Ben Whishaw (London Sunday Times Magazine, October 31, 2020)

Chrissy Iley and Ben Whishaw October 2020
Chrissy Iley and Ben Whishaw October 2020

I’ve met Ben Whishaw a few times now and I’ve decided he’s the most cat-like of any human being. It’s not just the eyes to mesmerise or a feline, slinky way of moving, it’s that you think he’s going to be all soft and vulnerable, Fluffy even. He seems to call you in and then you find that he’s surprisingly self-sufficient – pragmatic, even. He has certainly been super pragmatic in his acting choices, earning both the moniker of national treasure (he was the voice of Paddington, he’s Q in James Bond, Keats in Bright Star, Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited) and he is widely named The actor of his generation because of Hamlet (when he was not long out of drama school) and his brilliant Golden Globe-garnering performance as Norman Scott opposite Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal (2019). He has certainly moved with dexterity between roles which were openly gay, sexually ambiguous and straight. He is the first actor to be able to do this – a beacon for others to follow. He is civil partners with Australian composer Mark Bradshaw although I’m guessing they don’t get to see that much of each other, what with him being the world’s greatest actor and all, he’s pretty busy filming around the globe – “Mmm” he says. We’re at his home in Chicago, where he’s currently filming Fargo. It’s in an area called Lakeside because of the views of a sparkling spring lake. It’s in a very old building, and he’s enjoying it. He says, “I think this year I am going to be much more at home – I’m gonna do my house up, it’s the time. It’s nice to be in-demand, but I do think I need to be at home for a little while. It’s been six months here, that’s a long time away. Mark visited, he came out for a month and I was back at Christmas. It’s definitely a big test.” What was unknown to us at the time, was how fast Whishaw’s prediction of home turf would come to light. A few days later, all flights to Europe were banned. There was a small window to get to the UK. Production had been halted and he doesn’t know for how long. Fargo was due for release April 18th, but now, like everything else, it will be delayed.

The Bond movie was the first big movie to announce that it was moving from early-April to November. Does he know why they took that decision so early? “I honestly have no idea, I just got a text message from Barbara saying that they were going to make the announcement. They never explained why – it must be related to the virus.” And perhaps because it’s called No Time to Die. We laugh. Perhaps a little too manically as we know scary times are to follow.

He’s wearing a blue shirt with a white sketched image on the back – a scene from Orpheus and Eurydice – and black trousers. His hair was cut really short in the summer, now it’s back to normal length: “in Fargo I wear a wig”. In Fargo he plays Rabbi X, does that mean he has a wig with Rabbi ringlets? “no, because I’m not really a Rabbi, I’m an Irishman who’s been raised by a Jewish family and now living with an Italian family. They’re all criminals, and they all call him Rabbi. They’re the people he’s part of. You can’t really see it, but I’ve got bits at the top shaved to make my forehead bigger because I have a tiny forehead. So they shaved my hairline to make the forehead higher. I think I look weird. I was happy to cut it very short, it was for a part. But when the filming was over, I properly shaved it all off and that felt great. Have you ever done that?” no, it’s different for girls, “oh, yeah”.

“I really like Chicago. I like being on the ninth floor and looking over the lake. I can watch the sun come up and watch it change. I can just sit on the sofa by the window for many hours and daydream. And I’ve had time to do that, which is lovely. The apartment is an Airbnb which I got sort of by accident.” Who knew that the words ‘Airbnb’ would sound so exotic these days. He’s recently given up meat, “I don’t feel healthier but I made the decision I was going to do it and I like to see things through. I wanted to do Fargo because the writer/director is exploring. It’s a lot about immigrants, it’s a lot about assimilating. How do you become an American and what does that mean? Who is let in and who is left out? My character is an outsider who doesn’t fit in anywhere.” People may assume that Whishaw is an outsider who doesn’t fit in, he always seems to go for the outsider roles and even when his characters aren’t outsiders he gives them quirks. “Hmm I don’t know, things are pretty contradictory.” For instance, Q is a techno-wizard who traditionally has seemed to be a foil for Bond, but living in a separate world of gadgetry. And yet, it is usually Q who comes up with something – a piece of super-enhanced techno that saves the day.

“I find it hard to talk about. Partly because it was long ago, although it wasn’t that long ago. It does feel like it. But also we never did get the full script. I did my bits not in the chronological order so I find it hard. Even though I’m not allowed to tell you what happens in the story, I couldn’t because of the way that it happened. But I can say, very late in the day I give him some technology that helps.”

Do they not give you a full script because everything is changing all the time or because they’re so paranoid that things will be leaked? “that’s a good question. It’s partly the secrecy that always surrounds it, but on this one to be honest, it was  a difficult journey. Although it was part-intentional, the director works in quite an improvisational way and we had a very tight deadline……. But as I say, they don’t tell us anything.”

Does he find it hard as an actor to not know where his character is going? “yeah I did find it hard to be honest, they don’t tell you anything.” He doesn’t  know if there will be another Bond let alone who that Bond will be, or if he’s in it. “I guess either they’ll call or they won’t.  When I go back to London I’m going to do another television series. It’s based on a book called This is Going to Hurt. It’s based on a man called Adam Kay who is a doctor, and it’s about his comedic but also tragic experiences working as a junior doctor in the NHS.” Is the doctor gay or straight, or that doesn’t come in to it? “He’s gay.” In the past decade, there’s been a sexual revolution in gay acting. In the olden days, gay actors only got to play gay roles. And there has recently been a theory that straight men shouldn’t play gay just like abled-bodies shouldn’t play quadriplegics. Personally, I think if you’re an actor, you act these things. “I’m in agreement with you.”

Whishaw was born in Clifton, Bedfordshire, his parents split when he was young and he has a non-identical twin brother. They are totally unalike: “He is blonde, came out first and was very pink. I was a squashed, dark thing. We were always dressed the same and were taken out together even to things I was not interested in, like football. I’ve always defined myself by him, but in opposition to him. I like everything different to him.” Nonetheless, they get on very well, and he is the perfect uncle. His mother worked on the make-up counters in department stores. His father was a footballer. It is often written that he’s an IT consultant: “he’s definitely not an IT guy, definitely not. He’s done all sorts of things – he worked for a company called Re-Diffusion, he ran a nightclub, and he managed a fleet of cars. Now he works in a sports facility. He doesn’t talk about it very much and I don’t press him. He’s barely stopping work.” Do you find it’s difficult to ask questions, like, it’s hard to ask your dad stuff? “no, I do ask people questions but sometimes not the people I know well. I feel with my dad I ought to have asked the question a long time ago and now it’s too embarrassing to ask it. And I know he would play-down what he does. I don’t know why he wouldn’t really want to share that kind of stuff with me, but more importantly, he’s a really good bloke. He gave his father his cats to look after when he started travelling a lot. His favourite cat was called Puki. “I was particularly close to her. She had a lovely voice – she sort of trilled and I do miss her. She was tortoise-shell, mainly black, with bits of orange and an asymmetric patchy face, she was very beautiful. She spent hours in the sink watching the tap – she was mesmerised by it.” We spend a little time trilling and making cat noises. Very important, but they don’t really translate to the written page.

I think people used to speculate more about sexuality ten years ago, or twenty. But ending that conversation – making something private public – was of course massive to him. After the civil partnership, it wasn’t all just easy, but I have the impression that it was easier than he imagined it to be. He is not direct about this. Although he’s open, he’s very private. I remember the BBC show The Hour. I loved it. set in late 1950s BBC. There was a ‘will they won’t they’ get-together situation with Romola Garai’s character. So it’s rubbish to think that if you’re gay you can’t play straight, it just takes cleverer navigation. Sir John Gielgud was out and proud, wasn’t he? He did play a lot of butlers…but some people have always managed to steer a course.

Mark Bradshaw is his civil partner, they are not married. Would he ever want to be? “no.” They met on set of Bright Star, directed by the Australian Jane Campion in 2009, the civil partnering was in 2012 and they have a home together in London. He says he’s looking forward to settling down more in London and the time has come to get cats. He is very much looking forward to cats. The last time we met, he reintroduced me to the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. This was before Marriage Story, when the song Being Alive was relaunched onto the public. I talked for hours about how the line ‘the coffee cup’ was small but brilliant. His favourite was ‘losing my mind’ and the line ‘or were you just being kind’. Now he says he hasn’t listened to the Barbra (Streisand) version or the Dame Edna version: “I need a break from that song, I find it quite painful to listen to.” My theory is you only listen to painful songs when you’re in pain. “yes, where you can sort of loosen it up – get it out. Wail. Cry. And feel free to let the pain out.” Emotional pain, too, seems something to be nostalgic for along with drinking a cup of coffee in a café. But good to know that he’s not in emotional pain. Just when you think everything is sorted and easy about him, he admits “I’m still afraid to meet people” on Mary Poppins he was afraid to meet Meryl Streep. Does the fear enlarge with the more famous the person is? “no, it’s anybody. I get anxious that I’m really bad at small-talk. And I’ve been doing a lot of hanging around on set, where I should be doing lots of small-talking. I’m just quite shit about it. I don’t know what to talk to people about.” Maybe it’s just because you think if you haven’t got anything in common with that person you can’t do small or big-talk. It’s just pointless. “Absolutely, I get anxious about it so now just think ‘I’ll sit here quietly and do my work’ or I get overwhelmed. There are so many people and I find it quite draining.” Now I see him as that independent cat who stops asking for headbutts and just puts their tail in the air and trots away.

We are in an East London eatery –  we sit outside on benches, inside is a vast emporium and lots of chandeliers but its beauty is infected with Corona virus restrictions – there is a track and trace which doesn’t work on my phone, ubiquitous hand sanitiser, and don’t go this way go that way – the vibe is very similar to when we met in Chicago. It feels like the we are seeing the dawn of something much worse that’s going to happen…

Whishaw looks a little thinner and more languid than before – Even in a chunky bottle green jumper and tiny waist jeans he looks like he could fall down the crack of a pavement enigmatically.  His wild hair is rather neatly coiffed. it’s as if it’s trying to contain itself and there is facial hair that defines his cheekbones even more than they already defined.

He didn’t come back and get London cats. Although part  of him still longs for that moment. He says, “I can’t take responsibility for myself at the moment much less cats.”

There is something portentous about the afternoon – as if it’s going to thunder but it doesn’t.   It’s more to do with we don’t know what social restrictions are coming and with them comes a life that nobody wants.  Right now he really wants a cheese toastie but somehow he doesn’t go and get it.  The bigger picture is that we feel like we’re on the eve of something bad again.  “It’s true but this time we’ve gone through it already and we don’t want to go there again but there seems no stopping it, it seems inevitable, inevitable bleakness.”

I change the subject to the TV series Fargo because it is screening soon.

“I was pretty much finished filming, I didn’t have to go back to Chicago but everybody else did and somehow they finished it. Somehow they actually managed to shoot things.  Everywhere is running out of content so people are desperate to get stuff finished that was nearly done.”

He was coming back to the UK for TV series about a doctor .  It has been postponed to January, “At the earliest,” he says.  He has gone from non-stop working to doing? “Nothing… I’ve been a bit of a hermit… Once we were forced to stop I didn’t have any inclination or desire to do anything really…”

The waitress explains that the cheese toastie has to be ordered at the deli counter not from her so he says that he will go up there in a minute but we know he won’t. He is stopped doing everything.

“I wanted to stop, I’ve seen my family when we were allowed to and I’ve gone for long walks and had loads of naps,“ he says, not even trying not to sound bleak.

I tell him that last years meme was “Do one thing a day that you are afraid of,” These years meme is, “Just do one thing.”  I tell him about the Instagram live show I did with Malminder Gill – the hypnotherapist.  We called it Love In the Time of Corona because there was so many problems when the dynamic of relationships suddenly changed and people couldn’t get away from each other – the divorce rate went up, “Yes,” he nods sagely.

Did he survive? “Yes I’ve survived but I’m not going to talk about it.“ There is no point in meandering around how the dynamic of he and his partner might of changed – he just looks, too done in to talk about it. He also says he’s lost his ability to predict anything, “Everything is so touch and go. And I don’t know how people are going to be feeling if we are we going into total lockdown again.  What’s going to happen? I don’t know I’ve given up thinking about it.”

He hasn’t seen the Bond movie in total.  “I have seen a tiny bit because as I had to come in and do some ADR.” He can’t be drawn to comment on it.  “It seems like I’ve got absolutely nothing to say about anything!!!”

Then he perks up, his eyes igniting.  “It looks like Bond is the one film that people might actually want to be persuaded to go out and see. People have been deprived of blockbusters and this is something that is diverse and multi generational, it could unite everybody. It appeals to a vast number of people…”

“It is hard to remember a time before walking around in masks, washing our hands every five minutes and sanitisers and this film was a time when people could go around like ……James Bond.  I think the Bond film is just what we really need right now, I really do.  We need something that is thrilling and fun and a kind of escapism. “

We talk about how much we miss the theatre.

“I sat in Regents Park and saw Jesus Christ Superstar on a screen I sat on the lawn and listened to I Don’t Know How to Love Him and it was so moving.  It had been such an effort, you couldn’t get into the theatre because the seats were sold out because there were so few of them, it was projected onto a screen for people who just wanted desperately to see something live with other people.  We saw the bravery and the commitment of the performers to a socially distant performance where the had to stand two meters apart, it was really beautiful.  I cried for the first twenty minutes.”

Because it was cathartic?

“Yes, perhaps…. I find that I can’t think about the future at all.  I can’t see what is going to happen beyond this second.  I can’t see the point in planning.  Although some people have been productive I am happy just to exist, get up whenever I needed, nap quite a bit, I have done absolutely nothing,” he laughs.

This is a person that is used to living not only off of adrenaline but pride in his work.  Someone who is used to being brilliant and basking in that.  He contradicts, “Maybe I was just busy. I trust sometime in the future it will come back.  For the moment, during lockdown, I painted my room blue, I learned how to put up shelves and pictures and I actually learned how to develop photographs, that is quite impressive isn’t it?” He says, not so impressed with himself.

This is a man who is used to throwing his entire being not just into another person but into another world.  He’s nothing if not overwhelmed by the minutia of lockdown and he just can’t wait to get back.  He wasn’t designed to do nothing but put up shelves.