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at that time. We’d go and watch plays in London, and then copy people. I miss the uncomplicatedness of acting at youth theatre. It was just about the pure joy of doing it.” The bridge between teenage bliss and the first glories of professional life came quickly for Whishaw, with little time for struggle or worry about what the future might bring. He doesn’t remember being much of a star at the Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts, where he went to study when he was 20, but he was “given character roles, supporting roles, which I loved”. When he left RADA, he started firing off letters. “I still had this mission to do theatre, I was desperate to do it.” He soon found work and had a small role in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials in early 2004 at the National Theatre in London when he was invited to audition for Trevor Nunn’s new production of Hamlet at the Old Vic. “I never believed that I would leave drama school and play Hamlet six months later,” he says. “Never for a second.” And yet, from April to July 2004, Whishaw attracted rave reviews for his performance as the Danish prince in a production that took literally Shakespeare’s suggestion that Hamlet is a brooding, teenage university student. Whishaw’s Hamlet – defined by the actor’s feather-like frame and prominent jaw bones – was not a strong-willed young man full of revenge, but instead, a grief-stricken teenager, not much more than a kid who was damaged by familial strife and listened to The White Stripes to blank out what was happening at home. “I don’t even remember finding it particularly difficult,” Whishaw says, not in a spirit of arrogance, but rather to explain how young he was then and how quickly it all happened. “I think in a way, I was still quite innocent about the world and the world of acting and theatre. I didn’t really understand the risk and what could be lost. It could have been a catastrophe.” Nunn took a gamble on Whishaw, and it paid off. It’s a pattern repeated in Whishaw’s relations with film directors. When Tom Tykwer, the German director of Run, Lola, Run, was looking for someone to play the lead role of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Perfume, he met around 100 actors until a casting director suggested that he go and see Whishaw in Hamlet at the Old Vic. “That was my moment of discovery,” recalls Tykwer. “I’d been looking for the right guy for over a year. The problem was that we were looking for such a complex set of skills, it’s quite a contradictory character. What I saw was the most contemporary, lively, interesting Hamlet, and performed by a 23-yearold guy. I wanted to make a modern film in a period disguise, so he was exactly what I was looking for.” Whishaw’s performance superbly indulges the sheer weirdness of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille – a baby dumped at birth in a stinking fish market in 18th-century Paris, and who survives the vicious regimes of an unforgiving orphanage and a gruelling tannery to develop the most sensitive nose in all of Europe, going on to become a master perfumier. In his quest to concoct the perfect fragrance, he becomes a serial killer along the way. Whishaw plays the role almost in absolute silence, presenting a character who’s certainly locked in his own bizarre world, but not someone who we’d ever perceive as simply evil. Talking to Tykwer, it’s clear that filmmakers are drawn to Whishaw not only because he’s a good actor but because he’s a good talker too, someone with whom they can debate a character and the direction of their work. “We crawled into some peculiar tunnel together and never left it,” describes Tykwer. “I needed someone who enjoyed talking as much about the entire concept of the film as they did about character. The two are inseparable. As much as you have to talk about this guy’s identity, you have to know what kind of movie we’re trying to make.” It’s no surprise that Whishaw has recently been working with Pawel Pawlikowski, the Polish-born British filmmaker whose features such as My Summer of Love and Twockers are crafted by way of his background in documentaries: he researches his films intensely with his actors, filming them in real situations and fully developing their characters before writing a full script or filming the movie proper. His latest film The Restraint of Beasts, is an adaptation of the Magnus Mills

novel about three fence-builders from Scotland – played by Whishaw, Rhys Ifans and Eddie Marsan – who go to work in Yorkshire. “I’m the foreman,” says Whishaw. “Nothing much happens but they accidentally start killing people. We don’t know how the film is going to end because Pawel hasn’t finished writing it.” At the minute, however, the film may never be finished: production was halted halfway through when a personal tragedy hit one of the core crew. “Pawel was totally unlike anyone I’d worked with before,” Whishaw says, relishing the film’s unusual process, which involved him, Ifans and Marsan spending several weeks learning the trade of their characters. “I’m pretty good at building fences now, not bad at all.” He’s pretty good at making movies too. In a few short years he’s gone from being an interesting presence in the background of a few British films – he was a twitchy guy in the back of a classroom in Roger Michell’s Enduring Love, and he appeared all too briefly as Keith Richards in Stoned, Stephen Woolley’s film about the death of Brian Jones – to being celebrated by serious, inventive filmmakers such as Tykwer, Haynes and Pawlikowski, in Britain and beyond. His work in theatre continues to go from strength to strength too: in autumn 2006, he played Constantine in Chekhov’s The Seagull at London’s National Theatre. Now he’s even being offered film roles by people who’ve never even met him, which he finds flattering but also troubling. “I keep – well, not keep – I now get scripts occasionally from people saying, ‘We’re offering you this role.’ And I can’t imagine just saying, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll do your part,’ and then turning up on the first day, without a discussion, without a relationship. I’m always a bit suspicious because I think that if I was making a film I’d want to meet the actors before I offered them something.” Just as his directors are thankful of his commitment and readiness to debate and discuss his work, so Whishaw wants the same from the directors he works with. You sense that the spirit of theatre – of collaboration, of closeness, of locking heads together intensely for a period of time – is deeply ingrained in him. He loves working in theatre, and he wants to have the same experience when he makes films. You feel this strongly when he speaks about his relationship with Tom Tykwer. He wants a meaningful collaboration with a director – or nothing at all. “We were quite close by the time we started shooting. And I think I always look for that now. It’s important to me that the experience is a stimulating or enriching one. I didn’t read the reviews of Perfume, and in a way that doesn’t matter because the film was such a wonderful experience to make that I feel I at least got something out of it. I’m proud to be a part of it, so in a way it doesn’t matter what people think.” And what of the attention that success brings? And the responsibility of having to carry a film like Perfume, appearing on screen for almost the entire film and then having to be its ambassador in the world at large? He’s clearly quite a sensitive soul; doesn’t it weird him out just a little? “Yeah, I never really think about that because I find it frightening, and then I just freak. So I try not to dwell too much on the fact that it’s a lead role, and just keep my head down and do it. That’s the only way I can cope.”

Dave Calhoun is Film Editor of Time Out

Hair Sam McKnight Make-up Petros Petrohilos at Untitled using Sk-ii Manicurist Marian Newman at Streeters London Set design Glyn Owen Photographic assistants Simon Thiselton and Ruth Hogben Styling assistants Tracey Nicholson and Henry Thomas Hair assistant Eamonn Hughes Set design assistant Evan Schwarz Digital imaging Allan at Epilogue Imaging

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