From Friday's Irish Independent, Day and Night magazine...
The eyes have it
By Susan Daly
Friday November 06 2009
Star quality is an elusive factor, just ask the hundreds of thousands of kids who prostrate themselves before the altar of Simon Cowell every year. But there is no doubting that whatever 'it' is, Ben Whishaw has it in bundles. Not that he'll be turning up in X-Factor or whatever the thespian equivalent is (Grease Is The Word, perhaps?) -- Whishaw is classical acting talent more in the vein of Laurence Olivier than Zac Efron.
Only 29, he's already been this decade's most lauded Hamlet, played screen versions of Bob Dylan and Keith Richards that make the real deals pale by comparison and is now Oscar-nominated director Jane Campion's favourite muse.
It takes a moment to pinpoint the source of his magnetism. He does not cut an imposing physical dash when he enters a room. His thin frame, swaddled in an oversized sweater, almost disappears into the sofa. He twitches with nervous energy, looking out the window for long stretches as he grapples with a question he finds uncomfortable. (Anything about his personal life, for example.)
We are sitting in the front drawing room of a house in Hampstead where the young Romantic poet John Keats actually lived for a spell towards the end of his life. Whishaw plays the tragic Keats in Campion's new film Bright Star. It's an intense exploration of Keats's relationship with his 18-year-old neighbour Fanny Brawne, the source of inspiration for his most beautiful sonnets. Their love affair was thwarted, first by social disapproval and later by the onset of his tuberculosis which saw him carted off to the more clement climate of Rome, where he died at the age of 25.
It is easy to picture Whishaw as the consumptive Keats. He has a face made to express pain: hooded, mournful eyes and cheekbones that cast gaunt shadows on his thin face. (Apologies -- the romance of sitting in the room where Keats once wrote poetry with his friend Charles Brown can get to a girl.) Even his thatch of dark hair -- ruffled into the 19th-century quiff that he sports as Keats -- seems to weigh too heavily on his fine head.
But the eyes have it. They pin you to the seat the moment he first appears in Bright Star, the intensity behind them striking Abbie Cornish's normally ebullient Fanny Brawne dumbstruck. Move over Bette Davis -- there's a new set of peepers in town.
"I keep my head down from all that kind of talk," he says softly, when I suggest that he's being touted as the Next Big Thing (his portrayal of Keats is already being talked of as a possible Oscar contender next year). He's heard it all before. Barely out of his teens, at RADA, he was awarded a "most promising newcomer" award for indie movie My Brother Tom in which he played a brutalised young man. At 23, his Hamlet at London's Old Vic had theatre critics swooning as they described him as "electrifying", "stunning" and compared him to Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and Peter O'Toole.
He was then riveting as the amoral killer Grenouille in Perfume, a role that had originally been earmarked for Leonardo DiCaprio. Unphased by acting against the likes of Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger as one of several Bob Dylans in I'm Not There, he also took on Keith Richards in the biopic Stoned. For all his outward frailty, he is puzzled by the thought that he should have been intimidated by portraying real-life icons.
"For me, I don't get too bogged down by it," he says casually. "It's exciting to have those people as launch pads for something but even this character ... I don't know if Keats was anything like this, but it's the sum of me and Jane and the whole energy of making the film. It's not good to be driven by too much fear. It's good to jump in."
There doesn't appear to be room for self-doubt, at least not where his craft is concerned. When he explains how "Keats has this line in the film that if poetry doesn't come as naturally as leaves to the tree, it had better not come at all", he could as easily be talking about himself.
Remove him from this domain, though, and he begins to wonder if he shouldn't go have some "real experiences" instead of wrapping himself up in the fictitious lives of others.
"I had a picture of a short film that I did on my wall, where I was dressed as a Hare Krishna," he remembers. "Someone was around my house, a friend I didn't know that well, and she saw it and said, 'Oh my God, so did you study yoga or go to India or something?' I could see her eyes light up, thinking, 'Oh you've had this amazing life experience', and I had to say, 'Oh no, that was a film'. And I had this crushing feeling that all my experiences have been fictional."
He did manage to take some time off earlier this year after four jobs back-to-back playing "pretty unhappy characters of one kind or another". So did he climb Everest, wrestle polar bears, sail solo to Australia? Well, no, but he spent some quiet time painting and hanging out with friends and family. And, in a nod to how consumed his life normally is by his various acting masks, he learned something basic about himself.
"When you have time off you have some time to focus on how you feel. What I recognised was that my energy is unsteady. I swing from ... I'm up and then I'm down and all in the course of a single day, although sometimes the periods can be longer than that.
"I think acting is all about a release of your emotional energy or something or a direction to put it in. It was interesting to me to realise that is some of the reason why I did it."
He's evidently a sensitive soul "of the earth and the ether", as he describes Keats. He found Campion's famously maternal style of direction a nurturing force. She has a track record of coaxing stunning performances from her cast, with Anna Paquin, the Oscar-winning child star of The Piano the most famous.
Although Bright Star forces Whishaw to jump through some fairly painful and emotional hoops as the dying Keats, he remembers it as a "fun" time.
"I've loved working with women," he says enthusiastically. (The cast of Bright Star is female-dominated, as is Campion's long-time production team.) Then, desperate not to generalise, he stares out the window for the right words. "I don't get on so well with, um, sort of, sometimes when it's a load of men. I think I would rather be with a load of women in a room on a film set. I think with men, I don't think it's always very creative -- other things come into play."
What those things are I never find out, because Whishaw seems embarrassed to have put across anything like a forceful opinion. And if he's reticent about that, he's even more so on the subject of anything outside the sphere of acting. Raised in Bedfordshire, his mother is a cosmetic salesperson, his dad in IT, both very supportive of his acting ambitions but not in the least bit luvvie. He has a twin brother James who is in finance -- "Or he was. Um, yeah."
Okay then. Moving swiftly on, press profiles always seem to mention that Whishaw once owned 13 cats. "Yes, that's true," he confirms. He had two cats who simply went on to have kittens. "The thing is it's not a lie, it is the truth, but it gets out and it becomes a dominant thing," he says, baffled.
I suggest that the fact that he reveals so little about himself means that celeb watchers obsess about whatever little detail that they have on him. He doesn't want to agree. "I know that I'm not the sort of person that they would have any interest in. I'm not the kind of person that sells papers." But if he continues flashing those magnificent eyes about the place, he'll certainly sell out the box office.
Bright Star opens in cinemas today