As our final lead-up to The Hollywood Issue on Friday, we offer up an interview with the notoriously private Ben Whishaw, who — aside from his work in films like Skyfall and Cloud Atlas — will be appearing soon in Paddington and the supernatural drama Lilting. Lawrence Ferber tracked down Whishaw and Lilting’s writer/director Hong Khaou.
Lost in translation
Language isn’t the only barrier that stands between a gay man and the non-English-speaking mother of his dead, closeted boyfriend in Lilting.
The feature debut of Cambodian-British writer/director Hong Khaou, this elegant chamber drama stars acclaimed British actor Ben Whishaw (Skyfall, Cloud Atlas) as Richard, who enlists a translator and attempts to forge a bond with Cambodian-Chinese Junn (Hong Kong actress Cheng Pei Pei of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), the retirement home-bound, prickly mother of his recently deceased partner, Kai (Andrew Leung). Although Junn and Richard mourn the same person, Kai never came out or divulged the nature of his “friendship” to mom, and the jaded, sourpuss Junn disliked Richard from the get-go .…
Khaou previously worked for London-based LGBT film distributor, Peccadillo Pictures, and directed a pair of acclaimed short films, Spring and Summer. Thanks to his experience watching and distributing queer-themed films, he learned a few important lessons to apply to his own delve into feature filmmaking. “I wanted to make sure the kissing was correct,” he shares. “I remember having a conversation about that with the actors. It’s such a difficult detail to get right. I understand certain actors, if not gay, they have that trepidation, but if you’re an actor and take on kissing, you want to make sure to convey it correctly. I was very aware the kissing was right!”
Khaou shot the indie film over a tightly scheduled 17 days. Specifically citing John Sayles’ 1996 Texas-set feature Lone Star and 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene as cinematic influences on Lilting, Khaou also drew heavily from his own family life when writing the script. Born in Cambodia, his family fled to England during the 80s while he was a child. His mother struggled to learn English upon arrival, and even now has trouble with the language. One thing she does understand, however, is that her son is gay. “Her reaction [to my coming out] was fine,” Khaou says. “The build up was agonizing. I was shaking and petrified, but having told her she was fine.”
Although the actor is officially out, Khaou insists that he wasn’t aware that Whishaw — who adroitly juggles both stage and screen productions like 2008’s Brideshead Revisited and 2010’s The Tempest — was gay when casting him. He’d been wowed by the actor’s performance as a serial killer in Tom Twyker’s 2006 feature, Perfume, and felt the lanky, youthful thespian could convey Richard’s grief, vulnerability, and, yet, inner strength. He wrote a letter to Whishaw explaining as much, which was sent along to his agent with the script.
Whishaw, best known these days as gadget master Q from Skyfall (he’ll reprise the role in 2015’s James Bond release Spectre), the voice of iconic U.K. children’s character Paddington Bear in a new animated film and Moby Dick author Herman Melville in Ron Howard’s 2015 feature Heart of the Sea, publicly acknowledged his sexuality and civil union with Aussie composer Mark Bradshaw last year (that said, he’s famously reticent to discuss his private life, although during our interview he casually referred to a South Asian vacation he took with his partner). He also popped up recently, frantically dancing, in a curiously queer music video, “Real,” for electro-soul band Years & Years, whose singer, Olly Alexander, co-starred with Whishaw and Judi Dench in the Brit play Peter & Alice.
Fortunately, the London-based Whishaw has led a much more charmed life than Lilting’s Richard (and, for that matter, his doomed queer musician, Robert Frobisher, from 2012’s Cloud Atlas). However, he did in fact connect with the role and accepted.
“I’ve never gone through [losing a partner],” Whishaw shares, “touch wood. It’s not something I thought about, really, except during this experience of making the film. I don’t know what I was drawing from or connecting to personally. It was more that I found it beautifully and sensitively written. It seemed a film that took care of itself. You just had to be as honest as possible. The situation, the scenes, were so carefully observed and felt so true. It was a pleasure to do it, although difficult subject matter.”
In fact, the scene in which Richard, deeply conflicted about his partner’s closeted status, finally outs Kai to Junn — despite the fact he does it in English, without translation, and she may not completely understand – moved him the most.
“I don’t know whether it was the right thing for Richard to do,” he muses. “I think there was a strong possibility that she knows anyway. It’s a beautiful scene, because she both understands and doesn’t understand and they communicate in a way that’s not solely about language. There’s a lovely ambiguity around that moment.”
One thing Whishaw isn’t ambiguous about is his hope that the Freddie Mercury biopic he’s attached to star in, on hold since last year, finally begins production. “I think everyone’s hopeful that [the Mercury film] will happen and everybody wants to do it justice,” he admits. “But I think I’m very excited by new writing that’s not based on anything. It’s really wonderful when you get to interpret a character people don’t have preconceived notions about.”