In the biopic “Bright Star,” British actor Ben Whishaw, 28, portrays 19th century poet John Keats. Best known for his roles in such films as “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” and “I’m Not There,” where he shares screen time with five other actors all playing musician Bob Dylan, Whishaw says his role as Keats has been one of the most inspiring of his career. He spoke to me via phone about “Bright Star” and the influence Keats had over him even after the cameras stopped rolling.
I know you grew up in England right around where “Bright Star” was shot. Did shooting the film near your hometown make it all the more special for you?
It did because it’s very much a film in which the seasons and nature play a strong role. It’s the landscape I grew up in. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it really affected me. I felt very connected to that whole area.
The majority of the film rides on John Keats’ relationship with Fanny Brawne (Abby Cornish). What did you and Abby hope to capture in the lives of these two young people in love?
I think we wanted to have a very tender and sensual way with each other. I think we decided quite early on that they were people who felt every sensation. Keats famously said, “O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts.” He really placed a lot of emphasis on that. That was definitely something we wanted to convey about them. What was so special and unique about their relationship was this mutual sensitivity.
Was there anything you learned about John Keats in your research for the character that surprised you about him?
I think what was surprising was when I read his letters. The man who emerges from the letters is quite different than the stereotype that has been passed down to us. Although he was sensitive and sensual like I just described, he was also very earthy and of the world. He was very social. He loved women. He loved wine and cigars. There was a robustness and resilience that was in contrast to the more ethereal parts of his nature.
Do you think that is what drove him to write as passionately as he did?
I don’t know. I think part of what fueled him was that he was an anti-establishment kind of a figure. There was something kind of rebellious in his writing. It didn’t conform to the writing style of the age. I think that was very important to him. I don’t think he would have changed that. I think he would have always been in opposition to the prevailing kind of authority in the country.
You’re about the same age Keats was when he died. Did this movie make you think about your own mortality?
I supposed it did in a strange way. It definitely made want to embrace every moment and follow and trust my feelings. I definitely learned that lesson from him.
You said in an interview for your role as Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There” that you became obsessed with the character. Did that happen to you with Keats or were you able to let go a bit more?
Keats for whatever reason stayed with me much more. I still love Bob Dylan, but I think it’s the nature of the work that you focus on something so intently for a while and then have to let it go. But Keats has lingered around much longer. I still think about some of the things he says in his letters and in his poetry and his spirit generally. I still feel very inspired by him.
Inspired enough to write your own poetry?
(Laughs) Um, I’m afraid not. I’ve never attempted to write poetry. If anything, studying Keats’s poetry has made me realize that attempting it wouldn’t even be worth it. There’s no way to achieve such perfection.
What do you think poetry can convey that no other prose can?
What’s important about poetry and what’s unavoidable about it is that it’s hard. It’s hard to understand and it takes much more time to kind of reveal itself and its depths. I think in these days when everything moves so fast, we want everything to make sense. It’s really a great pleasure for me to sit down with a good poem and read it and swim around in the multiple things it may mean. I let it work on me. I think that’s the great thing about poetry.
Did any of Keats’s poems resonate with you more than the others?
It’s definitely the poem that we use at the end of the film, which is called “Ode to a Nightingale.” That’s a poem I could read again and again and again. It’s a poem that starts off reflecting on the song of the nightingale and then follows this meandering train of thought and touches on different feelings and ideas and then returns to the person who is listening to the nightingale. It has this beautiful shape to it.
Most critics are saying this is Jane Campion’s best work since “The Piano.” Talk to me about being under her direction and what she brought to this era piece?
What she said to me very early on was that she was aiming for total simplicity. She wanted to get herself out of the way as much as possible and let the story speak for itself. She encouraged me to watch some Robert Bresson films because they were what were inspiring her at the time. I think that’s something that Jane brings to the film. Also, she is very interested in the details of day-to-day life. She is very interested in the little moments. I think that that’s what makes this film different. It feels very intimate.
How do you make up for not being able to write poetry? What would you consider the most romantic thing about yourself?
I was actually very inspired by Keats to write love letters for quite sometime after making this film. That’s a really beautiful way of communicating to someone you love. I think it’s something that the film really celebrates. There’s something amazing and pleasurable in that yearning.