The King & I: For his latest role – as tortured Richard II – Ben Whishaw drew on unlikely inspiration … Michael Jackson and Colonel Gaddafi
02:33 GMT, 30 June 2012
With his darkly handsome looks belying a chilling ruthlessness, Ben Whishaw won plaudits for his role as an ambitious young TV reporter in the BBC’s six-part drama series The Hour.
He all but stole the show from its headline star, Dominic West, and when the series returns later this year, Whishaw’s role will be expanded. Not for nothing is he being hailed as one of our most gifted actors.
Tonight on BBC2 he emerges as the tortured, self-absorbed Richard II – regarded as Shakespeare’s most challenging character – alongside established actors like David Suchet as the king’s uncle, the Duke of York, Patrick Stewart (John of Gaunt), David Morrissey (Earl of Northumberland) and Rory Kinnear (Henry Bolingbroke).
Richard’s young Queen is played by Clmence Posy, seen recently in BBC1’s Birdsong.
Ben as the tortured, self-absorbed Richard II – regarded as Shakespeare's most challenging character
It is the first of four stunning new films of the Bard’s history plays – the others are Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V – made for the Shakespeare Unlocked season, as an important BBC contribution to the Cultural Olympiad.
The films, which chart the rise and fall of the three kings and how their destiny shaped our history, were chosen to highlight Britain’s rich heritage while appealing to Shakespeare’s global audience.
‘I know I’m following in some very distinguished footsteps, and it’s very daunting,’ says Whishaw, 31.
‘I made a point of watching film of the greatest Shakespearian speeches delivered by some of the last century’s finest veteran actors, like Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Michael Redgrave. I didn’t do it to copy them, I wanted to avoid their mannered technique and style.
'I listened to the way they delivered their words, and I’m sure some people will be horrified when they hear me speak naturally, as if I’m having a conversation.’
He adds, ‘I got quite good at dealing with all that flowing regalia. I found it gave me a feeling of absolute authority – so it must be a really powerful drug.’
But one scene he found quite tricky was during the first day of filming on a Welsh beach, when he had to emerge from the sea clutching a sceptre, and wearing a long cape and crown.
‘The crown kept slipping, which wasn’t very regal-looking at all,’ he grins, recalling the moment.
Ben with Dominic West and Romola Garai in The Hour
Ben says his own interpretation of Richard II was inspired by Colonel Gaddafi and Michael Jackson. He explains,
‘At the time we were filming, the Arab Spring was happening. Like Richard II, Gaddafi reacted to his fate with wild swings between denial, rage and self-pity. And Richard revels in a sense of magic and mystery about himself, almost as if he’s from another planet – so I thought of Michael Jackson as a role model.’
Ben, who has a twin brother, James, grew up in Bedfordshire.
‘Acting was the only thing I was ever going to do. I knew it from the age of three. In every picture in our family album I’m wearing a costume, getting ready to perform.’
The new series of The Hour, due to be screened in the autumn, will see Ben’s character, journalist Freddie Lyon, smarten up.
‘Until now, he’s not given a lot of thought to his clothes. But during the 1950s, when The Hour is set, everyone dressed more formally. Freddie is ambitious, and now he sees the way to the top is to be suited and booted.
Acting was the only thing I was ever
going to do… In every picture in our
family album I’m wearing a costume, getting ready to perform
‘He’ll still be as much of a maverick as before. Unpredictable. Opinionated.
'And, if it’s possible, even more aggressive and ruthless than we’ve seen so far. There will be more trouble, too, between him and Hector Madden (Dominic West) the front man of the programme he works for. Hector is smooth, posh and charismatic – everything Freddie hates. And without giving too much away, when Hector begins to fall from grace, Freddie is delighted, because he wants his job.’
As well as his success in The Hour, Ben has played every type of role, from the dissolute Sebastian Flyte in the remake of Brideshead Revisited, to a gritty Bob Dylan in the movie I’m Not There.
In the new James Bond film, Skyfall, he turns up as 007’s gadget master, Q. But he remains modest, and tells a self-effacing story about when he acted with Dustin Hoffman in the movie Perfume.
‘The first scene we filmed involved me knocking on a door and Hoffman answering. When the door opened, I was totally thrown. All I could think of was “I’m standing here with the man from The Graduate.”’
Despite his growing stardom, he has no desire to move to Hollywood.
‘I’m ambitious, but just to keep working and get good parts.’
And at present, there seems every chance of that happening.
Richard II, tonight, 9pm, BBC2