Interview: Ben Whishaw swaps James Bond for new spy drama

BEN Whishaw might be starring in Spectre and entering the world of espionage yet again for a new BBC Two drama but, as he tells Susan Griffin, it’s not the genre that interests him
Ben Wishaw in London Spy. Picture: BBC/PABen Wishaw in London Spy. Picture: BBC/PA
Ben Wishaw in London Spy. Picture: BBC/PA

The figures are in and James Bond’s latest outing Spectre has secured the biggest opening of all time at the UK box office.

For Ben Whishaw, who returned as tech wizard and gadget supremo Q (after taking over the character in 2012’s Skyfall), there’s a sense of relief, despite feeling more confident in his role this time round.

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“It was new [in Skyfall], but you don’t know how people are going to receive you, or whether they’re going to go with you or not. But I think, because they largely had, I felt comfortable, confident,” says the quietly spoken 35-year-old.

In Spectre, he’s been given a lot more screen time, along with scene-stealing one-liners and even a hint of an action sequence - well, he’s chased through a queue of people.

“I hope [the action] will evolve more in future films,” he laughs, “but it was brilliant, fantastic, and I was excited to take the character there.”

He’s set to cover similar ground on the small screen too, when his new BBC Two drama, London Spy, begins.

“It’s a really brilliant piece of writing - fresh and exciting,” remarks Whishaw, sporting messy hair, dark trousers and a maroon knit that wouldn’t look out of place on Q.

In the five-part series, he plays Danny, a man working dead-end jobs who we meet entering a nightclub in south London.

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“You then see him leave the club at 5am after taking drugs and dancing all night. He’s a bit lost and he wanders onto Lambeth Bridge, where he contemplates his life,” explains the actor, who entered into a civil partnership with Australian composer Mark Bradshaw in 2012.

“A guy then runs past and they have a fleeting interaction. Danny later decides to try and find this guy again and when he does, a love affair starts between them.”

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Tragedy strikes when this guy, a spy, who Danny is originally led to believe is an investment banker, goes missing.

“Danny thinks he’s been dumped, but some strange things happen and he’s led to an attic above his lover’s flat where he discovers his dead body in a trunk. After that, it’s about uncovering what really happened. He’s fighting for the truth of the person he was in love with, but also for himself, as he’s implicated and accused of the murder.”

Out of his depth in the world of espionage, Danny seeks help from this wise mentor Scottie, played by Jim Broadbent.

“I’m a bit in awe of Jim really, he’s so brilliant and I’ve watched him for such a long time,” confesses Whishaw, who was born in Bedfordshire, graduated from RADA in 2003 and received an Olivier Award nomination for his role in Trevor Nunn’s 2004 production of Hamlet.

“I’d worked with Jim before in a vaguely similar scenario in a film called Cloud Atlas, so we were picking up where we left off. He’s not somebody who would take a mentoring kind of role though; he’s quite private. But I love being around him and watching him act.

“He said to me when we were filming: ‘Don’t ever try to explain acting as you will seem like an idiot’ - and I know what he means!”

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Appearing in almost every scene of London Spy, the actor admits, “I don’t think I’ve done anything quite as intense and demanding as this has been, but it’s great to have a wonderful character to play.”

Not that there were long passages of dialogue to learn.

Instead, the drama plays out with quiet, cinematic sequences that emphasise the ambiguous nature of the story and the characters that populate it.

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“It motors along, as you don’t know what you’re seeing. What can you trust? What can you hold onto? Who is Danny and, as a viewer, can we trust him?” explains Whishaw.

“The whole question of, ‘What is real?’ is a theme that runs throughout the show. It goes on a journey that is challenging and disturbing.”

Asked if there are aspects of Danny’s life he empathises with, he recalls a period of feeling like “I needed to be in love”.

“I needed to find love, as life without somebody would have no meaning. But all of my energy, thinking and longing was going into that,” he reveals.

“With Danny, I loved that he was also emotionally complicated and that he loves sex. He’s a sensual person.”

For someone who “seems to be in a lot of spy things,” he confesses he’s not actually a fan of the genre.

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“I don’t know what should be in a spy drama, but London Spy doesn’t feel like a traditional one to me. It’s broader than that, because it’s about a character that’s not from within that world; he stumbles into it and to him, it’s alien and mystifying.

“It’s more about Danny’s mind. You’re in his head and living his experience, plus, it offers quite an interesting picture of London too.”

And that was also part of the appeal.

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“I love London and I love seeing it represented really well in shows. I think it has incredible potential as an environment for drama, that’s not always used well. It’s a moody place, it’s a bleak place at times; it’s dramatic, weird and full of unexpected things, so that does encompass the story.”

Whishaw’s film credits include Layer Cake, starring Bond himself, Daniel Craig, Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer and as John Keats in Bright Star, and he’ll soon appear in Ron Howard’s In The Heart Of The Sea.

“I don’t think the boundary or division really exists anymore [between TV and film]. Certainly for actors - they work across them more and more and all of the interesting writing is happening in TV,” offers Whishaw, who’s also appeared on television in The Hour and The Hollow Crown.

“You get to play a character that is bound to be more interesting and complicated as you have more time to explore it, and won’t be subject to a plot that needs to be solved in an hour and a half. All of those things are really appealing,” he says. “I think we’re in a really interesting place.”

• London Spy begins on BBC Two on Monday, November 9