Ben Whishaw: Playing Q in 'Skyfall' was a bit like doing Shakespeare

The Hour actor talks creative discipline, forgetting his lines and dressing up

Ben Whishaw got his big break playing the title role in a Trevor Nunn-directed Hamlet in 2004. The Danish Prince seems a fitting motif for an actor who manages to convey so much of the inner workings of his characters with nuance and suggestion.

Dazzling turns in art-house films Perfume and Bright Star, and his current performances as Q in James Bond blockbuster Skyfall, and as a star reporter in BBC series The Hour, are now being followed by existential epic Cloud Atlas in which he appears alongside Tom Hanks.

Whishaw remains the actor’s actor: intensely private and as outside of the tawdry circus of stardom as his unique talent allows.

Question: You began an art course before moving into acting. Many creative people start a discipline before realising it isn’t right and change course. Some see this as finding the right path for expression; was this the case for you? 

Ben Whishaw: I would have loved to have been a painter or a sculptor. I’m still fascinated by those things. At the moment I’m really interested in photography and photographing on film especially. But they are more like little hobbies for me. The thing I love about acting is that you can bring something very personal into the open and at the same time remain hidden because you’re always playing a character in a story that someone else has imagined. You’re always protected. Artists don’t have that; they seem much more exposed to me. I love taking on other people’s words. They are much more interesting to me than my own. 

Q: Has working as an actor now spoiled watching films and drama for you, as is often the case when working in an industry that you love? 

BW: In a way, yes. I think that you have to be like a child when you watch something – completely open, forgetful of yourself and present. That gets harder when you’re familiar with how the illusion has been made. Having said that, I’m still amazed and thrilled by how often it does still happen to me in theatres, cinemas and in front of the TV. But I guess I love books best now because I don’t have any understanding of how their magic works – and dance too. That’s another thing I’d love to have been, a dancer. 

Q: There’s a familiar question that always comes up in adaptations of Shakespeare, namely how to make a shared cultural icon relevant to a broad modern audience. In the case of your recent role as Richard II, did the medium of television change your approach in any way? 

BW: The play Richard II is written entirely in verse - the only one in the whole canon. It has formality and ceremony and ritual. But there’s so much happening underneath the words and the pomp; so much that’s unspoken. We could really explore that on television. I think television is so humble and accessible – it’s great for Shakespeare because I sense that a lot of people feel Shakespeare isn’t for them, that they won’t understand it and would never pay to go and see it in the theatre. It was a joy to put these words from 400 years ago in people’s front rooms. 

Q: Your break came playing Hamlet in 2004; a role described as a hoop through which every actor should jump. Since then you have conquered a long list of eminent male characters including Bob Dylan and John Keats. For which role did you find the research most rewarding? 

BW: Research is a strange thing to me because sometimes it seems very important and at other times I’ve had the feeling that I don’t need or want to research anything at all. I loved researching John Keats - I loved having an excuse to sit and read those poems for weeks on end - especially some of the longer and odder and less perfect ones like ‘Endymion’ that you might normally pass over. His letters are incredibly beautiful – so intimate and wise. I also loved reading about the real King Richard II, that research definitely helped me understand better what Shakespeare was writing about. For Cloud Atlas I had to learn to play the piano which was great. Other times however, I don’t do much at all – consciously. I go on some instinct I have. 

Q: With both Dylan and Keats, you have spoken of the intense personal connection you developed while researching each role, something almost akin to love. Yet you’ve also spoken of the ease at which you discard them. Is that a conscious choice? 

BW: I love all the characters I play. I’m fascinated by them. It’s like you’re looking after someone else’s existence for a while. Quite a responsibility. But once the experience is over it’s important for me to drop it and get on with a new project and my life. Also, I have quite a poor memory. 

Q: Shall we test that out? Complete the line: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever…” 

BW: “Its loveliness increases…” um... then something like “it will never fade into nothingness...but will keep a bower safe for us…” Oh dear – see I’m not very good. 

Q: One of your latest roles is Q in the new James Bond, a character totally associated with Desmond Llewelyn. How did inheriting a role change your approach? 

BW: I was quite nervous. In a way though it’s a bit like doing a Shakespeare role that’s already been inhabited by many other actors. I’m quite used to that feeling now. I try not to let it weigh on me much and just play the character as I see it. 

Q: Many actors cite a particular change in appearance, for example a wig or costume change that signifies the beginning of their playing a character. Is the external changing of your appearance, with costume and make-up an important role in developing a character? 

BW: I love the element of acting that’s dressing up – yes. That’s where it all stems from I think - the child’s dressing up box - it’s playing. I love how wearing someone else’s clothes can make you feel different, move differently, even think differently. I’m always clear in my head that the character I’m playing is very distinct from me and at the same time so much of you ends up leaking into the character. It’s an odd business. 

Q: In a very different way, the challenging narrative of this year’s sci-fi epic Cloud Atlas, based on David Mitchell’s novel of the same name, presumably presents some new scope for experimenting with how you connect with your character. Rumour has it that the actors will be playing multiple roles that span gender, time and even ethnicity. Can you talk a little about how this experience differed from your previous roles? Did you enjoy it?

BW: Cloud Atlas really was the ultimate dressing up experience. It was massive fun. There were wigs and there were prosthetics. I play a 56-year-old woman at one point – Hugh Grant’s character’s wife. I also have a tiny walk on part as a Korean businessman. That was hilarious. I played six characters in all; one in each of the stories. I was only originally going to be in three, but it became a bit of a competition between the actors to see who could get into all the stories. There were three directors too. It was all incredibly ego-less, in a way. A massive experiment. Very special to be a part of. I’m so eager to see it.

Q: You are soon starring in John Logan’s Peter and Alice with Judi Dench, a play based on an encounter between the real-life figures behind Lewis Carroll’s Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Michael Grandage has suggested that it focuses on “iconic figures coping with their own reality”. Did you draw on any personal preoccupations with the themes of privacy and celebrity? 

BW: I’m very excited about that play! I’ve had a photo by Lewis Carroll that I found in a junk shop hanging on my kitchen wall for years - it’s a portrait of the little girl who inspired Carroll to create Alice in Wonderland. The play is about so many things, but yes it touches on celebrity and privacy and identity. Earlier in the summer I went to see the Pina Bausch ‘World Cities’ series and I became friends with some of the dancers from the company. We talked about how the dancers don’t even have their biographies in the programme or anything. I said that that’s never the case for actors. You always have to reveal something. But it’s a shame I think. For me it’s best when I know nothing, when there’s nothing in the way of the people on the stage or screen in front of me. Then you can project your dreams and fantasies onto them.

This article first ran in Fourth & Main ( www.fourthandmain.com) Journal Vol. 2

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor