The se­cre­tive side of Ben Whishaw

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think I could ac­tu­ally make quite a good spy,” says Ben Whishaw. “I wouldn’t want to be, but I think I pos­si­bly could.” The 35- year- old ac­tor is dressed for the part when we meet — head to toe in black — and has been get­ting in a lot of prac­tice over the past year, repris­ing the role of Q in the lat­est James Bond film, Spec­tre, and then in the rather more darkly re­al­is­tic BBC drama, Lon­don Spy, which goes out this month.

The first screen­play by ac­claimed thriller writer Tom Rob Smith, Lon­don Spy stars Whishaw as Danny, an openly gay drifter who falls in love with the enig­matic Alex, a clos­eted in­vest­ment banker (or so he claims). It would be wrong of me to give too much away, suf­fice to say that the story would seem to be in­spired in part by the real- life case of Gareth Wil­liams, the M16 agent whose corpse was found locked in a hold- all in 2010.

For Whishaw, who has played so many vac­il­lat­ing char­ac­ters over the years — from Shake­speare’s

ul­ti­mate ditherer, Ham­let, to the bi­sex­ual John in Mike Bartlett’s Royal Court play Cock — Danny’s un­am­bigu­ous sex­u­al­ity makes a wel­come change.

“That’s one thing he’s very clear about and very strongly em­bod­ies and no prob­lem,” says Whishaw, who came out him­self as a gay man in 2013 af­ter the Daily Mail started dig­ging around in his pri­vate life.

“It was an odd thing be­cause I wasn’t try­ing to hide any­thing but I am nat­u­rally quite pri­vate, I sup­pose,” says Whishaw, who, it was also re­vealed at the time, has been in a civil part­ner­ship with Aus­tralian com­poser Mark Brad­shaw since 2012. “How do you make that state­ment to the world?” he asks. “It’s hard. Any­way, it all hap­pened as it hap­pened and now ev­ery­body knows and it’s not an is­sue re­ally.”

It may not be an is­sue, but it has made Whishaw eas­ier to in­ter­view. In the past he has seemed ret­i­cent to the point of be­ing tongue-tied, and while even now he is not the most freeflow­ing in­ter­vie­wee — each an­swer weighed up with al­most painful de­lib­er­a­tion — he seems surer in his own skin. “I feel very com­fort­able now in my­self,” he agrees. “I think peo­ple ask ques­tions when they sense some­thing is be­ing con­cealed from them, and I don’t have any­thing to hide.”

While Whishaw delved into the his­tory of M16 for his role of Spec­tre, he says he de­lib­er­ately avoided re­search for Lon­don Spy. “Be­cause Danny is not from the world that he finds him­self thrust into, it was very im­por­tant to that he doesn’t know he’s in a spy drama,” he says of a char­ac­ter that re­minds him of many peo­ple he knows. “He has never found a path re­ally, I sup­pose … lots of po­ten­tial that’s never been re­alised or prop­erly tapped into. Yeah, he’s lost in a way that’s so easy to hap­pen in Lon­don.”

Noth­ing how­ever could be more re­mote from Whishaw’s own ex­pe­ri­ence. Six months out of the Royal Academy of Dra­matic Art in 2004 and a com­plete un­known, he found him­self an ac­claimed Ham­let in Trevor Nunn’s mod­ern-dress pro­duc­tion at the Old Vic, the same the­atre where John Giel­gud, Lau­rence Olivier, Richard Bur­ton, Alec Guin­ness, Michael Red­grave, Peter O’Toole and Derek Ja­cobi had de­liv­ered their Princes of Den­mark.

“It hap­pened very un­ex­pect­edly,” says Whishaw. “I was only 23 and mainly I just needed to sur­vive it. I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘If I start think­ing about the mag­ni­tude of this, I’m go­ing to crum­ble’, so I just kept my head down.

“I don’t know what I’d think of it if I watched it now. It was in­ter­est­ing for peo­ple to see the char­ac­ter played by some­one who looked like he was 18 or 19 rather than, you know … and I sup­pose that was ef­fec­tive about it.”

He is be­ing un­nec­es­sar­ily mod­est about what was an in­cred­i­bly aus­pi­cious be­gin­ning to a ca­reer that con­tin­ued both on stage and in TV and film, with the lead role in the 2006 film Per­fume, as Se­bas­tian Flyte in Ju­lian Jar­rold’s 2008 movie of Brideshead Re­vis­ited, the poet John Keats in Jane Cam­pion’s Bright Star, and, course, step­ping into Des­mond Llewe­lyn and John Cleese’s shoes as Q in Sky­fall. Did di­rec­tor Sam Men­des dis­cuss why he had cast a much younger ac­tor in the role?

“Weirdly there wasn’t a great deal of dis­cus­sion,” he says. “Q is there to per­form a cer­tain func­tion in the film that has been very well es­tab­lished in the last 50 years,” says Whishaw. “In a way that was more im­por­tant, get­ting that right, un­der­stand­ing what peo­ple ex­pect from Q.”

And it’s hardly Ham­let, I sug­gest. “It’s not Ham­let, but not ev­ery­thing can be Ham­let and you wouldn’t want ev­ery­thing to be Ham­let,” he replies, adding that the glam­our of be­ing as­so­ci­ated with the Bond fran­chise makes up for any artis­tic lim­i­ta­tions of the role. “It’s hard not to en­joy the ex­cite­ment that it gen­er­ates in peo­ple. Noth­ing else I’ve done has gen­er­ated that much of an­tic­i­pa­tion.

“It’s re­ally been lovely be­cause it’s un­usual to re­turn to work with the same group of peo­ple on a dif­fer­ent film.”

One group of peo­ple that Whishaw ex­pected to hang­ing out with more of­ten, but alas did not, were the cast and crew of the Abi Mor­gan’s BBC2 pe­riod drama The Hour, about a fic­tional 1950s TV cur­rent af­fairs pro­gramme. Af­ter two se­ries in which Whishaw co-starred with Ro­mola Garai, Do­minic West, Ju­lian Rhind-Tutt, An­ton Lesser and Anna Chan­cel­lor — the sort of cast, in other words, that most TV com­mis­sion­ers would sell their own chil­dren for — as well as Emmy, Bafta and Golden Globe nom­i­na­tions, the BBC un­ex­pect­edly killed off the show af­ter only two se­ries, with the some­what odd com­ment that “We loved the show but have to make hard choices”.

“I re­ally loved that show too,” says Whishaw, who played am­bi­tious and hot-headed re­porter Fred­die Lyon. “I re­ally loved that group of char­ac­ters, and in hind­sight it was a real shame. And I was sur­prised be­cause that’s not what we were told, and not what we were ex­pect­ing, so it was out of the blue, and ob­vi­ously you spend how­ever many months of your life think­ing about that per­son, and in­evitably you want to fin­ish their story.”

The Hour’s dis­ap­point­ing rat­ings and some snippy com­ments by tele­vi­sion in­dus­try vet­er­ans who felt the show was un­re­al­is­tic, weren’t matched in America — the dif­fer­ence neatly sum­marised by an LA Times writer thus: “Crit­ics were di­vided … mostly by the At­lantic.”

Whishaw has since been re­united with both writer Abi Mor­gan and Hour co-star Ro­mola Garai in the film Suf­fragette, in which he plays Carey Mul­li­gan’s boor­ish hus­band. “Not boor­ish,” he chides. “Her slightly fright­ened hus­band, maybe, un­com­pre­hend­ing about what she’s do­ing.”

Suf­fragette is one of a wel­ter of projects, cur­rent and fu­ture, on Whishaw’s slate. In the Ron Howard whal­ing epic In the

Heart of the Sea he plays Moby Dick au­thor Herman Melville, while in Tom Hooper’s The Dan­ish Girl, which is about 1920s Dan­ish artist Lili Elbe, one of the first peo­ple to un­dergo gen­der re­as­sign­ment surgery (and played in the film by Ed­die Red­mayne), Whishaw plays a man who falls in love with Lili.

“Ed­die makes a very strik­ing … a very tall woman,” he says, re­mind­ing that Red­mayne has played Vi­ola in Twelfth Night, one of Whishaw’s am­bi­tions af­ter hav­ing seen Har­ri­ett Wal­ter as Julius Cae­sar at the Don­mar Ware­house “I’m not knock­ing on peo­ple’s doors beg­ging to play her, but I was ex­cited that gen­der was no longer an ob­sta­cle for play­ing these roles,” he says.

Whishaw is also ex­cited about another of his cur­rent re­leases, The Lob­ster, the English-lan­guage de­but of Greek di­rec­tor Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos — a com­edy drama set in a dystopian near-fu­ture and co-star­ring Rachel Weisz and Colin Far­rell. “It’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever been in,” says Whishaw who plays a char­ac­ter called Limp­ing Man. “I think it’s a real work of art.” I wouldn’t know where to start in sum­maris­ing the plot of

The Lob­ster, so I’m grate­ful when Whishaw has a shot at it: “It’s set in a ho­tel where peo­ple are sent if they are part­ner­less and you must find your part­ner within a cer­tain amount of time oth­er­wise you’re turned into an an­i­mal. Yup, that’s the premise of the film.”

And that is the last that we will see of Whishaw for a while, un­less you hap­pen to be on Broad­way and have tick­ets for what is likely to be the hottest show in town, a re­vival of Arthur Miller’s The Cru­cible, di­rected by Ivo van Hove, the avant garde Bel­gian dra­maturg who won an Olivier Award this year for his bare­foot pro­duc­tion View from the Bridge at the Young Vic. Whishaw will be co-star­ring with So­phie Okonedo.

Does he pre­fer film or stage act­ing, I won­der. “I just take what­ever’s of­fered at that mo­ment … I go with what­ever I like. I like the va­ri­ety. Af­ter that I’d like to another tele­vi­sion se­ries.”

Does he han­ker for A-list Hol­ly­wood star­dom? “Not re­ally. I’ve al­ways en­joyed be­ing there [in Hol­ly­wood] when I’ve gone but it’s al­ways been for some­thing spe­cific and I can’t imag­ine just go­ing there to … I don’t know … wait or some­thing. I like it here and I like the work that’s hap­pen­ing here.”

And in any case he has a date to keep. Sam Men­des hav­ing re­peat­edly been re­fused per­mis­sion to film his Bond movies in­side M16’s HQ on the south bank of the Thames — in the post-mod­ernist build­ing dubbed “Le­goland” — Whishaw him­self has been in­vited in by the spooks. “I’ve been asked to go and present a screen­ing of Spec­tre at M16 so that will the first time I have en­tered the build­ing for real.”

As for the Fred­die Mer­cury biopic, in which Whishaw was sup­posed to have played the late Queen front­man af­ter the orig­i­nally mooted Sacha Baron Co­hen left the project cit­ing “artis­tic dif­fer­ences”, that seems to have gone into de­vel­op­ment hell. “I don’t know … I truly don’t know … I’ve got no news about it,” says Whishaw. “There’s no script as we stand and no di­rec­tor and there­fore no film, so we’ll see.”

Whishaw did a screen test for the part two years ago, in which he sang Bo­hemian Rhap­sody. I’m im­pressed, I tell him. “I don’t have a great voice but I do have quite a big range ap­par­ently,” he says — be­fore adding with what I have come to recog­nise as char­ac­ter­is­tic self-dep­re­ca­tion, “Or so the singing teacher told me; I don’t know whether he was try­ing to make me feel bet­ter.”

It’s hard not to en­joy the ex­cite­ment it gen­er­ates in peo­ple. Noth­ing else I’ve done has gen­er­ated that much of an­tic­i­pa­tion


SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED: Whishaw had big shoes to fill as Q in ‘Sky­fall’, but feels com­fort­able in the role.

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