Ben Whishaw’s Amazing Year Continues With Women Talking
Mar 3, 2023
You’re not going to find Ben Whishaw in a fashion photo spread these days. He’s not one to crash a red carpet or find a way to get a DeuxMoi mention either. No, Whishaw just keeps doing his thing and crushing it. Great role after great role. Superb performance after superb performance. He’s already an Emmy, Golden Globe, and two-time BAFTA Award winner, and, just last month, he took home a Gotham Award (in a very competitive field) for his role in the acclaimed BBC and AMC series “This is Going to Hurt.” Oh, and he earned a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for that as well. Oh, and a Robert Altman ensemble honor from the Spirits for his next endeavor, “Women Talking,” which finally arrives in theaters on Friday. He’s absolutely a “talent.”
READ MORE: “Women Talking” Review: Jessie Buckley leads a stellar cast in Sarah Polley’s tense drama [Telluride]
Inspired by real events at a Manitoba Colony in Bolivia over a decade ago, Sarah Polley‘s adaptation of Miriam Toews‘ celebrated novel centers on a group of women charged with determining their fate after they discover the men of their community have been drugging and raping them. As August, Whishaw plays a man who at one point left the colony to live in the real world, only to have his heart call him back to the desolate farms for someone in particular. On this day, he’s been deemed a neutral party and put in charge of recording the minutes of the women’s debate. But, if they leave will he go with them? Or will he stay so the young boys have a role model to look up to?
Our discussion starts off right where you’d expect it to.
Please note: There are spoilers to the film in the context of this interview.
The Playlist: The most obvious question, this project comes your way. Did you see Sarah Polley’s name and was it an immediate yes?
Ben Whishaw: Yeah, I saw Sarah Polley based on a book by Miriam Toews and I was like, “Oh my God, this is going to be something special. This is going to be something really worth reading.” And it was. A lot that you read in film and television gets a bit watered down and you feel like some kind of simplification has happened to make stuff more palatable or easier to take for a wide audience. And I didn’t feel that that had happened with this script. It was quite difficult. The ideas in it were complex and challenging and painful. But it was also gripping and very, very moving. I was so moved, I was in tears by the end of the first read. And then I had a chat with Sarah on Zoom and she was just beautiful. And then it so was very easy. I was like, “Yeah, if you want me to do this, I would absolutely love to do it.” It was very, very easy indeed.
When you talked to Sarah, do you remember what she prioritized about your character? Was that even part of the conversation?
I don’t remember. I remember, which is something that Sarah always does, is that she’s like, “Do you have any thoughts? Do you have any questions?” She won’t dictate anything to anyone really. It’s like she creates a space for you to think and to question. So I remember her asking me, “Was there anything that didn’t make sense?” Or anything that I needed some clarity on. I can’t even remember what those things were. And then we just really chatted about friends we had in common and, I don’t know, just life. I think it was December 2020. So we’d also just gone through that insane year. So I think we just chatted. It was very lovely.
I’m going to make an assumption that you’ve worked with other directors in the past who were actors who also directed or transitioned into directing. Do you believe in an actor’s director? Would you put Sarah in that bucket?
Well, I can’t necessarily explain quite how, but it’s definitely totally different to have not only an actor but like a superb actor looking at you, watching you, as from a directorial stance, position because, not that you would do this anyway, but you knew you couldn’t get away with anything other than complete commitment and the truth. And that wasn’t spoken, you could just feel it. It’s just something about the way she looks at the world and the way she conducts herself. So it is really different. Also, and I think about this a lot, I think that some directors, and it must be so hard, some directors don’t know how to speak to actors, because it must just feel like, “What do they do?” Or, “That’s what they do.” So they often won’t say anything or they’ll say something that’s not totally helpful that you then have to translate. Do you know what I mean?
But Sarah doesn’t. Sarah understands what would be helpful always and that’s amazing. And also in terms of notes, but also in terms of how to run a set and how to keep up energy over a long shoot. It’s almost like a play this film. And we could have so easily exhausted ourselves, but she knew how to sensitively manage everything, and particularly the women, who had such a heavy emotional burden to carry. She was very sensitive to that, which was amazing.
So I’m guessing since your character has a specific arc over the course of the film, she let you figure out those emotional beats yourself?
Actually, no. I would say, this is something I actually think is really important for people to know because this came up earlier. I think people think more often that things are kind of improvised or stuff just happens, but this film was incredibly, precisely scripted. Of course, there’s a degree to which it’s found in the moment, but it was very precise about like the emotions that the character was experiencing. That was written down. And most of the physical actions were written down. I think that Sarah visualized it very clearly, very precisely. So of course there was space and other things were found, but if it said like, “August cries.” That was described. And it was also, I think, in the book. It was something that Sarah wanted to keep from the novel.
I talked to Claire yesterday and she discussed the film’s rehearsal process. She found that very valuable and she felt that that helped her with her performance. Did you feel the same?
I think rehearsal is always great really. I think it’s great because you become a company and that’s the thing, and you build a trust with one another and that’s a valuable thing. It’s not like you literally work out exactly how it’s going to go because you want to find that in front of the camera. And the thing about what was amazing about watching these actresses was that they held it until the moment that the camera was there. But, yes, it was really helpful to bring us together into a sort of sensitivity with one another in that room and a sense of safety, because I don’t think it would’ve worked if any one person was trying to pull us in another direction.
I know you’ve done stage work before and with the wrong director maybe, this film could have very much been received as a filmed play. And, wonderfully, thanks to Sarah, it isn’t. Were you nervous about that at all before going into the project?
Yeah, I understand that fear and, weirdly, even from reading the script, reading the screenplay, I could tell that it wasn’t going to be. I just knew it wasn’t going to feel that way. Of course, it’s heavy on talking but it says that in the title. I mean, that is unapologetic, is like, “This is what it is so don’t come and see it if you’re not up for listening to some talking.” So I love the kind of bravery of that and the uncompromising nature of that. And it never felt like it would be a play. Also, I don’t mind that, personally, I quite like filmed plays, but I know that some people don’t. I always quite liked that. But it’s a taste thing.
I know you’ve no doubt been asked this in many other interviews today and over the past couple of months, but you were the one male lead actor in this incredible ensemble of women. Did you feel intimidated? Did you feel like, “I need to step back and let them have the moment?”
Yeah, I was aware of what it entailed. I didn’t feel intimidated. Jessie Buckley‘s a really good friend. Claire, I know a little bit. I felt like I’d got on really well with Sarah, even just from our meeting. Yeah, I felt like it was going to be fun and it was. We had a lot of fun. But for certain it was necessary that I step back. Definitely, that was no question that was going to be what was required and be just very like, in the best possible way, it’s not about me. It’s about something else. And I’m there just to listen and to take these notes and to be present in some way to what is unfolding. And also, I think, I feel this in life. If a friend calls me because they’re going through something hard and they want to tell you, people often apologize, “Oh God, I’m taking up your time.” You feel, “No, I feel honored that you would share that. You trust me enough to tell me this.” So I felt that kind of thing. I was like, “God, I feel I’ve been given a very special thing here that I want to respect and cherish and be careful of.” Yeah. Does that make sense?
You are a very good person because a lot of people would not take that phone call from their friends and be that excited.
Well, not always.
No, not always. [Laughs.] I don’t want to give too much away about what happens to August at the end of the film, but how do you perceive what will happen to him in this community?
I think it’s sort maybe somewhere in between two things. I think it does seem a shame that some women who’ve watched the film have said to me, “Oh my God, I just wanted him to go with them. Because why must he stay in this place where he doesn’t belong either really?” But obviously, he can’t go and he has a job to do and that is to teach the boys who stay and the men who stay. And that I don’t think is tragic actually. I think that has a sort of an ability to it and a purpose to it that’s hopeful.
I know you all had the book as a resource and obviously, a very detailed script, did you feel you needed to go and research the Mennonite community on your own before going into production?
We watched some documentaries and we talked to people a bit. It’s very hermetic. They’re very closed communities. One of the things that Sarah also was very at pains to make clear is that she wanted to be respectful to these communities. Obviously, we were exploring something horrific that’s happened, that really did happen in one of these colonies, but we are outsiders, we are not ourselves a part of this world. So, I know she wanted just to handle it very respectfully.
So, in a sense, I think what Sarah [saying] that we always remember that it’s, as the film says at the beginning, it’s an act of female imagination, wild imagination. And it’s a kind of fable. So, it exists in a slightly heightened place that takes something from the reality of Mennonite communities but is also something other, and it felt important that we position it there rather than a documentary about a Mennonite community, which it really isn’t.
Also when I spoke to Claire, she mentioned that it took her seeing it a second time to actually experience the film. And I don’t know if you’re someone who doesn’t care about watching themselves on screen or prefers not to. What is watching the film like for you?
I haven’t seen it yet.
Because I missed some screenings they had in the summer in London and then I was filming myself and so I couldn’t be there at the premiere. And I didn’t want to watch it this weekend because I didn’t want to watch it with so many people. So I haven’t seen it. Yeah. I don’t know.
Is it hard for you to watch yourself then?
I hate watching myself. I hate watching myself, but I want to see this film and I will. But I understand what Claire says because I think the first time you can’t help but be sort of wrapped up in your own slightly egotistical… It’s just human nature. Just looking at your own face is quite weird. So you’re seeing the film and it is quite hard to see it, but the second time you’ve got over that a little bit and then you can see better what the film is. I’ve had that experience before. Yeah.
Well, I hope at some point you will watch it?
Yeah, no, definitely.
It’s an ensemble, too, so you’re not on screen…
Exactly. No, no, no. I definitely will watch it and I know that it’s really important that I see it and I really want to see it. I just haven’t yet.
I’m assuming you were shooting “Limonov, the Ballad of Eddie” when this premiered?
Can you just really quickly talk about what your role is and what people can expect?
Yeah. Oh my God.
Oh, no, maybe not. [Laughs.]
No, no, I can, it’s just like the most enormous gear shift from talking about “Women Talking” to talking about “Limonov.” It’s a totally different universe. It was quite a complex thing actually because we were making that film in Russia in February when the war started. And we’d done five weeks, I think, were nearly halfway through and then we all… well, I got sent home and the production was stopped. And then we picked it up five months later in Latvia. So, it is maybe quite complicated to talk about. But I’m excited to talk about it in the fullness of time because it’s a project I really love and loved working with Kirill Serebrennikov, an amazing director. And, I don’t know, it’s quite complex because the real world…
The world’s on fire where you were.
The world’s on fire.
“Women Talking” opens in limited release on Friday.
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