Ben Whishaw bounds into the room and settles himself into the smallest, least comfortable-looking chair. His extraordinary youthfulness in the flesh is arresting, not least because Whishaw is 35. Those intense brown eyes, the flyaway hair are known across much of the world from his role as a Q (007’s quartermaster) for the Instagram generation, though he’s not a naturally Bondish person. “I’m terrible at poker,” he admits when I ask him about taking risks.
Shortly before we’re due to meet, I watch a clip of him and his Spectre co-star Naomie “Moneypenny” Harris being interviewed. They both remain impressively poker-faced when the first question is, perversely, about Daniel Craig. As we’re meeting in the London hotel where all the Bond business is happening I can’t help feeling that Whishaw is bound to be all Bonded-out.
Spectre aside, Whishaw is currently also to be seen in cinemas in two very different movies, surreal fantasy The Lobster and period drama Suffragette, but we’re here to discuss his lead role in awardwinning thriller author Tom Rob Smith’s first TV drama, BBC2’s London Spy. The premise is compelling; Whishaw’s character, Danny, is an aimless young man who accidentally meets his Mr Right, an investment banker, and then, in dramatic circumstances, loses him again.
Aside from Danny’s youth, it’s his sexuality that defines his relationships – and I’d hazard London Spy turns out to be as much a love story as a thriller. As an actor building a career Whishaw has previously been fairly wary of defining his own sexuality publicly (he has been in a civil partnership with Australian composer Mark Bradshaw since 2012), but was Danny being gay a big motivating factor in taking the part?
“Sure, it was a factor,” he says. “Of course it was. I like the fact that it is a given – Danny’s just a gay guy who meets a guy – and it’s not first and foremost a study of sexuality. I like that. Tom is a brilliant writer because he’s just as interested in psychology as he is in plot, so the character feels complicated. I like the depth that Tom has given him, and the backstory.”
On the evidence of the first episode, London Spy is going to be a gripping five-week ride in the company of a great cast (including Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Mark Gatiss and Edward Holcroft as Danny’s lover Alex). Was it specifically written for Whishaw?
“Hmm, I think Tom might have had me in his head. Tom and Juliette Howell [one of the series’ executive producers] just gave me two or three episodes and said, ‘Read it and tell us what you think.’ And I immediately loved it even though I didn’t know where the story was going. “I sat down with Tom and he talked me though it; he had an end in sight, he just hadn’t written it yet. I didn’ t know Tom and I didn’t know his work – it’s the first TV series he’s done – but he’s a very intelligent and gifted man.”
With London Spy, Smith has come up with a drama that can be put alongside Paul Abbott’s noughties’ thriller State of Play. But although Danny is a deeply empathetic character, I wonder how long Whishaw will be able to continue playing such a convincing 20-something?
“Well, I thought I can’t play Danny as 25, so I’ll play him as 28. That’s what he is in my head.” Though it’s never articulated? “No, he’s just generically young.”
Danny is clubbing and flat-sharing and working in some sort of warehouse… “Yes, a warehouse that is sort of Amazon-ish. But it doesn’t work if Danny’s too young. He’s got to have a past – and that will become important.”
It’s over a decade since Whishaw was wowing audiences as Hamlet in the evenings (six months out of Rada, aged 23, he was cast as the Prince of Denmark by Trevor Nunn in his 2004 Old Vic production, about which the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer wrote, “This is the kind of evening of which legends are made”) while days were devoted to filming Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker’s cultlike C4 satire of the pre-hipster generation, Nathan Barley. Whishaw played sad-sack office whipping-boy Pingu, who had barely a line to speak. I tell him that in my humble opinion Q is clearly Pingu’s professional revenge.
He beams. “I hadn’t thought of that before. That’s brilliant!” We reminisce about Barley’s fine cast (including Benedict Cumberbatch – briefly – and Richard Ayoade). “It was a bit ahead of its time, really,” he says. “I think people would recognise it for what it was much more now, but at the time people didn’t really get what it was satirising.”
He thinks his days of playing 20-somethings are over. So what next? “I am intrigued as to what will happen. I’m nearly middle-aged! Age is weird but I think I might have reached the point… well, let’s say I loved doing this series but I don’t think I’d be interested in doing another thing with someone of that age, because I’m more interested in what’s going on in my life now. You’re just in a different place when you’re 35. It’s not necessarily conscious but you’re drawing on your own life. And it’s not that I’m looking for stuff that is like me – but pretending to be young is maybe something I’m not interested in any more.” There is a brief pause and an added “Yeah!”
Listening to Whishaw’s slow, considered speech, it is as though having forced himself to go on the record he is, right here and now in this (suitably) greige and stylishly middle-aged hotel room, turning his back on his youth. In which case, bring on the bald wigs and the stooping; the youngest-ever King Lear is clearly just around the corner.
This month’s busiest actor in the business is also one of its most talented. Post-Hamlet, Whishaw’s youthfully brazen verisimilitude kickstarted a decade’s-worth of dazzling career choices: the lead in 2006’s Perfume, a doomed Sebastian Flyte in the 2008 Brideshead Revisited, John Keats in Jane Campion’s Bright Star (during which he met his partner), not to mention Cloud Atlas and the voice of the eponymous bear in last year’s family hit Paddington.
On television, too, he has shone in projects as diverse as BBC2’s television newsroom drama The Hour [below] and as the small screen’s prettiest Richard II. In the new year, he’ll be seen on Broadway (with Sophie Okonedo and Saoirse Ronan) in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and on the big screen opposite Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl and as Herman Melville in Ron Howard’s seafaring blockbuster In the Heart of the Sea.
But first, there’s the on-going “bonkersness” of being part of the Bond franchise – for which, he tells me, he was “booked for five or six months, so they can call you when they need you”. In the event, he filmed for “maybe 20 days. But I only did five days on the last one, so…” A promotion, of sorts? He nods.
“It is bonkers. You walk up the red carpet and everyone’s screaming and flashing cameras at you and then you go out the back door of the cinema and nobody looks at you twice. Crazy. But it’s not real – I go home in the evenings and lead a normal life – it’s just a sort of frenzy that’s enjoyable. I always think it could all sort of end any time, so…” He shrugs.
Time is called on our interview. I tell him I’d like to see one of his two currently released movies this very evening but can’t decide which. I hand him a ten pence piece. Would he toss a coin? Whishaw grins: “OK, heads it’s Lobster, tails, Suffragette’.’ He flips. It’s heads. “Is that a good call?” I ask. He nods and grins. “I think it’s really good, yeah. I really love that film.”
As we shake hands, he is effectively removing his Danny head and preparing to return to the “frenzy” by replacing it with his Q one. With so many different versions of his head gracing our screens the trajectory of Ben Whishaw’s professional journey looks, like Danny’s, certain to remain both unpredictable and thrilling.
London Spy is on Monday 9th November at 9.00pm on BBC2