Most of us remember The Crucible, and its tale of persecution during the 17th-century Salem witch trials, from high school English class. Arthur Miller originally intended the play as a parable about Communism and the Red Scare in 1950s America, but in the current Broadway revival of the classic – which ends its critically praised run on July 17th – we get supernatural effects, a live-wolf look-alike and gruesome makeup, so that the story crackles with contemporary insight. Audiences can detect associations with the way immigrants are treated as potential terrorists and how bloviating political wannabes manipulate minds.
At the heart of the fascinating production by director Ivo van Hove is Ben Whishaw as John Proctor. Often described as willowy and waifish, the actor isn’t the type many would typically imagine in the gruff farmer role. But Whishaw has been something of a chameleon. His most high-profile role to date has been as Q in the Bond films, but this past spring he also appeared in The Lobster, a dark, dystopian indie comedy about people who are transformed into animals if they can’t fall in love. Before that, he was in the British TV thriller London Spy, which featured him in steamy gay sex scenes. Perhaps his most-anticipated role is as Freddie Mercury in the long-rumored Queen biopic. “The producers are working on the script at the moment,” he tells Rolling Stone of the hotly debated project. “They are very keen to get it absolutely right. That’s all I can say at the moment.”
As his six-month sojourn in New York City comes to a close, he spoke with RS about how the play has changed him, his reaction to the Brexit vote and whether he’ll retain the big, bushy beard that has transformed him into something of a lumbersexual for his many admirers.
I’ve seen you twice in this production of The Crucible, and it was so impressive. I’m curious: What is it like now, as you’re coming to the end, versus when you began so many months ago. Has anything changed?
I’m not sure. I mean, I’m not sure if it’s changed, but I’ve never done a play for such a long time. It’s definitely been interesting because it’s just that it gets deeper and deeper in to you. It becomes a deeper part of you; you know it so well. It sort of comes from a different place. I think it’s richer and deeper and we’re all more relaxed with it.
But another thing that has been really interesting is seeing how it feels to perform it as the world around us changes. How as world events unfold, the play seems to reflect them back in a really interesting, often quite frightening way. That’s been very interesting and kept that feeling very alive.
A lot of us first experienced the play when we read it as teenagers in school, and we thought we understood it. But watching it now, in 2016, it does feel like it relates to so much of what’s going on in American, and even world, politics. How do you interpret the themes in it yourself as opposed to how critics and everyone else thinks about it?
I think Ivo, our director, made the brilliant choice by removing some of the specific things that are put into the play and made it happen in a time that could be kind of any time. I think, therefore, it seems to be about so many things. I mean when the bombings and attacks happened in Belgium earlier in the year, it seemed to be very much impossible to not feel that it was speaking to that event in terms of the kind of religious fundamentalism that was at work there.
But then, at the same time, in the Brexit that’s just happened in the U.K., it seems to speak very much to that as well – about community and about fear and hysteria. So it’s one of those plays that’s absolutely specific and, in its specificity, manages to speak about so many things. I know obviously a lot of people are feeling that it is very prescient with the political situation here and particularly what Donald Trump has been up to over the last while. It’s an enormous play; it’s very generous. It seems to kind of speak to the moment, whatever the moment might be.
“[The Crucible] seems to kind of speak to the moment, whatever the moment might be.”
I know you’re familiar with working on location and being far away for long times, but was it strange being here in New York when the Brexit vote was happening in the U.K.?
Yeah, it’s been really strange to be at a distance from it. I was away as well when the attacks happened on the London underground in 2005, and I remember watching that from overseas and feeling similarly attached and frightened and wanting to be back home, which is what I sort of feel at the moment, really. I feel like I would like to be back home even though it’s splintering apart. I feel like I want to be with my country, and I will be soon.
You mentioned working with Ivo van Hove, and I’ve seen several of his plays and spoke to him and Jan [Versweyveld] about their creative collaboration. I think he’s one of the most amazing theater directors working at the moment. What has it been like being in one of his productions? It feels like it must be one of the scariest and most thrilling things to do as an actor.
I really adore the process of working with Ivo. And he does have a slightly forbidding aura, but he’s also very kind of cheeky and mischievous and fun, and I think that that’s always an element that’s in his work as well. I found him to be just incredibly exciting. I felt very alive, very challenged working with him. He’s a man of few words, really. I think he speaks little and carefully. Everything he says to you remains with you.
I know your partner Mark Bradshaw, who’s a composer, is here with you in New York. I wonder, both of you being creatives, have you ever thought about collaborating?
Yeah, we have, actually. I think we will do something soon. But at the moment, we’re both preoccupied with our separate things. But maybe in the next few years we might do something. It’s definitely something we talk about and knock ideas back and forth about, so we’ll see. Yeah, I mean, certainly Ivo and Jan are a very inspiring couple to work with and to watch working. Beautiful, the way they interact.
Well, they’ve said it can be quite intense – that people think they’re getting into fights, but actually, it’s just how they work together.
Yeah. I think that’s true. They’re sort of … quite direct people, you know? They just speak to the point.
In the last year or so, we’ve seen you in so many different parts. I loved your role in The Danish Girl with Eddie Redmayne. Plus, you were in Suffragette and in London Spy, and this year you popped up in The Lobster. It’s been so diverse. What’s happening next? I can’t tell.
I don’t know myself what I’m going to do next. I’m going take a long holiday, and I just want to come down from this play, which has been really intense. And then figure out … Well, I say, “I’ll figure out” – I’ll see what blows in. I mean, there are things that look like they might happen, but I haven’t chosen anything yet because I feel … yeah, I don’t really feel like I’ve got any brain space to really make a choice. You don’t feel like you’ve got a lot left by the end of the run. So, I’m going to just let the dust settle and see. That’s what I’m going to do.
Well, you say you don’t have much brain space left, but I noticed in several different previous interviews that you said you were reading Hannah Arendt’s book The Banality of Evil. That’s not easy reading – did you finish it?
Oh, yeah. I did. I did finish it. But it took me ages.
And what was the takeaway?
Well, it’s interesting because I hadn’t realized when I was reading it what a controversial figure she is. Because a lot of people saw her as somehow excusing [Adolf] Eichmann. Having read the book from start to finish now, in 2016, I couldn’t really see that that was the case. But I also saw the documentary that was made about her, which was quite interesting. No, I don’t know what I took away. I am quite brain-dead, you see – really, truly.
But it was interesting just because she talks a lot about people not being able to think properly or think things through, and particularly, people being unable to think about how other people might be thinking or feeling … as being the source of a lot of awful things happening in the world. Eichmann was unable to think his way into how someone else might be feeling. And that was what I think she was pinpointing as the root of the problem.
Well to shift gears to something lighter, but I’m assuming that you’re tired of all the crazy makeup that you’ve had to go through every night.
Yeah, I’m well and truly sick of that, yeah. Because it takes ages to … You just scrub and scrub … and then I get home and I wash my face, and it’s still … the towel is black, and it’s like, “Oh, my God. It’s so deeply in my skin.” And just the number of showers I have to take on a matinee day is kind of crazy. I won’t miss that part of it at all.
So are you going to keep the beard? Or is the beard going?
I’m undecided. I’m quite enjoying it, but I think that, because it’s been so a part of playing the role and part of the whole experience of being in this play, I think it might have to go, just as a sort of ritual. Yeah, ritual shedding.
But I’m definitely going to miss the company because it’s the best group of actors I’ve ever worked with on every level – just in terms of skill and commitment and kindness to one another. It’s been such a long run, it would have been hell if we hadn’t been close-knit, and we’re really close. I will really miss them. I’m already dreading saying goodbye, actually.