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20 Questions With... Ben Whishaw

Actor Ben Whishaw, currently playing Konstantin in Katie Mitchell’s NT production of The Seagull, talks about Bob Dylan, PJ Harvey, the rigours of rehearsals, how Hamlet changed his life & why he’s ready to stop being suicidal.

By • West End


In his brief career to date, actor Ben Whishaw has made a big impact. He’s best known to theatregoers for taking the title role in Trevor Nunn’s award-winning production of Hamlet at the Old Vic in 2004, for which he was nominated for Best Actor honours in the 2005 Laurence Olivier and Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards and Outstanding Newcomer in the Evening Standard Awards.

Whishaw’s other professional stage credits have included Brother Jasper in His Dark Materials at the National, directed by Nicholas Hytner, and the leading role of Elliot in Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur for Paines Plough, which toured and transferred to London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2005.

On television, Whishaw has appeared in Box of Slice, Booze Cruise and Other People’s Children. His films include Restraint of Beasts, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Stoned, Enduring Love, 77 Beds, Layer Cake, Ready When You Are Mr McGill, My Brother Tom, The Escort and The Trench.

Whishaw is now starring in Katie Mitchell’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, in a new version by Martin Crimp, alongside Juliet Stevenson as his mother, Arkadina, Mark Bazeley, Sandy McDade and Hattie Morahan.


Date & place of birth
Born 14 October 1980 in Hertfordshire.

Lives now in
Muswell Hill (north London). I’ve been there for about six months.

Training
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).

First big break
Probably playing Hamlet. That was a big break.

Career highlights to date
I’m probably most proud of production last year, Mercury Fur, which was a play not many people got to see because we had such a short run. People tend to treat things that are happening off-West End as slightly less worthy. But actually for me it was a really important experience, a play I found mind-blowingly brilliant and very much how I’d like to carry on working.

Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
I really haven’t done all that much really! But all of them have been great, I couldn’t choose one as being any more enjoyable than another. Obviously Hamlet was a major experience for me and was a really happy time.

Favourite directors
I’ve loved all the ones I’ve worked with in various ways. Trevor Nunn’s a wonderfully warm and heart-felt director, and what amazing insight into Shakespeare he has. He’s amazing at instilling confidence and joy in what you’re doing. And I’ve always been a fan of Katie Mitchell.

Favourite playwrights
They would probably be the usual suspects: Shakespeare and Chekhov and Pinter. And probably Philip Ridley of the more contemporary ones, I think he’s really excellent.

Favourite co-stars
I loved working with a guy called Robert Boulter, who was in the triple bill of Burn, Chatroom and Citizenship at the National. He played my brother in Mercury Fur. Working with the cast of The Seagull has been amazing because we’re such an ensemble. We’ve been encouraged to work tightly as a group so we’ve really bonded.

What roles would you like to play still? Are there any you’d like to play again?
I don’t think I’d want to do Hamlet again. Not because I feel like I got it right or that it was in any way a perfect interpretation, but I feel like it’s time to do something different. I don’t really know about roles. I think after this I’d like to do something that’s not a tortured suicidal young man, maybe a comedy.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I don’t really know when acting started for me, it’s one of those things I’ve always just done since I was very little, acting in pantomimes and with the village amateur group and youth theatre. I think I would like to have been an artist if I hadn’t become an actor. I wanted to be a painter for a while, and I nearly went down that path. I started an art course and then dropped it before going to RADA. I literally lasted three or four weeks because I found myself going to see plays rather than doing my homework.

What was the last stage production that had a big impact on you? And the first?
The last thing I really got totally absorbed in was The Andersen Project, e Robert Lepage show about Hans Christian Andersen at the Barbican. I thought that was stunning. The first straight play I saw was a Complicite production called Out of a House Walked a Man at the National years and years ago. I still have quite a vivid memory of that. I was taken by my youth theatre to see that. I remember it being something very strange and kind of peculiar and quite unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I don’t think I understood or even enjoyed it, but it was really arresting.

What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
I’m not very good about things like this, I’m a bit lazy in my thinking. If people need theatre, it will carry on, and if people feel the need to make it then it will carry on. I think it’s very easy to blame lack of money for whatever and of course that is an issue. But I was just reading this book about Russia in Soviet times and how theatre can flourish even in the worst possible situations. It has much more to do with a need for it, for people to sit in a room and share something, than anything else.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I have this obsession with PJ Harvey, a rock star I’m a complete anorak about. I’ve got every album and I’ve been to every gig and I’d just like to be her. That would be so much fun! I want to stand up there and sing, and just become her. That would be such a buzz.

Favourite books
I have lots of favourites. One of them is The Idiot by Dostoevsky and another is a book by a crime writer called Patricia Highsmith, The Cry of the Owl, which I cherish.

Favourite holiday destinations
I haven’t been on holiday for about three years so I don’t really have any favourite places. I guess I’d probably go to some beach in Spain, probably like the south coast of Spain, if I could go anywhere right now.

Favourite after-show haunts
I sound the most boring person on earth but I tend just to go home. I’m not very good at hanging around. People just go back to their lives after a show, really.

Why did you want to accept the role of Konstantin in The Seagull?
Primarily it was the prospect of working with Katie Mitchell. I’ve been an enormous fan of her work since I was about 16. I think I’ve seen everything she’s done, she’s somebody I’ve dreamed of working with. And it was also the chance to work on some Chekhov - I’d done a little bit at drama school but not very much and it’s just the most amazing material. Konstantin is somebody who feels unloved and who has extremely low self-esteem and poor thinking about himself. He describes himself as a non-entity, his mother calls him a non-entity and deep down he thinks that’s true. There’s this deep inadequacy he has.

How did you get into the mindset of Konstantin?
We did a lot of research together. We each had to research the particular part of Russian history that was appropriate to our character so I looked at a lot of Russian literature and what was happening in the arts at that time - not just in Russia but other parts of Europe - and I tried to read quite a lot of the philosophy that Konstantin is interested in, too.

Are you a fan of Chekhov?
I am an enormous fan and I’ve loved a lot of Katie’s productions of his work. What I love is that feeling, when Chekhov’s done well, of being caught in a place where you don’t know whether you should laugh or cry and you almost want to do both at the same time. His writing is so grounded and conflicted and fragile. It goes straight to your heart. It’s also monstrous as well, but he’s sort of got so much tenderness in the way he observes people as well, a great humanity.

This version of The Seagull is described as “stripped-down”. How do you think Mitchell’s interpretation has benefited the play?
It could be argued that it hasn’t benefited the play at all, but what it does do is force an audience who perhaps have been saturated with Seagulls to look at it in a new way and find a new layer. I think the fact that some of the more obscure 19th-century references have been taken out is probably a help. To be honest, at the moment I haven’t found any enjoyment in it yet. I think the whole process Katie puts her actors through, it’s kind of not designed to make us satisfied with the work by press night. The whole idea is that you have to go on working at it until the last performance.

What’s the funniest/most notable thing that’s happened in rehearsals or the run to date?
It’s been all so serious and so tightly controlled by Katie. Of course you have a laugh and a giggle, but I guess you would probably have to ask in a couple of months’ time. Leading up to the press night was such a fraught period, there hasn’t been a moment’s rest yet!

What are your future plans?
I’m doing a film straight after this. I’m playing Bob Dylan in a film where he’s played by about six different people - one is Cate Blanchett and one is Richard Gere. It’s called I’m Not There. I think my part is done and dusted in two weeks, though, so it’ll be on to whatever comes next after that.

- Ben Whishaw was speaking to Caroline Ansdell


The Seagull continues in rep at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre until 23 September 2006.


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