We meet Ben Barnes far from home, somewhere in Los Angeles, in a Tiki-themed retreat for retired vaudeville singers. “Disturbing,” Ben comments, as we walk into the ballroom of the kitsch 50s apartment complex, but it doesn’t take him long to settle in. He starts playing the baby grand piano, tickling the ivories with the confidence of an old Vegas crooner and filling the empty ballroom with smoothness. As it turns out, he can carry a tune. “I used to think I’d be a jazz singer, so I feel quite at home”, he says. “I sang at Frank Sinatra tribute concerts when I was 16. They were brilliant, or so I thought at the time. If I’m being honest they probably weren’t brilliant.”
Ben showed a natural talent for performance from a young age, growing up in Wimbledon with his mum, a relationship therapist, and his dad, a psychiatry professor. “I was always encouraged to be in tune with my emotions – that might be part of the reason I’m an actor,” he says. “Acting is just a hypothetical extension of that. As in, ‘how would you feel in this scenario?’” He didn’t choose to follow his parents into the murky realms of psychoanalysis because shrinks work “far too hard” for his liking. “I wanted to find something that I really, really loved, so I’d never have to do a day’s work in my life.”
In 2006, he landed a part in the London West End production of Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, where his story took a fantastical turn. A casting director came to see the play, and asked Ben to audition for the Narnia film. Ben had never imagined himself as a film actor. “It wasn’t even something that I thought ‘maybe one day’. I just never thought it was feasible or possible. I didn’t think I was interesting enough to be in a film, honestly.” But just two weeks after meeting with the filmmakers, he accepted the role of the valiant prince. One minute he was an unknown board-treader; the next he was driving his car down Sunset Boulevard with 150-feet-tall posters of his face looking down on him. The Narnia character was so charismatic that a Berkshire horticulturalist named a rose Prince Caspian. “I thought, a new breed of rose, how exciting. It’s going to be massive and purple,” recalls Ben. It was in fact a rather modest red rose, but either way, Ben was a star.
“I WANTED TO FIND SOMETHING THAT I REALLY, REALLY LOVED, SO I’D NEVER HAVE TO DO A DAY’S WORK IN MY LIFE.”
After Caspian, Hollywood invited Ben to work with some of his boyhood idols – something that he obviously still hasn’t lost excitement for. He had two scenes with Robin Williams in the film, The Big Wedding, one of which was entirely improvised. “The director said, ‘Okay Robin, do your thing.’ I was like, ‘Improv-battle with Robin Williams? Is that what you’re asking? That’s like asking me to box with Mike Tyson. It’s not going to work.” It did work, but Ben had to occasionally remind himself to act and stop watching Robin. “I was too busy watching him, fascinated. I thought I was watching the telly.”