Ben Whishaw Is Man Enough to Play Both Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe
Ben Whishaw tells Philippa Snow about taking on a starring role in The Shed's opening season. Photographed by Jack Davison.
Photograph by Jack Davison.
“The common denominator that I share with all women is that I’m an actress,” the French director, star of stage and screen, and feminist Delphine Seyrig once said. “Actresses do what all women are expected to do. We just throw ourselves into it more.” In Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, a new play by the Canadian poet and essayist Anne Carson debuting at The Shed in New York this spring, the role of “all women” is filled by an amalgam of Helen of Troy and the ur-actress, ur-femme Marilyn Monroe: two fatal beauties with a knack for splitting into two distinct real and unreal selves. More literally, onstage, the role of “all women” will be filled by Ben Whishaw, the mercurial and fine-boned English actor who has worked with Carson twice now, and for whom the piece was written. “Which is,” he admits over bad coffee in a diner in East London, “a somewhat peculiar thing.”
Somewhat peculiar, and yet not entirely unthinkable, as no role exactly seems beyond his reach. Whishaw turns 39 this year, and has enjoyed a reputation as one of his generation’s greatest actors since the age of 23, when he played Hamlet and astonished audiences by embodying not the expected paunchy, 40-year-old Hamlet, but the Hamlet of the text—a clever, clinically depressed, and vaguely bratty student. (“When he did ‘To be or not to be,’” director Trevor Nunn recalled in 2012, “you really felt you were watching someone who might kill himself.” This is, in case you aren’t familiar with the plot of Hamlet, quite the compliment.) Unlike a number of his peers, he did not go to Eton or to Harrow, and as a result, his best performances do not feel like the product of extensive and expensive education so much as a kind of spooky genius. “In some ways, acting is nothing to do with you,” Whishaw says. “I think it is a thing that happens to you when you’re working at your best.”
“Theater can be conservative. It doesn’t seem to evolve at the rate that other art forms do. I’m interested in working on things that feel like they’re moving the medium forward.”
A lot has happened to him since he played the Dane. In no specific order: Whishaw has been a Rimbaud-inflected version of Bob Dylan, partly sharing the role with Cate Blanchett in 2007’s I’m Not There. In Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2015 bad-date fantasia The Lobster, he was a man whose mother had been transformed into a caged wolf. For 2009’s Bright Star, he played John Keats—about whom Slate wrote, presciently, that the poet was “as tough to demythologize as Marilyn Monroe.” In an astounding adaptation of Richard II, in 2012, he played Shakespeare’s king like an eccentric, egocentric former child star. With a stroke of casting brilliance every bit as fated-feeling as Leonardo DiCaprio playing Jay Gatsby, he was absolutely the best thing in 2008’s Brideshead Revisited, as Evelyn Waugh’s “magically beautiful…epicene” Sebastian Flyte.
Norma Jeane Baker of Troy instantly seduced Whishaw because it, too, was magically beautiful, epicene, and utterly opaque. “Theater can be conservative,” he notes. “It doesn’t seem to evolve at the rate that other art forms do. I’m interested in working on things that feel like they’re moving the medium forward.”
So, yes: Whishaw will probably throw himself into portraying Marilyn-as-Helen, and by proxy, my entire sex, with the appropriate élan. It helps that he is “not technically playing a woman—I’m playing a man who identifies with [Monroe], and over the course of the evening is kind of overwhelmed by the process of inhabiting her.” Director “Katie [Mitchell] and I felt that we had to find a reason why a man would be playing these very iconic female characters,” he continues, “so the production is set in New York in the ’60s in a typing pool. I’m the manager, and I have hired somebody there [co-star Renée Fleming] to come and type up the manuscript I have written, which is of course the text you’ve read.”
The text I’ve read is Carson’s fierce and frightening monologue, in which the life of Monroe is filtered through the myth of Troy, so that the actress—under her birth name, and not her studio name—is the one who sends out a cloud in her stead, a fuckable diversion that men kill and die for, the way Helen does in myth. “Truth is,” the Norma Jeane character spits, in the same breath as she invokes a childhood rape, “it’s a disaster to be a girl.” If Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is sometimes a cloud in a girl’s shape or a man in women’s clothing, she is also not wrong about femininity.
I tell Whishaw that I read the script three times, the first to absorb its emotional shock waves and the other two to parse its meaning, and no other subject in our time together thrills him quite so much as Carson’s elegance with language, her strange fire. “Anne is doing things like that with language all the time,” he nods, “where it’s not working on a rational level; it’s more about sound and rhythm and feeling, and about what’s under the words as much as what it might literally mean. Your brain has to move somewhere else in order to receive it. I think, rather than being able to say, ‘This play meant this, and this was the moral,’ she would like you to sit there and have an experience—to travel.” Before he appeared in her translation of The Bacchae in 2015—their first collaboration—he was not familiar with her work: “And so I read her book Autobiography of Red, which absolutely blew my mind. By the time I came to rehearsals, I was, let’s say, a fan.”
Right now he is reading a book about Monroe “by Norman Mailer,” he says, in exactly the eye-rolling tone than Mailer’s name deserves, “which I don’t think was the best place to start. I also just started to read this brilliant book called Fragments, which is in effect a compilation of all of the written paraphernalia she left behind in various places, scrawled on hotel notepaper or in old notebooks. It’s very beautiful, and also very disturbing, because obviously there was a darker side to her, and some of her life was very painful and entirely at odds with that dumb, smiling, highly-sensual-but-innocent persona.” When I recommend Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde—a 700-page mess of a novel in which Monroe, narrating the story of her own life, calls her face “a special kind of cunt”—he eagerly jots down the title in the back of his Patricia Highsmith paperback, and it’s a testament to his disarming earnestness that when he says he’ll buy the book that evening, I believe him.
What I do that evening is return home and immediately Google something that he mentioned, offhand, about the director Todd Haynes’ rationale for casting Blanchett as one of six racially and gender-diverse variations on Bob Dylan. “He referenced a performance artist that he’d seen in New York,” Whishaw recalls, “a man, who dressed up like Joni Mitchell. He said that seeing this man channel Joni Mitchell was so much more moving than seeing a woman do it, because there was this disconnect happening.” The performer’s name, I find out, is John Kelly; I hope Whishaw has seen, or will see, the extraordinary clip of Kelly playing “Blue” that I unearthed on YouTube, which is strange and queer and perfect. Kelly is not Mitchell, exactly—more like a cloud in her shape. Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go / I don’t think so / But I’m gonna take a look around it though, he sings, as if to say: “Truth is, it’s a disaster being a girl.”
Anne Carson's Norma Jean Baker of Troy begins previews at The Shed on April 6. Tickets are available now.