Best known for portraying Gandhi, Sir Ben's career spans over 40 years. His roles have ranged from the sociopathic Don Logan in Sexy Beast to the tormented Massoud in House Of Sand And Fog. More recently he has lent his voice to the video game Fable III and appeared in Martin Scorsese's Hugo.
Event recorded on 26 November 2011
Francine Stock: Ladies and gentlemen, good evening and welcome to this A Life in Pictures with Sir Ben Kingsley, an actor of tremendous power and presence. Before I invite him onto the stage and we review his career more fully, I’d just like you to have a little reminder of that career.
Montage of Sir Ben’s film work
FS: So, Sir Ben, let’s start at the beginning. 1943, North Yorkshire, near Scarborough.
Sir Ben Kingsley: New Year’s Eve.
FS: New Year’s Eve! Your father was a doctor...
FS: Was there any kind of theatrical, thespian background at all?
SBK: Apparently either his mother or his stepmother used to sing ghazals with an accordion. They’re very beautiful songs and quite dramatic. That’s on my dad’s side so there is performance in his blood. My mother was in a lot of films at Denham Studios for the Korda Brothers. She was an extra and a fashion model. I don’t think she had any lines, I think she told me once she had a line ‘I’m fed up with rolling these cigarettes.’ But whether or not it made the print I’m not entirely sure.
FS: But the idea that you might become an actor... I gather that it was actually music first of all that you were heading towards?
SBK: Ooh, no. Acting first because when I was very little a film was screened in Salford, where my dad was a GP, called Never Take No For An Answer [produced] by [Anthony] Havelock-Allan. It was in black and white and was about an orphaned Italian boy whose village had been bombed by the Allied forces and his companion, his friend, his sole mode of employment was his donkey Violetta. And Violetta was the courier, the haulage contractor, the ‘get you home if you’re drunk taxi’; he and the donkey were the village basically. He was like the mayor but he was seven or eight.
I looked just like him, and at the end of this heartrendingly beautiful film about an orphan, which is strange because that reoccurs a lot in my movies, I was in floods of tears. I decided that I was him, I was Peppino. Then the cinema owner in Salford spotted me and mistook me for the star. He thought, ‘It’s the Salford premiere, we always get the stars.’ He grabbed me and lifted me above the crowd saying ‘It’s little Peppino, it’s little Peppino!’
FS: And you didn’t protest?
SBK: I thought ‘This is rather good, I could get used to this.’ But after then I conducted the next few years followed by an invisible camera crew and an invisible donkey. I just so wanted to be part of that narrative tradition.
FS: But in fact it was to the stage that you went first of all and the Royal Shakespeare Company by 1967.
FS: So it was very much the classical idea rather than popular entertainment.
SBK: Oh, indeed it was. I think by accident, although I remember on BBC TV I think John Barton had something to do with it. Ages ago a series called An Age Of Kings, and it was absolutely beautiful, the episodes were taken from Shakespeare’s plays. Then by great fortune I was auditioned by a TiE – Theatre in Education – company, and they mounted plays and excerpts of plays for school children.
I was given the job of some very tough schools in the south of London, excerpts from the Scottish play, from Julius Caesar and Romeo & Juliet. I had my first taste – no drama school – my first taste of playing Shakespeare in front of kids at a very early age. That was my baptism really.
FS: And you changed your name, was it at that stage or a bit later?
SBK: It was round about then. One of my sons went to RADA. I auditioned for RADA and I remember sitting in the waiting room with the chap with the list of auditionees, if that’s the word, and he got to Kristina Blange and nobody moved. He said again ‘Kristina Blange!’ and nobody moved, and then I thought ‘Oh gosh, that’s me.’
Because my name Krishna Bhanji; in my awful handwriting, looked like Kristina Blange. It does, it works quite neatly actually, capital K, capital B. So up gets Kristina Blange out of his/her chair and with a breaking, sinking heart does quite a passable bit from Richard III, doesn’t get in.
I told this story to my dad, who was very pragmatic and he said ‘Change your name,’ and I did. So I got Ben from dad’s nickname, because Bhanji-Benjy-Benjamin-Ben. He was called Ben by all his pals at school and beyond. And Kingsley from his dad’s nickname because his dad was a spice trader in East Africa, so successful that he was called Clove King, or King of the Cloves, so I got Kingsley. It’s in there, my heritage.
FS: Your big screen debut was in an Alistair Maclean thriller, is that right? You’re looking slightly as if you can’t remember it.
SBK: I was hoping you wouldn’t bring it up actually.
FS: Well you have to know where everybody starts.
SBK: Fear Is The Key, yeah. My first attempt at an American accent and my hair very skilfully combed forward to hide the balding bits. Yeah, very good.
FS: But we’re inevitably going to move forwards to Gandhi, because that’s where our first clip.
SBK: But also via Mike Leigh, David Jones, Ken Loach, all of whom I’d worked with for BBC Films, in and out of the RSC, a marvellous era.
FS: In that whole Play for Today era. So the first intimation of Gandhi was what?
SBK: I’ve had many hints from him. When I was playing for the RSC at The Place near Euston – I think it’s Russell Square, I may be wrong – but there is a bronze statue of Gandhi leaning forward, a beautiful statue. And you know you were talking about that half hour before a show, before we came on, and you either hail a taxi or you go on stage. Well I was in that terrifying zone and by sheer accident, this was in the ‘70s, I saw this beautiful statue of Gandhi and I was playing a wonderfully brave political activist in the play, who sacrificed his life for the workers.
And I looked up at this wonderful bronze face and I said ‘I’m going to do this play for you,’ and I walked back into the theatre and did my piece. Then I came across documentaries of him that always made me cry, and then very close to getting the call from Attenborough, by coincidence I had a book out of the library, the Payne Illustrated Biography of Mahatma Gandhi.
And when I met Richard to discuss Gandhi I was bouncing up and down in my seat saying ‘Guess what! Guess what! I’m actually reading a book on Gandhi right now,’ and he said ‘Of course you are darling.’ I was being continually fed, by extraordinary serendipity.
FS: I think you’ve spoken in the past about finding your way to the heart of him. So apart from reading books what other devices or methods did you employ?
SBK: I like to have a device and it’s either a phrase, or a piece of invented mythology linked to a far deeper mythology. I think it’s probably through Shakespeare. And when I can hold this scrap of mythology that catalyses the whole performance, then I know I’ve made the first crucial step. With Gandhi it was anger, paradoxically, rage and indignation and my key scene in the film, was being thrown off a train and my little bit of mythology was ‘Once upon a time they threw a man off a train. Big mistake.’ Be very careful who you bully because sometimes that person can intellectually manoeuvre themselves with such brilliance into being a very, very serious adversary.
FS: Well that leads very well into the first excerpt we are going to see which is from Gandhi. This is obviously from a later stage, but a train is also involved in it as well. At the moment when we see it, this is quite early on as he’s not yet the Mahatma, he’s not yet the Great Soul, but he’s going through India with his followers, and he’s observed by two British officers played by Dominic Guard and Bernard Hill and the person they are about to meet is, of course, the lawyer but already becoming the Great Leader.
FS: And Gandhi, of course, a role that won you two BAFTAs including, almost slightly superfluously, Best Newcomer as well as an Oscar. Looking there at the scale of it and the number of people in that scene… These days a scene like that would be partly rendered with CGI.
SBK: Totally. Those extras totally changed my body chemistry every time Dickie said ‘Action!’ It was amazing. Just the sheer input of all their affection and concentration. But also having been in 17 of Shakespeare’s 27 plays, particularly in the history plays or when a battle is about to begin, the dawn of a battle, you invariably get this marvellous scene between the first soldier and the second soldier.
That’s all they’re called in the play. And they look at the horizon and say ‘What star is that?’ or something very close to that, and the other soldier says ‘Tis the God Hercules whom Caesar loves, now leaves him.’ Or something amazing like that. Dominic and Bernard are the first soldier and the second soldier in a massive sweep of epic history. And suddenly through Attenborough’s eyes and through Jack Briley’s script you see life through the eyes of the common man. Totally out of his depth, frightened and overawed by the scale of it.
Now you talk about CGI, also I think in the edit suite by committee they may say ‘We’re running a minute and a half over, what can we cut?’ ‘Oh cut that scene with those two guys, it doesn’t mean anything.’ You’ve lost the historical impact of that scene on those guys just doing their job and so out of their depth. It’s a piece of modern Shakespeare.
FS: But the sense of responsibility for you, playing in those crowd scenes; I think in one scene there was even reported to have been several hundred thousands of extras. It must have been almost impossible to bear that kind of responsibility to play that particular individual.
SBK: But Francine, I love it where art and life conspire to help the actor. If you’re open to the narrative function of that character; his combination of intelligence and humility and cunning was absolutely extraordinary. I, as a leading man, somehow by osmosis had to get from around me – because you have to make it up out of nothing, there’s nothing there, the air around me and the extras and the dust and the dialogue of course, I had to somehow find in me that sense of responsibility of course, not only to history but to the film, and to those extras not only to their history but their presence in the film. So I found on a daily basis the icon that they lovingly mistook for Gandhi was impressing upon them such affection that I had to be modest. I had to find a modesty from which I could function otherwise it wouldn’t work. So the ego exercise that Mahatma Gandhi had to fast and pray to attain, I had to attain on the film set; an exact parallel situation.
FS: But professionally it must have changed everything,.
SBK: Yes, it did.
FS: So immediately afterwards you did Pinter’s Betrayal, you played the husband in that. There’s a whole string of films in between, but we’re going towards the encounter with Steven Spielberg and Schindler’s List next. What was your first contact with Spielberg?
SBK: Well I had already had the privilege of playing Simon Wiesenthal in a wonderful Disney Showtime miniseries, and therefore I was acquainted with the Holocaust and how it remains to this day totally inexplicable and unforgiveable and indigestible. I was very reluctant; I was frightened of going back into that era.
Again, I had to find a little mandate or a little scrap of mythology to put into my back pocket to make Stern work. My little word was ‘I am the witness.’ And I met Steven, who’s a very gracious man, and I had the temerity to ask, ‘Steven, what do you think Stern’s narrative function is in the film? What do you want from the performance?’ And he said ‘Stern is the conscience.’ So I shook hands immediately, because the words are second cousins to each other.
FS: I think you’ve said before that Spielberg is one of those directors that you know immediately you’re going to be able to work with. What are the signs? How can you tell?
SBK: It’s the level of attention that they give that’s devoid of all layers, and devoid of all flattery. You can always tell feigned attention because you begin to squirm at the flattery of it. But when it’s absolutely uncluttered observation for the sake of a piece of art you realise that if he’s making a mosaic he’ll get his tweezers and he’ll say ‘I want that piece of Lapis Lazuli there.’
And you know that you’re that bit of Lapis Lazuli, you know that he’s placing you with such thought, care, and attention and never takes his eyes off you. All the great ones I’ve worked with have a layer peeled away from their retina, and you never have to scrabble round with your actor’s begging bowl to ask them if they like this bit or that bit, you know. They’ve seen it all. And very often it’s in the movie.
FS: Because Itzhak Stern, the character you play, he is the conscience but he’s also the dramatic focus of the film in many ways because although Schindler’s name may be in the title the man who compiles Schindler’s list is his accountant, Itzhak Stern. The clip that we’re about to see; we see Liam Neeson as Schindler and you, the two of you working together.
(Clip from Schindler’s List)
SBK: You can wait for years to have the privilege of saying that couplet, ‘The list is an absolute good, the list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.’ I’ve never heard anything like that from a movie script; that measures up to every single utterance I’ve been able to, privileged to speak from Shakespeare’s time, because it’s absolutely extraordinary. Talk about Kit Marlowe’s mighty line, that’s a mighty line.
FS: And allowed the space and the focus to do it.
SBK: Allowed the space, and also love Steven’s camera work where you have the sharp profile of Oskar’s face and I start my line and I’m not even in focus; he brings me into focus during the line as the thought develops. That’s narrative focus pulling. It was extraordinary; he’s actually enhancing my performance by getting me in sharp focus as the thought hits my head.
FS: And also the use of black and white as well. It kind of focuses the narrative and focuses very much on the faces the way everybody’s lit. Does that affect performance at all?
SBK: To a certain degree it does affect performance. For my part it lent it an authority that I felt it would not have in colour. I remember standing by the monitor next to Steven who would say, with joy glittering in his eyes after a take ‘That’s in the movie.’ Sometimes the takes were on pretty grim things, you know, but looking from the re-enactment of history which of course was life, was in colour, was people on the film set, and then glancing from that to the monitor, suddenly it became a piece of documentary footage.
Given the incomprehensible bestiality of the material you must give it some authority, otherwise it’s just unbelievable. So for my money I think that it greatly enhanced its authority as a hymn to the Holocaust.
FS: And you went on with Spielberg to narrate A.I. later on.
SBK: I did.
FS: But the contrast is you could be working with Spielberg or Attenborough or Scorsese as we’re going to talk about later, but you might also work with a first time director. So how do you select the scripts?
SBK: Well, it’s always exciting to be working with somebody taking their first steps. It’s exhilarating, they’re not cluttered by any laws, or tried and tested tricks; they are on a voyage of discovery with you and you with them. The first time directors I have worked with, I’ve found it an exhilarating experience. Fresh and open to ideas, with great directors too you can have a wonderful debate, but with a first time director it’s harder because they may be trying to prove a point and they might be slightly intimidated by somebody who’s done 30 more films than they have. But the politics of the film set are fascinating, and if you introduce an argument in the right manner then it can really enhance the creative process.
FS: So when’s the good time to introduce the argument then?
SBK: When the director says ‘I don’t know what to do...’ That’s a good chance.
FS: So you’re helping him?
SBK: Yeah, you can move in quite quickly then. And when I, for example, read the screenplay of Sexy Beast, I will go back to Jacobean tragedy; I will go back to Shakespeare because when you see those words on the page by [David] Scinto and [Louis] Mellis they are put on the page with such care. It looks like blank verse and then you begin to read it, and it reads like blank verse. There are rhythms, there are almost rhyming couplets, there’s repetition in it. My daughter, who couldn’t make it tonight, she actually said after the screening of Sexy Beast ‘Dad, it’s like a Jacobean tragedy.’
FS: And Jonathan Glazer who directed, whose first feature it was, he’d done fantastic commercials up until then, but was it mainly the script that sold you the idea?
SBK: The script sold me totally, but then Duncan Heath and Sally Long-Innes, my amazing agents, decided to offer me up to Jonathan Glazer as Don Logan the arch-villain. I’m sure that Jonathan said ‘Oh, very interesting.’ But then he agreed to meet me, and I don’t know whether Sally remembers this but I chose my suit very carefully, it was a very sharp, grey suit, I looked quite nasty in it.
And I walked into Jonathan’s office for the meeting and the first thing I said – I was really emboldened, I really wanted the part – the first thing I said was ‘We’ve got a lot to talk about,’ and he said ‘Oh, yes, we have.’ Anyway, we got on like a house on fire. But I think I know you’re moving towards a clip, so may I just tell you that he’d set up this scene in a vast living area of a villa. Huge, white carpeted villa area, and that’s when he said to Ray and I ‘There’s something wrong, it’s not going to work, it’s not going to work.’
And I said ‘May I suggest that as this is a lovers’ quarrel, and they all take place in kitchens – can we please set it in the kitchen?‘ He took down all the lights, re-rigged it, we lost half a day. It had to be in one take. It was one take, that kitchen scene, because even when we moved into the kitchen the fridge was making a terrible noise and the lights were making a terrible noise. So our time was shrinking and shrinking but Jonathan would not deviate, he said ‘No, you’re right, let’s set it in the kitchen.’ Honestly, I think it’s the making of the scene because we have no space, we’re rammed together like lovers in a kitchen. And it is a lovers’ quarrel.
FS: Just a little bit of context for anybody who hasn’t seen it....
SBK: [as Don Logan] I could do bits from it, if you like.
FS: We’re on the Costa del Crime aren’t we, we’re in Spain where retired safe breaker Gal – played by Ray Winstone – is being persuaded out of retirement for that one last job by Don Logan, your character.
(Clip from Sexy Beast)
SBK: Scares me.
FS: And he will get to leave as well, won’t he? But it isn’t just about the words, I can completely see what you mean about the verse sounding of it, but it’s also about the body language there. Everything about Don is very compact and hard, and everything about Gal is kind of soft and defeated.
SBK: Yes, indeed.
FS: So all those things; getting into the whole shape of him, was that something discussed with Glazer or was that something you came up with yourself?
SBK: Again I had my little scrap of paper in my pocket, you know; that I always have to have. I may have discussed this with Jonathan but certainly it was during the shooting, it wasn’t in preparation. I was almost parachuted in to do this role, I nearly missed it by half a day because I was doing some other film over in the States and they wouldn’t release me, but they did thank goodness; so very little prep.
What tied all the threads together in Don’s behaviour, and possibly that trigger, ‘I don’t want you to be happy, why should I?’ But it’s a tragic line. He must have been an abused child. And once I grasped that I realised that, that kind of behaviour was meted out to him as a child. He learnt that rhythm, that vocabulary from being this height, from being barked at by parents. And once I’d locked that in he had a complete seamless logic. And I cared for him.
FS: Do you always care for your characters?
SBK: Yes I do, I think if I can’t be custodian of that character then I shouldn’t play him. Or her, but I haven’t played her yet.
FS: There was an Oscar nomination for Sexy Beast, and indeed you were knighted in 2001 as well. With Logan there’s not a great deal of obvious ambiguity, but ambiguity is there in many of your roles, and we’re moving towards House Of Sand And Fog from 2003. As the title implies it’s really about shifting perceptions. The fog is murky and the sand moves from underneath your feet all the time when you’re watching, about what the characters are and what you feel about them.
SBK: Yes, indeed.
FS: Was that one of the things that appealed to you about the script?
SBK: Now, I promised my wife that I wouldn’t talk about my childhood, but here we go, I’m sorry. My dad, much as I loved him, was very absent. You could not really describe him as a great patriarch. He disappeared and died in a cloud of alcohol and resentment and sadness through a whole series of parts of his history that would be indigestible for anybody.
So I never honestly had a patriarch in my life. In fact I didn’t have any elders in my life that I felt secure with, that I could breathe with, that I felt were there, were listening, were attentive. So what hugely attracted me to House Of Sand And Fog was that Colonel Behrani was the patriarch, as was Itzhak Stern, as was Otto Frank, as was Meyer Lansky, as was Mahatma Gandhi, they’re all patriarchs. And that comprehension of that word, from a child’s point of view, is missing in my life.
FS: So you kind of imagined it?
SBK: I have to invent that. As a dad myself, I love playing dads on screen to explore that which wasn’t present in my life as a child, and I can create. That kind of sobriety and sternness and deep rooted patriarchy in Behrani was something that greatly appealed to me.
FS: One of the fascinating things about Behrani is that you don’t really know anything about his background except he’s in exile from Iran and he’s brought his family from Isfahan and is trying to make for them the same kind of life in the United States.
So he’s working two jobs and trying to put them in this rather precarious situation in the house. In the bit we’re about to see he’s talking to his son and there’s a kind of doubt in us the audience as there obviously is in the son about quite what his background was. He’s a colonel, but was he part of Savak, the Shah’s hated secret police?
SBK: True, yes.
(Clip from House Of Sand And Fog)
SBK: I know two of my three sons are here tonight; I absolutely dedicated that performance to my sons and my daughter. But my little scrap of paper of mythology, because he’s a Persian warrior, [was] ‘Once upon a time there was a warrior. First he lost his king, then he lost his kingdom, then he lost his family.’ It’s that disintegration. I’m fascinated by integration and disintegration. And it’s that journey; you just have to walk into it. It’s an ancient Persian tragedy really, in modern dress.
FS: It’s a very interesting take too, partly on the immigrant experience.
SBK: Which was my dad’s.
FS: Yes, and because your sympathies in that film pretty much stay with that family I have to say. It’s not an anti-American film, although they move around a bit. It is actually very interesting. The director was not American though, was he?
SBK: No, Russian.
FS: Do you think that comes through?
SBK: He had his Russian immigrant experience, Vadim [Perelman]. So from the novel through to his screenplay and then his perception of the screenplay, it did throw the more polarised American critics into utter confusion. In the press junket the first thing they’d say when they sat down in front of me was ‘I didn’t know who was the bad guy, who was the bad guy?’ They have to have a bad guy. It’s much more complicated than that.
FS: Do you find that that is typical of the scripts that you reject mainly, that they’re too simplistic?
SBK: Well I was spoilt really, by Shakespeare. I love to have a journey, and to be able to discover on that journey. So much of my roles have been discovered on the way. Yes, I learn my lines and I do the standard amount of research, if there is such a thing. But then you get these revelations on the journey that are so thrilling. Like in Sexy Beast, oh my God, he was abused. There he is.
And other revelations too that come on the way if you remain alive and attentive to the beautiful script and the working conditions. So I think, yes, probably in years and years to come if you wanted to show a biography of me you could definitely not use any documentary footage whatsoever, but stick a montage of my work together and I’d be there, absolutely be there.
FS: Two of your sons, at least, have gone into acting as well.
SBK: Yes, they have.
FS: Sometimes people do try and put their children off this in some way.
SBK: No, it would have been very wrong of me because I saw them both on stage at a very early age, in this beautiful (youth theatre) called Playbox International where they really grappled with some very tough material, including Shakespeare at a tiny age. I remember the first time one is on the edge of one’s seat, but then after a few seconds I thought ‘You know guys, you’re completely in charge. You know exactly what you’re doing; you have to make this your lives.’
FS: Now we’re going to talk about your two collaborations with Martin Scorsese.
SBK: I still can’t believe it. I still pinch myself when you say that.
FS: Clearly you followed Scorsese’s career, I assume, from early on.
FS: The first approach came for Shutter Island. You talk about films where there’s a journey and you don’t really know what’s going on, this is a film which is entirely about delusion and paranoia, without giving away anything too much which we shouldn’t, obviously. Did you know the Dennis Lehane novel?
SBK: I dipped into it, but then the screenplay was so perfect that that became my map. And then we were... talking about discovery on the way, we then were able to film in a mental institution that had been closed down for 20 years but was still haunted.
FS: You say ‘still haunted’ quite casually.
SBK: Well it was, it absolutely was.
SBK: Pain, degradation, loss, suppression, lobotomy of the spirit over and over again. And then we worked with a wonderful psychiatrist, who was on the set every day. I warmed to him and we had lovely conversations. And then I found my scrap of paper that kept me going through the movie. Which was that my character, a very unusual man, completely capable of unconditional love for his patient; completely capable. And it was that that guided me through all those difficult and wonderful scenes with Leo and the other cast.
FS: But at the same time you also have to believe that he’s capable of suppression and cruelty and all those things too. However, he’s internally motivated you have to feel that he might....
SBK: That question hovers over him right until the end of the film where you see that he’s such a great healer and he’ll go into the dark with his patient in order to pull him out, at great risk to himself.
FS: And did a film like this, which has to work on at least two levels, many levels, does that throw up particular problems that you have to play scenes that should appear ambiguous?
SBK: Ambiguity for me...... First, it’s Martin Scorsese so it’s a guarantee that the camera, as regards one’s own narrative journey, will be in exactly the right place, day after day, take after take, lens, position of camera, light perfect for the narrative of your character. So even though Marty and Thelma, his wonderful editor, say that I was different in every take and so subtle, I wasn’t really. The subtle changes were going on around me as to how Marty was perceiving me. There may have been some changes but I think it was the changes of perception. Marty sometimes saw me as the walls of the room were seeing me and other times he saw me as Leo was seeing me, through a prism of utter terror and paranoia.
I think when you have a shifting mandate in a film from the audience’s perspective, I opt for a purity and a simplicity so that there’s so little to be misunderstood that there’s everything to be misunderstood, because it’s so still, so seemingly detached although totally attached. So seemingly detached, so still, so economic, which is what Dr Cawley had to be. He could not be sentimental, he could not give away any crack in his motivation, he had to collude seamlessly. So again you have art repeating life, repeating art, repeating life. I had to behave as an actor how Cawley had to behave as a psychiatrist. Almost inscrutable.
FS: Technically do you see rushes, do you look at things as you go along?
SBK: No, I don’t. When Martin Scorsese says ‘Yeah that’s a print, let’s move on,’ I tend to say ‘Fine, I think you’re probably right.’ No, I don’t watch rushes.
FS: The excerpt we’re going to see, all we really need to know is that Leonardo DiCaprio is playing a US marshal who is required to come on to this island where there’s a hospital for the criminally insane, headed by Dr Cawley. But as soon as he starts this investigation into this missing woman – Rachel – things begin to get very dark for DiCaprio, and he finds himself in effect becoming an inmate as well. This is where we start with this scene.
(Clip from Shutter Island)
FS: Shutter Island had the most extraordinary mood to it, really wonderful I thought. But some critics found the whole concept quite difficult to grasp. They felt it was overblown in some ways.
SBK: Well, I don’t read reviews so you’ve got me there.
SBK: No, never.
FS: Did you ever?
SBK: I did, up until the mid ‘80s where I read a review of a performance, either it was on the same night or the same performance in two different theatres but it was just incomprehensible what they’d written. It had no relation to what was going on. I think they wrote it on the bus, on the way there, really. Just ticked off a few boxes and went home and had a drink. So no; but I’m interested in, of course, reading – I fear I’ve just ended my career with the critics by being rather disdainful about them. It isn’t that, it’s just I like to sleep at night, so I don’t read anything. I’m just too vulnerable, even if the notices are overwhelmingly stunning it’s that one bad one that will have me waking up at four o’clock in the morning saying ‘Why? Why? Why?’ I’m not strong enough.
FS: So you take judgement or advice from anybody other than directors?
SBK: My wife. And I think then my own child Geiger counter. I was formed as a child and my challenges were formed as a child and that which heals the child within I know will heal the child without, will heal my audience. If I can appease that in me, or bring it into the light then I know that it’s going to affect my audience.
One of the most touching things ever said to me, and it is connected to reviews but it transcends reviews, was when I was playing Hamlet at Stratford-on-Avon and I was wandering across Snitterfield where he himself used to wander, and I saw a young woman coming across the field towards me and being a gentleman I decided to tack to my left, but she tacked to her right, so then I tacked to my right, but she tacked to her left, in other words she was keeping the minimum distance between herself and me in this field.
So I naturally found myself face to face with her, and she said ‘I saw Hamlet last night, how did you know about me?’ It doesn’t really get much better than that. You can’t aim for it, but you can just be open to the possibility that you really are going to let something through that’s deeply healing and joyful and life affirming.
FS: So when you were on Shutter Island, in the midst of all that darkness was the idea of Hugo already there and around?
SBK: I know that Marty was thinking about it before Shutter Island. And nearly made it before Shutter Island, thank goodness he didn’t. And then we forged a lovely relationship during Shutter Island, and then I think it was when we opened the film in, I think we were in Berlin, and I was sitting at a table with Marty and another guest at the table said ‘Well what about Hugo, are you going to do Hugo?’ and he didn’t answer the question because I was sitting right next to him and he was about to ask me to play Georges, and he didn’t want to have his cover blown at that table. But two days later he did phone my home and ask me to play Georges Méliès. I was thrilled.
FS: It’s been described, Hugo, as a great departure for Scorsese because it’s a family film and, obviously, 3D. Although arguably you could say he’s made lots of family films before it’s just they’ve tended to want to kill each other. Did you think of it as a family film?
SBK: No, I didn’t actually. It’s a film for all ages and all people. It’s a very healing, loving, tender, extraordinary film that in order to put rescue on the screen, and the film details such an extraordinary act of rescue on so many levels, souls and careers and families are all put together, reassembled, mended, and honestly, in order to appreciate that sublime act of rescue, there has to be dark. There is no light without shadow, it’s true in life and it’s true on the screen. It must be implicit in our drama otherwise we’re being infantilised and patronised. You have to have those areas of darkness. It’s not that I relish them, I just know that they are a part of life as all the great heritage that I pull off, including Shakespeare. If you want to really reach out to your audience and for them to ask ‘How did you know about us?’ you must include the dark side as well as the light. There can’t be any redemption without that, and it’s such a deeply redemptive film, Hugo.
FS: And it’s also of course created with amazing attention, particularly to film detail. I’ve seen it twice so far and I know I’m only just beginning to pick up all the references. So physically, I know there’s amazing digital additions and we’ll come on to 3D in a moment but physically there were these huge sets weren’t there?
SBK: Physically, if you go back to my day then Suzanne Stokes-Munton and Annie Buchanan worked with me for two and a half hours on my change of look, because it’s a considerable change for me; the attention to that detail, to the detail of the costume and the sets, and the massive presence of the camera. It’s no good pretending you don’t know where the camera is in 3D, because it’s massive, it’s there. It’s like the elephant in the middle of the room. You really can’t miss it.
Also with the monitors on the set that we had, and the 3D glasses, we were able to watch our colleagues work. And it was pointed out to me, and I totally agreed, that the 3D camera brings such a level of scrutiny to your journey as an actor that it can see emotions rise up from the heart before they reach the face. So it demands a very strict economy on your performance; an exactness. So of course between ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ you have to be free and flow, but you have to remember don’t act, because the 3D camera is not interested. It wants to film the behaviour of your character. Shakespeare called it ‘The modesty of nature,’ you really have to observe the modesty of nature when you’re filming in front of 3D otherwise it will find you out so quickly; it’s like an x-ray camera.
FS: And does this change the method if there is any rehearsal or the actual way of shooting? There are a lot of close ups in this film as well.
SBK: There are a lot, that’s the particular challenge. My journey as an actor, hopefully, is to become more and more economic like those wonderful Japanese painters who will start out doing a painting of a lake and a tree and two fishermen and a bird in 32 strokes, and when they’re 107 they do it in one stroke. And it’s all there, but it’s one stroke of the pen. They meditate for hours, they dip their brush into the ink, they have their rice paper and it’s ‘whoosh, whoosh, there it is.’
FS: And that is a goal, something that you’re consciously saying to yourself?
SBK: Do less. Do less.
FS: So technology is moving with you then on this.
SBK: It is actually, it’s x-raying me; under the microscope.
FS: Well we’re going to see a little clip now from Hugo, and I think you’ve got glasses. Yes. What we need to know about Hugo at this stage is he’s a little boy who is living behind the scenes at a train station...
SBK: An orphan.
FS: An orphan, looking after the clocks, but fascinated at things to do with clockwork. And he goes to see the rather mysterious and forbidding toy store owner, from whom he has been stealing little bits and pieces. So this is the point where we see him.
(Clip from Hugo)
FS: What the 3D does there is actually take us right into the scene, between the two characters. It’s used quite often in an immersive and atmospheric way rather than as a spectacle.
SBK: Absolutely, it’s narrative again. And perfect narrative use of focus and camera, absolutely.
FS: So did you actually have a sense that something is changing in cinema, with all of this?
SBK: Well I think that Marty has maybe pushed 3D around the corner, I think that rather in the same way that sound must have been pushed around the corner once upon a time, and even colour around a corner, I think 3D now has – not matured but it’s found its rightful place in narrative terms. I don’t think it’s appropriate for everything, at all, but I think it’s utterly appropriate for this and will be for other narrative and character driven films rather than effects driven films.
FS: And the film is evangelical about the restoration and preservation of film.
SBK: Oh totally, yes.
FS: Reflecting his great enthusiasm for that too.
SBK: His great passion. So it was wonderful for me playing Georges to have Marty on the set as my mentor, and also in a sense my role model for Georges’ passion. But Marty still has his, Georges is robbed of his, and the little boy reassembles it if you like, fixes it.
FS: But again, within the character of Georges that same darkness, terrible, we know eventually terrible sadness and regret. It could be quite sinister and brusque to start with.
SBK: Well again, I have my little scrap of paper in my pocket and my myth for this is an ancient myth. I think it’s from Greek mythology, I think it’s ‘A blind man, a man in exile guided back into the world by the hand of a child.’ It’s such a pure myth, and usually if I can reduce it to such a lovely compact statement then that’s my mandate for months.
But I have to be blind and in exile, metaphorically speaking, for the little boy to have the energy and the courage to pull me back into life. Then he’s heroic. If I compromise on my exile, and Georges is a deeply broken man, if I compromise on that then the little boy has nowhere to go. So, as Spencer Tracy said, try and make the other guy look good. If I’m really dark and broken the boy has got a marvellous journey to pull me back into life.
FS: This seems a good point in which we could invite questions from the audience.
Q (from the floor): At what point did you become interested in what makes people tick, that kind of understanding of someone’s psychology, the sympathy with it, and has that come through acting or do you think that that was something which was essentially resident in you before you embarked on pursuing it as a craft?
SBK: I think one can have a childhood whereby you have to learn very quickly the pattern of behaviour of others. And for better or for worse it becomes your lingua franca, and you have to know how to manoeuvre. To give you a clue my nickname was the Danny Kaye of the family. So that’s how I had to manoeuvre. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh. But then, thinking of pursuing a career in medicine I studied physics, chemistry and biology, but then that has given me… I love patterns of behaviour.
We’ve talked about light and shade, we’ve talked about cause and effect, we’ve talked about patterns of behaviour and I’m fascinated by them and injecting my meagre knowledge of them into the drama. I think that I have almost a forensic approach now to character because of physics, chemistry and biology. They have the laws in physics, they have the equations in chemistry, they have their patterns of behaviour in biology. [With] the combination of those three I really find great joy in a forensic approach to a character. So when I realise that, you know, the Mahatma released 600 million from imperial dominance it was because he was thrown off a train. And because a voice deep inside him said ‘Don’t do that to people.’ And it was anger. With Don it was an abused child. My scrap of paper comes from my childhood survival mechanism, and my Manchester Grammar School education.
FS: Do you still find yourself tucking away things that you observe in other people?
SBK: All the time, I’m a hunter and gatherer of mannerisms and people.
Q (from the floor): I was really baffled by your ability to have fantastic foreign accents. Do you have coaches before a film? What sort of research do you do for an accent?
SBK: Well, honestly I have very few memories from my childhood, but one of them was in a restaurant and my family were here and I was like this.... and I heard a voice coming through the ether at me saying ‘Do you want to join them? Do you want to join them? DO YOU WANT TO JOIN THEM?’ and I realised it was my father asking me if I’d like to sit over there with the people I was staring at, rather than sitting over here. I’m deeply fascinated by timbre and body language and rhythm and patterns of behaviour.
My family were a very wide mix. My grandmother was amazing; she was an anti-Semite who spoke Yiddish, because she worked with Jews in the rag trade in the East End of London and was seduced by this one Jewish émigré who sired my mother then ran away – wise man, not from my Mum but my grandmother. So I have that strange inheritance. She was a very odd piece of work.
And then my mother being half Russian-Jewish, although I never knew her dad and she never spoke of him, and my father coming from Gujarat. But the people in House Of Sand And Fog around me were all Iranians and Shohreh Aghdashloo, being a great Iranian star, just enabled me to be part of that family and by osmosis just pick up their rhythms. It’s very much being attentive to what’s around me rather than studying with a voice coach. Although I do love working with voice coaches when it’s appropriate, and it’s really specific.
Q (from the floor): I find myself in a situation right now which is very serendipitous, if that is a word, [as] strangely I delivered a proposal to [Kingsley’s agent] Duncan Heath on Friday. I can hardly breathe because I’m so excited about it all. I just wondered if you could offer me any advice on how to be calm at this moment?
SBK: It’s a tough one, isn’t it? I think honestly; to be quite mechanical about it, don’t forget to eat.
Questioner: [Laughs] That has been a problem since Friday.
SBK: Yeah, don’t forget to eat. And don’t forget to get some sleep. Walk a lot. And breathe evenly and deeply and you’ll be fine.
Q (from the floor): Thank you for the very interesting evening. In my country, France, we like you very much. I just wonder if you have any projects to play in French with one of our young filmmakers – there are so many in France. And the second question, if I may, is how did you lose all that weight to play Gandhi?
SBK: Je crois si j’ai un opportunité de faire un film en France, I’d have to speak French and I would really have to work hard at that because my accent is good but my vocabulary is crap, so I really would have to work [at it]. But I’d love to be able to film in the French language. That would be so thrilling and liberating. I know that when we do speak another language it liberates a side of our psyche that we didn’t even know existed.
To the second part of your question, I just ate very lean meat and vegetables. That’s all I did. I did keep eating, although for the fasting scenes on top of the roof in Calcutta, I actually stopped eating for two days. But I wouldn’t recommend that.
FS: But that was more for the psychological effect than for any physical effect.
SBK: It was, it was actually, for his body language.
Q (from the floor): I was fascinated by your use of body language in the kitchen scene that you were discussing earlier. How did you come to use that body language?
SBK: Well, you know, given the story that we actually re-set the scene in the kitchen from that vast living area of the villa; I found the proximity of Ray very challenging. I wanted to get as close to hitting him without hitting him. So it’s the barking dog, and I am very nervous around little dogs. I remember I was going for a walk once, I think it was in Glasgow, and this dog was sniffing around this man on a park bench and he said ‘I don’t like little dogs, little dogs make me sick,’. And I completely concur.
It’s that ‘Yap, yap, yap.’ It’s provoking the other one, ‘You dare to hit me, I’ll keep yapping, you dare to hit me.’ So it’s that provocation, knowing that poor Ray cannot strike out at me; to push that envelope, that critical distance between two people beyond the boundary. The choreography was quite spontaneous, the use of that small space. Confine, give actors less options and you get great results.
The worst thing a director can say to an actor is ‘Do what you like,’ it’s deadly. You’ve got to give them targets, they love hitting targets. And that small room was a wonderful venue for that with all its stainless steel, the kitchen knives the steel sink, the neon lighting, it was absolutely... and the domesticity. So it was a violent quarrel between two men, well one man and a passive man. It was also a lover’s quarrel because I want Gal to love me, basically. To join my team and love me; and we’ll go off together and rob.
Q (from the floor): You mentioned you hadn’t played a woman yet. Is there a particular type of role that you’ve not yet played that you really have a passion to play?
SBK: A man in uniform, in command of a lot of chaps, with a massive responsibility and a crucial decision to make. I’m planning it, but it’s very early days, but I’d love to see it come to fruition. I have huge respect for the military. I remember, I actually had great occasion to dine with General Sir Michael Jackson. Sitting next to him, it’s quite difficult to break up a cosy conversation with him, so I tried, I said ‘Sir, you and I have something in common,’ [Replies in the voice of Jackson] ‘What’s that?’ I said ‘nobody understands what we do for a living,’ and he said ‘My God, you’re right.’
Q (from the floor): Was there a special performance or actor particularly that inspired you or that you looked up to in the beginning of your career or in childhood?
SBK: I don’t know whether I glimpsed it when I was very young, or whether it’s Marty’s piecing together of them, but the Powell-Pressburger films were amazing. There’s something about the purity of performance and narrative and the scope of the myth that they embrace. I did love the cinema as a child and aside from Never Take No For An Answer, which is the little boy and the donkey, later it might have been the Powell-Pressburger films. But it’s that purity of characterisation and narrative. The animal in its pure form fascinates me, on screen.
To put archetypes on screen, not a copy of a copy which is so dreary; but an archetype on the screen is thrilling, and I think it’s the archetypes, and the archetypal actors like Anthony Hopkins who’s an absolute genius, who put a purity on the screen so pure that I can’t see the acting. I can’t see it, it’s completely invisible.
Q (from the floor): What was the most enjoyable character you played in Shakespeare? And, if you had a scrap of paper what would it have said?
SBK: Well, I’m going to cheat, because the scrap of paper was written for me by a greater hand than mine. It is of course Hamlet, and the scrap of paper reads ‘To be, or not to be,’ that’s the crucial question of his life and of his journey, and it was such a privilege to play him. It was Dickie Attenborough’s son, Michael Attenborough, who saw my performance as Hamlet and told his dear dad ‘Dad, if you ever get the money together for Gandhi I think I’ve found your man.’ And it was that extraordinary coincidence of Michael being in the theatre on that night that led to his dad seeing me.
Q (from the floor): When you take on a character like Fagin in Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist, does the weight of the character’s history and other performances affect how you portray it, or do you have to go in thinking that you’re the first person ever to play it?
SBK: That I’m the first person to ever play it and I must bring to it my truth. I did step into Hamlet’s shoes, and into other shoes that have been occupied in an excellent way before my time. But what’s very challenging now about Fagin, the Jew of Malta and the Merchant of Venice, is that post-Holocaust it’s almost impossible to examine them without the horrible distorting lens of those years and of European anti-Semitism.
But fortunately, trying to negotiate this, Roman was very encouraging to me. Incidentally as Fagin I used my grandmother’s voice. That’s her voice and her rhythms, so that was a wonderful piece of exorcism for me. Also as Fagin, he was Oliver’s father. I portrayed him loving Oliver; without Fagin, Oliver would have died in the streets. There’s that twisted patriarch, and I’m fascinated as I told you earlier with patriarchs. So many prisms, but dear Roman, and I never spoke to Roman as Roman Polanski on the set, every morning Fagin would forget who he was.
So I’d come on the set as Fagin and say ‘Ello, oo are you?’ He’d say ‘I’m the director,’ ‘Oh, awright.’ We’d have this extraordinary working relationship where I’d never come out of character, because I was surrounded by kids, I didn’t want to. And Roman did have the generosity to say, being a Polish Jew with so many extraordinary memories of pre-Holocaust Poland and the shtetl, he said ‘I grew up surrounded by people like you,’ talking to Fagin.
Which was a great gift; I knew that somehow, with all my forensics and patterns of behaviour and my grandmother and this and that I was hunting, hunting, that maybe, if I can find something recognisable to Roman – ‘How did you know about my great-grandfather?’ that sort of thing – it’s very gratifying.
FS: You were talking just now about a project which may happen, concerning a military person. Would this be a real person?
FS: Well maybe aside from that because you won’t want to mention who that is, presumably, at the moment...
SBK: I might, a billionaire might be in the audience.
FS: That’s true.
SBK: Who’d say ‘I’ll finance it!’ who knows?
FS: Well that’s up to you. I was going to ask you, given your interest in real life and fiction, whether there were any real people, historical or alive you’d like to play?
SBK: This chap; this man, yes. There are a few, they’re on our slate of films in development and there are three hugely important biographical characters that I’d like to play.
FS: Which cannot be named?
SBK: Admiral Lord Jellicoe, who commanded the British fleet at the Battle of Jutland; William Shakespeare, dying in his house, dictating his will to his lawyer Francis Collins; and Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal.
FS: That’s a great love story.
SBK: I’ll have a go.
FS: Well, thank you for your A Life in Pictures, Sir Ben Kingsley.
SBK: Thank you very much. That was lovely Francine, thank you. That was absolutely wonderful.