AWFJ Women On Film – Ben Whishaw on Poetry, Letter Writing, and “Bright Star” – Jen Yamato interviews

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There’s definitely something of an old soul in Ben Whishaw, even if it’s hard to pin down. He had a breakout role as an obsessed killer in Perfume: The Story of A Murderer, played Keith Richards in the British music pic Stoned, and channeled two other poets at once – Arthur Rimbaud and Bob Dylan – in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There. He loves poetry and still writes letters, two lost arts that might just regain popularity thanks to his latest film, Bright Star, a lyrical biopic that chronicles the brief but passionate love affair between 19th century poet John Keats and the girl next door, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).

Whishaw relates how he found common ground with the Romantic artist Keats, why more young people should give poetry a chance, and how after auditioning for director Jane Campion and nailing the part, he had no idea how much he’d blown her away, much less that he’d even gotten the job.

JEN YAMATO: You’re a 20th century twenty-something year old. What was it in this 19th century poet that you found could relate to?

BEN WHISHAW: What I admired about the man that I started to find through his letters and through the poetry was someone with a really amazing sensitivity, to nature, and to human beings; he was very sensitive in his interactions. But he also was someone who had more than his fair share of bad luck, really, and was very aware, more than most 23-year-olds, of the transience of life. He was surrounded by a lot of death. And I find that the combination of his sensitivity, but also in a way his toughness, or his resilience – his robustness, in a way — I find that combination a beautiful one.

YAMATO: How were you able to immerse yourself so deeply in the period lifestyle, or even in those kinds of ways of thinking?

WHISHAW: Reading was very important. I read everything I could get my hands on and really did immerse myself in that time. I think the letters that John Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne, and to other people, his brothers and his sister and his friends, they’re so beautiful and they’re so full of the period in terms of the way they spoke to each other, the kinds of things they did, their social life, the restrictions placed on them by society and social etiquette…it’s all in the letters, really, and it’s very vivid. And I kind of fell in love with that time.

There’s something very appealing to me about it. The precise way people communicated with each other. People weren’t sloppy in the way they talked. People had to be very clear about what they were feeling or not feeling. I think there was a real importance placed on communication, whereas today it’s kind of gotten muddied and muddled and we’re behind computers and behind phones. That for me was a great revelation, and one of the things I really loved about making this film.

YAMATO: There is a sense of tragedy about the lost art of letter writing, that it’s become obsolete in today’s modern culture.

WHISHAW: I agree with you. It’s such a shame that we don’t communicate with each other that way. We all know how beautiful it is to get a letter from someone that’s been written! Because it feels so personal, and someone’s actually taken the time to do it. I think it’s a great shame. Maybe this film will inspire some people to write letters again, who knows?

YAMATO: Do you still write letters yourself?

WHISHAW: I do write letters, yes! I mean, I end up writing emails a lot as well, but I’ve got a friend in L.A. who I communicate with mainly by letter.

YAMATO: I love that. Even more because it’s the sort of exchange that two people have to mutually agree on, and commit to.

WHISHAW: It’s true – you’ve both got to be up for it.

YAMATO: You and I are of a generation that, in addition to losing an appreciation for the written letter, doesn’t seem to care much for poetry either.

WHISHAW: I think so, yeah. I think that’s partly because they’re hard to understand, aren’t they? We live in a world where we’re taught that we need to understand everything. I think it’s crazy that at school we have to write essays about poems. Of course we can study them, but the whole point of a poem is that it’s open-ended, it holds multiple meanings and no one is right and no one is wrong. And it’s something that Jane [Campion] has threaded into the film; you have to be in a state of being prepared to dwell in the mystery when you read a poem. That’s the way it will open up to you. And that’s a slow process, and we live in such a fast world. I feel very passionately that it would be wonderful if people could rediscover the joys of reading poetry, I think it would be good for people.

YAMATO: You mentioned that the language of the time was deliberately composed; in your readings of the letters between Fanny Brawne and John Keats, do they remain that way even when their courtship becomes passionate?

WHISHAW: He was a great writer, so I think everything he wrote, even if it was something informal and he was talking about something trivial, it’s beautifully written because I think he couldn’t help himself. There’s lots of different styles in the letters; sometimes it’s very gossipy, sometimes it’s bawdy, sometimes he’s very poetic, but not always. But whatever kind of mode he was in, it was always composed and there’s a kind of relish of language.

YAMATO: The film is posed as a sort of opposites-attract kind of story, with John Keats the quiet intellectual falling for Fanny Brawne, an outspoken young fashionista. Having embodied Keats, what was it that he saw in Fanny?

WHISHAW: What I think he saw was someone a bit like himself, who was an individual and to some degree a bit of a rebel, and who thought for herself, which is a thing that he really admired in people. And the most important thing is honesty; I think Keats was a seeker of the truth, and wanted people to speak truthfully to each other. And I think she did that. Also she’s very different to him, as you say, in terms of what they did with their lives – they were very different, and I think that must have been appealing as well.

YAMATO: Bright Star is an unconventionally told biographical film, in that it focuses just on this brief period in Keats’ life – his romance and relationship with Fanny Brawne. That would imply that the romance was a defining moment in his life, and perhaps their love was the key to Keats finding his genius.

WHISHAW: I think that he wrote all his best poems, or the poems that are now perceived to be his greatest, all of them written during their relationship. All the odes, all the beautiful poems like “The Eve of St. Agnes” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci” – they were all written when he was in love with Fanny Brawne. And even if they’re about a Grecian urn or a nightingale, they’re all love poems in a sense; there’s a sense of devotion about them. I see them like love songs, even if he’s not addressing them directly to Fanny.

YAMATO: Keats’ style of poetry emphasized nature and the poet giving himself over as a vessel to channel the universe. Is there a similar sense for you about the craft of acting?

WHISHAW: Yes, definitely. I think that’s one of the things I said to Jane when I auditioned. At the audition, we worked a little bit on the scene where I say that line, that a poet doesn’t have an identity because he’s always filling another body; whatever he’s looking at, he becomes that thing. I said, I think that’s a bit what it’s like to be an actor — sometimes you can lose a sense of yourself because you’re always trying to understand this other person. So I think you’re absolutely right, both are trying to become a vessel, a channel or something.

YAMATO: Considering your recent spate of roles – as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the Arthur Rimbaud take on Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, and Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited – you seem to have gone after more literary and period roles than many actors of your generation.

WHISHAW: It’s funny, it’s just the way it’s worked out. I’ve really, really loved it, and I think I probably am drawn…I think the characters that novelists create are often much richer than the characters one reads in screenplays. They seem to be real life people, with histories and with futures and they live and breathe. I’m very drawn – I think all actors are – we’re all drawn to characters who are as complex and as strange and whatever else as we all are. So yes, I’m drawn to that, but it’s just happened to have worked out this way. There’s a lot of randomness in these things as well.

YAMATO: Jane Campion has said she found your audition for Bright Star particularly moving. What was it like, and are you aware you have this sort of effect on directors?

WHISHAW: [Laughs] She’s told me and we’ve talked about it subsequently, but I honestly really, really wanted to get the role because I loved the script. I love Jane. I love Jane’s films. And I just had this very strong feeling that this was mine, I can do it, which occasionally you feel toward a role. So I went into the audition with this desire, and I was reading with another girl who was auditioning for Fanny and I thought Jane was paying her a lot more attention than she was me. About ten to fifteen minutes in I thought, OK, I’m just here to deliver the off lines. Jane’s auditioning this girl and she’s not interested in me at all. And I sort of resigned myself to that fact – quite like, OK, this is just not going to go my way. So I didn’t perceive it like Jane perceived it at all. We were completely at odds there.

YAMATO: So then, did you and Abbie Cornish not audition or screen-test together at all?

WHISHAW: No. And this is one of the great things about Jane. She just has an intuition; I would guess she had an intuition that we’d get on well, and she trusted it. We didn’t meet until the first day of rehearsal. I would have thought I would have to meet her and see if we were going to get along, but no. It was really interesting.

YAMATO: What was that first day in rehearsals like, meeting Abbie for the first time?

WHISHAW: I was a little nervous, I remember. For a while, because we knew we were going to be working intensely together, we sort of were sniffing round each other a bit. But very, very quickly I could feel that she went, oh yeah, I trust you and sort of opened herself and I could relax as well. And then it was just a joy.

YAMATO: Do you get to get home to London soon and take a break?

WHISHAW: I think I get a week off, and then I’m starting rehearsals for a play, Mike Bartlett’s Cock.

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Jen Yamato

Jen Yamato is a movie reporter and critic for the Los Angeles Times. LA-based, she has served as entertainment reporter for The Daily Beast, editor and reporter on staff at Deadline, Movieline, and Rotten Tomatoes.