Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer - Ben Whishaw interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
BEN Whishaw talks about the challenge of playing murderer Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer, and how he turned to animals to capture the primal instincts of the character.
He also talks about the pleasure of working with Dustin Hoffman and the brilliance of the film’s shock ending.
Q. How did you first become involved with Perfume?
Ben Whishaw: I became involved after [director] Tom [Tykwer] came to see me do Hamlet at the Old Vic just over two years ago. We just met up one day in London, had a drink and a chat, and kind of immediately got on very well. We connected.
Then we did a bit of work on one of the scenes and quite quickly, Tom decided that it might be a good and interesting collaboration. But then the really difficult part began because he had to convince the world that it was a good idea to cast an unknown in a film that was going to cost however many millions to make.
I knew of the book at that point but I hadn’t actually read it. So my first encounter with this story was through the screenplay. I think I’m grateful that it was that way round because I think it’s a book that if people get into it, they really get into it and have a very strong personal connection with. But I didn’t have that, thankfully, which meant we could make the film rather than feeling too bound to some pre-conceived idea about what it should be.
Q. So what did you think when you came to the end of the screenplay? I imagine it was a similar reaction to what audiences will experience?
Ben Whishaw: [Laughs] I remember just thinking that it was totally brilliant, totally unexpected and totally thrilling. I love it. For me, it’s the highlight of the film. It takes you by surprise but it makes complete sense. It’s extraordinary.
Q. You researched the role by studying animals. Which ones in particular?
Ben Whishaw: Well, it felt like a useful place to start because animals, much more than us, are responding to smell in a very primal way. Just to see how that impacts on the way they move, interact with the world and look at it was a helpful way into the character. So we looked a lot at this animal called a loris [a form of primate], a very slow-moving but graceful creature. I started off looking at tigers and cats but I think Tom was more interested in the stealth that this loris has. The killing, when it happens, is not really brutal; it’s quite brief and quite elegantly executed.
Q. This could have been something that would have had trouble getting past the censors if done wrong, yet the film doesn’t somehow feel as violent as it should…
Ben Whishaw: It was conscious on Tom’s part that there should be something beautiful about the killings because the whole time we’re sort of seeing the world through Grenouille’s eyes. For him, the killing is just a necessary step in the process of creating this beautiful thing, this piece of art. I think Tom wanted to reflect that in the way it was shot.
Q. Did that non-violent approach help you in terms of how you pitched the performance, so that your character didn’t become too repellent to viewers?
Ben Whishaw: Absolutely, it did help. Unlike some serial killers in the history of cinema, he’s not a character who gets any pleasure from killing itself. There’s no thrill. It’s much more animal than that. It’s instinctive. He needs to do it, he does it and he gets what he needs. There’s no savouring of the actual act. But I really like the way the film is about murdering and yet you can forget that he’s murdering at all. It sort of puts the audience in an interesting position in terms of their relationship – being slightly disgusted but also a little bit sympathetic. That kind of mixture of emotion is quite fascinating for an audience to feel.
Q. How did you find the challenge of taking on your first lead in a film?
Ben Whishaw: I found it quite overwhelming to begin with. I remember really feeling the pressure and all the “I can’t believe this is happening to little me” emotions. But something eventually clicks inside you and you just get on with it. So my way of dealing with it was to stay inside the character as much as possible and let everything else happen.
Q. How did you enjoy having Dustin Hoffman as a co-star?
Ben Whishaw: We shot those scenes with Dustin in the first two weeks of the shoot and I remember thinking: “This can’t be a good decision; surely we should be doing some easing in or some warming up.” But it was absolutely perfect because Dustin takes such pleasure in what he does and there’s nothing tense about him. He exudes joy and passion for what he’s doing and that infects everyone. It certainly put me at ease coming to work with him every day. I felt his confidence and freedom rubbed off. He doesn’t censor himself or stop an idea because he thinks it might be wrong; he just does it and later it’s decided whether it works or not. So it was incredible to observe that.
He also never does the same thing twice which is totally stimulating because you’re always getting something new from him. You never really know what he’s going to do next, so you have to be on your toes. But you want to be nimble and responsive, so that was great too.
Q. And Alan Rickman?
Ben Whishaw: Well, I don’t really have that much to do with him in the film but I think Alan has such presence as a human being that, again, something rubbed off on me. There’s something very still about him and watchful. I always love the fact with Alan that there’s something strange and dark going on behind his eyes. There’s always an ambiguity which I really enjoy watching.
Again, when he’s not shooting he stays on set, so his energy permeates.
Q. What has the film done in terms of your film career? Have you noticed any immediate effect in terms of exposure or offers?
Ben Whishaw: I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to have massively made a difference yet [laughs]. Maybe it will once it opens in the UK. Hopefully, it will open doors and lead to more interesting projects, or more interesting people will get to see me. So let’s see…