Sir Ben Kingsley might be forever associated with ”Ghandi”, but heâ€™s played all manner of men in his time. Take his latest film for example. In ”The Wackness” Sir Ben plays a dope-smoking psychiatrist who gives out his sagely advice in exchange for drugs. He also carries on an affair with a much, much younger woman (Mary Kate Olsen) and is generally of the view that if youâ€™re going to age, you might as well do it as disgracefully as possible. Gaynor Flynn had the pleasure of sitting down with Sir Ben at this yearâ€™s Sundance Film Festival where he talked about playing a dope head, being Knighted and why he has the best job in the world.
What attracted you to play a pot-smoking therapist in that movie?
His vulnerability. I loved what Jonathan [Levine] the director did with him. He has a lack of layers and I loved his shocking spontaneity. The way he will drop a water bomb out of his window, just for a laugh. The child in him, which is why he has such a good relationship with Josh [Peck] and ultimately a very good relationship with his stepdaughter [Olivia Thirlby]. The childlike quality in him is two things: itâ€™s endearing and infuriating. That’s what attracted me to it and the struggle to get away from that child. He fixes his childhood with drugs. He fixes himself in that state of limbo and non-development by artificially suppressing his growth, by dosing himself out of adulthood.
The director told me that you are a non-smoker and he had to sneak outside to have a cigarette, so was it difficult playing a dope head?
[Laughs] It was fun. Anything that I am completely unused to discovering is marvelous, I knew nothing about bongs, really, I found them terrifying. Therefore it allowed me to allow him to do something as he has never done before. Even though he is addicted to pot, he always takes a joint so heâ€™s never seen a bong before. He doesnâ€™t quite know what to do with it.
So the therapist is really the one in need of therapy then?
Yeah, and he gets it from Josh. He gets it from the one patient who sits across the desk from him and challenges him. Josh in a way becomes the adult in our film who guides me from rock bottom to some kind of an adult life. So maybe there is a new beginning for him. The film is very redeeming, actually.
Although youâ€™re one of the biggest actors working at present, you don’t seem to be hounded by the tabloid press.
Well even if I was I never read articles about me and I never read reviews. I haven’t read a review since 1986 and I never read anything in print about me.
What happened in 1986?
I did a Shakespeare play on stage and the reviewers were there for the first night. I couldn’t believe that one man wrote something and another man wrote something else about the same performance. I thought this is crazy, Iâ€™m too vulnerable to read a bad review. I know my limits. Iâ€™m just too vulnerable. I need my sleep, so I just don’t read articles about me. So I wouldn’t know whether I have escaped tabloids or if Iâ€™m in them everyday.
Well I guess the sex scene with Mary Kate Olsen might get you some tabloid headlines.
[laughs]. I think my agent told me something similar.
How did you handle the sex scene? What was it like filming it?
The important thing for all of us exploring the erotic side of the film is that there is a very clear reason for every single sexual scene. They are there for narrative reasons. Mine is to show his loneliness. In a phone booth, fumbling with a 20 year old and in bed with somebody whom I have been married watching a porno movie and having sex. Itâ€™s all so indifferent. You use comedy to exploit sex scenes to show loneliness. Itâ€™s a very clever device. Those scenes are terribly lonely. I knew they were lonely and that gave me the motivation to do them. I knew why they were in the screenplay. Imagine if you don’t know why a sex scene is in a movie and youâ€™re asked to do it, it must be a nightmare.
What criteria do you use to choose your roles usually?
When you find that little kernel of humanity inside the role and everything else will join that central point and make sense. Don Logan was an abused child in “Sexy Best”, and once I told myself that that’s who he is, that he desperately needed to be loved and he is very violent at the same time, this is classic abused behaviour. I try to find that thread and if I don’t find it, it is better if I don’t do the part. If I can find it, then I become addicted to starting with that little central point and creating a portrait around it. If I had to be euphemistic about acting, I would say that I am a portrait painter.
Youâ€™ve won an Oscar a BAFTA along with many other accolades over the course of your career. You mentioned that you were vulnerable when it comes to reviews, but you must be extremely confident by now as an actor?
No, I never think like that. What I have had is almost a reverse. Iâ€™m very critical of myself, and if Iâ€™m really lucky and if Iâ€™m watching a movie where Iâ€™m in, if I can see myself disappear and some character take over for maybe fifteen seconds on screen, Iâ€™m very happy and also amazed. I sit there and think ‘how did I do that’? But again, itâ€™s somehow being in the now. Between action and cut on a film set is paradoxically one of the most private places in the world. I have my most private moments between action and cut. So in that privacy between me and the camera there is no judgement whatsoever. So Iâ€™m often astonished afterwards when Iâ€™m in the cinema.
What do you think would have happened if the Royal Shakespeare Company hadnâ€™t accepted you all those years ago? Would you have followed your musical interests do you think?
Iâ€™m using my musical skills in a different way now. Iâ€™m using them maybe to listen to the rhythm of men’s voices and to their accents, how they mobilize their language. I like the rhythm of speech and how individuals express themselves vocally. Iâ€™m fascinated by it. If I have one, a music skill that is, itâ€™s inside my performances now. After I decided not to sing professionally, I went straight to classical theatre and then auditioned for the Royal Shakespeare Company. So I think I already started to move away from there, but then once in the Royal Shakespeare Company, they asked me to sing. So the songs became integrated in my acting career. Then in 1980, after I sang on stage in Baal, Attenborough saw me on stage and then my film career started. I didn’t go back to singing specifically since then. But I was able to sing on stage quite frequently
Youâ€™ll probably always be associated with Ghandi. Does that bother you?
Not at all. Thatâ€™s not a problem, because despite playing one of the most decent men in history I wasnâ€™t typecast. I also played villains. Life always finds a balance. As an actor, I was allowed to fully explore that decency then the pendulum will swing the other way and suddenly Iâ€™m finding myself reading the screenplay of Sexy Beats. And I think, â€˜there he is, that’s the guy I have been waiting forâ€™. Everything swings back and forth, itâ€™s always moving, so I have a huge amount of gratitude for that part â€“ and huge gratitude for Sexy Beast because people saw that I could do something completely unexpected and thatâ€™s always fun.
Do you regret any of the films youâ€™ve done?
No, not even the ones that didnâ€™t do that well because life is good. I think we have to face the fact that everything in the past has brought us to me sitting here with you now. And if I had any regrets, it would be regretting the journey that brought me to this table now. I don’t regret that journey, because Iâ€™m so happy to be here now. I love the now. Itâ€™s all we have.
You presented two of your new movies at the same time: Beside “Transsiberian” you also shot “Elegy” with Penelope Cruz. Where do you see the differences between these two parts?
Emily Mortimer and Thomas Kretschmann were great to work with and Brad Anderson is a very exact, clear director, who knows the tone of the film. He is very much a composer of tone and colour and texture and surprising sudden acts of violence. Like the train suddenly emerging across the landscape, you see the horse going round and round in circles and suddenly this monstrous train shows up on the horizon. So Brad is very clever in putting tone one against the other. Isabel Coixet, the director of “Elegy”, is clearly fascinated by equally compelling, patterns of human behaviour and the relationship between love and life and death. They are eternal issues and the relationship between men and women. I played a lot of isolated men in my career. Grinko is an insulted man, many of my roles have been isolated. But to play a role as in “The House of Sand and Fog” where I had such a strong relationship with my wife or other films where I have had a relationship with a woman in a film, it opens up another side of my acting. Grinko is deliberately isolated from emotion with Kapesh from “Elegy” he is his emotions. He is a complete slave to his emotions, Grinko will never be slaved by his feelings ever again, because they lead to loss and grief as in the case of his son. If you love someone, they die. But Kapesh allows himself to be overwhelmed by his emotions. But for me they are all connected. We have both inside us. You and me, we both have a Don Logan from “Sexy Beast” inside us and a Ghandi inside us. We do, we all have these polarities inside us, only history and circumstance bring them out one day or another. But we do, we all do.
What does being Knighted mean to you?
Itâ€™s a hug from England. The English are very like… When I am in New York or California, everyone will come up to me and smile and shake my hand and say ‘I love your work’ and that is really gratifying. In England they just look at you quietly. Itâ€™s very different. However with that seeming total lack of enthusiasm for what youâ€™re doing, itâ€™s balanced suddenly by this title. Suddenly the Prime Minister and the Queen say: ‘Oh, we know you are here.’ Itâ€™s a wonderful hug from England.