“You can’t start making edits to a character because you don’t want to upset somebody.” – Ben Wishaw on Playing a Real Person
The Lobster and Skyfall star Ben Whishaw recently starred in the mini-series A Very English Scandal as Norman Scott, a real-life figure who was the central figure in a major political scandal in England in the 1970s. It just the latest of many impressive roles for the BAFTA-winning Whishaw. Whishaw spoke to Vulture about his performance in the series, meeting the man he is portraying, and what it was like playing Hamlet at such a young age.
Whishaw had a meeting with the real-life Norman over lunch and describes meeting with a person he portrays as helpful, but explains that he wouldn’t let it dominate his performance. He says, “It does sort of feel like a double-edge sword, because I had to approach the project in the way that I approach anything — which is as a story and as a character. My job is not to make any judgement on a character, but to look as clearly as I can at who they are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it. You can’t start making edits to a character because you don’t want to upset somebody. You have to look at the whole spectrum of their personality. In that way, it is complicated having met with him, because there are points that his recollection and the story as told by Russell and John differ. I took it really almost as a work of fiction.”
Whishaw was first discovered by most for playing Hamlet at the Old Vic at a remarkably young age — 23 — which means he already achieved a goal that so many actors spend their entire career trying to reach. Whishaw admits it was not something that he took lightly, saying, “Certainly it was terrifying. But I think there’s something about that play — it spoke to me. I don’t wish to sound arrogant, but I was like, ‘I get this. At 23, I really get this. I know this guy. I know what he’s feeling’ in a way that I’m not really sure I do now. I can’t really connect with it so much now; maybe it’s one of those things that comes around, and you’ll feel close to it at another point in life. At 23, I felt like I was that guy. It was a bit terrifying, because there was a lot of pressure. But if it had been terrible failure it wouldn’t have been any great loss, because no one knew who I was.”
Since then, Whishaw has appeared as a variety of conflicted characters on screen and stage, including his role in A Very English Scandal. Whishaw explains, “I’m interested in interesting behavior and complicated psychologies. I love ambiguity in characters or ambivalence. I like characters who are clever, who’ve got some kind of energy, some kind of survival instinct. I like using narrative comedy and darkness.”