In Love with Hamlet, Dylan, Keats . .

By Gray, Marianne | The Spectator, October 31, 2009 | Go to article overview

In Love with Hamlet, Dylan, Keats . .


Gray, Marianne, The Spectator


Marianne Gray talks to Ben Whishaw about how he finds an affinity with the characters he plays

Ben Whishaw sits unrecognised, wearing a black T-shirt and drinking red wine in a dark corner of the Royal Court's cafe.

He has just come off stage from rehearsing Mike Bartlett's new play Cock - in which he plays a chap who takes a break from his boyfriend and accidentally meets the girl of his dreams - and he's still all buzzed up.

I had been warned that giving interviews isn't Whishaw's favourite occupation. But it certainly doesn't show here. There's no sulkiness or distractedness on his part. Perhaps his recent jaunt around the US, to promote his hotly tipped performance as John Keats in the film Bright Star, has acclimatised him to the rigours and demands of a celebrated life.

He leans towards me as I sit down, and says conspiratorially, 'I think it's important for an actor to remain surprising. It is very hard to watch an actor if you know too much about him. There need to be unknown areas, otherwise it's just a "star" playing a role.'

He's quite right, of course. But, even with his reluctance to become a household name, it seems that Whishaw is set for stardom.

Bright Star - the affecting love story of Keats and his Hampstead next-door neighbour Fanny Brawne (played by Abbie Cornish) - could tip the balance. It has gone down fabulously well with American 'tastemakers'; it drew an enraptured response at last month's London Film Festival; and it opens worldwide around now, with the words 'Oscar' and 'nomination' hovering around Whishaw's performance in particular.

Playing Keats, he says, was a bit like playing Hamlet - which he did to searing effect, a year out of college, in Trevor Nunn's 2004 production at the Old Vic. Both roles gave him an opportunity to explore gigantic, stormy emotions; from the deepest love to the deepest despair. He fell in love with Hamlet and now with Keats - as he did with Bob Dylan when he played the singer in Todd Haynes's film I'm Not There.

'I always look for an emotional response to something and Keats did that for me, ' says the quietly spoken Whishaw. He'd never read any of Keats's work before making the film, preferring 20th-century poets like Ted Hughes and T.S. Eliot. But he was soon converted.

'After reading Keats's poems and letters and saying them, I found him very human, very passionate. I love their luxury and sensuality. He's so playful with words and rhymes. I'm aware that he had a sense of softness but he also had a toughness with which he dealt with life. His words are honest, hard-edged and yet sensitive. I was inspired and engrossed and certain things have stayed with me.'

Whishaw even sees some parallels between him and Keats - at least when it comes to their working patterns. He recalls how Keats talks, in one of his letters, about trying too hard to reach some elusive 'it', before adding, 'I think I do that. During the shoot, Jane [Campion, the director] had to tell me to calm down and relax. "There's a lot of stuff blocking you, " she said. "Stop trying so HARD!" ' Whishaw, a young-looking 29, is articulate, impish and thoughtful. Campion describes him as 'as beautiful as a cat . . .almost not real'. I mention it and he looks perplexed, twisting a forelock of dark hair embarrassedly. It's clear that he's no natural celebrity, but his enthusiasm for his work - and his daring in choosing new roles - are naturally appealing. …

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