Interview with Ben Whishaw
Ben Whishaw, the star of Criminal Justice, BBC One's compelling new five-part thriller which runs over five consecutive nights, by acclaimed writer Peter Moffat, is one of Britain's most in-demand young actors.
"I was thrilled by the script," explains Ben. "I started to dream about it and talk to friends about it – it got under my skin. It was something I felt I had to do, and the story seemed to tap into really primal fears. It has a nightmarish quality – it's complex and challenging. I felt it would challenge me in big ways."
Ben plays Ben Coulter, a 21-year-old
with a sensitive nature and a happy-go-lucky outlook on life,
who finds himself charged with murder at the end of a drug- and drink-fuelled
"Peter Moffat's script was simply impossible to put down – and that very rarely happens. I remember I had to take a break between reading each episode to get my breath back and calm down," says Ben. "It got me so charged. I hope we've managed to capture this quality in the finished piece.
"I loved the way it worked simply on the level of thriller, and yet it also felt very real, very authentic – particularly in its depiction of the politics of prison life. I was shocked and surprised and enthralled by it."
Ben admits he was very intrigued by his character's plight.
"Ben is really a kind of Everyman figure – it seemed to me he could be any one of us. He's young and open – an innocent. His story begins one fairly ordinary Saturday night when, through a series of minor events, he picks up a girl and spends the night with her and, within 24 hours, has been charged with murder. And so begins a journey that he couldn't possibly have anticipated and, in many ways, is not equipped to cope with. It's a test of his every resource – of everything he is and believes in.
"Ben's journey is an enormous one," continues Ben. "For me, it's really a story about how you keep a good heart in a system that's designed to break you. How do you hold on to the truth when everybody doubts you? It could be said that it's also a story about growing up – growing from child to adult and the hard lessons that transition brings."
When asked if there was anyone in particular that Ben based his character on, or drew inspiration from, he explains: "The director, Otto Bathurst, and I saw early on that really Ben Coulter had to be more or less me.
"It's the first time I've approached a character in that way. I kept saying to myself: 'Keep it simple and keep it honest'. I just had to put myself in his situation and behave the way I would behave in such a situation. I wanted the audience to feel that they were Ben, and to feel what he feels."
In the drama, Ben stars alongside an impressive British ensemble cast including Pete Postlethwaite, who plays career criminal Hooch with whom Ben shares a prison cell. "They were all amazing actors, every single one of them," explains Ben. "It was a joy working with them, and I absolutely loved working with Pete. His simplicity and honesty and invention and humanity are exemplary – as an actor and as a man. It was simply a very great privilege – he's a legend."
Having now played this
role, which sees Ben completely going through the criminal justice
system, does the actor believe he has learnt anything about it?
"I hesitate to say I've learnt anything very much about the criminal justice system – perhaps I've had the tiniest insight into the way prisons work, but I suspect we only scratched the surface of what the reality is. It's only a television drama, after all.
"The criminal justice system, like any system designed by human beings, clearly has its flaws. The percentage of inmates in prison who are suffering from some form of mental illness is staggeringly high. That is shocking and saddening to me but I couldn't offer any solution."
How would Ben persuade someone to watch Criminal Justice? "Criminal Justice is, I hope, a thrilling human story. It's about somebody who is unexpectedly taken to the extremes of human experience. I think the directors, Otto (Bathurst) and Luke (Watson) have done a fantastic job of making Peter's story exciting and challenging and moving. I think it may well be uncomfortable viewing at times, but sometimes it's important to feel uncomfortable."
Ben's film and theatre credits include Trevor Nunn's 2004 production of Hamlet at London's Old Vic; Perfume – The Story Of A Murderer (2006); the recent Dylan biopic I'm Not There; and the much anticipated film remake of Brideshead Revisited – Julian Jarrold's adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's classic novel, which is due out later this year.