Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant are facing off yet again.
The two venerated British actors previously starred as foes in this winter’s Paddington 2, in which Hugh Grant played a dastardly washed-up British actor who frames lovable Paddington (voiced by Whishaw) and gets him sent to prison. Now, they’re on opposite sides in a legal case once again in A Very English Scandal, which previously aired in Britain on the BBC and makes it debut stateside on Amazon Prime on June 29.
The three episode miniseries is based on a true story and tells the tale of Jeremy Thorpe (Grant), a respected member of Parliament, who found his career come crashing down when accused of conspiracy to murder his ex-lover, Norman Scott (Whishaw), in 1979. The series traces the early days of their relationship beginning in the 1960s, continuing on through decades of their paths crossing in a series of events involving blackmail and more, and culminating in the attempt on Norman Scott’s life and Thorpe’s exoneration.
In addition to recounting the events behind what is often referred to as “the trial of the century,” the series is also a moving examination of sexuality, identity, and repression, set against the struggle to decriminalize homosexuality in Great Britain.
In advance of the series’ American debut, EW called up star Ben Whishaw to get the details on what it was like to meet the real Norman Scott, why the project makes him proud, and what it was like tackling another project next to Paddington co-star Hugh Grant.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What do you think makes this scandal so very English in nature?
BEN WHISHAW: Quite a few things. What makes it very typically English is that it’s about a central character who is unable to speak the truth, express his feelings, [and] be frank about what’s really going on for him. There’s something a bit squashed about his emotional life, and that can be a very typical English thing. People struggle to say what they really mean here, particularly in that class and in that time. There’s also something about the absurdity of it and the line it treads between something really awful/sad and something hilarious. That quality seems quite English to me.
Norman Scott is still alive. Did you have the chance to speak with him at all?
Yeah. I had a lunch with him and Dominic [Treadwell-Collins], one of the producers, and Stephen Frears. We met for about an hour and we chatted a little bit about his life and about the whole of the affair with Jeremy Thorpe and everything that ensued. It was quite brief, but it felt important. Not so much in terms of observing to furnish me with stuff to do an impression or an impersonation of him, but more to just connect with him, and try and give him some assurance that we were respectfully and sympathetically going to tell his story.
You’ve played actual historical figures before, but was it a particular challenge to portray someone still living?
It is a challenge. The biggest challenge is you’re in a bit of a struggle because you have a connection and an obligation to the person who’s life you’re being entrusted with interpreting. On the other hand you’ve got a piece of material which is by a writer whose made something into a piece of television, which is, in a way, a kind of fiction. It’s quite tricky that balance. We tried our best to serve Norman and to serve the story as interpreted by Russell.
You seem to have a particular affinity for period pieces – why do you think that is?
I don’t know why I end up in them, but there’s something about the past that’s really different to now, perhaps particularly in gay stories. We’re living in a time now where everything is over-shared and explicit, and times not even that far in the past, it wasn’t that way. That kind of tension between what you could express and what was really going on is very exciting for drama, and very rich, so it makes for good stories.
You have some more humorous moments here – a lot of the time you portray characters with a deep sense of melancholy or sad fates, so it was nice to see you play with some comedy. Did you enjoy that?
One of the big appealing things about this script and this project was that it’s constantly a fine line between something tragic and something comic. I really loved that quality. I find that really exciting as a performer. There’s a sort of constant ambivalence about Is this something I can laugh at? Or is this something absolutely appalling? It’s sort of both and you’re in a kind of wrestle with it the whole time. I liked that.
Norman is a fashion model for a time and you were the face of a Prada campaign – did you bring those experiences to bear in those sequences? Are you a fan of clothing or fashion yourself?
I looked at the actual images that Norman had taken when he was a young man in his twenties in the 1960s. In a way, I tried to copy some of the expressions and some of the poses he struck. It was much [more that] than following my own instinct. I’m definitely not a model. I actually don’t really like having my photograph taken very much. I do like fashion, although I really have to force myself to go out and buy clothes. I tend to forget about [shopping], and then I realize I’ve been wearing the same thing for the last five years. So I do appreciate clothes, but I’m a bad buyer of them.
The series also uses the events to shine a light on the history of homosexuality in Britain and Norman has a very moving speech about being open about who he is. You’re rightfully quite private about your personal life, but was the way this issue was handled something that drew you to the work?
Yes. I really appreciated that quality that was in the writing that is very much something I feel that Russell T. Davies, the extraordinary writer, brings to the project. The thing I’m proudest of about the series as a whole is that Russell’s humanity extends not just to Norman, but to Jeremy too. Even though there’s no softening of how horrific he is, how horrific his actions are, there is an attempt to understand his humanity. It doesn’t come with a lot of judgments, and there are no goodies and baddies in the world of this show. It’s lots of shades in between and that’s a valuable thing to put into the world.
Was it shocking or emotionally taxing to return to an era where attitudes were so different?
In a way, no, because what it reminded me of constantly was that things have improved. We’re living in better days. That was a great thing to be reminded of — just how fortunate most people are now in regards to sexuality and freedom. But, like you say, it’s really startling to remember that this really wasn’t that long ago and attitudes have changed 180 degrees in a very short amount of time. There’s always a fragility about these things because if they can change one way, they can change another. You start to see patterns in history a bit more clearly, and that’s alarming and wonderful at the same time.
What’s your working relationship like with Hugh Grant? How did you go about establishing the connection between your characters?
It’s a funny one because we really only had about five or six scenes together. This is one of the great ironies of it, but the actual amount of time the relationship [between Jeremy and Norman] lasts, both onscreen and in real life, is relatively brief. Then it has this enormous tail that trails on for decades afterwards that neither man can let go of. We didn’t discuss anything. We didn’t have any rehearsal. We did one read through with the whole cast. We just did it. Partly that’s because Hugh and I have known each other since we did Cloud Atlas several years ago. So, we knew and liked and trusted one another, which helps a great deal because you can just sort of launch yourself in. I also put a lot of that down to the precision and brilliance of Russell’s writing. The more I do, the more I realize it’s such a gift when you have a great piece of writing because all of the hard work’s been done for you in a sense. It’s just a pleasure to do it.
The case against one of the men hired to kill Norman is possibly being re-opened as of a couple weeks ago. Will you continue to follow it or have an interest in it?
I saw a headline somewhere a few weeks ago. I suspect it was just a story that, for a moment, grabbed everyone’s attention again, and I don’t know if it’s got much legs. I don’t even know legally if it’s possible for it to go anywhere. I think it’s all quite complicated. It was so long ago that, at the end of the day, the court of England found Jeremy Thorpe to be not guilty and he’s dead now. I’m not really sure what the course of events would be.