Ben Barnes has played a literal Disney prince. His IMDb includes Hollywood's favorite buzzwords: "Marvel" and "HBO." He was once cast as Dorian Gray, ostensibly literature’s most beautiful man.
Clearly, he's being slept on — not that he knows it.
More specifically, he’s not exactly sure what it means when I suggest that he is slept on. It means being overlooked, I say, having people “sleep” on the work you do.
“Oh, that's my new favorite sentence I've ever heard,” he says, a little surprised. “Well, I don't know though. It's all perspective, isn't it?” He pauses. “Oh, I’ve got a lovely sort of, slightly blushing and warm feeling in my tummy, [now] that you said that.”
Still, he’s not so certain of the assessment.
“I have so many friends who are so talented who don't have jobs at all, so comparatively, I feel supremely recognized, you know?” he says.
Barnes, 38, has been turning a solid range of performances for over the last decade, following his break in 2008 The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. You might have seen him in HBO’s Westworld, in which he, among a cast including Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, and Sir Anthony Hopkins, managed to give new meaning to the term “scene-stealer” — in one moment, deftly seducing a man using abstract expressionist art and in another, delivering, in less than a minute, an emotional gut-punch so wrenching you can practically feel your insides being rearranged. You may also know him from The Punisher, the Marvel Netflix series in which he takes the combat boots of a villainous former Marine and lays them at your feet, asking you to put them on through his Memento-esque journey from being described as having a “scarily pretty face and catwalk silhouette” to becoming disfigured and struggling with a traumatic brain injury.
If you’ve seen his work, you might find yourself wondering why he’s not in everything, in demand for every role you might expect for someone of his caliber and matinee idol looks — which, combined with his musical talent, would have been perfectly placed in the old Hollywood studio system. Watching him now feels acutely like watching the second act of a movie, in which the overlooked, good-hearted hero is gearing up to win over the love of his life: You know the best is still about to come for him, and you can’t wait to see him get his due.
Barnes first moved from London to Los Angeles about seven years ago, after various opportunities had popped up for him in Hollywood. At the time, he says, there was something about being a “Brit out of water.”
“I did feel like I was just doing a Hugh Grant impression constantly,” he laughs. “Just playing up to make myself feel a bit different from anybody else going in for various projects. I think I felt a bit more exotic or something, but that trick doesn't really work anymore.”
Not that he needs it. Though he won’t be returning to Westworld, he’s continuing to cut his teeth on roles that play on a tension and ambiguity specific to what he’s brought to the screen in recent years: you’re not sure if you can trust him, but you can’t help but do it anyway.
From the outset of BBC’s new domestic noir drama Gold Digger — in which he plays Benjamin Greene, a thirtysomething copywriter with a shrouded past who becomes romantically involved with a much older wealthy woman (Julia Ormond) — the show is anchored by his performance, a balance on the tightrope of playing Benjamin as both a hopeless romantic and a possibly conniving gold digger at the same time. It’s interesting for him, he says, to play “the character who's keeping a bit back, the character who has secrets.”
Having worked on projects for HBO and Netflix, he’s used to having to keep things close to the chest. The day after our interview in early September, he flies out to begin filming the Netflix adaptation of the young adult series Shadow & Bone, which he apologetically can’t tell me about at the time — Netflix is so secretive about their forthcoming projects that he can’t even let slip which country he’s flying to for production, as if he's a government agent. (It’s fitting, then, that his name has been dropped in petitions to play ultimate spy James Bond.)
For someone used to keeping his cards so closely guarded, he’s anything but cagey during our time together. Instead, he’s a live wire even in what’s meant to be a traditional interview context.
“I'm desperately just trying to turn this into a conversation between two people because there's part of me that can't bear talking about myself over and over again,” he says at one point.
There’s, of course, a world in which these are the words of an actor strategic about appearing affable, but coming from him, they ring more like the words of someone who understands and values the gift of connecting with someone, who’s checking in, as if to say, I’m present here with you, are you here with me?
It’s exactly the kind of thing that someone so slept on would say. And anyone still sleeping on him would be wise to wake up now.
Below is that conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
InStyle: Gold Digger is unique in that not only is it a story about a 60-year-old woman — which we rarely see — it's also about a 60-year-old woman who's experiencing desire, and that’s even rarer. What was it like being the younger man in this dynamic?
That was obviously the first thing that jumps off the page when you read the scripts. It's not a particularly safe, comfortable, happy place, the mind of someone of Julia Day's age, experiencing desire — especially for someone who's not “age appropriate” — when she has been someone who's been putting her parents first, initially, then her husband, then her next husband, then her children, and never making herself the protagonist of the story. Realizing that she don't feel heard or seen.
That's what I was initially was drawn to about Gold Digger, was that it was about this 60-year-old woman. It didn't pull any punches about what she's thinking, what she's imagining, what she really wants. Julia Ormond was so bold in making this, making her feel like a real woman.
[That] put me in this position where I was reading it and thinking about this wealth of noir cinema where you have these femme fatale, mysterious, vaguely untrustworthy female characters. Then I was like, "Well, this is interesting." Because this is a stereotype that I now have at my fingertips to play with and toy with and make feel my own.
Well, your character is interesting because I feel like we've seen older woman and younger men dynamics, but we haven't seen the younger man being the seducer that often. He feels a lot like a male femme fatale.
What I like about [the show] is that it draws you in by posing a set of questions. Is he just seducing her, or does he really feel these things about this person? Because there's something to be said for if you believe quite early on that he's seducing her. Why do we not think he's just saying the truthful things that come into his mind? Is it because we have a prejudice against her age?
What it does all the way through is throw up questions like that, particularly about my character Benjamin and his intentions. But what it leads to doing is throwing a mirror up in front of the audience, because it poses the question of, "If you're making these judgments this way, what prejudices are you employing to do that?"
I find that, on a secondary level — other than the tension of, "Is someone's life being toyed with or destroyed here?" — that's a really interesting level to the story. I always look for things with that kind of subtext. That's what made it feel really different to me, especially from other stories where there's an older woman, younger man dynamic.
Between this, The Punisher, and Westworld, you're playing a lot of characters that we don't necessarily trust. How do you find these roles? Do they find you?
It's really interesting. I was just having this conversation the other day with somebody else, I questioned it with a friend of mine. I was like, "What is it? What's happening? What is it about me since I've hit my thirties?"
That people don't trust?
[Laughing] What is it about me that people want to see in a role where they really don't trust me? There's this sort of violence in these men, as well. Not necessarily or particularly in Gold Digger, but certainly in the other stories. [There’s] this latent violence and surface-level untrustworthiness.
What I find compelling about characters is seeking out the light in the shade. So if it is a violent, troubled, and untrustworthy character, what can I scratch out? What can I find that is vulnerable? What can I find that is decent in this person? Because we all have all these traits within us. It's about what we choose to highlight and what we have a natural affinity with. It's really interesting to me to show those different traits so that when people watch things, they feel torn about these characters.
I answered that question very seriously, but I do want to play a goodie next. Because in my actual life, I see Paul Rudd in a movie and I'm like, "That's more like me.”
Is there a character you’ve seen that you really closely identify with? It could be a Paul Rudd character or any other character.
Well, of the characters I've played, probably Benjamin in Gold Digger is, on the surface, the closest to me. I haven't played a Brit in 10 years, for a start, I actually had to practice doing my British accent because I've been doing American accents and various different accents for so long. I was really worried, on a silly level, that it would just come out funny on a set. On a deeper level, I was thinking, "Do I have a problem with performing as myself? What am I hiding? What am I trying to conceal all these years by pretending to be other people?" [Laughs]
Tell me about how you got your start. Did you go to drama school?
No, I got an English lit degree — I studied English and drama, but it was theory of drama rather than performative.
That's cool, what made you want to do that?
It was a combination. When I left school, I applied to a few universities doing theater, and then to a few drama schools. I got into all the drama schools. I got scholarships and everything, which was wonderful, but I didn't get into any of the universities because they all said the same thing at my interviews, which was, "You don't know what you want." I was thinking, “that's so unfair because I'm 17, and you're right. I don't know what I want yet, but isn't this process supposed to try and help me find out?”
Then I actually got a job. I got hired by Simon Fuller, who is the creative force behind the Spice Girls. I hosted a TV show for him, and I was recording various music stuff. We started working on a jazz album together, which never happened because of Pop Idol and various other things that were burgeoning at the time. But it's still a dream of mine to do something more along those lines at some point.
How did you get into acting eventually?
After I left university, I started doing plays in London. Obviously not in the West End, in theaters with like 20 seats. I started writing letters to agents, all of which just went completely unanswered — hundreds of them. Absolutely hundreds of them. I never got a reply. Eventually, I managed to get one agent to come and see this play I was doing. We went to the bar afterwards, had a beer, and he was like, "Right, come on. Let's go." That person is still my agent in London almost 20 years later. That was the first little glimpse of hope that it might be something I can do as a career.
After all these [untrustworthy] roles, do you ever get the longing to play a hero again? Especially because you started out in Narnia as a hero, I think because of that, you had a lot to subvert.
Yeah, that's an interesting point, probably part of the reason I mostly play untrustworthy characters is because people have seen me do the opposite. It's always interesting to see the flip side of the coin.
Also, it was always quite fun to play against type. People like to watch people who are having fun. Particularly with Westworld, I was being the naughtiest, I was like the kid at the back of the bus. When everyone else was having deep conversations about deciphering consciousness, I'm just figuring out what the naughtiest way to approach this scene is. Just knocking people’s hats off their heads, figuratively and literally. That glee is something that is infectious.
Well, a lot of people wanted you to play Batman.
Yes, I was aware of that mounting campaign, which was kind of thrilling. One of the first photographs I've ever seen of myself is I'm about three, I've put some string through a piece of yellow paper, put it around my neck, and drawn a black bat on it. It's literally the sweetest, cheapest, worst Batman costume in the history of mankind. From a three-year-old me’s perspective, people saying, "He can play Batman" was a very, very cool thing.
Did you ever go out for it or audition?
No, no. I think from the outset they wanted to do this younger Batman. Which is sort of weird because certainly so far in my life, I've never really thought of myself as being too old for anything, you know? Then that day comes where you're like, “Oh. I can't play high school anymore.” Then that day comes when you're like, “Oh. I can't play college anymore.” Then I suppose suddenly, I'm sure it just creeps up on you where you're suddenly, “Oh. I'm playing the father to a teenager,” or whatever. You have certain feelings about that, but those feelings are what Gold Digger sort of becomes about, how you start to define yourself in the different stages of man or woman.
Nice, I like how you tied that back there.
Yes, thank you. [Laughing] My little segue. I think those are the interesting conversations to have because we all feel that way about getting older. Particularly in our business, you hear it quite often. "Oh no. He's too old, too fat, too thin, too tall. Not manly enough. Not this enough. Too much that." It can be quite a stark industry on that level.
Have you ever been in a room, auditioning or whatever, where someone was like, "You're not enough this," or, "Not enough that?"
Of course. Usually you get it on the phone afterwards, because that's less brave and much easier.
So they don't have to say it to your face?
Yeah, of course. Also, you start to wonder whether you just get the polite answer that isn't “you weren't as good as some of the other people.” Because that is going to be the truth of it sometimes.
Physicality is such a big part of some of your roles. Billy in The Punisher is, in the first season, called “pretty” all the time. You also obviously played Dorian Gray. When did you first realize that you were hot?
[Laughing] That's a horrible question. I-I-I… don’t like it. [Bursts out laughing] I mean look, growing up I was always the smallest, youngest person in any situation and room. So that was never something that entered my head particularly at all. Everyone I knew would get into drinking, girls, all this stuff, years before. It was something that I wouldn't be looked at, just a child sitting on the periphery.
Obviously, a lot has changed since then.
I think [you realize you’re attractive] when you start to get cast as certain things, certain types of characters, like you say.
Do you ever see that in scripts? Where it describes a really hot guy and you're like, "Oh, all right. I’ve got this."
No! [Both laugh] I don't, I always think of the other things. I'm like, "Well, I'm sure they could give me his haircut," and maybe they could give me, I don't know, a jumper that will bulk me up a bit. This and that, and maybe I can fit into this kind of vibe. We all have our hang-ups about how we look.
On some level, I still see that slightly too young, slightly too slim kid that still screams at me sometimes, in a way that motivates you to go to the gym, whatever it might be, to fit the idea of what someone has written in their script — which is usually a completely unfeasible thing anyway, particularly for women. They always write that she's sultry, sexy, slender, but naïve, cute, and adorable.
[Laughing] I think I wriggled away from your question a bit.
You have, yeah [Laughs]. I was going to say.
There we go. Good, good. I'm too British to answer that question.
You have a lot of versatility as an actor, and you've been able to play with different genres. Is there anything you'd like to do that you haven't done yet?
There's loads, there's absolutely loads. I still want to do a genuinely romantic and funny rom-com at some point. They're so hard to find, ones that are really good. That's definitely on my bucket list. I would like to do a proper musical film at some point. There's so many. I get so excited by the idea of all sorts of different roles.
What kind of rom-com would you want to do? What's your favorite?
Anything Richard Curtis basically. I love all that, I love that vibe. I love Love, Actually, Notting Hill and all those kinds of movies. Also, I’m a child of the 80's, so I really, really, really feel a connection to When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, all those kinds of films as well.
What’s your favorite item of clothing that you own?
It is a pair of Timberland boots that I've had for like 15 years.
What's the last thing you do before you go to bed?
Actually, I’ve got a new last thing I do before I go to bed as of recently, which was for my birthday, a friend bought me a sleep machine which you can choose the sounds of a train, rain, or whatever. The last thing I do is put on this ocean wave noise in the corner of my room. That is my new thing.
What's your skin care routine like?
It was nonexistent for many years. Now it involves washing my face in the shower and putting moisturizer on after that.
What did your childhood bedroom look like?
Well, I shared a room with my little brother, so we had beds next to each other with a little table in between. It was very small. It was all just He-Man and dinosaurs and Transformers toys all over the floor.
Once, I was jumping on the bed after we were supposed to be asleep, and I fell off and cut my eye open on the table that was in between.
Oh my god, Ben. How old were you?
Small. Five or something. We'd already been told to stop jumping on the bed and go to sleep. I had blood pouring down the side of my face. I went up to my dad's office where he was working and I was like, "I think I hurt my eye." He turned around and just — the horror on his face when I had blood down the side of my face. It was a tiny cut. I think like 80% of people have little cuts somewhere around their eye socket, but that's how I got mine.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
Probably Natalie Portman. She was around my age, so it felt more feasible, you know? [Laughs] More obtainable. I did have a Cindy Crawford poster when I got into my early teens, so that was one as well.
What do you wish more people knew about you?
I suppose how much I love music. Or how goofy I am, I think, but it's not something I know how to express in a curated way. You have to kind of know me for it. I suppose not goofy, maybe silly is a better word.
Gold Digger premieres on Nov. 12 on BBC1.