Bright Star's Ben Whishaw on Jane Campion's Stare and Abbie Cornish's Mix CDs
As John Keats in Jane Campion's Bright Star, 28-year-old Ben Whishaw plays a most unconventional romantic hero: a poet, yes, but one who relies on his lover to save him, instead of vice versa. His Keats is a fragile man, bedridden by sickness, who finds color in his cheeks only when administered to by Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), quite literally the girl next door.
In real life, Whishaw exudes the same sort of unconventional romantic pull: He's a tangled mess of skinny limbs and lanky hair, but he's got a quiet charisma that can't help but compel. (It's no wonder that Julie Taymor wanted him to play Peter Parker.) I talked to Whishaw about giving a physically limited performance, Bright Star's most painfully deleted scene, and the love offerings he received every day from Cornish while shooting.
How much did you research John Keats for this role, and how much did you simply try to stick to Jane's cinematic vision of him?
It can get in the way, and it's a question of how you use the research, isn't it? Jane encouraged me to become an expert on John Keats as much as possible, but another thing that Jane said frequently was, "Forget the plan. I don't want to see what you've prepared in your trailer. Forget the plan, drop the plan. See how it lands, let it blow in." You have to absorb as much as you can, then be prepared to let it all go.
Did it ever get in the way?
An example of perhaps knowing more than was necessary for the film is that there was a scene that Jane cut quite late from Bright Star, where Keats gets very angry and very jealous of Fanny. Anger and jealousy are currents that run very strong through his love letters, but it's not something we go into in the film. I got frustrated with Jane for a while because I felt very strongly that it was a part of Keats that we couldn't ignore, that it had to be in the film. But of course, I was blind to the fact that it wasn't right for the story that Jane was telling. It started to lead us down a path we couldn't follow, and I see now that Jane was absolutely right.
What's the least amount of prep you've ever done for a role? Do you ever just dive right in?
I think that sometimes in theater, I don't prepare much beyond going to the rehearsals. In film, I find it very useful always to do some preparation before you start rehearsals or start shooting, because there's so much that's against you on a film set.
How do you mean?
Just in terms of the environment that you're battling with. These bite-sized takes, the hours of waiting around, the hours it takes to light you beautifully. It's very hard, then, to get to a place where you can do your work. So I think it's very important in film to prepare yourself for that, whereas theater is much more conducive to really doing actors' work. It's all about the actor.
It would seem from my perspective that Bright Star might have less of those interruptions. It's a very still film, and it doesn't seem to have a whole lot of setups. Could you run through an entire scene in a way you might not have been able to do in a film like, say, Perfume?
I think the directors of both of those films were very keen to give the actors as much "flow" as possible. But sure, just because of the kind of physical nature of telling the story in Perfume, it was different, whereas Bright Star happened in these little rooms that we could keep clear of crew. It was much more intimate, I guess that's true.