‘So should we worry?’
For its new Hamlet, the Old Vic has cast its youngest leads ever. Ben Whishaw, 23, and Samantha Whittaker, who is taking a year out from university, talk to Kevin Spacey about agents, crazy auditions – and how to cope with the press
Friday April 23, 2004
Kevin Spacey: We’re here in the circle bar of the Old Vic to speak about the production of Hamlet, which Trevor Nunn is directing. And since you guys have just come out of tech rehearsal, on what must be your fourth day, I wanted to ask how it’s been going. Some actors love tech week, some don’t.
Ben Whishaw [Hamlet]: I don’t like tech week, really, because you seem to lose the sense you had of the play. It can unravel in your hands. But Trevor is unusual, in my experience – which is pretty limited …
Samantha Whittaker [Ophelia]: “In my experience”!
BW: He goes through the whole thing very quickly, technically, and then goes through it a second time in more detail. I think he feels that when you do it the second time, people are more switched on and creative. So tech week seems even longer than it usually is. But I think it’s going to look very good.
KS: And you?
SW: I found it quite difficult. Obviously, it’s my first show, so I’ve no idea how it works.
KS: So you’ve never been through a tech week?
SW: Not professionally, no. Only at school. It’s quite scary.
KS: In a way, I guess you feel like you’re giving it over to the technicians. They have to have their time as well.
KS: So when will you guys get it back? Will you do a run-through tomorrow?
BW: Yeah, I think we’ve got a run in the morning.
KS: And then the first faces come in.
KS: How’s that feel?
SW: Good. Scary. I’ve got everyone I know coming tomorrow night, which isn’t many people – about two.
KS: Well I’m sure after next week you’ll know more people. Or more people will know you. I’d love to talk a little bit about what the experience of auditioning was like for both of you – what that process was like, what Trevor put you through.
BW: I went in to meet him assuming that I’d be auditioning for Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, you know? You don’t think when you’re 23 that you’ll be auditioning for Hamlet. And I didn’t think that. So I was surprised, but I happened to have chosen one of Hamlet’s speeches – the very first soliloquy – so we did some work on that. Then he sent me away to prepare two other soliloquies. I came back a week later, and we worked for another 45 minutes on those two. Then I thought, “Well, I haven’t got it.” I was fairly convinced. I said to my agent, “Let’s pursue the other options now.” But then Trevor called me back and he wanted me to do something funny, something that wasn’t Hamlet. So I prepared a speech from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Lance with his dog. And I found out – I think, that very day.
KS: And what was your experience like, Samantha?
SW: Very different. I’d seen [the casting director] Maggie Lunn, obviously. And she just said, “Have a look at any bit you want, apart from the mad scenes, for when you meet Trevor – if you meet Trevor.” And so I went to see him, and looked at all the scenes, just in case. And he said, “Which bit do you want to do?” And I said, “Whichever bit you want me to do.” I did the “My lord, as I was sewing in my chamber” speech for him. And he wanted me to try it again differently. Then he laughed at me, and said, “Thank you very much.” And apparently chose me – we found out that if he touches you in the audition then you’ve got the part.
BW: Is that true? I didn’t know that.
KS: So when he asked you to do things in a different way, how did that make you think? Did you think, how can I do that? Or, what does he really want? What’s the feeling?
SW: It was brilliant. For me, it brought total spontaneity to it, because you get stuck in a rut when you’re practising by yourself. And I was probably doing the obvious thing that he’d seen 100 times, as much as I was trying not to. So he just gave it an angle that I’d never seen before. It was totally different.
BW: I think he’s absolutely brilliant. I guess he did the same thing with you, where he pulls his chair up alongside you and speaks very quietly to you.
SW: Yes, yes, he did.
BW: And he’s not at all technical. In my audition we did nothing about the language, nothing about the iambic pentameter, it was just about what was going on in this guy’s head. Very quiet and very close.
BW: And so you get drawn into this thing, and then something just bursts out of you. He’s quite amazing at tapping into things.
KS: This may be a technique, because I remember I auditioned for Peter Brook once for a production of The Cherry Orchard – it was one of these unbelievable auditions that went on for six hours. It was insane: you go in, you go out, you go in. Brook has this very similar quality where he sits very quietly, and he has the deepest, bluest eyes you’ve ever seen in your life. But he speaks so quietly that you find yourself …
BW: … having to lean into him.
KS: Yeah. And the entire world disappears. You just want to dive into his eyes. It sounds like Trevor has this same technique.
BW: I think he does.
KS: And what’s the rest of the company been like? Have you gotten along with everybody? Has it been fun?
BW and SW: Oh yeah, definitely.
BW: They’re a really cool bunch of people.
KS: And very supportive of you, Samantha?
BW: Yeah, because I always imagined that an actor playing Hamlet has to lead the company, but I don’t feel that I’m doing that at all. We’re much more of an ensemble, which I think will be interesting in the final result.
KS: I think sometimes that when you go and see a well-known actor playing a major role, it does tend to focus on him. When I did The Iceman Cometh here, there was all the baggage of that part, and I didn’t want the whole play on my shoulders. What I felt Howard Davies did so beautifully was to make the 26 actors, including the understudies, feel like a family. And I felt so supported that when I was out there, I didn’t feel like it was my star turn, which I think is what happens sometimes when plays focus too much on a leading character – what you want is a world to be real so that a character exists in that world.
SW: And in my family unit, we get on really well, me and Nick and Rory [the actors playing Polonius and Laertes]. And I think in our scenes, it shows that we’re this loving family unit.
KS: I wanted to ask about how you got here, how the last year’s been. You’ve been in school up until when, and where did you go?
SW: I was in my first year studying English at University College London, and I dropped out when I got this.
SW: Well, I’m on a year’s educational leave because this is an A-level text.
KS: And the idea of being an actress, when did that happen?
SW: I had the lead in a school play during my first year at junior school, and I said, “This is what I want to do.”
KS: What play was that?
SW: It was The Emperor’s Nightingale, and I played the emperor – very badly. I had to sing, which is not my strong point. Then I wanted to go to drama school, but my parents said no way, so I went to classes every night and did every local amateur play and wrote to agents from the age of 14.
KS: So did you get an agent?
SW: Yes – well, I went to a drama class that had a children’s agency attached to it.
KS: And so you were just going on auditions occasionally?
SW: I was with them for three years and had two auditions. My first one I got – probably because I looked just like the guy playing my dad. And then the other one I got, but I broke my nose so I couldn’t do it. Then I won a scholarship to go away and study performing arts in the sixth form. And my agent said if I wasn’t going to the classes they didn’t want me in the agency, so I wrote to some other ones.
KS: I know you were at Rada, Ben.
BW: Yes I was.
KS: But you started working professionally earlier, because you and I met last year when you came and auditioned for a film. So, tell me about how you started.
BW: Well, I went to a youth theatre near where I live, where I’m from, and the guy who ran the youth theatre knew an agent in London, a child agent, and took me along to meet her. I think I met her when I was 14 and sat on her books for a couple of years doing nothing, and I got my first job when I was 17. Then I did bits and pieces of work, still at school at the time, doing A-levels. I thought, I’ll do my A-levels then I’ll just work. I’ll work as an actor. So I finished my A-levels. Nothing. Not a single audition, I didn’t get a job. Nothing. I thought, this is hopeless, so I decided to apply for Rada and finished last May.
KS: Yes, I think you’d been out about four days when we met. I remember I was directing a film about the life of Bobby Darin, and I’d said to my casting director that I wanted to meet new actors who were just out of drama school. So she brought me Ben. When you walked out – and this is why I was so pleased when I heard that Trevor had hired you – I turned to the casting director and said, “Look, I know you’re not here to cast for the Old Vic, but I have to say that if I were to have a company at the Old Vic, this is the kind of actor that I’d want.” The way you talked about what it means to you showed that you had a great sense of humour about yourself. And I particularly enjoyed the fact that you had many cats. It was a special skill on his resume, at that time.
BW: It’s still there.
SW: What does it say?
KS and BW: “Cat-breeder”.
BW: At the time I had 11 cats in my two-bedroomed house.
KS: So you guys have previews now for how long? How many do you have?
BW: Eight, I think.
KS: And then it runs into July. It must be exciting. It must feel great.
SW: And scary.
KS: It never doesn’t get scary, no matter how many plays you do. I’m always getting nervous beforehand – usually every night. And I think there’s something valuable to that.
SW: I quite like it, actually. On Saturday when we were doing the run, I was so nervous.
BW: I feel OK about the previews and everything, but the press night – the prospect of that is quite terrifying, people coming to judge you.
KS: Well you shouldn’t worry about it, because they don’t all come on press night.
SW: So you should worry every night?
KS: They call it a press night, but they don’t all come. But there is that night, you have to do that, and then we’ll have a nice party afterwards. You never know who’s out there. To me, the more terrifying thing is when you find out that an actor that you admire is in the audience. I get much more terrified when I hear that Peter O’Toole turned up than any critic.
BW: Yeah, I guess.
KS: And I suspect that a lot of people are going to want to come and see you.
SW: The actors have been there, whereas the critics don’t have that.
KS: Well, some of them have a generous spirit. And I suspect that things will be just fine.