I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The actor stars opposite an opera diva in Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, Anne Carson’s verse play that reflects on the histories of two iconic women millennia apart.
The British actor Ben Whishaw is famously shy about his personal life, yet on stage and screen, he elicits remarkable candor and vulnerability from his liminal, emotionally bare characters. Like a tuning fork, he calibrates and transmits their internal pitches viscerally yet with grace. His performances find the beauty in uncertainty—termed negative capability by Keats, whom Whishaw portrayed tenderly in Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009).
This spring the actor starred alongside opera soprano Renée Fleming in Anne Carson’s spoken and sung drama Norma Jeane Baker of Troy at The Shed in New York. Directed by Katie Mitchell, the production juxtaposes two women of mythic beauty—Marilyn Monroe and Helen of Troy. Whishaw plays a writer attempting to understand the untold sorrows and inner turmoil of these women—through song, verse and, finally, through the physical embodiment of Monroe’s iconic and ill-fated femininity.
Between performances in New York, Whishaw met up with the French novelist Édouard Louis, and they talked about their mutual love of reading, the thrill of difficult audiences, and the challenges of making personal work.
Édouard Louis So how’s it going with the play? It’s so physical, no? You’re doing so many things at the same time. I knew you were an amazing actor, but I didn’t know you were such a good dancer and singer and performer and drag queen.
Ben Whishaw I’m so pleased you enjoyed it. I find it stressful performing every day because I always have the feeling that it’s not as good as it ought to be. I think: That moment was wrong. I didn’t hit that quite right. Always critiquing myself as I go. And just the repetition eventually, after so many weeks, becomes bewildering and I start to not know what I’m doing. But basically I’m having a good time because I love Anne Carson’s text and working with Renée [Fleming].
EL I’m crazy about Renée Fleming. I’m a very gay opera kind of guy. So I was following her all around Europe when she was touring. For me she’s the best diva of the past thirty years. She reinvented so many operas. Like Massenet’s.
BW She’s awesome to work with. She’s more generous on stage than most actors. She really looks me in the eye every night and sings right to me. Even though I speak and she sings, I feel like we’re communing. We’re not in different worlds. We’re communicating with each other genuinely.
Katie [Mitchell] works in extreme detail. Every millisecond is scrutinized. We worked out backstories for Renée’s and my characters. And then examined everything from the temperature in the room to the thoughts passing through their heads. Everything is very carefully structured and planned. And Renée and I—though we come from different backgrounds—love this level of detail. It’s such a joy to play with her every night.
EL We feel it. It’s like you’ve been friends forever.
BW I also like doing something that is—I mean, people walk out of this show a lot.
EL That’s a good sign, no? It’s what we call avant-garde.
BW I’m quite enjoying that.
EL It’s divisive because it’s radical. It means you are challenging people and making them uncomfortable. It’s difficult to do, particularly in the US, where there’s such a sense of consensus. When I write a book I’m hoping that it will irritate people. There is a responsibility to create fractures.
BW It’s really true. Have you experienced this type of reaction before?
EL Last month in Paris at a performance of the stage adaptation of my last book, Who Killed My Father, during the part that talks about French politics and how Sarkozy’s policies toward the working class were reflected, physically, in my father’s body, people started leaving the theater.
BW They didn’t want to hear it.
EL They were so shocked. But I was moved by that. For me it was almost part of the show. They were performing “I don’t accept that.”
BW And that was a success for you.
EL They had the impression of being accused of something. When you say that the dominant class and the government are making decisions that affect people’s bodies, people say, “No, it’s not their fault. It’s complicated. They are part of a system.” Whereas if a working-class kid kills someone, they will say, “He has to face justice because he is responsible for violence.” There’s a double standard in the way we judge people. So the fact that these people were finally being told they were responsible, and they felt bad, felt so good to me.
BW So an actor was performing your text, kind of speaking it straight, as a monologue?
EL Yes. It’s snowing on the stage. And there’s a mannequin of the father character. And as everything becomes buried under the snow, it becomes more and more difficult for the son to move from one place on the stage to another to see the father.
It was really focused on the text—like the play you are in, which is built around the elaboration of Anne Carson’s text. The main action is your character reading and performing a script, a play within the play. That’s challenging for the audience. They have to be really tuned into what you’re saying.
BW Yeah, it’s got a number of layers that you have to decipher or learn how to take as the play unfolds because it doesn’t explain itself. There’s an opera singer; something’s going on in an office. You can make of it what you wish. Some people are happier when they’re being told what something means and what they should feel. But I quite like the openness and the layering of the experience.
My intention was to inhabit the character of this man, this typing-pool manager/writer, who I think feels neither male nor female—or maybe rather, both male and female at different times. He has an obsession with Euripides and Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe, and he’s haunted by images of violence, exploitation, and war.
EL Did you know Anne’s work before?
BW Yes. I adore Anne’s language. We started work on this piece last October and I’m still discovering new things in the text. It’s very precise.
I’ve read almost everything of hers. Have you?
EL I just translated Antigonick into French.
BW Oh, did you?
EL One day I came across it in a book shop. It was the first book I read by her. And I was blown away. In the meantime, I’ve read everything else she’s written. Nox was probably my favorite.
BW Mine too.
EL I think you should make a record of Norma Jeane.
BW It would be a nice thing to play actually because it’s kind of a dense thing to take in one go.
EL During the play I felt that you had this Leonard Cohen vibe with the melancholy in your voice. So that’s my other project for you: an album of Leonard Cohen covers.
BW I’d be well up to that. (laughter) I can only play those chords on the ukulele though, that’s as far as I’ve got.
It’s wonderful and sort of strange to meet you because your work is so naked and personal that I feel an intimacy with you that I don’t in fact have. You know what I mean?
EL I cannot say anything to that, only blush. If I may say so, if it’s not too forward, I also feel a very strong connection with you. When I escaped the village of my childhood and went to a small city to go to high school, I was the first of my family to do so. We had no relation to culture or literature. I had never been to the movies with my family. And I arrived in this little city in the north of France, Amiens, and suddenly I was in contact with people from cultured families, who read books and went to the theater, the opera. I felt so ashamed of myself, of my past, and I wanted to change everything overnight. I thought, I have to know about cinema. So I watched Gerry by Gus Van Sant on DVD, and then I went to the movies and saw you in Bright Star by Jane Campion. Those were the first two real films of my life. Sure, growing up we would watch TV, horror movies, Titanic—which for me is actually an absolute masterpiece—
BW I love it too.
EL People who don’t like Titanic, I call them homophobic. It’s homophobic not to love it. (laughter) But anyway, seeing Bright Star was like transforming myself. If I had been to the movies before, it would have been a movie that I saw after other movies. But when I walked in that day, I thought, This is my self-reinvention. That’s why I have this strong connection to you and to Gus van Sant.
BW He’s made some amazing films.
EL Elephant. Paranoid Park.
BW Have you seen his very first film, Mala Noche?
BW He has such a range of genres and styles that he works over. I admire that very much.
EL And he made that one with a very low budget. He just did it in the streets. When I published my first novel, I sent it to him, and we later met, and it was like meeting a piece of my being because of this effect he had on me.
BW How was the conversation?
EL He is so shy. And I’m shy too, but the shyer I am, the more I am performing.
BW Me too.
EL I’m trying to—
EL I’m an obsessive person. When I like someone, I like them obsessively. If there are not some artists or some people who you could die for—
BW That’s the whole point! It’s my feeling for those I admire that makes me want to act.
EL Exactly. Because you think, The great beauty, the great emotion they’ve created—I want to do the same.
BW If I’m feeling a bit flat or lost or uninspired, I’ll watch or read something, and then I go, That’s why I must do this. Maybe one day I can make something like this person’s made.
EL When I went to the École Normale Supérieure for university, I showed up with so many dreams about this considered-prestigious school where Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida went. But many of my classmates were so blasé about my heroes in literature and cinema. Maybe because they were so familiar with this world… I couldn’t understand. When I was talking about Toni Morrison or Marguerite Duras, I was like, Ahh!
BW And they were just kind of cool about it?
EL Yeah, “She’s great. Beloved was a nice book.” “‘Nice book’? Fuck you!”
BW It knocked my head off.
EL “I died one hundred times reading this book. How can you say ‘cool’?”
BW I don’t want to make art so that people can be cool with it. I want to make people scream and change their lives and feel something.
EL Feel that nothing will be the same again.
BW Can I ask what you’re working on at the moment?
EL I’m in the middle of a storm, working on my next novel. I’m trying to write an odyssey of self-transformation. There was a point in my life when I wanted to change everything about myself, so I went to court and I changed my first name. I went to court again and changed my last name. I lost thirty pounds. I changed my teeth, the color of my hair. I had surgery on my jaw. My best friend would put small pieces of bread on a plate, and I would try to eat differently, to use my fork differently.
I’m trying to make a cartography of all the universes that I experienced step by step from the lower working class—what Marx called the lumpenproletariat—of my childhood to the cultural middle class of Amiens to the bourgeoisie in Paris. It will be my first thick book.
I’m working also with theater. I was just working with Thomas Ostermeier.
BW Is he doing History of Violence?
EL Yes, we did it at Schaubühne, and it will come to New York in the fall.
BW Are you happy with that?
EL I’m so happy. I admire him so much. You worked with Ivo van Hove, right?
BW Yeah. We did The Crucible here in New York.
EL On Broadway?
BW Yeah. Are you going to do something with Ivo?
EL He’s doing the stage adaptation of Who Killed My Father in the US.
BW You two will be a great match. He’s a very mysterious man. You probably know him better than I do. He’s withholding, but it’s part of his charisma.
EL How did you come to theater?
BW I’ve always been onstage. My dad took me to a youth theater in the town twenty minutes down the road from the village where I grew up [in Hertfordshire], and I used to go there every Sunday. It was really my lifeline. It was the thing that gave me my work.
EL How did you choose it? Was it a decision from your father, or you asked him?
BW I can’t really remember. I have a twin brother. And my twin is very sporty, like my dad. My dad left us when we were seven, somewhere about there. I think my dad just didn’t really know what to do with me. And I was very shy. So he took me to an audition at this youth theater, and I got in, and then I met this man, Rory [Reynolds], who ran the theater, and he just opened up my mind.
EL You were seven years old?
BW I was older than that, maybe twelve. And it was amazing. This will give you a taste of what it was like: one of the first productions I was involved in was a version of If This Is a Man by Primo Levi. We did this as teenagers.
EL That’s quite intense.
BW It was that kind of place. And we did Greek plays and really serious, heavy Shakespeare.
EL It must have opened your mind to very important issues directly, without waiting.
BW Exactly. And Rory treated us like artists. He gave us assessments at the end of each term, saying, “You know, you worked hard on this, but you could do better. And sometimes I feel you just say things to please me, and you should think about that.” He opened up my whole brain. And then I just wanted to be on stage, doing theater. It was the only thing I liked. I discovered cinema quite a bit later, and now I love that very much.
EL You enjoy it more?
BW I think it’s just newer, and I find it more miraculous because if I see a good film, I don’t know—it’s like when I read a book I love, I just don’t understand how they did it. With theater, I know more of the tricks, so it’s harder to stop my critical mind.
But my big pleasure in life now, really—other than sex—is to read.
EL The happiest life is a whole life reading, no?
But as you were saying, working on a movie, you do a small scene again and again. And at the end, it becomes something else, nothing to do with what you did.
BW You’re just a tiny part.
EL And you’ve done completely different things in film, from avant-garde movies to very popular ones.
BW I never intended to be in films at all really. They just came along. And now I’m in James Bond. Sometimes I feel like maybe I lost some kind of purity by being in these films, but what can I say? I enjoyed being in them. And people enjoy them. But I’m also happy that I can be in smaller productions that are odder and more troubling and harder to take. That’s where my heart is. I guess I’m quite open because when I was growing up, even the idea that I could go to drama school was an extraordinary thing. To be an actor and to have met all these people has exceeded anything that I ever imagined. So I just stay open to whatever blows through.
EL Watching you in movies and theater, this broadness is part of why I relate to you so much. Because I enjoy James Bond and I enjoy the avant-garde, like the work of Katie Mitchell and Ivo van Hove and Jane Campion. I feel culture is where people lie the most about what they like. So many of my writer friends enjoy Game of Thrones and James Bond, but when they’re interviewed, they will say, “I like Rachmaninoff and Jean-Luc Godard.”
BW Why do we do that? We edit out things from our lives that don’t fit the picture that we think someone else wants of us. That’s what’s startling and moving about your writing: it’s so unfiltered. I wouldn’t have the courage to use my life in that way.
EL When I’m writing, I don’t think about the exposure or the risk, only after the fact. When I wrote about my family in The End of Eddy, some journalists went to my village to check if what I was saying was true. And they took my mother to a home that was not her home and gave her clothes that were not her clothes, and they filmed people and edited out all the men because when men were speaking, you could hear the social class more. And they said, “Oh, look, Édouard Louis grew up in a perfectly reasonable middle-class milieu.” They would not have done that if I was writing fiction. Autobiography confronts you. While you are reading the story, this person is actually suffering. Some journalists were almost begging me, “But it’s a little bit fiction, no?”
BW It would make it easier for them to look away.
EL This is the political strength of autobiography. I wonder what it would be like for you to create autobiographical cinema, or theater.
EL Like if we sit together for a few weeks, and you tell me everything about your life, we write it down and then you perform—
BW —as myself. God, I’d really have to think. I mean, I like the idea, but there’s something I’m so attached to, which you’re not, and that is a certain degree of—
BW In acting you can do something really personal, but it’s never you. It’s never your words. You didn’t direct it. It’s some other character with another name and another life. But it is you, somehow.
But maybe if we could just change my name, I could do this project. (laughter)
EL But no, you shouldn’t change it!
BW Experience itself is so multilayered and bizarre and unfathomable, isn’t it? So in some way, as soon as you start to tell a story, you’re already doing some editing, some shaping. I’m fascinated by that. Everything is a fiction in a sense. Is that a provocative thing to say? Not a fiction, but—
EL —different versions of reality. But the idea that nothing is objective is sometimes used as a way of not having to confront certain things. And I really believe that there are some objective areas of truth in our lives.
What are you working on next?
BW A film called Surge. In it, this man…he’s having some kind of, I don’t know, it’s a bit like what you were describing, a transformation story. Someone transforming from something sort of quite bludgeoned by social pressures to something more primal. Which sounds like it could be cliché, but it isn’t. It’s really beautiful and sensitive.
EL So a friend of yours is doing it?
BW Yeah, Aneil Karia. He’s writing and directing it. It will be his first feature film. I can’t wait. We start shooting in July.
Édouard Louis was born in Hallencourt, France, in 1992 and is the author of three books—the most recent of which, Who Killed My Father, was published in English this year by New Directions. He is also the co-editor of a scholarly work on the social scientist Pierre Bourdieu.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee