Bungling, middle-aged and surrounded by explosive stationery; this is the traditional description for Q. So, how has 31-year-old Ben Whishaw managed to reinvent him as a slick computer whizz packing little more than a laptop?
Were the Bond films a big part of your childhood?
I saw some of the Pierce Brosnan ones as a teenager, but I don’t remember watching them as a child. It’s been fun going back and watching them. I really like From Russia With Love – it’s very charming.
Your role in the film was undisclosed for a long time. How difficult was it keeping it secret?
Pretty difficult because I had to tell my brother [laughs].
Is he a major Bond nut?
No more so than everyone else. Even people who don’t go to the cinema get excited about a new Bond [film]. But I had to tell him. He didn’t believe me at first [laughs]. You have to sign a confidentiality agreement which, if you broke, your life would not be worth living.
Did you have to audition for the role?
No, Sam [Mendes] just offered it to me out of the blue. It was incredibly exciting.
How did he describe the character to you?
He said this Q was going to be a computer genius. It makes sense for the [film’s] story because the ‘enemy’ operates in cyberspace. There’s a new world order.
Did you hang out with hackers in preparation?
No, there was none of that. I did learn how to touch-type [laughs]. And I read stuff.
What kind of stuff?
I read about MI6, mainly. For my own interest more than anything. I’m fascinated by the people who work in that field and the double life they have to lead. And I was interested in the brutality and ruthlessness of [the agents] on one hand and the suave way they present themselves on the other.
Did you study Desmond Llewelyn and John Cleese’s versions of Q?
I deliberately didn’t do that. What I did do was watch all the early [Bond films] that Q isn’t in. It felt like a chance for a fresh start so I didn’t want to be bogged down in [previous Q performances]. It was the same for Sam; Bond’s been going for 50 years so there’s a formula and template. You have to deliver certain things with a Bond film, but you want to innovate and surprise people too.
Q is traditionally a bit of a bungler – constantly blowing things up by accident. Has that trait remained?
He’s slicker this time. He’s still an eccentric, jovial English chap but, because of the genius he has, there’s a lethal, powerful side to him. Although he does make a mistake I can’t tell you about [laughs].
Was there a particular gadget from the film you had your eye on?
There’s a fingerprint gun [which only works with Bond’s fingerprints] which is cool, but because Q is a computer whizz, there’s very little gadgetry. It’s just him and his computer. His mind is the weapon.
Are you a big gadget fan in real life?
No, I’m a total Luddite [laughs]. I have got an i… [thinks] pad. Yes, an iPad. But I don’t use it for anything else than picking up emails. I’ve just been working with Allison Janney who was in The West Wing and she’s not a particularly political person so there were lots of things she didn’t understand – she just had to act it. I felt a bit like that with Q. Like, I’m not a technical person, but I can make you believe that I am [laughs].
You’ve worked with Daniel Craig a few times – has he changed since becoming Bond?
No, he’s exactly the same – a really nice bloke. He’s a perfectionist; incredibly dedicated to his work and pretty hard on himself. I think he does feel the pressure of that character and having to deliver. But he can also be very playful and quite silly.
You had fun on set, then?
Well, I only did five days which wasn’t really enough time to relax into f*cking around [laughs]. My first day was a night shoot in The National Gallery. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked through the night, but it’s a bizarre experience.
How did you cope?
I was smoking a lot. It’s weird; your brain is telling you, “I should be dreaming now, not having to function and focus”. So lord knows what that scene will be like [laughs].
Finally, have you ever fancied playing Bond yourself?
[Laughs] What do you think? No. I think me playing Bond would be a little disappointing for most fans.
Skyfall hits cinemas on October 26th