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Interview with Ben Whishaw, star of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Ben Whishaw stars in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), a young man with a strong sense of smell who murders women to collect their odor and create the world's most powerful fragrance with Giuseppi Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) as his mentor. Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman) investigates the serial killings to prevent his daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood) from being the next victim. The film is set in during the 18th Century and it's based on the novel by Patrick Suskind. Ben Whishaw has had small roles in films such as Stoned, Layer Cake, Enduring Love and The Merchant of Venice. I had the privilege to interview him.

Paramount Pictures will release Perfume: The Story of a Murderer on December 27th, 2006.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What did you enjoy most about being in Perfume?

BW: Itís working with [director] Tom [Tykwer]. Heís a really dear friend and somebody who Iíd like to work with again and somebody I share things with. We look at things in a similar way and have similar tastes and interests. I found working with him really satisfying on a creative level and just personally, as well. That connection feels like the most important thing.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What did you feel about Perfume when you saw its finished version?

BW: I found it very brave in the way that it unfolded which was much slower than I expected. I loved the way that Tom [Tykwer] really allowed certain sequences to really breathe. Also, I watched it with an audience in Barcelona and it was really interesting just to see all the stuff weíve been talking about [regarding] whether people would just be repelled and not give a shit about [Jean-Baptiste], [but] people clearly wanted to stay and the film clearly cast a spell over them. So, thatís quite gratifying.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What did you fear most about playing Jean-Bapiste?

BW: I had trepidations because the character is so uncommunicative. On the page [of the screenplay], thereís not much to go on, really. So, I had questions about that. Also, we always slightly felt the pressure of adapting, as anyone would, a very well-loved novel. I didnít really worry too much about whether killing women would be a bad way to make a debut in a big film.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Which scene was the most challenging for you?

BW: The final, climactic scene on the scaffold was, kind of, tricky because the whole film really hangs upon that moment and youíre just looking at a face on a body. Itís a quite interesting little arc that happens in that sequence [which] is quite subtle, so I found that quite difficult.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What are some special characteristics about director Tom Tykwer?

BW: Iíve never had a big enough part in a film to have a relationship with a director in a film. It has always been a day here, a day there. In my limited experience, what seems special about Tom [Tykwer] is that he really wants to have collaboration. He will genuinely listen and will take on what you would have to say even if itís critical or even if youíre raising difficult questions. Heíll engage with it truly. That seems to me quite rare.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What did you discuss with him to prepare for the role?

BW: It was usually about the balance of the characteróhow much we needed to think about him being sympathetic and how much we needed not to worry about that [and] the contradictions in him. Also, [we discussed] how he talked. He didnít want to change the script and I said to him, ďIt doesnít make sense that heís talking like this if heís a character that has never been educatedĒ. There were tiny changes like that, but we discussed everything. Itís not like he sat in the room and did it all himself and I was just a puppet.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you read the book before the shooting?

BW: Yes, I did. I read it about 4 timesó4 Ĺ [actually]. I think I was reading it for a 5th time and Tom [Tykwer] said, ďLook, just put the book down,Ē while we were making the film. So, I tried to get as much out of it as I could.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you feel acting alone during many scenes?

BW: I never really tried to not let go of the character, but the characters all let go of me in some way because heís so alone so much of the time. I had so few scenes with somebody else to play off [of, so] I did take that home after a little while, but I think Tom [Tykwer], managed to dig me out of that black hole.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you manage to understand the essence of Jean-Baptisteís character?

BW: The press notes say that I took some perfume course, which is not true; I didnít do that at all, [but] Tom [Tykwer] did. The most important thing was to try to understand that thereís some kind of absence inside of himósomething is missing, thereís some kind of emptiness. [I] tried to understand what it is that he wants to fill that. We discussed lots of different things, but that was always the core, I guess. We never proceeded from a position of labeling him as somebody who is a sociopath or a psychopath or anything like that. It didnít feel like that would really open up the character. I just tried to see him as a human being as far as possible.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Was the set design helpful in getting into your character?

BW: Yeah, it was. It felt very vivid, anyway, because the set was so incredible and so detailed. It didnít leave me much imagining to do because it was all there. Often, it did really smell bad. So, that helped, I guess.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you feel acting with Dustin Hoffman?

BW: It never felt like it was some kind of battle to hold my own against. Just because thatís the nature of their relationship: you have one character whoís extremely flamboyant and very aware of his position in a social sense and thereís another character whoís totally inward and has no understanding of society or human interaction at all. That just had to be that way. Dustin [Hoffman] is a, sort of, Hollywood legend, and Iím, sort of, a nobody, so, [we] let that feed into the performances. It felt very smooth and very playful.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was like to be around Dustin Hoffman?

BW: Heís really friendly. Heís the center of attention, which, again, is helpful for the character and for what we were trying to achieve. Heís quite nurturing, in a way. He gave me some really good advice [and] was generous.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What advice did he give you?

BW: In the very first day that I shot with him, I was totally freaking out because it was the first time that I was seeing him in his full regalia. I couldnít get something and I was getting really frustrated [and] Tom [Tykwer] is directions at me. I, sort of, started to lose it and then, sort of, quite and dropped the ball and he said ďCut!Ē and Dustin said, ďIn that moment, you really came alive, but it went wrong. You should have kept going. Itís all about the accidentsĒ. I totally understand what he meansóitís a competence thing, really. But there is something exciting when what youíd planned or preconceived goes out the window and something else happens that might be accidental or takes you somewhere new.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you compare this role to that of Hamlet in the play you performed in?

BW: Interestingly, it felt quite similar as a role because Tom [Tykwer], I think, is a director who likes to, kind of, strip actors down. He has a certain taste in acting and in the way that he directs actors. When I first read the script, I imaged that it would be more of a case of putting things on, like, something more extreme like a body shape or whatever. Tom wanted it a bit more naked and wanted to go inside the character, so it actually felt very similar to working on a part like Hamlet. There are certainly parallels, anyway, in terms of the kind of territory that they, sort of, enter intoóthis, sort of, obsessive quest that theyíre on and this, kind of, introspective part of their natures. So, I can, sort of, see a connection between the two.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you search more internally or externally to comprehend the character of Jean-Baptiste?

BW: Itís a mixture. It really depends on the type of character [I play]. With this character, it really felt like it had to come from within. There are some characters [that] are really social characters and theyíre always about the surface details and then there are a kind of characters who exist on a different sort of planeótheyíre emotional characters and all about internal stuff. If thereís any character thatís like that, itís [Jean-Baptiste]. Certainly, sometimes, you have to turn your attention outwards and you pick out things like magpie fashion.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What redeeming qualities have you found in Jean-Bapiste?

BW: It has something to do with the fact that thereís something innocent about him. Even though that was heís doing is obviously wrong, maybe even evil, thereís a kind of unawareness and lack of understanding. The thing that I find interesting is that what he [has] done, psychologically, is [whittling] the world down to one thing: the world is nothing but smell. Itís a way of, kind of, controlling and understanding the world that terrifies him. I think that thereís something about that thatís quite human and something that we can connect with. Fundamentally, heís some one [who] wants to be loved. He goes about it in a very peculiar way, but thatís what he wants.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you think more about smells after acting in Perfume?

BW: No, I hadnít really. It wasnít so important to me. Like a lot of people, I didnít really think about it all that much. I guess you canít help but to think about it more deeply after making a film about smell, so [my perspective on it] has changed a bit.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Have you seen any other films with characters that remind you of Jean-Baptiste?

BW: I love Psycho and I havenít seen much else that [Anthony Perkins] has done. I love Hitchcock. Another film that I didnít see before making Perfume was Peeping Tom. Thereís something about the character thatís [similar to Jean-Baptiste].

NYC MOVIE GURU: What did you do during your free time during the shoot?

BW: I didnít have a whole lot of time off, but I did sometimes go and sit on the beach at Barcelona and went up to the coast quite a bit just to get away. I didnít see as much as I would have liked and didnít really get to hang out with the cast because there werenít any. If I wasnít filming, they were. They were beautiful places. It was a beautiful place to spend a summer.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What are you working on at the moment?

BW: Iíve been so busy doing publicity for Perfume. Iíve finished this Bob Dylan [biopic] about a month ago. I [play] a poet [from 1965/1966]. I sort of dressed a bit like Bob Dylan crossed with Arthur Rambo, a French poet.

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