Amanuensis: Ben Whishaw on Cloud Atlas and Skyfall

The new Q talks playing multiple roles in the new sci-fi epic, how many films he may do in the Bond franchise, and Spielberg's Robopocalypse.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Like most of the actors in Cloud Atlas, Ben Whishaw plays several characters in different storylines. His main role is Robert Frobisher, an amanuensis for a composer in 1931. Oh, you don’t know what an amanuensis is? Well, I’m not going to tell you. That might be a spoiler. We got to speak with Whishaw in Los Angeles, and he’s having a big year with multiple roles in Cloud Atlas, and the famous role of Q in the latest James Bond movie Skyfall. He’s also secured a part in Steven Spielberg’s next sci-fi film Robopocalypse.
 

CraveOnline: So “amanuensis.” What a great word, huh?

Ben Whishaw: Isn’t it amazing? I’d never ever heard it before this film.
 

You did not know what an amanuensis was before?

I did not, no. I didn’t even know how to say it.
 

What pronunciation would you have guessed?

I couldn’t say. I couldn’t see it.
 

Have you been dropping it into conversations since?

I have not been. It’s quite a hard one. In fact, before we came to do these interviews, I had to check that I fully understood what it did mean. I think it has a few meanings actually.
 

So did you have to do a lot of research on amanuenses and what job Frobisher was doing?

Not really. I think it says a lot about the character of Frobisher that he chooses the word amanuensis. Other people would describe it differently but I think he has a fondness for that kind of affectation of language.
 

Did Tom Tykwer bring you onto this because you’d worked with him on Perfume?

I think he did, yeah, probably. I’m hugely grateful.
 

How did it work? Were you called in for an audition?

No, I didn’t. He just asked me to read the script. He’d mentioned to me a few years before he sent it to me that he was working on it and there’d be a part for me if I was free and if they got it funded and blah blah blah.
 

Just Tom or was he speaking for the trio?

Well, I guess by that point they must’ve decided which director would take on which story so I guess it was kind of Tom’s decision but they all had to approve the casting.
 

Was Tom in charge of the Frobisher story?

He directed that strand, yeah. And the Luisa Rey story and the Cavendish story.
 

When you were cast, was it six castings in one or just Frobisher first?

I think when he asked me to be involved, I don't think he knew yet I’d be playing a woman or any of the other parts.


Which role came after Frobisher?

I think they decided that I could be Georgette, and then they decided that it was lovely to have me play the record salesman and then actually I didn’t have any other parts until I got on set and I’d get a call from someone one day that I thought I was going to have free, and they’d go, “Actually, the Wachowskis want you to come over and be a Korean businessman” or something.
 

And were you happy to give up your day off to do that?

Oh yeah, of course.
 

With each segment, would you shoot all of Frobisher and then all of Luisa Rey?

No, no, no, no. It was all spliced up, all over the place, jumping here, there and everywhere.


You normally shoot out of sequence, but was it a really different experience to be mixed up in different stories and characters like that?

Yeah, it was really insane because the worlds of each story are so vastly different. Obviously the period and the costume and everything is entirely different.
 

Were there any costars who you didn’t know every character you were playing and you didn’t recognize them in the film?

I didn’t know Halle was the Korean scientist with the funny eye and everything. That was a surprise to me.
 

Hugh Grant as the cannibal?

I knew he was because I’d seen him in that gear drifting around the set and looking angry, pissed off. I didn’t know all of Hugo Weaving’s characters either. I love Hugo, he’s brilliant. I think I recognized him, I just didn’t know going into the film that he would pop up. I’d forgotten that he was those characters.
 

When you sign up for Skyfall do you sign up for multiple James Bond movies?

Yeah. Yeah. Yes, I hope that there will be more.
 

How many do they have you for?

I’m not sure that they put a number on it.
 

Desmond Llewellyn did 17. Have you thought about that?

[Laughs] To be honest, I hadn’t thought about that. That would be frightening but may be wonderful.
 

Obviously we’ve never seen Q as a young man. How did you imagine what he would be like starting out?

Well, he had to be a real person. He had to be a recognizable person because we’re being up to date. It’s totally contemporary. But at the same time, it had to have a little nod to Desmond and to the other Qs. It had to be continuing the tradition of Q in a way. So I think that we tried to tread that line quite carefully.
 

Q has been such a fan favorite character, did you feel any pressure about how he’d fit into the Daniel Craig world?

No, because I thought the writers had done such a brilliant job of making it real. That’s the thing about Bond. It’s got to be real and also you know it’s a formula. You know that there are going to be certain elements no matter what the story is or who the villain is. Again, that’s that tightrope they walk and I think that they got the balance very well.
 

When did Robopocalypse come your way?

I met Steven earlier in the year. We were actually due to start filming in September but the script wasn’t ready, so I think now it’s going to happen early next year in London.
 

Has that been on your plate for a while? I thought it was a relatively new development.

It is but I’d met him I think in March because I think he wanted to start shooting it in September, but then it fell apart so it’s only really just come. I think they finally got a script but I haven’t read it so it is new in that respect.
 

Have you read that book?

Yes.
 

What excites you to put that on film?

Well, I’m so excited to work on a sci-fi film with Steven Spielberg. I mean, that just blows my mind.
 

When you’re a fortunate actor in this position to be taking meetings with great directors, how do you feel on the inside when you meet the Wachowskis and Spielberg?

It’s pretty nerve wracking and you have to pinch yourself to believe it really because cinema is so powerful because we grow up with these films, don’t we? They’re part of your childhood and part of your growing up and part of your imagination and dream world and everything, so it’s very strange actually when you actually meet these people in the flesh. Very strange.
 

Are you impressed or surprised by any of the notes they give you?

I’m not surprised because I’ve known they’re great directors so I know that they’re going to be insightful people, intelligent people.
 

Does it illuminate where some of their great art comes from, when you hear what they tell you?

Yeah, what I notice about people who are gifted in filmmaking is that they’re great thinkers. They engage with big ideas and they engage with people. They really love people and they’re great observers of life, and willing to give unbridled reign to their imaginations. That’s the thing. They’re fearless in where they’ll go.
 

For the record, what were your favorite Bond movies before you joined the family?

My favorite Bond films are the really early ones, the first ones in fact, like Dr. No and From Russia with Love. In fact I think that probably is my favorite. I love that film.
 

How about Spielberg movies?

Probably E.T. but God, I love the range of his work. Schindler’s List had a tremendous impact on me when I saw that but I really like Minority Report. I think it’s a fantastic film. I haven’t seen War Horse yet.