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INT: Ben Whishaw

01.03.2007

I never thought that I would ever root for a serial killer in any film, ever!!! The opening scene is an immediate validation that British import Ben Whishaw is a hypnotic and remarkable actor who commands unassuming attention! Having established a name for himself in the UK by making his debut in West End, at the National Theatre in their stage adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”, and then receiving great critical acclaim in the title role of “Hamlet” in Trevor Nunn’s version of the play at the Old Vic, there is no doubt he will be taking Hollywood by storm.

The humble and endearing newcomer puts on a mesmerizing and refreshing performance as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in the upcoming film PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER. Based on the best-selling novel by Patrick Suskind and directed by the highly acclaimed German Tom Tykwer (RUN LOLA RUN), PERFUME is the story of a fearless and isolated boy, blessed (or cursed) with a refined and acute sense of smell. I had the opportunity to sit down with the extraordinary and soft spoken Ben Whishaw, as he talked about his captivating and riveting performance as Grenouille, his preparation for the role, working with the great Dustin Hoffman and his take on smell in PERFUME. Check out what he had to say.

Ben Whishaw

Had you ever paid particular attention to how things smell this much?

No, I really hadn’t. Like a lot of people, I didn’t really think about it all that much. I guess you can’t help but stop to think about it more deeply if you’re making a film about smell, so it has changed a bit, I guess.

What was your center of characterization?

Well, the thing that wasn’t that helpful actually, I think the press notes say I took some perfume course or something. I didn’t, Tom [Tykwer] did, but that didn’t take me very far into the character. The most important thing, I felt, was to try and understand there’s some kind of absence inside of him, some kind of emptiness, something’s lacking, something’s missing, and to try to understand what it is he wants to fill that. We discussed lots of different things, but that was the core. We never perceived it as a position of labeling him as a sociopath or psychopath, it didn’t feel like that would really open up the character. We just tried to see him as a human being as far as possible.

Did you have to visualize the time period to conjure up those old smells? Or was it enough just being there?

Yeah. It felt very vivid anyway because the set was so incredible and detailed. It didn’t leave me much imagining to do because it was all there and often it did really smell bad, so that helped, I guess.

Did you have any trepidation about taking on a character that kills women?

Not trepidations in that sense. I had trepidations because the character is so uncommunicative, there’s not much to go on from the page, from the screenplay. I had questions about that and also, we all felt the pressure of adapting, as anyone would, a very well-loved novel. That was what I felt most intensely. Strangely, I don’t know what that says about me, I didn’t really worry too much that killing women would be a bad way to make a debut in a big film, it didn’t occur to me.

How does this character compare to someone like Hamlet?

Interestingly, it felt quite similar as a role because Tom is a director that likes to strip actors down, he has a certain taste in the way he directs actors. I certainly imagined, when I first read the script, that it would be more of a case of putting things on, like something more extreme in terms of body shape. Tom wanted it a bit more naked and wanted to go inside the character so it felt very similar to working on a part like Hamlet. There are certain parallels anyway, in terms of the sort of territory they both enter into - the obsessive quest that they’re on and this kind of introspective path of their natures. I can see a connection between the two.

A few people have compared your performance to Anthony Perkins that you have that same level of intensity he put in ‘Psycho’.

I love that film. I’ve not really seen much else he’s done. I love Hitchcock and another film that I didn’t see before making Perfume, but I saw subsequently, a film called ‘Peeping Tom’ which I think there’s something similar, there’s a connection.

What was it like working with Dustin Hoffman in the sense that his role was big and boisterous, and you had to play so small?

It never felt like it was some kind of battle to hold my own against him because that’s the nature of their relationship. You have one character that is extremely flamboyant and aware of his position in a social sense and then another character that’s totally inward and totally had no understanding of society and human interaction. That just had to be that way. The fact that Dustin is a Hollywood legend and I’m sort of nobody actually was helpful. We let that feed into the performances. It felt very smooth and very playful.

How is he to work with, in general?

He’s really friendly. He’s the center of attention, which again is helpful for the character and what we’re trying to achieve. He’s really quite nurturing in a way, he gave me some really good advice and was generous.

What advice did he give you?

He told me lots of things. The very first day I shot with him, I was totally freaking out, seeing him in his full regalia and I couldn’t get something and I was getting frustrated, Tom was shouting directions at me and I started to lose it and then sort of quit and dropped the ball and they said ‘Cut.’ And Dustin said, ‘That moment is when it really came alive. You should have kept going! It’s all about the accidents; it’s all about the accidents.’ I totally understand what he means; I think it’s a confidence thing, really. There is something exciting when what you’d planned or preconceived goes out the window and something else happens, might be accidental or a mistake, but it takes you somewhere new.

What distinguishes Tom from other directors you’ve worked with?

I haven’t really had a big enough part to have a relationship with a director in film. It’s always been a day here, a day there. In my limited experience, what seems really special about Tom is that he really wants to have collaboration; he’ll listen and will take on what you have to say, even if it’s critical or if you’re raising difficult questions. He wants to hear it and that, to me, seems quite rare.

What kind of questions did you raise with him?

I can’t remember precisely because in my mind it’s slightly blurred as to who decided what. It was usually stuff about the balance of the character – how much we needed to worry about him being sympathetic, how much we needed not to worry about it, the contradictions in him. Also how he talks, because at first Tom wanted to change the script and I had to tell him, ‘It doesn’t make sense that he’s talking like this, he wasn’t educated’ little changes like that. We discussed everything, it’s not like he sat in a room and did it all himself and I was just a puppet, he really shared everything with me.

What was the most challenging for you?

The final climactic scene on the scaffold was tricky because the whole film really hangs upon that moment and you’re just looking at a face and a body. It’s quite an interesting little arc that happens in that sequence, I guess I found that quite difficult.

Did you have any trouble sustaining the character or leaving it behind when you weren’t filming?

I never tried to not let go of the character but the character wouldn’t let go of me in some way because he’s so alone much of the time and I had so few scenes with somebody else to play off. I did start to take that home after awhile but I think Tom managed to dig me out of that little black hole.

This character is a serial killer and yet, there are places where people might cheer him on. How can you explain his likeability, if there is any?

I think it’s something to do with the fact that there’s something innocent about him, even though what he’s doing is obviously wrong, even evil. There’s a kind of lack of awareness and a lack of understanding. The thing I find interesting is that what he’s done, psychologically, is that he’s whittled the world down to one thing; the world is nothing but smell. It’s a way of controlling and understanding the world that terrifies him. I think there’s something about that that is quite human and something we can connect with. Fundamentally, I suppose, he’s someone who wants to be loved. He goes about it in a very peculiar way, but that’s what he wants and who doesn’t want that? That’s probably what makes him, for me, sympathetic.

How do you develop your characters? Is it more of an inward thing or do you draw from other actors?

It’s a mixture and it really depends on the character. This character really felt like it had to come within. Some characters are really social characters and they’re all about the surface details and then there are characters that exist on a different plane. They’re emotional characters and they’re all about internal stuff. This character, Hamlet the same, they’re inward-looking. Certainly sometimes you have to turn your attention outward and you have to sort of steal in a magpie-like fashion, certainly, sometimes.

What is the best thing to have come out of making this film for you?

I think it’s working with Tom, just generally. He’s somebody I really feel now is a really dear friend. Somebody I’d like to work with again and somebody who I share things with; we look at things in a similar way and have similar tastes and interests. I found working with him very satisfying on a creative level and personal level as well.

What do you think of the film, now that you’ve seen it in full?

I found it very brave… it unfolded in a much slower way than I expected. I love the way Tom allowed certain sequences to really breathe in a way I hadn’t expected. I watched it with an audience in Basil, the premiere there and it was really interesting to see all the stuff about what we’d been talking about – would people just be repelled, would they give a shit about him. You can’t tell what’s going on inside of people, but people wanted to stay. The film clearly had sort of cast a spell over them so that was quite gratifying.

Were you able to enjoy any of the beautiful locations where you filmed?

I didn’t have a whole lot of time off, but I did sometimes go sit on the beach in Barcelona. I went to the coast as well, to just get away. I didn’t see as much as I would have liked and I didn’t really get to hang out with the cast because there weren’t many. If I wasn’t filming, they were so again, the loneliness ensued. They were beautiful places; it was a wonderful way to spend the summer.

That orgy scene had a lot of people around…

That’s true, except again, I wasn’t involved.

How would you describe your character?

I would describe him as…

No, your character.

Oh, my character. F*ck! God. That’s a hard question to answer because I can be anything, it depends what day you catch me. Some days I find this situation [press interviews] unbearable, I want to disappear into the floor, and other days it feels really nice so I’m shy and extroverted.

How about today?

It feels very nice today. Good vibes.

What part did you play in the stage version of ‘His Dark Materials?’

I played small parts. My biggest part was a character that wasn’t in the novel, a clerk they wrote for the stage.

Would you be interested in doing the movie version?

Yeah, I’d love to. It’s another incredible book, trilogy of books.

Did you read this book before filming?

I read it about four times. I was reading it a fifth and Tom said, ‘Put the book away. We’re making the film.’ So I tried to get as much as I could out of it.

Are you doing another film right away?

No. I’ve been so busy doing the publicity for this. I finished this Bob Dylan thing about a month ago. I play one of the Bobs, even though none of us are really Bob, we’re aspects… I’m the poet. I play around ’65, ’66. I’m dressed a bit like Bob Dylan crossed with Arthur Lambot the French poet.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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