A classic stage role comes calling and actor Ben Whishaw answers — again

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NEW YORK — British actor Ben Whishaw has found himself to be a magnet for important roles. They even come back every few years.

He did his first Hamlet at 16 as a schoolboy and then again at age 23 to critical acclaim in London. He played John Proctor from "The Crucible" at 15 — and now it has come calling again.

Whishaw, considered one of the best stage actors of his generation, is making his Broadway debut in Arthur Miller's classic tale about the Salem witch trials. He's 20 years older and sees the work differently.

"What has occurred to me is that I didn't understand the play very much," he said in his cramped dressing room in the Walter Kerr Theatre, where he makes a cup of tea.

"It's a masterpiece so you can understand one element of it but not another. So I think I understood one element of it as a 15-year-old and now as a 35-year-old you see things very differently. It's way more complicated than I remember it."

Whishaw joins an impressive cast that features Saoirse Ronan, Sophie Okonedo, Ciaran Hinds, Tavi Gevinson and Jim Norton. Dutch visionary Ivo van Hove, known for stripping down a work to its essence and using minimal props, is directing the revival, which officially opens Thursday after final previews tonight and Wednesday afternoon and evening. It is scheduled to run through July 17.

Gevinson, who plays Mary Warren, said cast members have been challenged to rethink the Miller play and have leaned on Whishaw. "I couldn't be working with an actor more attentive or thoughtful," she said.

Miller wrote the play during the witch-hunting McCarthy era, but set it during the Salem witch trials of 17th-century Massachusetts.

It's about mass hysteria that begins when the daughter of the local minister falls mysteriously ill. The cause, rumor says, is witchcraft. And before the gossip has run its course, just about everyone in town is tainted.

Whishaw said that as a 15-year-old, he was absorbed by the witches and the bullying. As a 35-year-old, he's exploring the gray among the black and white. "We want to explore the mush that we all live in. John Proctor is good and bad and everything else."

It's been a busy 2½ years for Whishaw. He's starred in "In the Heart of the Sea" as Herman Melville, the latest 007 film "Spectre" as the gadget whiz Q, and had smaller parts in the films "The Danish Girl" and "Suffragette." He even voiced Paddington the bear on film.

Whishaw's star began to rise after he was picked to play the melancholy Danish prince in Trevor Nunn's production of "Hamlet" at the Old Vic, just six months out of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Critics said his performance deserved to be put alongside Hamlets by Sir Laurence Olivier and Mark Rylance.

"I'm not being modest or downplaying it, but it was a lot to do with luck. I was in the right place at the right time," Whishaw said. "It's a very big thing to undertake when you're 23. I didn't really know what I was doing but it was a wonderful time."

He grew up north of London with a twin brother and parents unconnected to show business. A trip to the London Palladium to see "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" was his first taste of theater. He left forever changed.

"It's everything: It's the theater itself that you're in. It's the orchestra and the colors and the smell of the place," he said. "It's so unguarded, naked, real, isn't it? That's the thing that's magical."


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