Ben Whishaw

Ben Whishaw’s roles to date have included Q in the Bond films, Paddington Bear, and Hamlet. He’s adapted to all of them, but has maintained a sensibility all his own throughout, one that’s won him both awards and adoration. He sat down to lunch in London with Port’s Kerry Crowe 


Slight of frame and ruffled, with dark, doleful eyes, Ben Whishaw embodies a unique gentleness. With over 40 film credits to his name and numerous stage appearances, he has worked with some of the most exciting directors in the business, including Jane Campion (Bright Star), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) and the Wachowskis (Cloud Atlas). He brings a humane urgency to each role, elevating characters’ better qualities to become the very beating heart of their scenes and evoking deep pathos in their lesser traits.

Born in England in 1980, into an unassuming Bedfordshire life without the early privilege enjoyed by many high-profile actors, he attributes his career, at least in part, to the influence of an amateur dramatics teacher in his home town named Rory Reynolds. “If I hadn’t met him and gone to that youth theatre, I’m not sure I’d be doing it, because I don’t think that’s a path I would have found. It’s amazing really,” Whishaw tells me. “Rory treated all of us like we were little artists, like little professionals. He would give you an end-of-term report,” he says with tangible incredulity and gratitude, “and it was just a Sunday. He opened up all sorts of things to me: theatre and literature and art and performance and acting.”

Did it feel like a leap then, to go from this world to the hallowed studios of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he would later train? He thinks. “Yes, actually. I do remember feeling, like… Woah!” He feigns shock. “Like, when somebody first mentioned something to me about the idea of going to ‘drama school’, I thought, ‘What is that?’ And I remember thinking quite distinctly at one point that if I could just get there, that would be enough. I think I must have been quite determined to…” He searches for the right word. “I think I must have been quite determined,” he resolves.

“Although, I was also really fortunate: when I went to drama school, I managed to get the last of a thing that’s been discontinued and scrapped, which is a dance and drama award. So if you were from a background or a family that couldn’t pay for the course, which was expensive,” he smiles emphatically, “you were supported by this grant. They were scrapped literally the next year, so I just got there in the nick of time. I think I was very lucky in that sense. I think that for people who came after me, it’s been much harder, and that’s not a good thing.” He briefly looks sombre at the thought of the dire state of arts funding in the world beyond our peaceful room.

I’m reminded of This is Going to Hurt, the 2022 television series based on former NHS doctor Adam Kay’s memoir about his time in the profession. Both Kay’s candid book and screen adaptation deploy warts-and-all industry insights, including of his own personal failings, and Whishaw – who plays Kay, in a BAFTA-winning performance – brings the role to life with such empathy that the viewers’ commitment to the protagonist is never threatened, despite his occasional misanthropic cynicism. However, it is the current state of the health service that forces its way through as the primary cause of many of these problems – Herculean shifts leading to exhaustion and depression and, in turn, fractured personal relationships, for example. In taking the part, how important was exposing these structural issues to Whishaw? Did it feel like a battle cry for the NHS? “It felt very important, yes, and it was very much what Adam Kay wished for it to be, a sort of battle cry, and a love letter.” He continues: “He wanted it to have social impact, and, yeah, for it to be really honest, especially about mental health with the people working in the NHS.”

In 2023, Whishaw worked with director Ira Sachs on the French film Passages, playing Martin, husband to Franz Rogowski’s Tomas – a passionate and intellectually scintillating but emotionally infuriating film director. The film is a heady, erotic continental love story, following Tomas as he embarks on an affair with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). The scenes between Rogowski and Whishaw are electric in the clashing of the two performers: Tomas is visceral and muscular, utterly without self-doubt, while Martin is considered and considerate, and sometimes seems frighteningly fragile, caught in his husband’s vortex. “Acting isn’t really about pretending or acting, it’s about what’s really happening, I think,” Whishaw explains of their onscreen dynamic. “I just found Franz really compelling as a person and as an actor and as a presence. I just loved being in his company. I loved talking to him and being quiet with him… I loved what he thought about stuff, about life, about films. He really occupied my full attention, and that’s not something you can really pretend or manufacture or act – it just kind of is what it is.” He continues: “But it was also special, because Ira Sachs made an environment where what I’ve just described was allowed for and was given space and then he would capture it, and it wasn’t like… this is what’s written, we’re going to do it exactly like this. Every day it felt like, well this is what we’ve got, but… is it right? Maybe let’s cut this, or maybe let’s do that. It was very alive.”

Discussing the essentials of his craft is where Whishaw comes to life. I mention having previously heard that he likes it when a director says, ‘Let’s play four pages without stopping.’ “Ooh yeah, I love that,” he says, straightening up and grinning at the thought. “It’s lovely when you’re given the space to do the scene; it’s quite hard to do little bits,” he says. “Some of the things that are hardest are the things that will look the easiest, and you’ve gone… that was really fucking hard, just to do that one little bit! Some of the things when people will say, ‘Wow, that was so impressive’ – you’re like… that was the easy part!”

Can he give an example of this in action? “Sometimes, filming, you have to react to something that’s not happening. In actual fact, it’s really hard! Coz there’s no… you’re not receiving anything: you have to conjure it all up. I know you could say that’s the job, but you’re always looking to not do any acting, if possible,” he laughs. “So when you have to go, ‘Oh, there’s an explosion!’ but there’s no explosion and you are just coldly standing there in front of the camera, and it’s scrutinising your face… that’s hard. But it would be nothing; it would be like a second in the film. But if you had four pages, that would be lovely.” He smiles softly again.

“It’s also lovely when a director is really specific about what they want – they have a specific vision and a specific taste or sensibility. One of the hardest things is when you’ve no idea what you’re being asked to do. And then the worst thing is if someone wants to talk too much. That’s terrible! You sometimes need very basic instructions, like ‘go faster’, or ‘slower’, or ‘don’t think about it’ or ‘less’.” And what happens when a director talks too much? “Well, you open a box of things that are irrelevant.”

I tell him that I’ve heard him suggest in the past that he can feel shy around directors. “Oh yeah, I do actually. I always think they will… I always think they’re going to…” he pauses for a moment as he searches for the right words, before exclaiming, “fire me!” We both laugh. “Oh dear. Yeah, you feel like you’re going to let them down. Or might let them down, or it’s not going to be good enough. But I’m trying to overcome that, coz, you know, perhaps that’s not a very healthy or useful attitude.”

Clearly Whishaw is too humble to recognise himself as having produced some of the finest acting work of his generation, but he nonetheless continues to exert himself in his varied stage and screen career. His weary medic of This is Going to Hurt and troubled lover of Passages signal a shift from the quixotic boyishness for which he was once known into something more mature and complex. An as-yet-unreleased project sees him as the multifarious Russian political dissident and poet Eduard Limonov in Kirill Serebrennikov’s Limonov: The Ballad of Eddie – another repertoire-widening curveball, based on the eponymous biographical novel by Emmanuel Carrère. “He’s an amazing director, Kirill. I felt like I was working with a really incredible artist who was a truly creative person.” (Conversation with Whishaw is liberally interspersed with heartfelt compliments and praise for others wherever he can find an opportunity.)

The Limonov crew were shooting in Russia when it invaded Ukraine, and media reports have claimed that Whishaw was hurriedly evacuated: is this really the case? He laughs at the dramatic phrasing. “I didn’t get evacuated, but I did have to leave. The war began… they invaded Ukraine when we were about halfway through. Kirill and I met up on the first morning and he said, ‘I’m sure this is going to be over very soon, so we’ll carry on,’” Whishaw chuckles with the grim benefit of hindsight. “So we carried on for one day, and then another, and then my mum started calling quite a lot, and then all direct flights were cancelled. I think we limped on a few more days, and then my mum was like, ‘Just get out of there!’ So I said, ‘I think I have to go,’” he remembers. “I mean, it was sort of mad because when you make a film you do have this kind of mad attitude, like this is the most important thing in the world and we must absolutely finish it at all costs! Which is absurd, but I think you need a sort of certain level of, this film means everything right now, so the idea that you’re not going to be able to finish it, you just can’t conceive of.” But the filming was indeed ultimately wrapped? “Yes. I left, and then weeks later Kirill and half of the rest of the company left as well and now live in exile in various other places; because it is what we now know it is, which is this absolutely horrifying situation, and it’s not clear how on earth it’s going to end. But we did finish it in Riga , in the summer of 2022.”

With such a wide-ranging filmography, including work with some of the most interesting directors of the last few decades, I’m curious about Whishaw’s own cinematic influences. “I’m really interested in Japanese cinema at the moment. I’m watching a lot of Yasujirō Ozu films, an amazing filmmaker: he made lots of them and they’re all variations on a few tiny things, a few ingredients,” he says. “Somehow there’s this world that he creates: they’re always about families, usually a child is being married off to someone that she doesn’t want to marry. It’s the way he looks at it, and…” He pauses here and then speaks very carefully, as if putting into words something that he hasn’t vocalised before. “I think they’re about how we’re influenced by other people’s emotions or the pressure of conforming to other people’s expectations of you or societal expectations of you, but it’s all in this very tight frame. It’s very beautiful.”

Despite having performed on stage approximately once a year throughout his professional life, the pandemic instigated Whishaw’s five-year hiatus from the theatre. However, 2024 sees him return to the stage twice over, in an adaptation of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets at the Royal Court and a production of Samuel Beckett’s classic Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal Haymarket – choices that again display a seasoned actor flexing his creative muscle. “I’m excited and a bit scared to do a play again,” he admits. “I can’t wait actually.”

Gradually our conversation turns to music, and I ask him if he can think of an album that means a lot to him lately. He thinks. “On New Year’s Day, I was in a car and there was this countdown of Madonna’s best songs from movies, and I was so ecstatically happy to begin the year listening to this music of hers that I hadn’t heard for ages… so I’m going to say that. I think she’s fantastic; I’ve always loved her.” What about her in particular does he like? “I like her voice: I find it very moving, that she’s not perfect. I feel like she’s spiky and not easy and is provocative. She’s ambitious. And I think that everyone seems very nice now, and she doesn’t always seem nice.”

This is a sentiment surprisingly at odds with the sensitive and warm actor sitting before me, but one thing that we can be sure of about Ben Whishaw is that he contains multitudes.


Production LOCK STUDIOS 

Digital Operator LAURA HECKFORD 


Set Designer GEMMA TICKLE 




This article is taken from Port issue 34. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here