If you don’t immediately recognize Ben Whishaw, that’s probably because the 35-year old British actor has made a career of disappearing, with extraordinary grace and nuance, into a never-ending range of roles. Since his lauded professional debut, straight out of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, as the lead in a 2004 West End production of Hamlet, Whishaw has appeared onscreen as a serial killer (2006's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), the poet John Keats (2009's Bright Star), the tech wiz Q (in two James Bond films), and has even given voice to Paddington Bear.
Now, he is lending his gangly frame and quiet, brooding ferocity to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, opening next week on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Whishaw stars as John Proctor, the good-hearted farmer whose affair with his former maid, Abigail Williams (Saoirse Ronan), not only threatens the sanctity of his marriage to his wife Elizabeth (Sophie Okonedo) but sets into motion a witch hunt that devastates the community in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts. In the hands of buzzy Belgian director Ivo van Hove, it is less an historical retelling and more a tale of the perils of plummeting into a world so stricken by fear and xenophobia that it can’t see the gray for the black and white. (Sound familiar?) Whishaw, whose performance may finally get him some much overdue recognition, talks about countering stereotypical casting, playing a hero and holding onto the freedom of youth.
John Proctor is an iconic stage character. How would you describe your interpretation of him?
It was really important to me to find the character in myself. And that was something [director] Ivo [van Hove] was really keen on, because I’m obviously not the classic casting—physically, and just generally. I think [John Proctor] is a very conflicted person, and a flawed person in a way that we all are, but fundamentally really good. And I love that. I think sometimes he’s played more like this big hero, and he’s an ordinary guy who has done what he thinks is quite a small thing: he slept with the maid once and it horrified him that he did it. He’s poured his heart out to his wife, he’s trying to make her happy, he thinks it’s done and dusted. And then this small incident is the seed of what becomes this horrific witch hunt which destroys an entire community. So our work with Ivo was to make that the journey from something domestic, private, petty, even—as he said, the single error of his life, he’s never done anything else wrong ever, he’s a good Christian man—to something where suddenly he’s at the center of a whole larger problem.
Do you consider him an antihero?
I don’t really like those terms, but I suppose he falls more into that than into the hero. But maybe by the end he’s sort of become a hero again, somehow. I think maybe there’s no such thing as heroes; there are heroic actions. And his action at the end is kind of heroic; or a noble thing. "I’m not going to let you do this. I will die." Because otherwise, he’s propping up all the madness, the whole fraud of the thing. He has to die for the truth and for humanity, in a way.
John Proctor is stereotypically played as physically larger, a more hulking presence. You lend him a sense of vulnerability. You mentioned not being “classic casting”: how do you feel about that? Do you think the theater world is opening up to more diverse depictions of canonic roles?
I hope so. I was talking to Sophie Okonedo [who plays John Proctor’s wife] about this. We were both saying how frightened we had been to approach the roles because we knew that neither of us was really classic casting. But then at a certain point we realized that’s why we wanted to do it, and why it’s interesting for us. Sometimes it can be wonderful to see an actor do something that they’re obviously well suited for. But also I find you go, as an audience member:"Well I kind of know in advance what that is." Or, as an actor, you think, "I know this, I know what to do with this, I’ve done this before." But the excitement and the frightening thing was to go, "I don’t know what to do with this, and I don’t know whether I can do it." That’s much more interesting, really. And Sophie and I both agreed that it’s been really good for us both.
Given that, did you ever think you would be playing John Proctor on Broadway?
Weirdly, I have played this part before. I did play it at school when I was 15 in high school [in Bedfordshire, England]. But it was such a long time ago. But no, I didn’t think I’d ever do it. But then I never really think I’ll be doing anything. I’m always surprised by what comes my way, really.
So what was your 15 year-old John Proctor like?
I can’t really remember. I have no real recollection of it other than that I really loved the play. And I remember feeling like I really got it. In a way, it does speak to teenagers, this play, because it is about this system that is forcing people to conform to something. So somehow I remember it speaking to me quite strongly. I’m sure, though, there’s lots that I didn’t really understand about marriage and love and stuff like that, which becomes so central to how we interpret it.
It’s amazing, this play was written as a reaction to McCarthyism, but you watch it now and the contemporary resonance it has is so chilling. Do you feel its present day impact as you work through it?
I can feel it from the audience. I can feel that it feels very much like this is about now. And as you say, there’s something chilling: this could and does and possibly is happening now in places in America, but also everywhere. Obviously he wrote it about a very specific situation that he was experiencing, but the specificity of that and the specificity of his feelings make it very universal. It really could be anywhere in the world, so many horrific things that have happened in the world have probably begun in a similar way: small seeds that take on horrific power and become tragic.
That said, do you think your being British gives you a different perspective on this very American play?
Possibly. It’s weird, we rehearsed the play with American accents, me and Sophie [who is also British]. And then a few previews in, Ivo asked us to try it with our own voices. And we liked it more, so we kept it. We were planning on sounding American, but we’re not now. We just felt like the production is not specific about where we are in time or in space. We felt more comfortable, immediately. We dropped the American accents [and] we felt like we’d been married for a long time. We’re more connected to ourselves, I suppose, which is really Ivo’s thing. He’s not really interested in naturalism. Which is so unusual, I’ve never worked with a director quite so uninterested in it—like it doesn’t matter. He just says, "Play the situation." So it’s very stripped away of all of that. It’s more important that it’s a group of people who are somehow trying to survive in this wilderness, in this new country.
You’ve had such an enormous range of roles: most people wouldn’t think the same actor who played Ariel in The Tempest would also be playing John Proctor in The Crucible. Do you have any sense of what accounts for your ability to be so changeable?
I don’t see myself as a type, I suppose, that’s the thing. I don’t put myself in any kind of category and I really dislike anything like that coming at me. Because when I was 15, I played John Proctor and nobody thought I shouldn’t, or couldn’t, do it. There’s a freedom you have as a young person before the world starts branding you as something that I’m always trying to keep hold of. Because that’s how I feel inside: I’m many things. But also I think it’s that acting is not really so much about transforming or changing, but more of a chemical process, if you like, of your personality with the character. It’s not like you suddenly become a completely other human. You’re only ever you. And it’s coming out from you somewhere, but with the meeting of this other material that you’re working with.
You're in the movie A Hologram for the King, based on the Dave Eggers book, coming out this spring. Can you tell me about your role in that?
Oh god, it’s almost a joke that I’m even credited in that. I love Tom Tykwer, who’s the director, and with whom I’ve worked a few times. And I always said I’ll do anything in your films and he’s taken my word and put me in everything, but sometimes just for like half a second. I play the hologram. So I appear for about 30 seconds at the end of the film.
You’re playing a hologram. That’s no small thing.
It’s not a small thing because the film is called A Hologram. But it might be disappointing if you were expecting something more.
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