Celebrating the wonderful career of gay actor Ben Whishaw

Pop culture guru David Ferguson is back, this time exploring the LGBTQ+ film and TV characters played by out actor Ben Whishaw.

Ben Whishaw smiling wearing a pearl earring and glasses.
Image: Shutterstock: Loredana Sangiuliano

I think it is the quiet charisma of Ben Whishaw that attracts me to his acting. The soft-spoken actor prefers to keep his private life just that, often refusing to answer questions on the subject.

On this choice, he has said, “As an actor, your job is to persuade people that you’re someone else. So if you’re constantly telling people about yourself, I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot.” He has discussed his coming out though, saying “… everyone was surprisingly lovely. I hadn’t anticipated that they would be, but they were.”

The actor has played a number of LGBTQ+ roles. I may be missing a few, but I’m covering the ones that I have enjoyed and that the man himself has given some insight on.

I covered Cloud Atlas in my science fiction list. In it, Whishaw plays, amongst other roles, Robert Frobisher, a bisexual composer, who goes to work for ageing composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). The film has some beautiful moments between Frobisher and his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), although sadly, (spoiler alert) it doesn’t end well.

A personal favourite of mine is Lilting, which sees the character Richard, played by Ben Whishaw, dealing with the death of his boyfriend Kai (Andrew Leung). He is left to deal with Junn (Cheng Pei-pei), Kai’s mother.

They both struggle as they do not share a language and Kai was struggling to come out before his death, something Whishaw identified with: “I had a lot of fear in doing it for a long time… But it takes courage and people have to do it in their own time, which is a negotiation you see happening in the film.”

Whishaw had a role in the controversial movie The Danish Girl. He praised the lead actor Eddie Redmayne’s acting but did comment on a cisgender actor playing a transgender role.

“I think Eddie did a beautiful job,” he said. “And it’s done. Going forward, there will be other films in which the role is given to someone who lived that experience. Why shouldn’t a role like that be given to someone who knows, inside, what the character is? I’m all for that.”

He further commented, “I feel the same, sometimes, about straight actors playing gay parts. I’m critical if I don’t think the performance is, from my subjective experience, accurate. I might think, ‘I don’t believe you!’ And even a small moment of hesitation or inauthenticity will block my engagement with the whole story. So I understand these questions.”

I have also covered the mini-series London Spy before. Whishaw plays the main character, Danny, who ends up involved in the world of spies. This comes through a relationship with Alex (Edward Holcroft).

Danny has a checkered past but it seems like the same might be said about Alex. Whishaw says it’s the least ‘spy thriller’ spy thriller you can imagine. “It doesn’t really feel like a spy thriller to me, although it sort of is. It’s broader than that, because it’s about a character who’s not within that world, about somebody who stumbles into it and to whom it’s alien and mystifying. So it doesn’t feel like a traditional spy drama in that sense. It’s more about his mind.”

This series of course brings comparisons to his character of Q in the James Bond series. The character of Q was revealed to be gay in No Time To Die, but Whishaw was not impressed with the revelation, especially as it wasn’t referenced outside one scene and one pronoun.

“I think I thought, ‘Are we doing this, and then doing nothing with it?’ I remember, perhaps, feeling that was unsatisfying.”

Queers was a drama series directed and produced by Mark Gatiss, who people may know, amongst many other things, as one of the writers behind Sherlock and Doctor Who. Queers was part of BBC’s Gay Britannia, which marked the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 in the UK.

There were eight episodes, each featuring a monologue. Performers included Russell Tovey and Alan Cummings, and Ben Whishaw starred in the opening episode ‘The Man On The Platform’.

Set in 1917, a British soldier called Perce talks about his experience in World War I as well as a childhood story featuring a famous queer writer. Whishaw does a brilliant job, unsurprising considering his work in the theatre.

Another historical role came in A Very English Scandal. Written by Russell T. Davies, an adaptation of the novel of the same name, it tells the story of the scandal involving politician Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) and his gay lover Norman Josiffe (Whishaw).

Having listened to the Bad Gays podcast on Thorpe, I was struck by the level of detail that the show goes into and Whishaw does a great job of playing the role that makes the character come across as both the victim and the villain, and the show does the same for Thorpe. You can decide where both characters fall.

Finally, a more modern setting and the series: This Is Going To Hurt. Whishaw plays Adam Kay in an adaptation of Kay’s memoir about working as a junior doctor. It also covers Kay’s protracted coming out.

Ben Whishaw, filming in 2018, was reminded of the less forgiving times of the 2006 setting: “I definitely remember feeling, for me at least, that it was much less easy to be tactile with a gay partner then. It’s still amazing to me that a display of affection between two men could be so distressing that someone would throw things, or tell me to ‘find a fucking room’.”

Asked about these reactions, he stated, “Sometimes it could be scary. But I don’t think I remember being angry. I guess I have the basic perception that if you have a problem with gay people showing each other affection, it’s because something around that issue is unresolved within yourself.”

If you want to check out more of David Ferguson’s content read his previous GCN pieces here.

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