You know Ben Whishaw.
Or rather, you should know precisely who the British actor is, even if he isn’t yet a household name. You may have seen him as doomed poet John Keats in 2009’s Bright Star or as doomed playboy Sebastian Flyte in the remake of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. In this autumn’s Cloud Atlas, he plays five distinct roles, from a classical composer and a record-store clerk to a cabin boy and even a woman. And you definitely saw him in the most recent James Bond flick, Skyfall, in which he plays Q, the youthful quartermaster for Daniel Craig’s aging 007.
Bespectacled and dressed in a cardigan and cravat, the whisper-thin Whishaw epitomizes the casual arrogance and dubious irony of the very young; he’s the brains to Bond’s rough-hewn brawn. Their meeting is a collision of the old and the new, technology versus humanity. Whishaw and Craig share several scenes together, but the most telling is perhaps that set in the National Gallery. As Q and Bond stare at a painting of an old frigate being dragged out to sea, Q tells the supersuave superspy, “I can do more damage on my laptop, sitting in my pajamas, before my first cup of Earl Grey tea, than you can do in a year in the field.”
It’s no surprise that the quote became embraced immediately on Tumblr, where Whishaw has quite a fan presence. In fact, it’s hard to swing a techie’s radio transmitter without hitting a comic strip of Whishaw’s Q or numerous fan pages devoted to the 32-year-old actor whose roles demonstrate not only versatility and raw sentiment—he’s a tousle-haired poster boy for emo actors everywhere—but also a penchant for playing impassioned, ill-fated characters.
Whishaw reprises his role as crusading journalist Freddie Lyon in Season 2 of British period drama The Hour, which launches stateside tonight on BBC America. The first season of the critically beloved drama from creator Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) found Freddie enmeshed in a love triangle with ambitious producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) and debonair news anchor Hector Madden (Dominic West) as they set out to create an evening news program in ’50s London.
“As an actor, your job is to persuade people that you’re someone else. So if you’re constantly telling people about yourself, I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”
The Hour is the type of show where whispers in a dark bar hold consequences both personal and global, and where characters casually say things like, “A lie has no legs. A scandal, now that has wings.” It’s a heightened reality, one that’s both glossy and messy, and Whishaw glides effortlessly through smoky rooms, Freddie’s nicotine-stained fingers leaving figurative smudges everywhere he goes.
In its first season, the show conflated the troika’s romantic and professional struggles with the Suez Canal crisis, communist double agents, dead socialites, and hidden Westminster agendas at the BBC. The Hour also beautifully captured journalistic impulses: the importance of the truth at any cost, the need to be unbiased, and to remain objective, honest, and trustworthy. In an era of the Petraeus scandal, at the center of which lies a journalist who failed to heed those directives, The Hour is both a memento and a call to arms, one that’s far more successful in its handling of the newsroom than, well, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.
Season 2 of The Hour finds Whishaw’s Freddie returning to London and to The Hour, now under the watchful eye of newly minted BBC head of news Malcolm Brown (The Thick of It’s Peter Capaldi), who shares a shrouded past with fan favorite Lix (Anna Chancellor). “It’s quite shocking and quite dark,” Whishaw told Digital Spy. “It goes into a slightly darker place.” Gone are the communists of the first season, replaced by subplots about the Soho vice raids, beat-up nightclub chanteuses, racial tensions, and Hector’s heavy-drinking ways. Gone as well is Freddie himself, fired from his job between seasons.
When Whishaw’s Freddie does return, roughly halfway through the first episode, he makes quite an entrance. The audience is shown only the back of Freddie’s head as he puts out a cigarette on a wall at the BBC’s Lime Grove Studios, travels to Paris and America having transformed him, making him harder and older. He’s scruffily bearded, looking vaguely like a younger version of a Star Wars–era Alec Guinness, and it only takes four little words—“Exemplary, Moneypenny, as always”—to get Freddie back in the mix.
“He comes back a little changed, a little different; maybe grown up in a way, and maybe toughened up a bit too,” said Whishaw earlier this year. Before long, he and Bel are reunited and delving into the seedy underbelly of London’s Soho district. “Initially, Freddie’s…involved in solving the story of the Soho criminal underworld because Bel is so driven to uncover it,” Whishaw said. “It’s only later on in the series when he really hits his stride and then he really delves into the darkest areas and puts himself in a lot of physical danger.”
In fact, Whishaw soars whenever his characters are pushed up against the wall. Witness his remarkable International Emmy Award–winning turn in the 2008 BBC miniseries Criminal Justice, in which he played accused teen murderer Ben Coulter, who must find a way to survive not only the vagaries of the British justice system but also the harshness of life in prison.
Whishaw’s angular qualities and litheness conceal a live-wire intensity apparent in all of the roles he inhabits; his characters tend to be unpredictable and mercurial, whether it’s Keith Richards in Stoned, one of the many incarnations of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, or the murderous perfumer Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Tom Tykwer’s Perfume. (No surprise that Whishaw and Tykwer would be reunited eventually; the two collaborated this year on the mind-trippy Cloud Atlas.) As Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, he unravels before our eyes; the teddy bear–carrying golden boy devolving into a boozy mess in the African heat, his body and mind wantonly wrecked. The aforementioned Alec Guinness comparison is quite apt, as, earlier this year, Whishaw named Guinness as an influence.
“He does this incredible transformation,” he said. “He played an Asian man in a few films. He played Fagin in Oliver Twist. He's played everything. And he wasn't frightened of completely transforming, sometimes in a quite theatrical way. I love him and I love his quality. I don't know what it is. But he has some quality I find…magnetic.”
That magnetism translates to Whishaw as well. In Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond film, Whishaw’s Q steals every scene he’s in, starting with that aforementioned scene with Craig at the National Gallery. Unlike Freddie, nerd god Q isn’t given to much self-doubt. His slim frame and elven features—which add to his chameleonic range—belie a modern, cutting-edge intellect dismissive of the “old ways” of doing things. He sees Bond’s value as the necessity of occasionally having someone to pull a trigger, a literal muscle. But Q’s naïveté fails to see the value of having Bond at your back; sometimes the gray cells aren’t enough.
(Interestingly, Whishaw—who convincingly plays Q as a synaptic-speed hacker—appears to be a technophobe: “It was such fun for me to play an expert in an area where I’m completely not an expert,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “I’m really hopeless with technology—I don’t even have a computer. But I had to reel off all this technological information as if it were second nature.”)
But whereas Q seems to care little, The Hour’s Freddie suffers from caring too much, investing too deeply. A slight becomes a battle cry; rumors of corruption prompt a crusade to be waged. But he never feels like a wet blanket, as Freddie exerts a powerful pull not only over Garai’s Bel, but also over the audience as well. There is something inherently fascinating about watching Whishaw on screen, whether he’s enacting an argument about truth in journalism or surveying the newsroom.
Whishaw’s physical presence—willowy and almost androgynous—allows for a degree of ambiguity to his characters and for Whishaw himself as well. The actor is decidedly tight-lipped when it comes to his personal life and his sexual orientation. “For me, it’s important to keep a level of anonymity,” said Whishaw. “As an actor, your job is to persuade people that you’re someone else. So if you’re constantly telling people about yourself, I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”
It’s something that Freddie himself would never say. “He’s a hugely inspiring character, certainly to play, because he’s not frightened of saying what he thinks and what he feels, and if anything he’s gotten more committed to doing that,” said Whishaw. “He’s really forthright and not frightened of where honesty will lead him. He’ll suffer the consequences of his words and his actions.” But for all of his drive, Freddie craves being vulnerable. In The Hour’s second-season opener, Freddie utters a line that cuts to the heart of many of Whishaw’s conflicted characters.
“Being a nobody in a country where everyone thinks they can be a somebody,” he says to West’s posturing celeb du jour Hector, “that’s infectious. It’s exciting.”
Whishaw, however, rumored to be soon starring in Steven Spielberg’s Robopocalypse opposite Anne Hathaway and Chris Hemsworth, needn’t worry about being unknown for much longer.