Ben Whishaw and I are seated on benches outside a restaurant in east London. Inside is a vast emporium and lots of chandeliers, but its glamour is infected with coronavirus reminders – hand sanitizer on tables and “Don’t go this way, go that way” signs. It feels as if we are seeing the dawn of something much worse that’s going to happen.
Whishaw appears a little thin; even in a chunky bottle-green jumper and jeans, he looks as if he could fall down the crack of a pavement. His facial hair accentuates already well-defined cheekbones.
There is something portentous about the afternoon, as if it’s going to thunder, but it doesn’t. It’s to do with the fact we don’t know what social restrictions are coming; that we’re on the eve of something bad again. “It’s true, but this time we’ve gone through it already. We don’t want to go there again but there seems no stopping it,” Whishaw says. “It seems inevitable, inevitable bleakness.” Right now, he says, he really wants a cheese toastie, but he doesn’t get up to order it.
We are talking a few weeks before what we believe is the November release of the latest Bond film, No Time to Die, in which Whishaw, 40, reprises his role as the fastidious quartermaster, Q. Whishaw is enthusiastic, not knowing that, days later, it will be delayed for the second time.
“It is hard to remember a time before walking around in masks, washing our hands every five minutes and sanitizers, and I think the Bond film is just what we really need right now, I really do,” he says. “We need something that is thrilling and fun and a kind of escapism. Bond is the one film that people might actually want to be persuaded to go out and see. This is something that is diverse and multigenerational; it could unite everybody.”
Despite his enthusiasm, he says, it’s hard to talk about the new film, “Partly because it was long ago. Although it wasn’t that long ago, it does feel like it. But also, we never did get the full script. I did my bits not in chronological order, so I find it hard. I’m not allowed to tell you what happens in the story, and even if I was I couldn’t, because of the way that it happened. But I can say that very late in the day I give him some technology that helps.”
“Bond is the one film that people might actually want to be persuaded to go out and see.”
Do they not give you a full script because everything is changing all the time or because they’re so paranoid that things will be leaked? “It’s partly the secrecy that always surrounds it, but on this one, to be honest, it was a difficult journey. Although it was part-intentional, the director works in quite an improvisational way and we had a very tight deadline. But as I say, they don’t tell us anything.”
The plus side of coronavirus is that it has allowed him a pause in a career in which projects have tumbled into each other. He has completed shooting a new series of Fargo, due to be released in Britain in 2021, in which he’s joined the cast for the first time. Filming for his next project, in which he plays Adam Kay in the TV series This Is Going to Hurt – based on Kay’s book about life as a junior doctor in the NHS – has been put back to January. “At the earliest,” he says. He has gone from nonstop working to doing… “Nothing. I’ve been a bit of a hermit. Once we were forced to stop, I didn’t have any inclination to do anything really. I wanted to stop. I’ve seen my family when we were allowed to and I’ve gone for long walks and had loads of naps,” he says, not even trying not to sound bleak.
“Actor of His Generation”
The last time we met was in Chicago, before lockdown and ahead of the original Bond release planned for April. He was shooting Fargo – now going back to the Fifties, when an African-American crime syndicate goes to war with the Italian mafia in Kansas City – playing gang member Rabbi Milligan.
We were at his Airbnb apartment, which he “got sort of by accident”. It was in an elegant building with airy rooms, high ceilings and views of Lake Michigan. Whishaw was wearing a shirt with a sketched image on the back – a scene from Orpheus and Eurydice.
“I like being on the ninth floor and looking over the lake,” he said. “I can watch the sun come up and watch it change. I can sit on the sofa by the window for hours and daydream. And I’ve had time to do that, which is lovely.”
I’ve met Ben Whishaw a few times and he seems self-sufficient – pragmatic, even. He has certainly been pragmatic in his acting choices, earning both the status of national treasure (he was the voice of Paddington, he’s Q in the James Bond films, Keats in Bright Star, Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited) and the title “actor of his generation” following Hamlet (when he was not long out of drama school) and his Golden Globe-garnering performance as Norman Scott opposite Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal. He has moved with dexterity between roles that were openly gay, sexually ambiguous and straight. He is in a civil partnership with Australian composer Mark Bradshaw, although I’m guessing they didn’t get to see that much of each other while he was in the USA. “Mmm,” was his response.
“I think this year I am going to be much more at home. I’m gonna do my house up; it’s the time,” he said. “It’s nice to be in demand, but I do think I need to be at home for a little while. It’s been six months here. That’s a long time away. Mark visited – he came out for a month – and I was back at Christmas. It’s definitely a big test.”
What was unknown to us at the time was how fast Whishaw’s prediction of returning to home turf would materialize. A few days later, all flights to Europe were banned. There was a small window to get to the UK.
The Bond movie became the first big film to postpone release, although when we meet in London he doesn’t know why that decision had been taken so early. “I honestly have no idea,” he says. “I just got a text message from Barbara… They never explained.” Perhaps because it’s called No Time to Die. We laugh. Perhaps a little too manically, because we know scary times may follow.
His hair was cropped in the summer when he was wearing a wig for Fargo. Now it’s longer. He’s recently given up meat, he tells me. “I don’t feel healthier, but I made the decision I was going to do it and I like to see things through.”
He has moved with dexterity between roles that were openly gay, sexually ambiguous and straight.
People may assume that Whishaw is an outsider who doesn’t fit in, I suggest. Like Q, the techno-wizard who traditionally has seemed to be a foil for Bond, living in a separate world of gadgetry. Or Scott, the penniless stable lad who was seduced by Jeremy Thorpe and unceremoniously dumped, in A Very English Scandal.
“I don’t know. Things are pretty contradictory,” he says. “I wanted to do Fargo because it’s a lot about immigrants… How do you become an American, and what does that mean? Who is let in and who is left out? My character doesn’t fit in anywhere.
“I’m not really a rabbi. I’m an Irishman who’s been raised by a Jewish family and is now living with an Italian family. They’re all criminals, and they all call him Rabbi. They’re the people he’s part of. I have a tiny forehead. So they shaved my hairline to make it higher. I was happy to cut it very short; it was for a part, but when the filming was over, I properly shaved it all off and that felt great.
“Have you ever done that?” he asks. No, it’s different for girls. “Oh, yeah.”
This Is Going to Hurt comes at a time when there is a debate as to whether straight men should play gay roles just as able-bodied actors shouldn’t play quadriplegics. Adam Kay is gay. When I say I think if you’re an actor, you act, he replies, “I’m in agreement with you.”
I think people used to speculate more about sexuality 10 or 20 years ago. But ending the speculation as to whether Whishaw was gay – making something private public – was of course massive to him. Mark Bradshaw became his civil partner in 2012 and coming out wasn’t easy, but I have the impression that it was easier than he imagined it to be. Indeed, at the time he said, “Everyone was surprisingly lovely.” They met on the set of Bright Star in 2009 and have a home together in London. Would he ever want to be married? “No,” he replies.
The last time we met, he reintroduced me to the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. This was when the song Being Alive was relaunched.
“I need a break from that song,” he had said. “I find it quite painful to listen to.” My theory is, you only listen to painful songs when you’re in pain. “Yes. Wail. Cry. And feel free to let the pain out.
“I’m still afraid of meeting people,” he adds. On the set of Mary Poppins Returns, for example, he was afraid to meet Meryl Streep. Does the fear increase the more famous the person is? “No, it’s anybody. I get anxious that I’m really bad at small talk. And I’ve been doing a lot of hanging around on set, where I should be doing lots of small-talking. I’m just quite shit at it. I don’t know what to talk to people about.”
Maybe it’s just because you think if you haven’t got anything in common with that person, you can’t do small or big talk. “Absolutely. I get anxious about it, so now I just think, ‘I’ll sit here quietly and do my work,’ or I get overwhelmed. There are so many people and I find it quite draining.”
Whishaw was born in Clifton, Bedfordshire. His parents split when he and his nonidentical twin brother were young. They are totally unalike. “He is blond, came out first and was very pink. I was a squashed, dark thing. We were always dressed the same and were taken out together even to things I was not interested in, like football. I’ve always defined myself by him, but in opposition to him.” Nonetheless, they get on well, and Whishaw is the perfect uncle.
His mother worked on the makeup counters in department stores selling Clinique. His father was a footballer. It is often written that he’s an IT consultant. “He’s definitely not an IT guy, definitely not. He’s done all sorts of things – he worked for Rediffusion, he ran a nightclub and he managed a fleet of cars. Now he works in a sports facility. He doesn’t talk about it very much and I don’t press him.” Do you find it’s difficult to ask questions? Is it hard to ask your dad stuff? “No, I do ask people questions, but sometimes not the people I know well. I feel with my dad I ought to have asked the question a long time ago, and now it’s too embarrassing to ask it. And I know he would play down what he does. I don’t know why he wouldn’t really want to share that kind of stuff with me, but more importantly, he’s a really good bloke.”
Last year’s meme was, “Do one thing a day that you are afraid of.” This year it’s, “Just do one thing.” I tell him about an Instagram live show I did called Love in the Time of Corona, about the problems when the dynamics of relationships suddenly changed and people couldn’t get away from each other. The divorce rate went up. “Yes,” he nods sagely.
Did he survive? “Yes, I’ve survived, but I’m not going to talk about it.” There is no point in meandering around how the dynamic of Whishaw and his partner might have changed – he just looks too done in to talk about it.
He also says he’s lost his ability to predict anything. “Everything is so touch and go. And I don’t know how people are going to be feeling if we go into total lockdown again. What’s going to happen? I don’t know. I’ve given up thinking about it.
“I went to Regent’s Park and saw Jesus Christ Superstar on a screen,” he recalls. “I sat on the lawn and listened to I Don’t Know How to Love Him and it was so moving. It had been such an effort; you couldn’t get into the theater because there were so few seats and they were sold out. It was projected onto a screen for people who wanted desperately to see something live with other people. We saw the bravery and the commitment of the performers to a socially distanced performance where they had to stand two meters apart. It was really beautiful. I cried for the first 20 minutes.
“I find that I can’t think about the future at all. I can’t see what is going to happen beyond this second. I can’t see the point in planning. Although some people have been productive I am happy just to exist. I get up whenever I need; nap quite a bit. I have done absolutely nothing.”
Whishaw thrives on adrenaline and takes pride in his work. He is accustomed to being brilliant and basking in that. “Maybe I was just busy,” he counters. “I trust sometime in the future it will come back. For the moment, during lockdown, I painted my room blue, I learnt how to put up shelves and pictures and I actually learnt how to develop photographs; that is quite impressive, isn’t it?” he says, not so impressed with himself. This is a man who is used to throwing his entire being not just into another person but into another world. He wasn’t designed to do nothing but put up shelves.
The waitress explains that the cheese toastie has to be ordered at the deli counter, not from her, so he says that he will go up there in a minute. But we know he won’t.
No Time to Die is scheduled for release in April 2021
Chrissy Iley is a London- and Los Angeles–based interviewer