Few actors do anguish as well as Ben Whishaw. Though he’s best known as James Bond’s gadget-loving sidekick Q, the BAFTA-winning Brit has wowed audiences for well over a decade by playing a string of tormented characters on stage and screen: Hamlet, John Keats, Herman Melville, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Richard II, and … Paddington Bear. The image of that marmalade-loving Ursid might pop into your mind as you watch A Very English Scandal, which reunites Whishaw with Hugh Grant, who played the bear’s nemesis in Paddington 2. But in the case of this Amazon Prime mini-series, the co-stars’ onscreen relationship is far less PG-rated.
Set over two decades, the story begins in the early 1960s when Jeremy Thorpe (Grant), an influential MP, begins an affair with stableboy Norman Scott (Whishaw). As Thorpe gains more power, their relationship deteriorates to the point where the politician, who became the leader of the Liberal Party in 1967, views Scott as a problem that must disappear. Without giving too much away: Thorpe’s plan turns into a boneheaded disaster that ultimately sees him stand trial for conspiracy and incitement to murder. It’s not just a history less, though. At a time when powerful people are regularly accused of using their positions for sexual gain, A Very English Scandal feels surprisingly fresh. Vulture recently caught up with Whishaw to talk about sex scandals, Mary Poppins, and how his magnificent mane transcends space and time.
Were you familiar with the story of Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott?
I hadn’t heard of either of them. The trial was in 1979, which is the year before I was born. It was just at the point of Margaret Thatcher coming in and the world really did seem to change — not just here, but in America and everywhere. There was a big change in society.
Norman is still alive. Did you meet him?
I met him with Stephen [Frears, the director]. We had lunch together — not for long, maybe an hour, but he talked about Jeremy and his experiences. Even though it was just an hour, it was important that I connected with him.
Can meeting the person you’re portraying be a double-edged sword? Did it alter your performance?
It does sort of feel like a double-edge sword, because I had to approach the project in the way that I approach anything — which is as a story and as a character. My job is not to make any judgement on a character, but to look as clearly as I can at who they are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it. You can’t start making edits to a character because you don’t want to upset somebody. You have to look at the whole spectrum of their personality. In that way, it is complicated having met with him, because there are points that his recollection and the story as told by Russell and John differ. I took it really almost as a work of fiction.
When I first heard that Doctor Who’s Russell Davies would be writing and The Queen’s Stephen Frears was directing, it seemed like an odd pairing. But their sensibilities come together in an amazing way. It’s a drama, but an almost absurdist vein runs through it.
That was one of the things I adored about the script because I just think that that is life. That’s just the way life seems to be. It was really precisely calibrated in the writing, and then Stephen — in an intuitive way — kept it grounded so it didn’t just become a caper. For me, it was important just to play it truthfully. I’m not a comedian, but I love it when some comedy comes crashing onto a page that might not appear to be funny.
The evolution of Norman’s character is interesting. The more people try to silence him, the stronger he becomes. Though Thorpe triumphed in court, it still felt like a win for Norman.
I’m pleased you’d say that because that’s exactly how I think of it. There’s no denying that there was a miscarriage of justice and that Norman was treated very badly, by the press and by the people in the court and so on. But at the series’ end, I don’t feel that it’s a man who’s been crushed or destroyed. If anything the opposite is true. It was Jeremy who never got his career back and who became very ill not very long after the trial. Norman landed on his feet and has lived a long and healthy and happy life.
At the beginning of the series, homosexuality was a criminal act. While the world has changed, which aspects of the story do you think still most resonate?
The thing I find moving about the story is the humanity of it, and I think that’s what people are connecting with. Partly it’s just shocking; it’s a scandal and people are riveted by it. But partly it’s just about men who have a love affair that goes wrong. I find the humanity of that, the non-judgement of that, very beautiful.
For many actors, Hamlet is the role they wait their entire careers to play. You started there. Did that scare the hell out of you?
Yes, certainly it was terrifying. But I think there’s something about that play — it spoke to me. I don’t wish to sound arrogant, but I was like, “I get this. At 23, I really get this. I know this guy. I know what he’s feeling” in a way that I’m not really sure I do now. I can’t really connect with it so much now; maybe it’s one of those things that comes around, and you’ll feel close to it at another point in life. At 23, I felt like I was that guy. It was a bit terrifying, because there was a lot of pressure. But if it had been terrible failure it wouldn’t have been any great loss, because no one knew who I was.
Paddington Bear notwithstanding, you seem to gravitate toward anguished characters. What attracts you to a role?
I’m interested in interesting behavior and complicated psychologies. I love ambiguity in characters or ambivalence. I like characters who are clever, who’ve got some kind of energy, some kind of survival instinct. I like using narrative comedy and darkness.
You also end up in a lot of period pieces. Coincidence?
I think it’s coincidence, but I also think there’s a reason why people make so many of these stories set in the past. Maybe it’s easier to get a grasp on the past than it is the present. I was thinking about this in relation to A Very English Scandal — we live in a time now where there’s so much sharing of personal things, and so much displaying of it. That wasn’t the case 40 years ago. Our lives have changed.
I actually have a theory on why you get offered so many period pieces: Your hair transcends time, so it works for any period in history.
Yes, it serves me well, my barnet.
I can’t let you go without talking Mary Poppins. Have you seen it?
I have seen it and I’m really delighted by it. I’m really excited for other people to see it.
Do you sing in the movie?
I do that speak-sing thing that you do during musicals when you can’t really sing.
And you’re officially returning to James Bond?
That’s my understanding. I believe we’re starting in December, so I haven’t read anything or talked to anybody yet. But that’s quite normal. It’s all incredibly secretive until the last moment.
I would like to go on record that I think Q should be the next 007. Would you be game?
Oh, yeah! I’d only do it if I could be Q, though, doing it. I don’t want to jinx anything, but I’m definitely up for being more active.
This interview has been edited and condensed.