The charming, witty and handsome star of 'Dorian Gray', the new adaptation of Oscar Wilde's infamous novel, Ben Chaplin talks to RTÉ.ie about the film, his favourite actress and kissing Ben Barnes.
Taragh Loughrey-Grant: In 'Dorian Gray' you play homosexual artist, Basil Hallward who falls in love with the protagonist played by Ben Barnes. Although you both shared a passionate embrace, more on that later, it was quite tame in comparison to your bondage scenes with Nicole Kidman in 'Birthday Girl'.
Ben Chaplin: That's right. She is very free as an actress. It was wonderful because it was a lovely contrast between my repressed character and her free Aussie one. She just dives in fearlessly and adds to your level of discomfort and it worked. At least as far as I was concerned it worked anyway.
TL-G: It did work and also in the coffee shop slapping scenes from that film.
BC: We did a lot of takes for that, if I remember…
BC: Twelve, that’s right. She just loved being slapped every time! We both ended up with red hand marks on our faces afterwards.
[Laughing] Good fun, glory days.
She’s extremely hard working, is quite technical, focusing on the detail but once she’s doing it, she’s very free, she throws the work away and trusts it's there and is very generous, a true professional. She was a real joy to work to work with actually.
TL-G: How does she compare to the other leading ladies you’ve worked with such as Winona Ryder in 'Lost Souls', Sandra Bullock 'Murder by Numbers' or Uma Thurman 'The Truth about Cats and Dogs'?
BC: Nicole's probably my favourite; I loved working with Jennifer Jason Leigh on 'Washington Square'. I loved Janeane Garofalo in 'The Truth about Cats and Dogs'; I'm still friends with her. I’ve been very lucky with my leading ladies but I’d say Nicole was the highlight.
TL-G: While you’ve done all these great films, plays and TV projects, and worked with all these big names you’ve managed to stay out of the limelight and keep your private life just that.
BC: I think that’s down to quite a bit of luck and not doing much press and not doing press when I didn’t have anything to talk about except myself. Plus I also think anybody who's in my life, my family or my partner, they didn’t ask to be in it so why should they? It's not that I don’t want to, I’d love to share my family with the world but they didn’t ask to be in magazines and things. You could argue that I should have done more [press] but it's part laziness and part choice.
TL-G: Even when your long term relationship with actress Embeth Davidtz ended, you didn't end up all over the press.
BC: No because we didn’t court it. I’ll be really honest with you when I was living in Los Angeles I didn’t go out much. When we did split up I did go on a bit of a bender because I had been a homebody, as they say in America, for five or six years so I did go out and have a last hurrah.
The funny thing is that when I had the opportunity to go to Hollywood parties, I never really enjoyed them but then I began to go a little more and I began to enjoy them more but I certainly wouldn’t want to go too often.
I’ve always been very social but when I lived in Los Angeles I was highly antisocial. It's partly because I’ve never been a big driver and you do so much driving in LA that when you get home, you don’t really want to go out again because it involves driving. I found myself getting a bit of cabin fever. Then I moved to New York which is the opposite where you have to walk everywhere and I was very happy there because I didn’t have a car.
TL-G: You were born Benedict John Greenwood...this sounds a bit like ‘This is your Life'!
BC: [Laughing] Yeah, it does! My grandmother wanted to call me Benedict and my parents relented but I've never been called Benedict. Which is just as well because in America it’s a bit like being called Adolf because of their greatest traitor Benedict Arnold. So it's not a name you want to go bandying around, no disrespect to Benedict Cumberbatch [English actor, 'Creation', 'The Other Boleyn Girl']. Now of course the Pope is called Benedict, so it's sort of my lips, God’s ears, I can say it with impunity, at least until he dies.
TL-G: And why did you change your surname to Chaplin?
BC: Chaplin's my mum’s name and it's on my dad's side as well, incestuous little island that we are. On my first professional job I was Ben Greenwood, I was an acting Stage Manager and when it came to getting my equity card, they told me you can’t be Ben Greenwood because there is one.
So I had to on the spot change my name, which I hadn’t really thought about doing. They actually helped me a little bit, ‘so what was your grandmother’s name’ and I was like ‘King, no I can’t be Ben King!’ and then I said ‘Ben Chaplin, that’s my mum's maiden name’ and it sounded alright. The irony is I didn’t think about it being Charlie Chaplin’s name at all until a day later and ever since I’ve had Ben no-relation-to-Charlie Chaplin!
TL-G: Has it ever helped, having the Chaplin link?
BC: I'll never know, it's been twenty years now, not that I know of. I think some people think I'm related but not people in the business, I think they know I'm not. I couldn't tell you because I wouldn't know what it was like if I'd been Greenwood, maybe it hurt! I'll never know.
TL-G: With 'Dorian Gray' do you think Oscar Wilde's story has more resonance now than ever before due to the youth obsessed culture that we live in?
BC: I think it does actually. I just saw it for the first time last night and that's what struck me most strongly is how, as the other characters age and he doesn't, it's just like our industry, which is at the fore front of facial work, of cosmetic surgery. What do you do if you're someone who doesn't want to change your appearance but all your contemporaries are? There's a lot of pressure on you to have the same ageless mass quality as everyone else. You actually get actresses getting jobs that they wouldn't get, ten, fifteen years younger than they're supposed to be because of the work they've had. It’s a weird one.
TL-G: Would you ever get cosmetic surgery?
BC: I'd considerate it in a purely dispassionate way. In fact I've talked to Colin Firth about it and mine is more to do with the natural aging and I wouldn't trust it not to look completely weird in a few years time. The only reason I'd like surgery is that people don't go 'you look tired' and you have to go 'I'm not tired, it's my age!'. That’s like going out with someone who has had botox done and saying, 'You look surprised!' [Laughing], yeah, 'You look permanently surprised, actually'.
TL-G: You're turning 40 next year and you've met the love of your life, so is it family time.
BC: I hope she is, no, she certainly feels like she is. Kids, yeah definitely. I never wanted children before; I never really thought I'd met the right person to have children with. If I do I’d like to sooner rather than later but it's not something I'm ever going to put on someone else it has to be something that’s their idea too. I'm certainly not going to put anyone under pressure. As for turning 40, it's just another year, it's not about age, it's about mileage!
TL-G: Shooting your homosexual love scene with Ben Barnes, how was that?
BC: Poor Ben was dreading it a bit I think but for me the thing is I'm an old slag, I've done it before and it's never as hard as the first time, if you pardon the pun. I'd done it with Billy Crudup; I'd had a kissing scene with him six or seven years ago [2004's 'Stage Beauty']. The funny thing is I'm actually quite proud of that scene with Billy so the main thing is to look like you're not embarrassed, to look like you want to.
So you make slightly inappropriate jokes and you get through it as quickly as possible. I've definitely kissed less attractive people so it was perfectly pleasant. Not the best kiss I've ever had but certainly not the worst. He's got such soft puffy lips it's like kissing the marshmallow man, it's like an airbag, you could fall from a great height onto his lips and still survive [laughing], so it's not a problem!
TL-G: You've worked with director Terrence Malick a number of times now, how did you find those experiences?
BC: Terry, he's a dream. I've worked with him three times now and I'm really proud of that. I think 'The Thin Red Line' is the film I'm most proud of, just to have been involved with that [Chaplin starred as Private Bell]. He is a born director and he's the cleverest man I've ever met, for a start, he's also probably the nicest.
Such a deep thinker that you can't even begin to understand the true depths of what he says. He very softly spoken, funny and witty, full of humanity and I loved being around him. The directors I really respect are the ones I love being around, it doesn't matter if I've a small part or the lead, I just love to get to spend some time with them. That's Terry to me.
He's a real film philosopher and understands camera in a way that a lot of directors don't. He has a great understanding of the technical side and then he has this real originality of vision. The more films he makes, he's getting further and further away from conventional narrative which for some people is disappointing but I love it, his films are made for multi viewing. I have watched 'Badlands' about a dozen times and every time I see it, it's like I hadn't seen it before. He's much imitated but no one else comes close. I know it sounds ridiculous, because it sounds like I love him but Terry's like a father to me. When he calls, I run.
TL-G: You co-starred with Colin Farrell in Malick's 'New World' and you've just finished working with him again recently in 'London Boulevard'. How did you get on?
BC: I love Colin; he's about as nice a guy as you could work with. Of all the movie stars I worked with he's the most genuine, kindest, generous, lovely, talented...what an angel and a sweetheart. A gentleman. A joy to be around, 90 percent of my scenes are with him in that film so I was really lucky. Honestly, I'm starting a fan club.
TL-G: You've been over to Ireland a few times over the years.
BC: Yeah, I've been to Dublin a few times in recent years but I've got some Irish blood so we all went on a family holiday to the South of Ireland, Cork, years ago. 1976 I think and we all agreed that it was the best family holiday ever. I went back to Cork when it was the European Capital of Culture and saw a Neil La Bute play, that was great.
I still go to a couple of great Irish pubs in London; 'The Hemingford Arms' is my favourite. It was my local before I moved to the other side of London but I still go about twice a month because I love the Irish guy who runs it, he's from Shannon, and the crowd.
'Dorian Gray' is in cinemas now.