It’s exceptional for an actor to make his name with a performance of Hamlet at the age of 23. Received wisdom is that by the time you understand even half of what’s going on in the Dane’s head, you’re way too old to play him. So when Ben Whishaw shot to the foreground in 2004, he was clearly something beyond a handsome new face in a world hungry for newness. A reviewer at the time described him as a gnarled tree root, his body language so twisted and convoluted with uncertainty that he seemed in some physically impossible way to be growing back into himself.
The description returned to me watching The Hour, BBC2’s wonderful 1950s-set drama in which he’s a young man in a hurry, forthright, zealous in a cynical, English sort of way. Whishaw couldn’t have looked more different, couldn’t have conveyed two such different personalities more forcefully. He has something of the Gary Walters about him, such self-effacement for every role that you wonder if it’s the same guy.
In the flesh, now 31, he leans more towards Hamlet than The Hour’s Freddie Lyon. He’s hunched, but not in an unfriendly way, as though trying to take up as little room as possible. It’s incongruous in the bar of Bafta, where everyone else is a show-off. He’s here to discuss Richard II, first of four Shakespearean history plays airing on BBC2 under the banner The Hollow Crown, which will also star Jeremy Irons as Henry IV and Tom Hiddleston as Henry V, as well as Julie Walters and Simon Russell Beale.
Richard is the mistaken, petulant king to whom all manner of disastrous, unkingly stuff occurs. Whishaw plays him as a callow, immature man who breaks off in the middle of destroying a friend’s life to feed his Capuchin monkey (which itself gives a nice, spoilt performance). At the same time, though, he has this majestic bearing, his performance walks a tightrope between authority and frivolity. It’s a perplexing, magnetic mix.
When I ask him about the play, and whether or not we can take over two hours of really crunchy Shakespeare in one go, on BBC2, he gives a trenchant answer. “It’s only really recently that it’s been uncommon to have Shakespeare on the telly, isn’t it? I get irritated when you’re made to feel like it’s something difficult and a bit beyond you. I really hate that. People are so stuffy about it, but it’s really easy. You can make it what you want. I wish people would relax about it.”
Ask him about his role, though, and he squirms magnificently in his chair. I really think talking about himself is anathema to him. He looks like he’s being given tiny electric shocks. He will never miss an opportunity to turn the question back to you, even if you’ve asked him something so specific that he is the only person who could ever know the answer. Anyway, back to Richard II.
“I find him in some ways quite sympathetic, but that is not a view shared by many people. I find that I like his journey. It’s an interesting one. Someone being forced to confront their vulnerability. Accept their fears. Have their illusions about themselves shattered. That’s what I like about it.”
He wriggles some more and starts to rip a napkin into tiny pieces. He really reminds me of a fairy tale about a child genius who can only relax when she’s playing the violin. I wonder if he’s the sort of person who only relaxes on stage. “I think you feel really alive when you perform. Not necessarily relaxed, but very alive and open. In some ways, it’s easier to relate to another actor than it is to relate to a person in life. Do you know what I mean?” Er… not really.
Although his breakthrough role was an unusual one, his route into acting was quite traditional, via Rada and a steady stream of work in well-thought-of indie films (My Brother Tom in 2001 netted his first awards). He claims never to have felt as though he were destined for greatness while studying.
“Absolutely definitely not, really not. Really nothing. I loved being there. I loved the experience. But I was never made to feel like that, maybe no one was. I felt very… because we had lots of real blokes, big guys, in our year, I felt ineffectual and not very interesting. That was my impression at the time, and I just played quite small character parts.”
And even though his entire working life has been as the lead, it is noticeable that he is no obvious shoo-in for romantic hero. I’m not saying that (as I normally would be) as code for “he’s a bit funny-looking”. There’s nothing schlocky on his CV, no misguided project that was all explosions and women who know Thai kickboxing. (I’m working up a theory that, in terms of career, he is Jason Statham’s anti-matter – that they are such polar opposites that if one disappeared, so would the other.) He insists, though, that he’s never been particularly picky.
“I don’t think I do turn down that much. You have to be selective. You’ve got to do what you feel like you can give your best to. But no, I was never trying to be a troubled intellectual. I’m not remotely an intellectual person.”
Oh, there’s one other thing he’d like to clear up, while we’re on the topic of his shortcomings (which, by the way, I didn’t bring up) – he also has terrible judgement. “It’s awful. I’m always wrong. To the point where I try not to bring my judgement to bear on an encounter I have with a person, I just try to take them as they are.”
This must make it hard to make a decision, deliberately holding back from judging anything? “It’s like…” he thinks for a bit… “Death is cold and hard and tight, and life is loose. So when you’re alive, you have to embrace being loose and open and free and engaged with things. To go towards closing things off or making judgements or deciding on certainties is to choose something that’s more like death. I had this big conversation with a priest who said, ‘It’s all right to be uncertain.’ I wasn’t in confession. I’m not religious at all. I don’t know even why I’m telling you. We value certainty so highly in the world. It can lead to appalling things. But without it we’d never do anything. So how do you find your way through that?” There’s a long pause. “Do you think Radio Times readers will be interested in death?” I don’t see why not.
I’m sure this is part of what makes him such a persuasive performer, that he’s a natural introvert, who wants to subsume himself utterly for the role, but then in the service of that role, must – literally or figuratively – take centre stage. “I’m maybe somewhere in the middle, between introversion and extroversion,” he starts. I make a very sceptical face. “With a tendency to introversion. There’s a strong thing of not wanting to be watched, but also not being able to help yourself.”
For someone with terrible judgement, he has some brilliant films in production (for contractual reasons, he can’t talk a huge amount about any of them). He is set to star in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a stunning novel I can’t imagine being made into a film, but then if you’d asked me how to make that idea into a novel, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine that either. And he’s Q in Skyfall, the next Bond movie starring Daniel Craig (released in October).
Interestingly, while Ben Whishaw is intensely socially sensitive, would hate to sound strident, dislikes talking about himself, looks really uncomfortable (and not just with me – when other people come over as well, I swear), he is quite sanguine about criticism. He never reads reviews and claims not to worry about what they say. I wonder whether his mum ever sends him something if it’s particularly nice, and he says, “She knows that’s not allowed.”
He’s been to LA to do a pilot that didn’t get made into a full series, but he only went because he was interested in the project; not because he has an actorly long game, where you get taken seriously here by going over to America. “People think what they want to think about you. They’ll take you seriously or they won’t. You can’t control it.”
Perhaps he’s just a really good actor. This sounds totally credible in the moment; a person who’d hate to offend anyone, but couldn’t give a rat’s arse if someone offended him. “To be absolutely honest,” he says, “I’m just thrilled to be working.”