Ben Whishaw, quite apart from being one of the best British actors we have, is an expert dunker of his biscuits in tea. I’ve seen it: he’s a McVitie’s ninja, with a method all his own. We meet one afternoon in the offices of a London film company and I get the chance to observe his distinctive work first-hand, as digestive after digestive gets taken up by Whishaw, then dipped (sometimes double-handed) into a cuppa that he props on a table in front of him. Each biscuit gets submerged for so long, you suppose there’s no chance of it ever coming out whole. Each biscuit later re-emerges, sodden, milliseconds from ruin, still intact.
“I’m no good at interviews,” Whishaw, 41, apologises, right away.
He has played Hamlet, Sebastian Flyte, Ariel, Paddington, James Bond’s gadget man Q; all manner of bold fictional characters behind which to hide an innate, real-world shyness. In February, Whishaw will appear in the BBC’s adaptation of Adam Kay’s bestselling medical tell-all, This Is Going to Hurt – another cocksure character, another place to hide. “I find it hard meeting people for the first time,” Whishaw shrugs. “I find it anxiety inducing. I get a shaky, unsettled feeling in my belly. Just warning you now!”
And it’s true that the actor, with his wiry limbs crossed at sharp angles, the focus of his green eyes often darting away to the middle distance, comes across as socially nervous. Even so, he’s compelling company, and before the end of our conversation he’ll have spoken with careful thought and bracing honesty about sexuality; self-knowledge; LGBTQ+ casting in the film industry; his frustration with the Bond franchise, all sorts. Along the way I start to notice that, actually, there are telling parallels between the way Whishaw approaches a one-on-one interaction such as ours and his perilous technique for dunking biscuits. Whenever the conversation takes a turn, he’ll start out strong. Ideas. Confessions. Then he might lose faith and check himself (“God. I’m waffling … I have no idea what I’m saying, Tom”). Then, right when all looks lost, the biscuit doesn’t break apart, he regathers his efforts, he comes at some idea anew, and often winds up making a point that is richer and subtler than the one he started with.
I ask whether being good at acting has ever helped him with his social anxiety. Can’t he use his proven performance skills (the playful sprite he played in 2010’s The Tempest, the complicated rogue in 2018’s A Very English Scandal) and fake it?
“Yeah, no,” he chuckles, darkly. “I don’t find acting helps. A nightmare situation for me would be to have to make an impromptu speech at someone’s wedding. Whenever I feel like someone I know might be about to ask me to do it, I say: ‘Nope!’” Whishaw does an immaculate impression of a gruff, irritable old man. “‘Nope! Nope! Nope! Go away!’ … Even the thought of reading a prepared speech terrifies me.”
Wouldn’t reading out a prepared speech at a wedding be just like performing from a script, though?
“I just don’t ever want to appear in front of other people,” Whishaw says, “and be myself.”
He thinks some more. “I dunno, Tom! I’m probably talking rubbish. But sitting here, today, with you, I find the idea of my words being put down in print for ever a frightening thing. Today I could have one set of thoughts. Tomorrow another. The black-and-white of things – it clams me up.”
The Bedfordshire village of Langford, where Whishaw grew up with his twin brother James and their parents, could be black-and-white in outlook. “There was definitely a keeping-up-appearances thing going on.” He was a timid young man with many unanswered questions about himself, confused about his sexuality as well as the gender norms he seemed to be expected to conform to. Some refuge was found in drama workshops at a nearby youth theatre. From about 14, he started taking regular train trips to London, mostly to watch plays.
“Total theatre nut. I was about 16, I think, when I saw Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking. I remember how much I loved arriving in London. I could feel there was another life here, another way of living. Answers. Experiences. A different community of people.” His mum Linda, who worked in retail, and his dad Jose, who worked in IT, were not artistically inclined, but they supported their son’s decision when he said he wanted to audition for drama schools in the capital. He left home at 18 when he got into Rada and moved into student digs in the north of the city. Whishaw recalls coming back to Langford for weekend visits, “and I couldn’t wait to leave again. I remember driving back on Sundays with a friend and feeling London encroaching, surrounding me – this incredible feeling of potential and possibility.”
As a fresh new drama grad in 2003, he raced out on an implausibly blazing start to his acting career. He was in the original cast of His Dark Materials at the National, then almost right away (ludicrous, best-case-scenario stuff) he got to play Hamlet in a production by Trevor Nunn at the Old Vic. Critics immediately ranked him alongside the greats. Nunn and his team let Whishaw share three of the week’s nine performances with an understudy, to lessen the load on such a newbie: he was just 23. In his personal life, Whishaw remained a confused, scared and overwrought young man. It came naturally to him to portray a confused, scared and overwrought Danish prince on the London stage. “I do remember feeling like I knew what I was doing in that one,” he says.
Screen work came plentifully in those early years, too. At the same time as playing Hamlet, he was filming a supporting role for Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker on the comedy series Nathan Barley. (Whishaw played the much-bullied office receptionist, Pingu.) The German director Tom Tykwer came to see him at the Old Vic and cast him as the lead in his 2006 adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume. In 2008 he was the rake, Sebastian, in Julian Jarrold’s big-screen Brideshead Revisited. He toured the world to film and promote these films and whenever he returned to his home in London, he remembers, he felt as excited as he’d done as a Langford teenager, riding in on that southbound train.
Even so, despite the stimulation of the city and its massive human and cultural diversity, he had not yet finished reckoning with who he was. “I’m fascinated, now, by the masculine and feminine energies we carry around within ourselves,” he says. “But for years I felt I had to deny something. Because that ‘something’ was perceived as weak by the world I grew up in. Even when that ‘something’ felt quite good to me.”
He didn’t feel comfortable coming out as gay to his family and friends until he was about 26 or 27, he says. “I remember sexuality weighing on me [before then]. That was really unresolved for me.” In 2008, while starring as John Keats in Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star, Whishaw began a relationship with the film’s Australian composer, Mark Bradshaw. They married in a civil ceremony in 2012, though it took another year before Whishaw made any sort of public statement confirming this (and then in a terse few sentences that were issued through a publicist). He has never liked to talk about Bradshaw in interviews. Today, when I ask what he’s learned about himself during a decade of marriage, he stares at the ground for five, six, seven seconds before answering: “Um. Lots of things.”
Another five, six, seven seconds. “I suppose I don’t feel like I’ve got to a sort of plateau of serenity, or any sort of marvellous equanimity, about everything. I don’t feel I’ve got there yet.” He ponders some more, then says: “I wonder if having children does something towards that? I think it does. I see it in my brother James. I see that if you have to think about something other than yourself, that’s extremely powerful and it changes a person. I don’t have that experience.” He laughs. “I’m still very self-absorbed. And that’s OK, I suppose.”
What social life he has beyond acting, he keeps pretty private, too. No Twitter, no Instagram. Today, over a T-shirt that in its bright blue swirls gestures to one of David Hockney’s swimming pools, Whishaw wears a gold necklace inlaid with dark stones, made by a friend of his, a jewellery designer. When I ask what sort of people he likes to surround himself with, as friends, he says: “Direct people. I dig direct people. It’s really exhilarating to me when people don’t pussyfoot around or hide who they are through timidity or politeness.”
I ask Whishaw about his coming out – whether he always knew who he was on the inside and felt too timid or intimidated to present himself in a truthful way to the world, or whether the uncertainty he has described was as much internal as external. “Oh, internal and external, both, yeah,” he says. “I don’t know why it took me so long. But it did.”
Whishaw frowns at his cup of tea. In This Is Going to Hurt, he plays a hospital doctor who is gay and whose experience of coming out to others is a protracted thing that creates continuing ripple effects through his adult life. “I think it’s really interesting what happens to you if you grow up thinking there’s something wrong with you because you’re attracted to a certain thing,” he says. “That takes a lot of time and understanding to get over. And understanding doesn’t just arrive because you’ve been explicit and open to other people.”
He asks if he’s making any sense (of course he is), then adds: “The equating of homosexuality with weakness – it’s taken a long time for me to understand there’s no reason why it should be anything of the sort. Honestly? I feel like I’m only starting to conquer that now.”
While working on This Is Going to Hurt, which is set in London in 2006, Whishaw had to remind himself how much less forgiving people could be of demonstrations of affection between same-sex couples as recently as 15 years ago. Things are far from perfect in 2022, Whishaw carefully qualifies. “But I definitely remember feeling, for me at least, that it was much less easy to be tactile with a gay partner then. It’s still amazing to me that a display of affection between two men could be so distressing that someone would throw things, or tell me to ‘find a fucking room’.”
I ask how those experiences made him feel at the time. Scared? Angry?
“Sometimes it could be scary. But I don’t think I remember being angry. I guess I have the basic perception that if you have a problem with gay people showing each other affection, it’s because something around that issue is unresolved within yourself.”
Typical that Whishaw should find ambiguity of motive even in the dickhead behaviour of some half-forgotten bully throwing rubbish at him 15 years ago. Ambiguity has always stimulated and excited him, he says. “Contradictory things. Things that don’t quite add up. Oddness. Kinks.” Certainly it’s in his most ambiguous roles that he has done his best screen work. Playing Liberal politician Jeremy Thorpe’s lover, Norman Scott, in A Very English Scandal, Whishaw somehow positioned himself as the villain of the piece as well as its desperate victim, drawing out the audience’s sympathy and disdain in alternating measures. The quality of that performance was confirmed by a rare hat-trick of awards – Emmy, Globe, Bafta – in 2019.
I would suggest Whishaw even managed to invest his computer-animated Paddington (a contemporary interpretation of Michael Bond’s character that he voiced in two movies in 2014 and 2017) with hints of anarchic knowing. It was as though, in Whishaw’s hands, this clumsy domestic bear was exasperating to his adopted family, the Browns, as much on purpose as by accident – perhaps driven by a sort of manic compulsion to create chaos and mess. “If a character is one thing, as opposed to many things, I’m not interested,” Whishaw explains.
This said, it’s a surprise to me that he should ever have signed on to appear as a slightly one-note supporting player in the James Bond series. Whishaw had crossed paths with Daniel Craig in a series of early movies, 1999’s The Trench and 2004’s Enduring Love and Layer Cake. A few films into Craig’s run as Bond, Whishaw joined the extended 007 cast as its youthful and geeky weapons inventor, Q, adopted this time by a family that was much less tolerant of chaos and mess. Craig and Whishaw shared a pleasurable chemistry, as far as their scenes together in 2012’s Skyfall and 2015’s Spectre went. But by the time of last year’s No Time to Die, Whishaw had settled into the background, a space peopled by seriously good British actors (him, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear) who were kept subordinate to the scarred baddies, the expensive watches, the endless car chases and so on.
Happily, there have been lots of edgier, more three-dimensional roles that have overlapped with his Bond years. Your skin crawled watching Whishaw as the toadying Uriah Heep in Armando Iannucci’s David Copperfield in 2019. He was hypnotic as a security officer going through a breakdown in the 2020 independent movie Surge. Between lockdowns he filmed This Is Going to Hurt, plainly enjoying himself as an over-confident junior doctor who patrols the obstetrics and gynaecology ward of a London hospital. Or the “brats and twats” ward, as Whishaw’s character calls it in the first 30 seconds of the show. Punchy!
He had wanted to spend time on a real ward, to research the specifics of the job – “To feel it – but Covid put a stop to that. “We couldn’t go in.” There were doctors on set to consult, though, and he had Kay’s source book to turn to. In the coming dramatisation, as in the book, the narrator is a medic who always seems to know what he’s doing – but only seems to. “I would have been curious to see that contradiction play out in real life,” Whishaw says. “How doctors are when they’re chatting to colleagues, and how they are when talking to patients. They’re actors in a sense.”
He stops what he’s saying to ask: “Did you find the character too unlikable, by the way?”
The opening episodes of the show have just been sent to critics and other interested parties. Whishaw has started to get feedback and he says he was surprised to be asked why the audience should care for a character who was so difficult to like. “Which was so interesting to me because … am I crazy? I don’t need characters to be likable. If someone is too likable, I’m slightly repelled by them. I don’t think it’s life, being likable. It serves no one to depict life that’s likable in art.”
Inside our meeting room, the table is now strewn with biscuit crumbs. Two cups of tea are down to their dregs. Outside, the production office goes about its business. A young staffer has been given one of those unenviable, near-impossible research tasks, telephoning around meteorologists and weather agencies, trying to get an answer as to where in the British Isles it will definitely snow at some distant date in 2023. Nearby, a publicist checks her emails and notices that the Bafta film awards longlist has just been published. There are lots of nominations for the cast and crew of No Time to Die, though, alas, none for Whishaw. When the actor is told this, he doesn’t blink or register any response. He’s fine.
When the night of the Bond premiere came around, last September, after multiple launch delays due to Covid, Whishaw didn’t want to go. His brother persuaded him into the taxi. “James said, ‘Don’t be stupid, the whole family’s been looking forward to this, you have to.’” He and his twin have always been different characters, James bold and forthright where Ben is hesitant and shy. So he went to the premiere. He walked the red carpet. He saw to it that his family got to their seats. Then he fled. It meant Whishaw was not around to watch the scene where his character, Q, makes a passing reference to dating a man. In a thin and fleeting way, this was a moment of cinematic history. The first acknowledgment that a main character in James Bond’s universe might be anything other than straight.
When I saw the film, I assumed this nudge about Q’s dating preferences must be leading us somewhere in narrative terms. Perhaps the male villain, played by Rami Malek, would turn out to be Q’s date, adding an interesting wrinkle to the story of MI5’s perennial efforts to overcome evil. Or would the producers take this opportunity to chide or tease themselves for never once admitting the existence of an LGBTQ+ community in the 24 Bond films that preceded No Time to Die? In fact, the singular reference to Q’s male date (it amounted to a pronoun) was the start and end of it.
I mention to Whishaw my mixed feelings about this and he asks: “What were they? I’m curious to know.” He promises he won’t be offended. He can recall only one positive text message he got about the scene, sent by Russell T Davies, who claimed he thought it was cool that Q had a boyfriend. “Otherwise, no one has given me any feedback. So I’m really interested in these questions. And I’m very happy to admit maybe some things were not great about that [creative] decision.”
I lay out my own subjective response as honestly as I can. That, on the one hand, it was a relief to see some diversity of representation in this particular film franchise, which can be so creakily conservative in its mores. On the other hand, in handling the matter so timidly, in such glancing and underdeveloped fashion (Whishaw’s line could be easily scissored out of the movie on its release in less liberal territories), it created the impression of a creative decision taken grudgingly or embarrassedly – a studio with a gun to its head.
Whishaw raises his eyebrows. He says: “I suppose I don’t feel it was forced upon the studio. That was not my impression of how this came about. I think it came from a good place.”
He shifts in his seat, recrossing the limbs, drumming his fingers on his kneecap. He admits that he had similar concerns when the idea was first explained to him, during a one-on-one meeting with Barbara Broccoli, years ago. Later he was shown a partial script. “And I think I remember feeling something like what you’ve just described. I think I thought, ‘Are we doing this, and then doing nothing with it?’ I remember, perhaps, feeling that was unsatisfying.
“For whatever reason, I didn’t pick it apart with anybody on the film,” Whishaw continues. “Maybe on another kind of project I would have done? But it’s a very big machine. I thought a lot about whether I should question it. Finally I didn’t. I accepted this was what was written. And I said the lines. And it is what it is.”
Before our time together winds down, I ask him about a more interesting, certainly more complicated movie he made a few years ago: Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, in which Eddie Redmayne starred as a trans pioneer, Lili Elbe, and Whishaw took a supporting role as one of Lili’s lovers. Redmayne has long wrestled with his decision to take on this part that might have gone to a trans actor. A few weeks before my meeting with Whishaw, Redmayne went on record calling it a categoric mistake – that he would not take the role if offered it today.
I ask Whishaw what he makes of the years of contention that have surrounded this movie since its release in 2015. Typically, in his long answer, Whishaw starts off strong; he panics; he ends up somewhere rather modest and lovely and wise.
“I think Eddie did a beautiful job,” he says. “And it’s done. Going forward, there will be other films in which the role is given to someone who lived that experience. Why shouldn’t a role like that be given to someone who knows, inside, what the character is? I’m all for that. I feel the same, sometimes, about straight actors playing gay parts. I’m critical if I don’t think the performance is, from my subjective experience, accurate. I might think, ‘I don’t believe you!’ And even a small moment of hesitation or inauthenticity will block my engagement with the whole story. So I understand these questions.”
He hesitates. “Am I making sense? This is why I clam up! I just feel that we can end up arguing over these black-and-white things and get extremely polarised over these questions when I don’t think it needs to be that way. Have a discussion! There can be disagreement! There can be different points of view!”
Finally, Whishaw gets where he’s going. “As I said before, I love contradictory things. Ambiguity. And if we look, if anyone takes a moment to look inside themselves about how they’re thinking or feeling on a subject, they’ll immediately see all manner of things that are not consistent. So I’m on the side of listening to each other. And I’m on the side of forgiving each other. We have to believe in listening and forgiveness,” he says, “don’t we?”