Ben Whishaw © Midco Releasing
Ben Whishaw © Midco Releasing

Graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2003, Ben Whishaw’s career immediately soared playing such roles as Sabastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, Keith Richards in Stoned and Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.

In Jane Campion’s new movie Bright Star the actor portrays poet John Keats, who in 1818, falls in love with his 18-year-old neighbor, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Intensely and helplessly absorbed with each other, it was only Keats’ illness and ultimate death at 25 that proved insurmountable.

Can you talk about what it was about your character that resonated with you?

I really learnt to love him as a man and as a human being. What I loved most was, as I could gather from his letters and from his poetry, he was someone of immense sensitivity, but also someone of robustness and common sense and straightforwardness, so he was ethereal but also of the earth. That really appealed to me.

There must be hundreds of books on Keats, were you a fan of his poetry before you began this, what did you know about him?

Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish
Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish © Midco Releasing

I certainly didn’t know any of the details of his life, and I really didn’t know much about his poetry either, so for me it was a journey of discovery, a journey into the unknown. There’s so much been written, I didn’t just read the Andrew Motion biography, I read several others, which was really interesting, because you realized that everybody has a slightly different take on who he was and I think that gives you a sense that your take is valid as well.

How did you research the mannerisms of the period?

We didn’t really have anyone come in and teach us or advise us on any of those things, I think the costumes contribute something and the sets contributes some atmosphere which makes you behave differently, and then I think we just had to bear in mind the social etiquette of the day. I remember there was a scene Abbie and I were doing when we were sat next to each other on a window ledge, and there were some other men in the room, and Abbie and I instinctively rested our hands on each other’s knees, and Jane was like, ‘What the hell are you doing? No, no, no, you can’t do that.’ You just had to bear in mind those things, you couldn’t express yourself as fluently as you can now.

Was the rapport between you and Abbie instant or did it develop on the set?

Bright Star - Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw
Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw © Midco Releasing

Abbie’s a really interesting creature, if she decides to trust you and let you in, you get absolutely a hundred percent of her and you feel incredibly safe. There was no doubt that we trusted each other entirely, and she’s incredibly generous. We were very professional, Abbie was working so hard, she’s in every scene of the film, so we didn’t really get to hangout or spend time together apart from the set, so it was something that evolved through rehearsal, but largely it was something that happened in front of the camera.

Can you talk about Keats’ relationship with Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider), it’s kind of unusual and I wondered if there anything homosexual in it?

I personally don’t think that there was anything, definitely not on Keats’ part towards Brown. I don’t think there’s any evidence in the letters or in anything else that that was the case. Although I think much more than today, men formed these boys’ clubs and the poetry was a male activity, so there was very intense male bonding, I don’t think it was homoerotic or homosexual, I just think it was strong in defining kind of relationships.

What’s the difference from playing someone like Keats who you don’t have any visual record to go to and someone like Keith Richards or Bob Dylan?

I don’t really see a great deal of difference beyond the fact that they’re still alive and Keats’ is dead, so there’s a bit more to draw on. You’re telling a particular story about that person, and that person fits into that story in a particular way and you’ve got to honor that. Even with this film, I did all of this reading and I knew so much about Keats but there was only a fraction of it that was appropriate for our story, and you’ve got to honor the story that you’re telling and particularly with an artist like Jane, I think it’s Jane Campion’s Keats and Jane Campion’s Fanny Brawn. And I felt very much that I was fulfilling her vision.

What would you like the audience to take away from the film as to the character of John Keats?

What I feel about him is that he was a very rare human being, he was a very good person, he had a kind of nobility about him, I think, a nobility of spirit and a generosity. Jane talks about him almost as if he were an angel, a divine being. I think he was very human as well, but he had some kind of quality of divinity. Another thing I would like the audience to be aware of is this kind of capacity he had to channel something higher than himself. When you look at the manuscripts of the poems, like Ode to a Nightingale, people who studied the handwriting say that he was not writing laboriously, he was writing at a high speed, almost as if he was possessed, and his channeled to whatever it is, inspiration, or whatever, was very clear. And that’s something I would hope perhaps comes across.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.