In Hong Khaou’s Lilting, which takes its title from a rhythmic dance music where lyrics are often meaningless, Ben Whishaw plays a young Londoner who attempts to connect with the Cambodian-Chinese mother of his recently deceased lover. On the day of my interview with the British actor, we chat long-distance: He’s in London, where he’s wrapping up work on Paddington, the live-action movie version of the beloved English children’s classic for which he provides the voice of the titular bear. His voice, of course, isn’t the only thing that distinguishes him as one of his generation’s brightest stars. For over a decade, he’s captivated audiences with a memorable series of performances on stage and screen that exude sincerity, passion, sensitivity, and intelligence. His publicist has already informed us that he won’t answer any personal questions; since the 33-year-old actor made his public announcement about entering into a civil partnership with Australian musician and composer Mark Bradshaw, he’s kept his private life out of the press. In our interview, however, he gives earnest consideration to any questions about Lilting, and wary as he may be about the conversation becoming too personal, some of his answers may reveal more than he’s planned.
What made you choose this project, working with a novice writer and director you didn’t know before?
I loved the fact that it had a very strong identity of its own. It didn’t seem to be like every other film script that I had read. It had its own language and that’s in the way it’s structured and written. Even at script stage there were very clear descriptions of what the camera was going to do and how things were going to be shot. It just seemed already very carefully considered, and it really stayed with me.
It’s striking that the characters in the movie aren’t able to communicate in their own languages, depending on outsiders to translate. What was it like having to perform almost without words?
I really loved that about the film: that there’s this constant translating going on and things being understood or withheld. I think there’s a lot of tension and a lot of comedy in that. It’s a real joy to perform those very small moments, the little details, of what happens in communication and retracting things from conversation.
Were there any challenges playing this role?
The challenges really were to do with the fact that we only had three weeks to film it in, and a lot of the people were very new to filmmaking, which was also what made it so exciting. Also, I suppose, there was the challenge of just sustaining the situation the characters are in, which is one of quite raw grief. In a way, it was nice not to have to stay in that any longer than three weeks.
Would you say grief is how Richard and his dead lover’s mother, Junn, come together?
Hmm, yes. It’s what brings them together and what’s keeping them apart. It’s a difficult mess of feelings, but I think it’s ultimately what brings about in the film its final note, I suppose, of hope or healing, or something—there has been an understanding and not on a level of language, but on a kind of deeper human level.
Kai couldn’t come out to his mother and Richard struggles to keep his secret even after he’s dead. Was that a cultural problem for Kai, or do you think that this is still a difficult process even in this day and age?
Well, I think it can be. It’s interesting. I mean, some people have said, “Oh, well, in 2014 people are coming out all the time and why can’t Kai do it?” and so forth. And I—I think it’s different for each individual. For some people it’s very difficult. Whatever way you look at it, it’s still an incredibly personal, vulnerable-making conversation that you have to have with people who are very close and intimate with you. So it’s no surprise to me that it’s something that people struggle with or put off doing.
There’s a lovely scene in the movie where Richard cooks bacon using chopsticks, showing how Richard has adapted to Kai’s world over the four years they’ve been together. Did you do any research to get to get acquainted with the Chinese community in London?
I didn’t really research anything other than just absorbing what the director Hong told me and what I observed in the other actors, really, because they were all Chinese. I did learn a lot of things, I suppose, but it was just from watching them being around.
How did you find moving from a big-budget film like Skyfall to making a small indie such as Lilting?
Yeah, it’s wonderful to have such experiences, but, bizarrely, the making of them doesn’t feel different. I can’t properly describe why, but it’s always a huge time pressure, even if you’re working on a Bond film. And actually even the Bond film that I was in felt strangely intimate. There weren’t that many people; they tended to keep the crews quite small. So the experience of making a very low-budget independent film and Bond film, weirdly, isn’t as different as it might be.
You’ve been going back and forth between theater and film, as well as television, since the start of your career. Does one medium interest you more than the other?
I really enjoy jumping from one to the other and I love the balance of doing both theater and film. Theater is incredibly exciting, but the discipline required is draining. It has to do with focus and how you sustain something, which filming requires, but in a slightly different way. That’s why, for me, it’s a pleasurable thing to mix it up.