The entertainment industry is jam-packed with unlikely actors; talented individuals who either don’t have the physical appearance of a typical lead or are so introverted in real life that you wonder why they chose performance as their career path. Ben Whishaw is a rare combination of both these characteristics, making him among the most unlikely of successful actors in the industry.
Whishaw’s skeletal frame, impishly handsome face and nervous-squirrel affect has made his charisma on screem and stage something of an enigma. “Hunched over a table in the bar of London’s Royal Court Theatre, Ben Whishaw looks like a small woodland animal,” Gareth McLean wrote in Out magazine in 2011. “As if scanning for predators, his eager eyes dart around the room … He fidgets and squirms in his seat as if flea-infested, his oversize sweater almost drowning his wiry frame in wool.” His awkwardness in interviews was even parodied in Simon Amstell’s sitcom, Grandma’s House.
Yet, despite this, 2012 was Whishaw’s most successful year thus far. He starred in two blockbusters, Skyfall and Cloud Atlas; the BBC miniseries, The Hollow Crown, and the second (and final) season of The Hour. This success is certainly deserved as Whishaw is a genuinely talented actor, though not quite versatile. His characters seem more diverse on paper than on screen. His roles include a boy sexually abused by his father (My Brother Tom); a serial killer (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer); a boy wrongfully convicted of a rape and murder and sentenced to life in prison (Criminal Justice); a closeted homosexual driven to alcoholism (Brideshead Revisited); an elemental spirit (The Tempest); an incarnation of Bob Marley (I’m Not There); John Keats (Bright Star) and Keith Richards (Stoned). Yet, he approaches each role with more or less the same elocution and mannerisms. His performances are satisfying but, unlike Eddie Redmayne, another English actor in his early thirties, I have no difficulty believing that the same actor is playing all of these characters.
That stated, Ben Whishaw is far from mediocre. His deliveries may be homogeneous but they are brilliant. Having broken into the theatre industry in 2004 by playing one of the youngest Hamlets in the history of the play, the man knows how to act. Furthermore, he knows how to monologue. Such training may seem irrelevant to performing in modern film and television, but it’s gifted him with the rare ability to milk meaning and emotion out of every line he utters. The scenes in the second season finale (and final episode) of The Hour in which his character, Freddie Lyon, exchanges dialogue with Soho-gangster, Cilenti, and his thugs after they’ve beaten him to the brink of consciousness would come across as silly if he weren’t so good at it.
However, since The Hour has been cancelled, Whishaw won’t appear on screen again until 2014 with his next film, Lilting, though he is set to have a cameo in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem. We’ll just have to wait until then to see his eyes darted from side to side again.