Despite having worked on the screen and stage for over a decade, it wasn’t until Ben Whishaw joined the James Bond film, Skyfall, as the beloved character Q, that the industry and fans alike really took notice. It was the first time he was in a film “anyone actually saw,” he would later joke. “That really did change things for me, because I had mainly been in indie films and that was my first big film. And films don’t get much bigger than Bond,” Whishaw tells ET by phone. The 38-year-old English actor is calling from New York City, where he’s in the middle of performing in an Off-Broadway play, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, for a limited engagement.
But now, 20 years into his career, there’s no doubting Whishaw is a fully-fledged star, coming off his most successful year yet, thanks to the bookend releases of Paddington 2 and Mary Poppins Returns in 2018, with the debut of the critically acclaimed Amazon limited series, A Very English Scandal, over the summer.
It’s the latter project that’s earned him rave reviews and a number of accolades, including a Golden Globe, for his absorbing portrayal of Norman Scott, a disgruntled ex-lover of the revered member of Parliament, Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant). Over the three-part series, the story of a secret love affair turns into a murder conspiracy and headline-making trial that scandalized Britain in the 1960s. While Norman was the subject of a failed murder attempt, he was far from innocent, making his relationship with Jeremy public and openly testifying in court.
“He’s a very complicated person and had a very complicated life and I have a lot of respect for him,” Whishaw says of the man he portrays on screen, adding that it’s difficult for him to say too much on what kind of person Norman really is. “I didn’t want to make any judgments on Norman.”
While unable to speak to the real-life man, the character Whishaw plays is all shades of gray, making him one of the most layered and complex characters the actor has brought to the screen. Normally, that might take an actor of any caliber time to get into that kind of headspace, in order to put it all together in front of the camera. But in Whishaw’s case, he wasn’t afforded any time between projects, literally going from one character to the next. On Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, he finished work on a play -- Christopher Shinn’s Against at London's Almeida Theatre -- and then, on Sunday morning, “I started filming A Very English Scandal,” he says, revealing they only had one read-through of the script and no rehearsal. “We just did it.”
“Sometimes it’s the best way to work, because you have to just go on your instincts and your gut,” Whishaw says. And to his credit, those instincts paid off.
One example of that is a moment during the final chapter of the series, when Norman takes the stand during trial. At times he’s holding court, both confident and cocky, and then, a question later, he’s rattled and scared. But by the end of his questioning he finds his resolve and wins the room over. “I was rude, I was vile, I was queer, I was myself,” he proclaims as he leaves the courthouse. There's frankness to the performance. It doesn’t feel overly rehearsed or too calculated. And for Whishaw, it’s his proudest moment on the show. “I think it’s really moving. It’s rich and complex and it’s no longer clear whose side you should be on or what you ought to feel about anyone,” the actor says of how the scene plays out.
For audiences, it was perhaps the sex scenes, with Grant seen aggressively kissing Whishaw’s chest at one point, that garnered the most attention. In an interview, Grant jokes that he got “pash rash” from kissing his co-star so much. When asked about those remarks, Whishaw lets out a mischievous giggle before reminding me that they didn’t have any rehearsal before filming. “So we really just threw ourselves into it,” he says, adding: “We knew instinctively [that] those earlier scenes are very important to get right, because everything’s going to explode from that meeting.”
Ultimately, Whishaw is surprised that A Very English Scandal landed the way it did with critics and audiences alike, but he’s touched that his performance has spoken to so many people. “It’s what you hope for -- that you reach people,” he says. While he doesn’t necessarily know what to make of the attention, especially when it comes to the recent success he’s been afforded, he’s appreciative of it all and just wants to keep working.
And that he is, immediately jetting from New York City after the play is over to the set of the latest James Bond film, dubbed Bond 25, to reprise the role of Q opposite longtime co-star Daniel Craig. “I love the character. I can’t wait to play him again,” Whishaw says, revealing a slight chuckle, “I have not read a script yet, which is a little bit alarming given that I’m filming in two weeks time.” (In April, it was reported that Killing Eve creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge was brought on to polish the script while the film officially went into production at the end of the month.)
When it comes to the new film, it’ll mark his third time in the role, which Whishaw says “there’s something nice about returning to something. I like the feeling of familiarity and building on something that we have done in the past.” As for building on this character, who is described as a cat-loving quartermaster, it’s been speculated that he’s also gay like the actor, who married his partner shortly before Skyfall was released in theaters. While Q’s sexuality has never been explicitly discussed onscreen, Whishaw says, “I definitely know what I think,” but would rather it remain a “tantalizing mystery” for audiences.
Between roughing it up with Grant in A Very English Scandal and playing the mysterious Q, it seems that Whishaw enjoys a tantalizing performance.