It’s 14 years since Ben Whishaw made his name playing Hamlet at the Old Vic. He quickly built a reputation as one of Britain’s most talented young actors on stage and on screen. James Bond’s Q and Paddington have intervened but he’s finally returning to Shakespeare on stage – playing Marcus Brutus in Julius Caesar.
For the second production at the new Bridge theatre, half the seats have gone. The audience becomes the mob, roaming the fast-paced action as the conspirators turn against Caesar and plot his murder.
Among them is Brutus. In Nick Hytner’s modern dress production he’s played by Whishaw as a thoughtful academic turned politician who’s not by nature a man of action. But when the shocking moment comes for Brutus to finish Caesar off, it’s done ruthlessly with a hand-gun.
Surprisingly Whishaw thinks Brutus is the first Shakespeare role he’s been offered since his career-making Hamlet in 2004. “I loved playing Richard II for the BBC and I was Ariel for Julie Taymor in her film of The Tempest. But there’s been nothing else on stage and this was a chance to work with Nick Hytner again.
“I don’t see myself as a Shakespearean actor but I adore doing it. Shakespeare on film can be tricky because he wrote for an audience which would listen intently and saw the imagery through the words – whereas obviously film is a visual medium. But the good thing with film is that you can be more intimate.”
Whishaw also says he’s been surprised at how intimate the Bridge theatre’s first attempt at a promenade production is turning out.
“We have hundreds of people following us around and it’s a bit like being at a gig. When the audience come in there’s already live rock music playing and it creates a real excitement. When the big dramatic moments come such as shooting David Calder (playing Caesar) the audience is incredibly close.”
There’s no interval. “It’s one of the shorter Shakespeares anyway but Nick decided we couldn’t really ask people to stand for more than two hours. So there’s a real intensity, which I’m sure reaches the half of the audience sitting down too.”
Whishaw has often played quietly intense roles. But Brutus has to abandon contemplation for action, deciding to murder a political friend and rival.
“Like most of Shakespeare’s main characters Brutus is ambiguous and a bit hard to read. He takes a course of action which he genuinely believes is correct and in the public interest. But it proves disastrous. He’s such an interesting character and I’m still finding him.”
The intensity Whishaw can bring to a role has also worked well in the part which has made him known internationally – the MI6 quartermaster Q in the two most recent James Bond films.
In Skyfall and Spectre, both directed by Sam Mendes, Q was reinvented as a tech wizard of the digital age. Bond 25 is due out in November 2019 but as yet no details have emerged, except that Daniel Craig will be back. It would be surprising if Whishaw’s not there too.
Q’s role in most Bond stories has often been limited to handing out technical goodies early in the plot which at some point explode interestingly.
Yet in Spectre there were hints of Q being allowed a more active part in the storyline. He even got as far as a scene high in the Austrian Alps.
Whishaw emphasises he knows nothing about the next film and can’t even be sure he’ll be in it. But he enjoyed stretching his muscles in Spectre in a way Q hadn’t before.
“I’m secretly hoping that I’ll get to do more action in the next one. I’d like to be a little bit more involved – it would be wonderful.
“But we’ll see. Like everything to do with James Bond, it’s all a mystery at the moment.”
In 2018 Whishaw’s status on film may owe more to Michael Bond than James Bond.
Having inherited his role as provider of Paddington’s voice when Colin Firth dropped out, he says developing a convincing vocal style was tougher than you would think.
“For a while with the first film the director Paul King and I struggled. The instinct was to make Paddington’s voice quite high-pitched as he’s a young bear. But we realised it wasn’t working. The voice isn’t just me talking in my own voice but we realised the nearer it got to me the better it seemed to work with the animation.
“Coming back together for the second film it was much easier. By then the groundwork had been laid and I felt more relaxed.”
After Julius Caesar at the Bridge theatre, Whishaw has high-profile roles coming up on screen later in the year.
He’ll be the grown-up Michael Banks in Disney’s much-awaited Mary Poppins Returns.
And for the BBC, he’s in Russell T Davies’s account of the 1979 trial of Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, who was charged with incitement to murder.
At the age of 37, Whishaw is in demand with directors and producers. So does he think about what he’ll be doing when he’s 50 or 60?
“I do think about that. But unlike so many other professions, actors can just go on getting better. The parts can get more interesting and the more you experience of life the more you have to offer.
“All of the actors I love and admire and aspire to be like have just gone on improving. People like Mark Rylance and Judi Dench and Stephen Dillane and Charlotte Rampling. I can’t wait to see what happens next. I feel excited about the future.”
Julius Caesar plays at the Bridge theatre in London until 15 April.