Interview: Actor Ben Whishaw on 'Cloud Atlas' + Playing Q in 'Skyfall'
by Alex Billington
October 31, 2012
"I believe there is a another world waiting for us, Sixsmith. A better world. And I'll be waiting for you there." He plays five roles in the Wachowskis' and Tom Tykwer's Cloud Atlas (now in theaters), and also plays the brand new Q in the Sam Mendes Bond movie Skyfall. 32-year-old English actor Ben Whishaw has been on the rise recently with a number of impressive performances, following his break-out in Tom Tykwer's Perfume and Matthew Vaughn's Layer Cake. He's an incredibly talented, sleek, skinny actor that always adds many layers to his characters. I spoke on the phone with Ben a few weeks ago about both films.
I've personally been a fan of Whishaw ever since Perfume. In Cloud Atlas, which is one of my favorite films of the year, his main character is Robert Frobisher from the "Letters from Zedelghem" segment as an amanuensis. He also plays the roles of Cabin Boy, Store Clerk, Georgette and a Tribesman in the final future segment. I am also a huge fan of the original Q, Desmond Llewelyn, and was nervous about seeing a new Q, but Whishaw does a fantastic job with the character, making him young and refreshingly fun again, but with all the spunk that made Llewelyn's Q so great. We chat about both films and his roles in my interview below.
I'm actually a very, very big fan of Perfume, and I've followed you ever since then. Is that the film that put you in the spotlight, that gave you the opportunities you now have?
Ben Whishaw: Yeah, I guess it was the first. It was the first lead role in a big film that I ever had, so yes, it was, actually. I'm really, really fond of that film, too.
I feel like it never got enough love. I think your incredible performance alone pulled me into it. Why do you take the roles you take and what are the most important factors in the characters you play? What drives your interest?
Ben: It's a really hard thing to define, in a way. I don't know. But I do know that it has to really strike something personal with me. I have to be… I don't know. I have to really feel some connection, I suppose. I want to explore something. I guess it has to mean something to me. But I don't know why these particular sorts of characters come along. I don't know. I'm really grateful. I love the characters I've had the opportunity to play.
Me too. To get into the character of Frobisher, can you speak about the complexities and the depths of this character, and specifically how you were able to find those ideals in him and bring them out in the performance.
Ben: Well, I suppose my feeling about Frobisher was that he's kind of, in some ways, a sort of pretty lethal person. He's out to get something and he's going to get it. He's driven and he's manipulative, actually. He's got a lot of front, really. I always think the voice that you hear in the letters, in that narration, is sort of… is very much his sort of social self. But then there's something under that that occasionally you get little glimpses of.
I guess there's a lot of insecurity and there's a lot of self-hatred, I suppose, probably. There's a lot of unhappiness. I think the essential thing about that character is that he's been rejected. He's been rejected by his father. He's been rejected by his university. He, on the one hand, wants to sort of completely reject society himself because it's rejected him, but also, he wants desperately to be a part of it. There are these two sort of conflicting things in him.
It's hard, isn't it, because he's quite a complex character. But there's actually very little time to tell his story. So it has to be so specific. We realized, Tom [Tykwer] and I, that everything… I mean it's always true, of course, but more so in this—that every detail, every choice you makes counts because there's something vital about the character. You can't waste any moment. That was made very clear. You have to be very precise about every choice you make.
How much time did you have to actually craft this character? How much time do you have to sit down and talk with Tom and actually make him into what you've just described?
Ben: Well, it ended up being quite a long preparation, just because I had to learn to play the piano. I was actually working on something else, but Tom said, "You've got to have piano lessons." So I went and saw a teacher in London and I studied the piano for two months, three months nearly. I had never gone near a piano, let alone played one.
And I learned to play those pieces that you hear in the film. Not the entire piece because it gets very complicated. But I basically learned bits of the soundtrack. And actually, I thought I was just learning this skill quite mechanically, but I realized because I was learning the score that Tom had written, I was also learning a lot about this character through this music I was studying. Obviously this is his art. This is what's coming from inside of him.
But as for talking, we didn't have a lot of time to talk. We really didn't. But Tom's very open and very… he'll grab any moment at any time that you possibly can. It was fantastic to deal with the jumping around into other characters. It's so much fun. Overall it was a massively fun job.
What was your first impression when they came to you and said, "Hey, not only Frobisher, but you have three other people, one of them a woman, that you have to play." What was your reaction to that?
Ben: I thought that was brilliant. I thought that was a fantastic idea. That just sealed it for me. I just think that's part of the joy of watching the film as well. It makes it very playful somehow.
I agree. I feel like some people could say when this is first described, "Oh, I don't get it. Why would they be doing that?" But I think, as you said, in watching it, it works so well and you feel the characters so much more. I loved seeing that play out across all six storylines.
Ben: Me too. Yeah.
I actually just saw Skyfall and I have to ask you about Q, because I am a huge Bond fan. First off, great job. I hope this means you are signed on for more and are going to be playing Q in more than just one movie. Is that true?
Ben: Yes, I am, I believe. I am going to do more. Yeah, which I'm really happy about, too.
As a huge Bond fan, I'm a huge fan of Desmond Llewelyn. I've always felt he's been impossible to match, hard to live up to. So how are you able to make it your new take on the character, yet also embody Desmond Llewelyn? I thought it was perfect. I thought I was seeing a young Desmond Llewelyn.
Ben: That's really, really interesting because I sort of purposefully did not watch… I mean I've seen the films, but once I had the role I decided not to go back and watch those films. I thought I'm just going to go on what's on the page. Because it's the first Bond film that isn't based on an Ian Fleming novel, it did feel like this was a challenge to really… not just for my character, but for the whole thing, to really reinvigorate it and reinvent it.
But I think it's so well written by John Logan and the other writers that they'd kind of done that brilliant homework of making sure that it continues the through line from Desmond and there are nods to him, whilst making a real character and a contemporary character at the same time. But I felt that that was all in the writing. I just had to sort of… yeah, I just had to do it.
The reason I was saying it seemed like Desmond is that it captured the character and yet refreshed him, but not in a way where it felt like they were throwing him out completely. That's why Skyfall is so brilliant - it balances the older Bond series and ties in with those films, while keeping it modern and refreshingly new again.
Ben: Ohh, I'm pleased you think that because I know that that is exactly what everyone was working incredibly hard to achieve. So that's really nice to hear.
Do you actively make sure that you are taking roles that aren't just throwaway Hollywood roles but rather something that is a bit more important, in a way?
Ben: Yeah. I suppose… I mean it's not so true of Bond, because that's a franchise… But generally, I don't just look at the character. I'd look at what the film is… what it's saying. Why make it in the first place? What are you bringing into the world? That's as important to me as what the character is, really. Obviously, after that you hope that there's going to be an interesting acting challenge, a character that you are intrigued by. But I'm definitely interested in what it is, the bigger picture. I think that's very important.
What are the biggest inspirations for you in life and in terms of acting and your career? Where do you draw from the most in developing all of these characters?
Ben: I draw, I think, on everything. I love films. I love music. I love poetry and stories. All of that I feel… I sort of get very excited and fed by… And, of course: life, people. I think that's the biggest thing, actually. The most amazing thing is when you find yourself watching someone in the café or something doing something weird. It's amazing what people do, isn't it, when you just look at them, when you take the time to look. I think that's the greatest inspiration.
Is there a favorite film or a favorite actor that has left a big impact on you and influenced the decisions you make in your life?
Ben: A performance by an actor?
Yeah, or any movie, or something like that.
Ben: Well, an actor that I am really massively fond of at the moment, but I think he's dead, in fact, is Alec Guinness. I just think he is amazing. He was doing acting that we don't really get to see now because he does this incredible transformation. He played an Asian man in a few films. He played Fagin in Oliver Twist. He's played everything. And he wasn't frightened of completely transforming, sometimes in a quite theatrical way. I love him and I love his quality. I don't know what it is. But he has some quality I find sort of magnetic about him.
Thank you to Ben Whishaw for his time and Warner Bros for arranging. I'm glad I got to talk with Ben, as a fan of both of his movies. Cloud Atlas is playing now, Skyfall on November 9th.