Mitchell) doesn’t fly so the rehearsals are all in London. He plays a man who likes to dress up as Marilyn and the opera singer Renee Fleming is his co-star. I find it quite odd that Mitchell won’t be coming to the first night of her own play. Whishaw accepts this and says, “She doesn’t have enough time in her schedules to take the boat. She goes to Europe a lot to work by train and Renee has crazy insane schedules to everything has been slotted about what Renee could do. Renee is very open and hardworking and really clever. It’s incredible she’s open to this weird and wonderful thing. We just got the costumes. I wear a dress that’s a replica of the one she wore in The Seven Year Itch – the white one where the wind comes up and they’ve given me bum, hips and breasts although I think they’re not as big as Marilyn’s they made it proportionate to my body. It’s a strange thing, I’m not playing Marilyn but a man who’s infatuated with her so much that he wants to dress up as her to be close to her and because he’s in mourning for the loss of her the play is set in the year she died. Apparently, there was a spate of copycat suicides that year.”
The play will open as the first play in a space called The Shed which is also an art gallery and music venue. It’s been written by the poet Anne Carson. Carson is a Canadian poet and professor of classics and has been described as the greatest poet since Robert Lowell.
He thinks nothing of one minute doing an independent play and then a blockbuster. He moves in and out of both extremes easily. He was last seen in the Disney epic Mary Poppins Returns. It’s what happens to the characters thirty years after the original movie. He played Mr Banks – the grown-up boy Michael, now the father of the family facing 1930s depression and the potential loss of his home after the actual loss of his wife. His children aren’t adjusting and the governess Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) has never been more needed.
“Mary Poppins was the first film I ever saw. My dad taped it off the telly and we had it on a Betamax tape. I watched it so many times the tape wore out.”
Is it possible to wear out a tape? Isn’t that a metaphor?
“It’s how I remember it.And now I play the grown-up boy who’s now the daddy of the family. His old nanny blows in because there’s been a lot of crisis in the family. Michael is struggling to cope and look after the children and run the household and pay for everything. That’s what motors the film. He’s about to lose the children’s home.”
I can see why they wanted him for that part. A man child, a 38- year old actor who can create the “perfect man with the struggle in his soul.”
“Well there’s nothing interesting about somebody who’s doing fine, is there?
Mary Poppins had a cousin called Topsy Turvy played by Meryl Streep. Did he get to hang out with Streep?
“No. I met her at the rehearsal and she was nice but I’m so completely left speechless when I’m in the same room as her.”
Ah yes, the introvert, extrovert. The actor who once told me he’s afraid of meeting people.
“Do you never feel that speechlessness come on you? Even though she seemed to be the nicest person, I was very timid and shy around her.”
Whishaw has an unusual but mesmerising charm. I wanted to give him my childhood Paddington Bear because it was special to me and his performance was special but my mother had thrown it away. He wasn’t disappointed by this, or at least he’s too charming to show it. He comes over quite other worldly, hyper sensitive but very soft and determined, full of contradictions like shy and actor.
“I haven’t got over my fear of meeting people. I love people but I’m just shy of meeting new people especially when they’re famous.”
Years have passed since Whishaw was fresh out of drama school and at 23 was acclaimed as one of the best ever Hamlets (the next Olivier) in the Trevor Nunn production. He played Hamlet as a teenager alienated from the world. Last year his portrayal of Norman Scott was arguably the best thing on TV. Clearly the judges at the Golden Globes agreed. He actually blushes when I mention this performance – so nuanced, so vulnerable, so creepy all at the same time.
“I’m pleased you found it all of those things. Did it make you laugh?”
Oh yes, and cry.
“He was a very sad man.” Scott loved his dogs. Whishaw loves cats. His father’s cat Bob died recently. He was only 6. He had to give his cats to his dad when he started working away from home a lot. They were a mother and daughter duo and the daughter Yana is now 18, the mother deceased.
“Yana got dragged under a car when she was 3 and her leg was ripped off. They had to stick it back on and ever since she looks fragile but she’s tough, almost indestructible.”
I wonder if he identifies with that. Looking fragile but actually quite strong. He’s very excited to have the role that embodies the vulnerability and the feistiness of Marilyn Monroe. I see the qualities in him.
When he comes back from New York he will begin shooting the new Bond. Of course, no one in a Bond movie can ever tell you in advance what it’s going to be like but I assume it’s a security issue.
“I think they’re probably trying to figure out what to do with the storyline. At least I know that y character is the same someone did tell me this time that there might be a scene with Q’s cats which you would be interested in.”
Have the cats been cast yet? “I don’t think so.” I immediately want to sort out an audition for my cat Roger (Moore). He would definitely have screen presence.
“And that would be a lovely connection named after a former Bond. Does he travel? Can he come to Pinewood? Can he cock an eyebrow?” Yes, he can. That’s why he’s called Roger Moore. “I’ll get onto Barbara Broccoli about it.”
Who is Mr Bond these days? “It’s still Daniel Craig, I think. They never tell you till the last minute.”
I tell him that I preferred Roger Moore’s Bond when they had film titles like Octopussy. The Craig Bond seems a little hard, a little rough diamond. His edges are the perfect contrast to Whishaw’s fluid Q.
He changes the subject back to Norma Jean. “Isn’t it good that I’m going to dress up as Norma Jean?” It is. I tell him I once went to an auction of Marilyn’s clothes and put in a bid for some pink marabou trimmed stilettoes but the winning bid exceeded mine by around £12,000.
“I would have loved to have had something of hers. She really was amazing. She had a lot going on. A lot of sadness on her plate, poor darling. To be a star in that star system and those men.”
If she had been born 50 years later, does he think she would have been part of the #metoo movement?
“I’m sure she would have. I’ve been listening to interviews with her. She doesn’t seem afraid of anything.”
Fearless and vulnerable. That’s another contradiction that could possibly describe both of them.
“Yes,” he says with a ‘cats got the cream’ expression. He loves contradiction. We talk about the contradiction in the song lyrics of Steven Sondheim.
He asks, “Do you know the song Losing My Mind (by Sondheim)?” He sings it. He can sing. All the great divas have sung it.
“I’ve just finished reading a book called Fragments. It’s bits of Marilyn’s diary, notes on hotel paper, poetry. She writes beautifully. Apparently, Arthur Miller was here with her when they were doing the film The Prince and the Showgirl and she opened his diary and read about how disappointed he was with her, how embarrassed he was being around his intellectual friends with her. Apparently, this was devastating to Marilyn. All these men say how difficult she was. It makes you want to strangle them.”
Has he ever read anyone else’s diary? “No, I haven’t but she must have known what she was looking for to see what she feared. It’s like looking at someone’s phone and somehow, it’s easier to look in the phone or the diary than ask the person directly. Isn’t it the thing that you want to have it confirmed but it’s really self-destructive? But maybe you think I have the evidence that would release me from this thing but no, I’ve never checked anyone’s phone or diary. There’s something a bit desperate about that, isn’t there?”
Well, Whishaw is the master of sensitivity. He’d never want to be desperate. He’s just finished a film Little Joe, “about a genetically modified plant that takes over people’s brains.”
I wondered if he played the plant. He doesn’t. how does he choose his roles or do roles come to him if producer and directors think the part needs the Whishaw effect? – something simple made a little spooky, or something spooky made a little normal.
“Usually I want parts where the character is compelling to me but sometimes if I fall in love with the director and want to work with them so much, I’ll do it no matter what they ask. It was my love for the Austrian director Jessica Hausner that made me want to do this film. She did a film called Lourdes a few years ago about a woman with multiple sclerosis who is indeed cured when she goes to Lourdes. It’s about miracles and how they happen or did they? And with Little Joe you’re not actually sure if a disaster is going to happen, if the plant is manipulating people or people are just insane. It’s the same kind of question.
“I play a scientist who has created this plant – a very pretty plant actually.”
The thing about a Whishaw role I find, is it haunts you long after the movie has retired. The Lobster was one such movie. It was surreal and bizarre and black like fairy tale.
He liked doing the Lobster where he played Limping Man. it was a love story. His character was straight, or at least in a sexual way.
Whishaw has created an ever-widening niche for himself –