“Imagine you’re at the circus. You’re looking up at the trapeze artist. What is the best bit? It’s the leap, of course, the jump from one trapeze to the other, the summersault through the air that makes audiences take a sharp in-take of breath.
“That’s what people love. For me, the leap is away from myself to a character – it is an exquisite moment. I don’t know how I do it. I don’t know how I haven’t crashed and died. I’ve fallen off but I’m still here so it wasn’t fatal. But if you were to meet the trapeze artist after the show in her dressing room – you lucky boy – you would see that she is covered in little bruises. All actors are. They are covered in bruises, either of the soul, or physically. It’s tough. But I love that feeling: ‘I’m not holding onto anything and they are all watching me.”
Welcome to the world of Sir Ben Kingsley…
“Acting is hunting,” he declares, eyes focused dramatically in the middle distance.
“When I open a script, the hunter in me speaks: it’s an instinct I ignore at my peril.”
He says this with such conviction that it comes across as indispensable wisdom, but written down it just sounds a bit silly. This is Sir Ben in a nutshell: he speaks in grand proclamations that are either profound, or profoundly ridiculous, depending on how you frame them. It’s not something he’s oblivious to. People have poked fun at him for his grandiloquence, his elaborate preparation for roles (“a huge exaggeration, I learn my lines and that’s about it”) and his insistence that people refer to him as “Sir Ben” (which he denies). But he’s an old romantic, with a burning passion for his true love: acting. He can’t help but sing its praises, often in flowery Shakespearean prose. He can pontificate on the role of actors as “tribal storytellers” in the “philosopher’s marketplace” of life in the same sentence he dismisses the “lot of crap” that is spoken about acting.
You can almost see the sensible angel sitting on one of his shoulders saying: “Play it safe, Ben, you know how that will look in print?”, while the passionate devil says: “Naa, just go for it.” The devil usually wins.
He arrives at our interview wearing aviators and a scarf bunched around his neck. With his flecked jacket, olive t-shirt, slacks and red brogues, he looks more like a thesp than a movie star; he could have just finished rehearsals for some role at the RSC. He is compact – a little over five foot seven – but he gives the unsettling impression there is a bigger person bristling inside, biding his time, waiting to burst out. He has an intimidating glint in his eye, which is exacerbated by his reputation for being somewhat prickly (as a colleague of mine put it: “He’s more like his character in Sexy Beast than his character in Gandhi”).
Before we’ve even had a chance to sit down he fixes me with his intense stare and says, apropos of nothing: “My driver got a puncture this morning. A stray nail shot into one of his rear tyres. You know what he did?”
I didn’t – but I was going to find out…
“He calmly changed it while I waited. I was amazed at how quickly he did it. You know how? He practices changing a tyre once a week. Amazing.”
Are there parallels with acting?
“Yes! You have to be alert; you have to always be paying attention to life. My research never stops. All my future roles are out there, all the little fragments I need to create another person. Take that guy…”
He points at the waiter who just brought him a cup of tea.
“I’m not saying ‘I’m going to put him in a film one day’ but if I’m about to play a role, some part of me might see that guy all over the place. He’s part of the constant stream of information that is being absorbed and processed, tucked away wherever memory is stored.
“When I played [terrifying sociopathic gangster] Don Logan in Sexy Beast, people said: ‘Where the hell did he come from?’ The answer: years of observation.”
I get the impression Kingsley approaches interviews the same way he approaches a role – it’s a challenge to rise to, a foe to vanquish, an audience to win over. At the grand old age of 69, he doesn’t just wear his heart on his sleeve; he dangles it in front of you, tosses it in the air and catches it, beats it with his fist, pretends to lose it and then plucks it from behind your ear.
He has an endless enthusiasm for discussing his craft, and few would argue he hasn’t mastered it. Notable turns include his Oscar-winning performance as Gandhi, his role as a Jewish accountant in Schindler’s List and his sinister Dr Cawley in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. He is rightly seen as one of the great British Actors (with a capital “A”) who started life treading the boards: up there with Sir Ian McKellan, Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins (“Sir Tony Hopkins is my absolute hero; the Welsh wizard! 3,000 years old!”). Does he feel the pressure?
“I don’t think about my part in the history of British acting. Albert Camus said: ‘You’re either an artist or a historian, you can’t be both.’ I’m completely unconscious of the structure of my own history or my place in it.”
It’s sentences like this – referencing Camus and talking about the structure of your own history – that could make you look a bit full of yourself if you’re not careful. Why doesn’t he just play it safe, talk a bit about his latest movie and head back to his house in the country (he lives in Oxfordshire)?
“We live in a time where anything I say can be taken down, misquoted and used against me. I’m aware of that. Some actors despair about being savagely misquoted and misrepresented: they become monosyllabic and evasive. We are now broadcast in a microsecond on the web – more than ever, we have to take risks with our language but we have to be careful, because the wrong risk can be out there forever, like a radioactive half-life, ticking over 2,000 years.
“What keeps me locked into the interview process, which I really love, is that I know there are young actors who are going to read this and they don’t want me to throw it under the bus. They want to hear me say: ‘You know what boys and girls, it is a pretty wonderful thing you’re doing. You are the poets of the 21st century. Don’t be trivialised, don’t be knocked off course, don’t aim to be on the cover of that magazine – aim to be on the stage. That keeps my interviews pure – it guides me away from talking nonsense about acting and towards the essentials, which is the urgency to tell a story.”
Sir Ben is here to talk about Iron Man 3, in which he plays Tony Stark’s nemesis The Mandarin. Iron Man is the thinking man’s comic book franchise. If you want introspection, forget Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy: it’s all about a man in a metal suit. Sure, it’s got big guns and explosions, but it’s really about Tony Stark’s battle with himself: with alcoholism and insecurity – Robert Downey Jr, who Sir Ben describes as having “an extraordinary intelligence and wit”, was born to play Tony Stark (Sir Ben also shares one of the traits associated with comic book villains – feelings of not being taken seriously as a child: “My parents thought I was just a show off, which was quite hurtful. I had passionately wanted to be an actor”).
So how did he approach the role of one of the most famous villains in comic book lore?
“These characters are given that very trivialising term ‘baddie’. Now, there are baddies in films, but they are bad films that are badly written. You wouldn’t call Shakespeare’s Iago the baddie – it would be gormless. He is the engine behind the whole thing – the dark side of the play.
“In Sexy Beast, Don Logan wasn’t a baddie – he was my Iago, to Ray Winston’s Othello. Don manipulated his target’s relationship with his wife to really hurt him. But my key to Don was that this poor chap had been terribly abused as a child and had never healed, so he went on to abuse others. I always try to find the cause and effect, the balance of a character – you can’t just dismiss them as evil. It would be historically inaccurate, anyway. These people have their own logic, their own deep-seated need for revenge. They will manipulate the universe to justify their rage and balance the equation…”
His voice slows to a low growl.
“And the abused can go on to abuse on a colossal scale. Unimaginable, how that screaming vacuum can be filled with millions and millions of people.
“I see The Mandarin as having shades of Osama Bin Laden – that calmness with which he addressed the camera in his recordings, that irrefutable logic, which is horrendous and ludicrous but completely unwavering. He also has fragments of the Latin American revolutionaries and Saddam Hussain. These guys imprint an indelible silhouette on our retina.”
That’s a lot of thought for a summer blockbuster – but Sir Ben was never going to just turn up and read his lines, no matter what he says. Not when Acting is at stake. Not when that swirl of fragments of people is spinning around his head, waiting to be pieced together to form his next role.
Characters with real depth have dominated his career (with a few notable exceptions: “Sometimes I take work on as a job – we all have to eat”). This, however, seems to be just about the only thread holding his CV together. He’s played icons and reprobates, saints and sinners, victims and oppressors. How does he choose?
“There’s no strategy. It’s random anyway, so trying to apply a process would be a waste of time. I could try engineering my career to go one way but there will always be something else going ‘no, no, no, no, no, it’s actually over here.’
“I owe a huge debt to the RSC for my versatility. Sometimes I had four or five plays in my repertoire at the same time. I’d be carrying Brutus in Julius Caesar, Frank Ford in the Merry Wives of Windsor, Iachimo in Cymbeline and Bertoch Brecht’s Baal: four very different performances in any given week. I learned to be agile, focused on the role I was playing not that month or that week but that evening. That gave me the stamina of a marathon runner but also the ability to sprint. Theatre is marathon running. Film is sprinting: a 100 yard dash between cuts. And it is very exciting.”
The interview overruns. My list of prepared questions sits unused. With Sir Ben in this form, it’s best to just pull the cord and watch him go. Eventually we’re interrupted by Luis Prieto, the Spanish director of last year’s crime thriller Pusher, who is in London to discuss a role for Sir Ben (“he wants me to play a really terrifying character”). As I pack up, I ask how he would like to come across, given his past experiences in interviews.
“As a story teller,” he says without a pause. “A story teller in the ancient sense, one that the tribe embraces and needs.”
That’s certainly what he’s been today – he can’t help himself. He tosses words around like they are going out of fashion.
One last question: is he going to go home and practice changing a tyre?
“In a sense, yes – my metaphorical version of changing a tyre, anyway.”
First published in City A.M. Bespoke