This is the life of Ben Barnes: One day he’s in Brisbane, Australia, filming the family movie “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” in which he plays King Caspian. The next day, he’s on a very long flight (about 24 hours) to Toronto to promote the gothic thriller “Dorian Gray” (in which he plays the decadent title character) at the movie’s world premiere at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Weathering a marathon trip halfway across the world, jetting in for a gala movie premiere and after-party, and doing a round of interviews the next day on very little sleep would leave most people looking like they were run over by the plane by which they arrived. But somehow Barnes manages all of this whirlwind, exhausting activity with his wit and charm intact, and looking ready to step into a photo shoot (which he did right after this interview happened). How very Dorian Gray. Cue the eerie, organ-playing music. (That’s where the similarity ends though. Whereas Dorian could be described as vain and humorless, Barnes is quite the opposite.)
“Dorian Gray” (based on Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”) tells the story of the handsome young heir who arrives in Victorian-era, high-society London and is led into a hedonistic lifestyle by family friend Lord Henry Wotton (played by Colin Firth), who encourages Dorian to pursue pleasure at any cost. After seeing a painted portrait of himself and being blinded by narcissism, Dorian makes a devilish wish to forever look the same has he does in the picture. That wish comes true, but at a price: Even though Dorian does not age, becomes a celebrity, and is immune to physical deterioration over the years, his portrait (which Dorian eventually hides in his attic) starts to reflect the corruption and ugliness of his soul as Dorian becomes more depraved.
To our dear readers who haven’t yet seen “Dorian Gray” and are curious to know what kind of decadent behavior is in the movie, it’s my duty to report that there are scenes with drug taking, bisexuality, nudity (nothing full frontal, but shots from the waist up and side) and sadomasochistic orgies. “Dorian Gray” has a 15 certificate/rating in the United Kingdom, which means that children under the age of 15 are not allowed to see the movie in theaters or buy/rent it on home video — in other words, the most risqué scenes leave just enough to the imagination that the movie won’t be labeled as “for adults only.” Having seen “Dorian Gray,” I can say that fans of the “True Blood” TV series should really like the sexual taboo/beautiful vampire/lusty immortality undertones in “Dorian Gray,” since some of the graphic scenes involve eroticizing blood — whether it’s Dorian sensuously holding the blood-soaked scarf of someone he’s just murdered or Dorian having sex with a woman while someone else cuts bloody wounds on her back. If you can handle seeing Barnes swinging a bloody weapon and stabbing someone to death instead of swinging a heroic sword and saving Narnia’s Pevensie kids, then “Dorian Gray” is your kind of movie.
As the Dorian Gray character, Barnes achieves the right balance of portraying a tragic thrill seeker whose physical appearance and celebrity status look perfect on the outside, but who’s really masking the torture of slowly losing his soul on the inside. It’s a wonderfully complex yet subtle performance in a gorgeously shot movie that makes some creative departures from the original novel and previous film adaptations. The day after the “Dorian Gray” premiere, I sat down with Barnes and “Dorian Gray” director Oliver Parker in Toronto. Barnes had to fly back to Australia soon after his “Dorian Gray” media duties at TIFF were over, but not even his jet-lagged state of mind could stifle his sense of humor. And filmmaker Parker was the perfect complement for it, as they told jokes and shared behind-the-scenes stories. Let’s hope these two work together again, because their teamwork is fantastic, on screen and off.
Ben Barnes and Oliver Parker in the Tastemakers Lounge inside the Intercontinental Hotel at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival
So how jet-lagged do you feel right now?
Parker: You’re not going to go to sleep, are you?
Barnes: I haven’t slept in about four days. He [Oliver Parker] is much more eloquent and interesting than I am anyway.
Parker: [He says jokingly] My theory is that he [Ben Barnes, in reference to Dorian Gray’s portrait] has a passport photograph which is disintegrating. There’s something very strange going on.
What do you think about the parallels between Dorian Gray and Michael Jackson? You know, a celebrity who doesn’t want to grow old, he goes to extreme measures to prevent aging, and his real face ends up looking like grotesque mask.
Parker: I know. I agree.
Barnes: I’ve read some articles about that: “M.J. is Dorian Gray.”
Parker: And also if you think of Never Never Land … It’s incredibly tragic and asks all those questions: How did it happen? And how much blame do we take? It’s tragic in real life.
Ben Barnes in “Dorian Gray”
Olly, “Dorian Gray” is your third film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s work, after 1999’s “An Ideal Husband” and 2002’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” What kind of fascination do you have with Oscar Wilde?
Parker: It’s kind of an obsession, really. I think there was a slightly different motive on this occasion [of making “Dorian Gray”]. I tried to resist this one for quite some time. I’d done the first two, which were very much in the movement from theater to film. When I first started making films, the first one was “Othello.” It came from a desire — naïve, perhaps, but heartfelt — to try to bring these stories to a wider audience and make them accessible, particularly, to a younger audience.
I’d been playing Iago on stage and was kind of frustrated at how kids would come in with their textbooks and be beating it along. I thought that people aren’t really listening to or hearing what a magnificent, sexy thriller that is. So that’s what started for me.
The same thing with Wilde. I played in [a] Wilde [production] before. I actually got rather frustrated in these productions. People would sit there and you’d start to do a line talk very slowly and the [vocal pitch] would get higher at the end of the line and everybody would laugh and go, “Ha ha!” And you’re like, “What the hell are they laughing at?”
And also what was kind of ironic about it, it felt like there’s Wilde, who’s the epitome of radicalism and subversion in his way, becoming the crown of convention. So part of the desire was to blow that up. This one [“Dorian Gray”] was different. I said no to directing this [at first], because I didn’t want to paint myself into a corner and I wanted to try to do other things. Fortunately, it takes a long time to get ready, and in the meantime, I made a couple of films, and by the time Toby Finlay, our [“Dorian Gray”] screenwriter came in, he really brought in a new energy, and he was really terrific to work with. And suddenly, it became irresistible.
Ben Barnes and Rebecca Hall in “Dorian Gray”
What do you have to say about the changes in the movie that weren’t in the original “Dorian Gray” book?
Parker: In a way, it was about having a healthy enough disrespect to be able to take it far enough away to make it cinematic. Having done a few adaptations myself, it’s always a battle with the purists, but I feel you have to be bold enough to move a certain distance away from the original in order to capture its essence. You have to have a perspective on it. It wasn’t written that way; it wasn’t written as a film …
What I find, in filmmaking, is you have to identify the thing, that essence that you really want to bring to the audience. And whatever it takes to get there, that means sacrificing some of the elements to the book that you might love in order to tell that story. In this particular [movie, “Dorian Gray”], it was more liberating because it was not [adapted from] a play, so the dialogue was … just one layer in the many potential visual layers. So that liberated us a lot, but it also made us tackle the story in a way to make it satisfy the narrative of the film.
When he [Oscar Wilde] wrote it, it came out of the tradition of that Victorian gothic horror, where there’s an inevitability about the hero’s descent into doom. The air is kind of leaden — it has to be — and gloomy. And I suppose the direction we were after was to exchange that dread and suspense and turn it into a gothic thriller instead of an old-fashioned gothic horror movie.
Barnes: It [“The Picture of Dorian Gray” novel] wasn’t old-fashioned at the time. It was kind of shocking. It’s so difficult, I think, to shock on film nowadays — particularly if you want to appeal to that age group in which people are usually introduced to Wilde: 14, 15, 16 [years old]. If you want to appeal to that demographic and you think they deserve to see a film adaptation, you can’t be too explicit.
Ben Barnes in “Dorian Gray”
Ben, what was your family’s reaction to the more explicit scenes you had to do in “Dorian Gray”?
Barnes: Interestingly, my mum’s criticism, which a couple of people have had, is that you didn’t quite see enough sex and violence, and how far [Dorian] would go to push himself — the intensity of that. But, of course, we did shoot that [more explicit] film …
But the movie would’ve gotten another rating.
Barnes: Yeah, that would’ve pushed it into another rating, which is unfeasible.
Parker: The purists bounce over how much you show and how much you don’t.
Ben Barnes and Oliver Parker on the set of “Dorian Gray”
Ben, what was it about Olly’s directing style that brought out the best in you for “Dorian Gray”?
Barnes: I think it’s because he knows Wilde so well. Both myself and Colin [Firth], with the Wilde-ian dialogue, it was very interesting watching him negotiate that in the scenes, and I think Olly was very helpful to both of us in not making these epigrams and sounding as if they were written. It sounded like they were coming out of our mouths — not necessarily for the first time — because Wotton repeats himself again and again, and I [as Dorian Gray] repeat what he says.
That was the first thing. And the second thing was because Olly has been an actor himself. So he would come and talk to me, but then as he wandered away, I’d see him mumbling the lines to himself and you could watch those thought processes. And, of course, he knows how I felt, how I felt that pressure, feeling sick …
Parker: [He says jokingly] So you just copied my performance!
Rachel Hurd-Wood and Ben Barnes in “Dorian Gray”
Dorian Gray was celebrated for his handsomeness. Ben, as an actor, a lot of what your fans and the media say about you has to do with how you look. Can you talk about the inevitable Dorian Gray comparisons you’re getting now that you’ve played this character in a movie?
Barnes: Certainly, there are comparisons to be made. We live in a youth-obsessed, aesthetically obsessed culture. That is no more evident than in the film industry. This [“Dorian Gray” story] is over a hundred years old. We haven’t really learned anything.
Do you think people get away with vanity more often now? Can “Dorian Gray” still be considered a cautionary tale for our time?
Barnes: We do, but it seems to be a more of a morality tale than it actually is. It’s seemingly about a man who exchanges his youth and looks for his soul, and ultimately that causes his downfall, when actually, Wilde himself placed great value on the aesthetic and looks. So I think that’s why the book largely goes on, because it raises these questions and debates and then it just leaves them out in the ether for us to discuss.
Ben Barnes in “Dorian Gray”
And it’s interesting that you had to tone down the movie, because Wilde also had to tone down his original version of “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
Parker: Yes. He diluted the book, because when he was charged with indecency … they analyzed all his work, looking for clues that he was a poof. There was incredible intensity. You see the lines that he changed. They’re not particularly incriminating, but the whole book is incriminating. You couldn’t escape it. The whole thing is a testament to his desires and the notion of being … “abnormal.”
Ben, can you talk about how you went about playing someone whose soul is supposed to be rotting on the inside but on the outside he’s supposed to look perfect and be living the high life?
Barnes: We talked about that a lot. That was the part I was the most skeptical about. I was anxious about playing that kind of cynical, bored [person] that he becomes at the end, and bringing reality to that. But actually, when we came to shoot it, I found that thing came to me the most easily. And having seen it for the first time, I was convincing to myself.
I watched some other films of people. I remember watching “The Station Agent,” with Peter Dinklage, a dwarf actor. And a child had asked him, “What grade are you in?” And he says [in a world-weary voice], “I’m done with school.” And it’s so easy and natural for him, because he’s been asked these questions a million times. Nothing surprises him. And that’s how I wanted to approach the latter part of the [“Dorian Gray”] story.
We’re assuming in that montage, in the letters that Dorian has written back to Henry, that [Dorian] has seen and heard everything that is possible for him to see and hear, and has had every experience that it’s possible to have. So that nothing would surprise him, shock him, even make him react.
Ben Barnes in “Dorian Gray”
Parker: I think you put your finger on the real challenge to the part, which I think people, on the whole, don’t grasp. The slight gauge from the book to the film is that in the book, [Dorian] is a blank canvas. He’s the object and we’re all watching him. We don’t know what he thinks or what he feels, really. That’s why we took the “Picture” out of the title. It’s just “Dorian Gray.” We’re more interested in the character and making him the subject rather than the object — and him being the fellow that takes us on the roller-coaster ride.
And the fascinating constriction in that roller-coaster ride, you can’t show too much. We discussed if there was anything we could do with prosthetics and makeup. Is there something that changes? And in the end, it was all about the aging soul and the idea of what is it that makes us different.
And we talked about that notion of [Dorian] being like a Stradivarius, in the way he responds to every trill of the bow. He’s so alive to every experience and sensation — and by the end, he couldn’t hear a single note. The whole thing was dead. And I think Ben does that superbly. Some people might find it’s too controlled or too overdone. But I think it’s a really well-judged performance of keeping it absolutely internal.
It’s one of those things that’s so exciting about film acting. It’s like that pithy line, “Don’t just do something; stand there!” It’s really hard to do very, very little.
Remember those scenes in the library? [“Dorian Gray” cinematographer] Roger Pratt lit it so beautifully — using the light and dark and shadows to make an almost psychotic image of [Dorian]. And the stillness — you not even reacting when the door opens. You [as Dorian Gray] are beyond that sensation.
Barnes: You’re right. We did discuss changing the hair or some part of the [Dorian Gray] look, but I think the scariest moment of the film, for me, is when [Dorian] comes back through the door — having been away for 25 years — and Fiona Shaw [who plays Agatha in the movie] does this wonderfully naturalistic terror. Of course, if you hadn’t seen someone in 25 years and they looked exactly the same, your first reaction probably wouldn’t be awe and wonder. You’d be terrified! You’d think, “This is not possible.”
Ben Barnes in “Dorian Gray”
Ben, how did making the “Dorian Gray” movie affect how you want to be perceived as an actor and where you want your career to go?
Barnes: It made me realize how quickly I’m getting older. I’ve been playing 21, and I’ve just turned 28 [this year].
Work it, baby!
[Barnes and Parker laugh.]
Barnes: There’s a line in the movie, “Some things are more precious because they don’t last.” I think I’m trying to take advantage now.
Parker: You’ve got to go for it. As a director, you end up slightly playing the role of Henry Wotton. You’re kind of encouraging having that youthful appearance.
Ben Barnes at the “Dorian Gray” premiere at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival
What about the scripts you’re getting? You don’t want to be typecast as a “pretty boy.” What kinds of roles do you want to tackle that have more depth than just playing someone nice to look at?
Barnes: Almost every script that I’ve gotten has been for sort of the generic Hollywood type. I haven’t chosen them. All the ones I have chosen are because I’ve been fascinated with the source material or because of the script. And the variety is interesting.
I just shot a film [“Valediction”] in Boston, where I play a father who had kids too young, and then he has a car crash, and his kid is left in a coma and he’s trying to scrap some pieces of his life back together. That was modern-day and totally different.
I’m going to do a comedy in Ireland after I do the “Dawn Treader” film. It’s a variety. It’s escaping into the different psyches and the different genres that’s really exciting for me.
And actually, some of the most heart-breaking parts I’ve lost out on have been because they say, “Well, we want an ‘every man’ character. We don’t see you as that.” That’s difficult. That’s like reverse discrimination.
What can you say about the comedy you’re going to do in Ireland?
Barnes: I don’t know the name of it yet. That’s all I can say.
Let’s talk about the “Dawn Treader” movie. I know you can’t reveal any spoilers, but what’s in the movie that’s different from the book?
Barnes: They’ve stolen a couple of ideas from some of the later [“Chronicles of Narnia”] books. [It’s] a very difficult book to adapt, because it’s very episodic. It’s chapter by chapter. They go on the voyage, they go to one island, a bit more voyage, another island, a bit more voyage, another island. It’s very satisfying to read; every chapter by chapter, it’s very exciting. But it has no real through line. And so they have to kind of steal other elements to sew it all together. I think they’ve done it in a really clever, unobtrusive way.
Ben Barnes in “Dorian Gray”
Let’s hear the story about the portrait (painted by artist Paul Benney) that was used in the “Dorian Gray” movie.
Barnes: I wasn’t allowed to keep it. We had a couple [of portraits] done, but they didn’t seem to be special enough. So [Oliver Parker] employed this well-known portrait artist that I went and sat for, but I actually had to stand up the whole time … He was doing it very carefully. It was very helpful when I was doing the scenes where I was standing and being watched … It was interesting [doing the portrait], but it was kind of just dull, really, just standing there. It was incredible and beautiful to look at, particularly up close.
What I noticed was that far away from it, it kind of looked angelic, and as you moved closer, it kind of got more and more demonic when you looked in the eyes. I’m sure I’m not that interesting. I’m sure that was something [the artist Paul Benney] did in the way he created it. And I was so excited when [Oliver Parker] came in to see it for the first time. I said, “Look! If you stand here, it looks like this, and if you go close, it looks really scary!”
Parker: I don’t know if it was just the picture.
Barnes: Oh, I’m scary up close?
Barnes: I think [Paul Benney] charges something like 10 grand a portrait.
Ben Barnes in “Dorian Gray”
Where do you think the portrait is going to end up?
Barnes: Yeah, where is it?
Parker: Well, at the moment, it’s in [“Dorian Gray” producer] Barnaby [Thompson’s] office.
Parker: And actually, we had to do a Q&A at the National Portrait Gallery in London [on September 10, 2009], and we took Toby [Finlay] and Paul [Benney] along. It was really fascinating. They’re thinking of maybe putting it [the portrait] up in the foyer there.
Barnes: So they loved it.
Parker: All the real aficionados loved it.
In the 1945 movie “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the altered portrait wasn’t revealed until the end. But in your “Dorian Gray” movie, we see the portrait as it morphs into a monstrous thing. Can you talk about why you decided to do that?
Parker: It was quite tricky when you talk about designing that. First, you have to decide if it should be more stylized, almost hyper-real. When you do something on film, should it perhaps be something that should be more three-dimensional and less painted? We tried that, and actually it looked flat.
The more [we] worked with some of the ideas of the paint strokes and the maggots and infestations … somehow there was more depth and texture. In the end, it was valuable to have a real painting. And I think that given the whole thing is based on this extraordinary device in the story, I just wanted to inspire the credibility of it.
Ben Barnes and Rebecca Hall in “Dorian Gray”
When you decided to make “Dorian Gray” less of a gothic horror film and more of a gothic thriller film, did you worry about having any melodrama seep into the movie?
Parker: Some of that I embraced. Some of it I thought that there are times when it was kind of fun. It’s inherent in [the story]. There was a moment early on when I thought, “Is this a period drama with one weird bit of supernatural?” If you extracted that [idea of the portrait mirroring Dorian Gray’s soul], is there anything strange in the story? …
So much of it is about if you are the subject or the object: if you’re being looked at or are you looking … I came to think “What is the antagonist in the story?” If you’re going to make a thrilling story, you need to know who the bad guy is. The beauty becomes the beast, which is the fascinating paradox in this story.
I wanted the feeling that Dorian is inculcated by Henry with this philosophy that Dorian is a superman and is impervious to emotions, and he starts to believe he s a god. And then what happens, Dorian starts to crumble, he starts to crack, he starts to feel remorse. And his whole world view is shattered. And instead of being the person who is looked upon by these subjects and they will fall at his feet, suddenly you don’t know where to look because someone is going to get you. And suddenly, we don’t know who to trust.
Those gods, if you like, that have been blessing Dorian, those supernatural agents turn against him. The supernatural is threatening and becomes the power that animates the picture.
Barnes: Colin and I would argue over who was playing the villain. He would say, “Every choice you made was manipulated by me. So I’m the über-villain.” And I said, “Well, how many people did you kill in the film? None. I win!”
Colin Firth and Ben Barnes in “Dorian Gray”
So much of “Dorian Gray” is about pushing and crossing the boundaries of integrity. In terms of your own integrity, is there anything that you won’t do as an actor or filmmaker?
Parker: Professionally? [He says jokingly] I won’t ever do another Oscar Wilde film. I have to do three or none at all. I’m forfeiting a pledge. [He says seriously] No, I don’t know. I love trying different things and I hate to say no. I say no a lot of times to scripts and things, but I can’t predict what they are. I love the idea of doing a period film. I love really silly comedies. I’ve been doing the “St. Trinian’s” films with Rupert Everett in a dress.
Barnes: That is scary! [Laughter] I’ve always said for a long time that the only genre I wouldn’t really touch would be horror, because I don’t really like horror films. And yet this [“Dorian Gray” movie] almost turned out to be one. But I never really saw it as one until we kind of got going with it. I don’t think it really fits into one particular genre. It has to be a period film, but in order for it to be subversive like the book was, you have to subvert the genre a bit. It has to be a bit thriller, it has to be a bit horror. [He says jokingly] You can see it in “Dorian Gray 2,” when I wake up again.
Ben Barnes in “Dorian Gray”
Ben, “Dorian Gray” was the first time in a movie that you had to do things like get naked, kiss a man, and do orgy scenes. What was that whole experience like for you?
Barnes: Oliver Parker made it as difficult as possible. My very first day [of filming on the “Dorian Gray” set], I went into my trailer and I immediately came out of my trailer and said, “Oh, my costume’s not in my trailer.” And they just said, “Well …” It was in the morning. So my very first shot was nude — which was very unkind, I thought.
How naughty of you, Mr. Parker!
[Parker smiles mischiveously.]
Parker: I know. [Laughter]
Barnes: But every experience is invaluable.
Parker: You just had to go for it.
Barnes: Ben Chaplin [who plays Basil Hallward, who paints Dorian’s portrait and kisses him in the movie] would tease me mercilessly. We’re two straight guys, and he’s done kissing [scenes] with men before on stage and on screen. And he was teasing me mercilessly that day. He said, “Don’t worry! I won’t use tongue!”
Well, you know, kissing a man for an acting scene seems to be a rite of passage for British male actors, just like doing a Shakespeare production.
Barnes: Right! It’s just one of those things. You’ve just got to take the bull by the horns with all those experiences, because that was a way into that character.
[Says jokingly] And how do you really feel about orgies?
Barnes: [Says jokingly] Now I want to do them in every film. I love them. Lock the door!