Warning: contains spoilers for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
Fionn Whitehead’s first listed screen credit is for 2016 ITV supernatural drama Him, in which he played a teenager with dark telekinetic powers. Sitting across from him, it’s easy to see why he’d have landed the part. In conversation, Whitehead is intense and focused. He maintains eye-contact and takes questions seriously, leaning forward to give his answers and illustrating them with his hands.
We discuss his performance in interactive Netflix film Bandersnatch as Stefan, the young 1980s computer game coder who starts to unravel when he suspects that he isn’t in control of his actions…
Right at the beginning of the film, Stefan seems to wince whenever his dad stubs out a cigarette in the glass ashtray…
Is that something suggested through editing, or was it an acting choice that would then look—after people went back and started again on Bandersnatch—as though it were foreshadowing the ashtray’s eventual grisly significance?
I can’t remember whether that was my choice or whether David [Slade, director] told me to do that. It’s interesting that you picked up on that because the logic behind it for me—or for us if it wasn’t my idea—was that Stefan doesn’t like that fact that his dad smokes. Often if your parents or relatives are heavy smokers it can often mean that if you’re around it all the time you end up really disliking the smell and the sight of it. Seeing him [mimes stubbing out a cigarette] every time… for me, when you see someone stub out a cigarette, that is sort of the epitome of a smoker, because that’s when you’re really pushing all the tar and whatever into your fingers. That, in my head, correlated in a way to the fact that the grisly murder happens with an ashtray, it’s sort of ironic I suppose, and matches up.
It’s just a quicker smoking-induced death?
Stefan does a lot with his hands, they’re always moving. Is that a decision you came to, or something you and David worked on together?
It was already in the script, all the stuff about pulling earlobes, biting fingernails, forcing hands down was already in the script. Me and David worked very closely throughout the whole shoot, I’ve got a lot of respect and a lot of time and love for him. We talked about [starts playing with his hands, articulating his fingers in jerky movements], and something that I thought about a lot is the idea that these choices are being made by the viewers. Movements of a hand are much easier to make look like you’re not in control of them than anything else, physicality-wise. It’s interesting to be able to jerk your hand up as if you’re not in control of it and smack it back down [does so].
Like a puppet.
Exactly! Like a puppet. It’s true. That was part of the thinking behind it, it was puppet-like almost. There’s also something about hands, I don’t know about you, that I find quite scary because they are the things you use for everything, and if you’re not in control of them, that’s quite a terrifying thing. The jerky movement of hands can be quite… [jerks his hands around violently] That looks strange doesn’t it?
Exactly, it’s unnerving and slightly disturbing.
You’re playing somebody who’s losing touch with reality, which gives you a lot of choices as an actor because you can go massive—like, say Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys, or you can keep it smaller. What was your approach? Did you rein it in at certain points? Were there some takes where David was telling you just to give it everything?
Absolutely. The thing that was important for all of us when doing it was that it had to be a spiral into madness. It had to be a spiral into the end-product of insanity and Stefan killing his father, chopping him up and all the rest of it. For me it was hitting certain points in the character arc which really point that out.
There were definitely some scenes where it was about going all-out. The ashtray scene, for instance, is the build-up of all the tension that’s been happening throughout and the things that you may be able to pick up on as a viewer, the nervousness and anxiety coming to a head. It’s sort of a release. Me and David talked about how the murder was almost a release, that moment, the killing, as morbid and horrible as it is and probably as a direct, traumatic result, it’s almost a release for Stefan. After that point, in the therapist’s office and everything else, we talked about how the performance shouldn’t be as big as that and it should be much more dialled back, almost more dialled back than at any other point in the story.
So it was the cathartic moment.
When Stefan was talking to the viewer, did you imagine he was talking to himself as somebody with a mental illness, or that there was literally a force out there he was communicating with?
When you’re acting, personally I think it’s really important to put yourself in the headspace of the character—I’m sure most actors would agree with me—you want to try and think as the character may think. As Stefan, playing Stefan, it would feel very real and at its base, this is the story of a young man’s psychological breakdown. It felt very important to me that Stefan, and within the script it is very clear that Stefan thinks that everything going on is real, and nothing else really mattered that much for my job.
You said the story is about the psychological unravelling of a young man? Is it also about conspiracy theories, time travel and free will?
All of it. What I meant by saying that is that for me, as an actor, that provided the base for my performance and was something that I could fall back on. In my head, at its base for me and my role, this is the story of a young man losing his mind and spiralling into extreme states of delusion. Anything else I think is kind of subjective, it’s left up to the audience. You can decide whether or not you think it is about conspiracy theories, whether you believe any of the things in it, or whether you think it’s just a bit of fun.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is available now on Netflix.