Ben Whishaw: Mysterious Skin

3.27.2011

By Gareth Mclean

While he might reject labels -- his character in Cock declares that the labels gay and straight are 'words from the '60s made by our parents'only invented to get rights' -- the coincidence of appearing in consecutive plays (Cock and The Pride) that explore sexuality might suggest a subconscious desire to discuss his own identity. Are the plays a way to make a statement without making a statement?

'Maybe it's subconscious, I don't know,' he says. 'It's intriguing to me that these parts come along. Of course the choices you make express something about you to the world, and of course the work I do is all about me, but rather than me standing up and making statements about myself and things, I'd prefer to let the work do the speaking.'
Whether this is a disingenuous fudge or a heartfelt response from a man who, at 29, still seems something of a boy, Whishaw is not oblivious to the complex and painful issues that the question raises. Asked if he thinks it's important for young gay people to have positive role models, his ambivalence vanishes. 'I really agree with that, and I feel in my heart that it's important, but I don't quite know yet the way to go about that. Maybe that's the transitional thing I feel I'm in the middle of at the moment. It's something I think about, but it's important for me to do it at the time that's right for me. And I'm not there yet.'

But you sense that Whishaw is on his way. He talks of being at a stage in his life when he's shedding a skin and 'sinking into' himself more. 'I've got more of a certainty of what I am, and I've found a strength in that -- a groundedness.'

That said, he also feels, not unreasonably perhaps, that 'as an actor you have total rights to privacy and mystery, whatever your sexuality, whatever you do. I don't see why that has to be something you discuss openly because you do something in the public eye. I have no understanding of why we turn actors into celebrities. It's difficult talking about it. That's why I didn't want to go there, but at the same time I know this is a gay magazine and that means there's a conflict there.'

As the evening performance creeps closer and Whishaw must start his warm-up for Cock -- which involves dancing around backstage to Bucks Fizz's 'Making Your Mind Up,' Britain's peppy winning number of the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest -- he recalls how he first got into acting. 'When I was a child, I dressed up and put on shows, and what really appealed to me was the disguise element of it, the possibility of transformation.' But he is skeptical of the cheap psychology that would associate his dressing up with any discomfort with his own skin. 'I don't think that actors are necessarily any more uncomfortable in their skin than anyone else. I suppose I feel more comfortable in my skin now, but you're always playing a character, aren't you? You tell different versions of yourself to different people and vice versa. Here, or in the photo shoot or wherever, it's a representation of you. It's not you-you. That's how you get through it.'

And with that, Ben Whishaw walks off through the throng in the bar and is gone. If, that is, he was ever here in the first place.

MCC Theater's The Pride begins previews on January 27 at New York City's Lucille Lortel Theatre.

For an exclusive slide show of images from our Ben Whishaw photo shoot, click here.

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