Evening Standard - 29 April 2004
My Hamlet fears
Ben Whishaw is adamant. “I’m not anybody,” he says. “I’m not a name. No one’s coming to see Ben Whishaw ‘do’ Hamlet.” The 23-year-old star of Trevor Nunn’s production of the Danish play at the Old Vic was speaking, of course, before his triumph was declared on yesterday’s front pages.
In the first reviews the Standard’s Nicholas de Jongh praised the previously unknown Whishaw’s “magical impact” and “raw passion”, while Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph said the young actor had “spectacularly earned his place” in the line-up of Old Vic Hamlets, alongside Gielgud, Olivier, Burton and O’Toole.
Nunn’s production is a palpable hit, but Whishaw, a Bedfordshire stateschool boy, who left RADA last year, is reeling from his sudden fame. “Ben doesn’t want to know what his reviews are like,” says his agent Christian Hodell. Today, though, a lot of people want to see Ben Whishaw “do” Hamlet.
In person, as on stage, Whishaw seems both younger and older than his years. Fragile and mournfully handsome, he is all wiry arms, unruly hair and soulful green eyes, as hesitant and confused as his Hamlet.
Yet there’s a confidence in his talent and a presence too, that Nunn surely recognised. Whishaw acknowledges that his director took a risk on this production, where all the younger parts are played by unknown twentysomethings (Samantha Whittaker, who plays Ophelia, is 19), with Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and uncle Claudius played by fortysomethings Imogen Stubbs and Tom Mannion.
But it was also a liberating decision for the cast. “In rehearsal there was no talk of how previous actors did it, no reference to past productions. We don’t have that baggage because we’re all relatively young.”
Asked how he sees his own Hamlet, Whishaw describes him as “still a boy, hypersensitive and hyperactive. His relationships with his mother and his girlfriend are perhaps more fraught than a 35-year-old might suggest on stage, because we make strides to remind everyone he’s only 19.”
When I tell him that his performance made the most sense I’ve ever seen of Hamlet’s selfishness, he is taken aback. His spidery fingers fight a losing battle with a thicket-y forelock. “I’m not always aware of that sort of thing, perhaps because I’m still fairly close to that age,” he says. “I still look at it from the inside.”
He auditioned for Nunn (not knowing that the director had always wanted to direct a young Hamlet) while performing various bit parts in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials at the National, his first professional stage role.
"I thought I was just going up for a small-ish part, Osric or something," Whishaw says. "But by the end of the first audition I’d picked up that Trevor might be thinking of me as Hamlet. I found that audition kind of gruelling and emotionally tough. I felt quite exposed. I phoned a friend and said I didn’t think I could do the part if I were offered it."
His expressive lips spread into a wide grin. “Of course, my friend just said, ‘Shut up’.”
There were two more auditions for Nunn, then the director phoned, apologising for the Pop Idol-style torture, and offered Whishaw the part. His reaction was one of “delayed joy, it was stunning, hard to comprehend: I didn’t think, f***ing hell, I’m doing this - not until I got the first rehearsal call-sheet with my name next to Hamlet’s.”
About three weeks in, he cracked under the strain of rehearsing all day and performing at the National at night, and told Nunn he couldn’t cope. “He was understanding, but he didn’t indulge me,” says Whishaw.
"He forced me to use that feeling, because it fits incredibly well with what Hamlet is going through. It was the right decision." Still, this part has consumed him. He hasn’t been out for months, and there’s "no significant other" in his life. Home is a house in Raynes Park shared with three ex-RADA mates and two cats.
His first phone call when he got the part of Hamlet was to his mum, Linda, who works in cosmetics, the second to his dad Josey, who’s in IT. “Mum’s always thrilled, and my dad always plays things down,” says Whishaw, “but they’re never less than totally supportive.”
His parents separated when he and his twin brother James were seven. A cause of Hamlet-like anguish?
"I don’t remember being upset when they broke up, but I remember my mother being distressed and that distressed me," he replies crisply. "But I think at that age it’s easier to adjust.
I suppose it was difficult at times, but we were shielded from any problems.” His mother’s boyfriend, he insists is “definitely not a Claudius figure”. Whishaw dates his interest in acting from “the age of three, when I started dressing up.
I never decided to do it, I’ve just always done it.” (Producers who have dreamcasting visions of the Whishaw twins in The Comedy of Errors should note that James “couldn’t be less interested in acting, he works at a ski resort in France”.)
Ben got an agent at 14, and his first major role in William Boyd’s First World War film, The Trench, at 17. While at RADA, he was named Most Promising Actor in the British Independent Film Awards for his performance as an abused boy exploring his sexuality in My Brother Tom.
Soon he’ll be seen in Matthew Vaughn’s directorial debut Layer Cake, alongside Sienna Miller and Daniel Craig. Vaughn rewrote a part especially for Whishaw: “Ben’s got that magic dust,” he says. “He’s got it in spades.” Next comes Rome, an epic BBC/HBO co-production in which Whishaw will play Caesar Augustus.
"I’ve just signed one of those five-year contract things," he says, as if that were the most natural thing in the world, "but I can’t get my head around it. I just want to do more theatre. That’s my love."
For now, he’s concentrating on Hamlet. “It can only get better,” he says. “You can’t rehearse a soliloquy to a blank wall: you need an audience.”
With this he gives one last shrug of those spidery limbs, a half-antic, half-sorrowful smile, and shambles gawkily off to prepare for curtain-up. No wonder Trevor Nunn cast him.