Royalty by association
Originally named after the Hindu god Krishna, Sir Ben Kingsley officially began his acting career with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Twenty years after winning an Oscar for Gandhi, he was knighted by the Queen, and one of his many upcoming projects will be playing King Herod. While Sir Ben is his proper title, he may as well be called the King of Hollywood.
As you might expect from a classically trained British actor, when you speak with Sir Ben Kingsley, his inflections seem to add greater significance to everything he says. At times he sounds extremely serious – especially when he discusses the process of being interviewed, which Kingsley brings up almost immediately.
“We have lost a huge amount of our privacy, because anything I say in this interview – friendly, calm and measured that it is – anything I say can be taken out of context, and it can be all over the web in seconds. We’ve lost our privacy!” he emphasizes.
“I’m having a conversation with you, for Audi magazine, but you and I have no control over it being totally misquoted. And suddenly, because someone’s seen it in print from some blogger, it becomes the truth. It’s not sourced at all, it’s hearsay and it can be extremely dangerous to people’s careers, privacy, well-being, health – so I have a minimalist relationship with the Internet,” Kingsley continues. “You know, I never read an article written about myself. With great respect to you and Audi, I will not read this article. I have not read a review since Gandhi – they were wonderful, and I said, ‘Stop!’ And I haven’t read anything in print about me since then. And I sleep at night!”
Kingsley credits his ability to follow instinct, rather than artifice, for this decision. “Follow an unplotted intuition, and it doesn’t lead you down paths that other people have rendered untenable. You can, yes, trust your own vocabulary, trust your intuition, and I am free of what people write about me – either as an actor or as an individual. I never, never, never read anything.”
This enthusiastic speech is the result of asking what his passions are – which is a very private issue for Kingsley. “Passion is such an exaggerated and overused word. It’s a word that has been devalued,” he adds. “I care, obviously, for the well-being of the people I love, and I care for my health, and I care for the health of the people I love.” But Kingsley admits that many of the “passions” that have been attributed to him are merely scripted; for example, there is a series of documentaries he hosted that aired on PBS and, he explains, “Even though the script may talk sense, it doesn’t mean at all that it’s a quote-unquote passion of mine.”
You’ll notice a pattern in this interview: lots of italics.
There is no other way to convey Kingsley’s true meaning. His statements gravitate around certain words, with theatrical pauses to emphasize the importance of what he’s saying. You can almost imagine that he’s standing on a stage while he speaks. And maybe, in his mind, he is. As a young child who was fascinated with the cinema, he used to imagine that an invisible film crew followed him wherever he went.
This was his first realization of his future path. Granted, Kingsley may have been using his imagination to escape a difficult family life, which was a marriage between a British woman and a Kenya-born man of Gujrati Indian descent. The merging of, and conflict between, these two worlds couldn’t have been easy for any child growing up in the 1940s and 1950s – but Kingsley has admitted that his parents were also distant and often disapproving of his path in life. Ironically, his mother used to be a model and actress, but she rarely showed enthusiasm for his work.
When I ask if he thinks there is a connection between actors who seem to come from difficult circumstances, and their ability – or need – to connect with audiences, he instantly concurs: “I think it gives you, perhaps, a sense of valuing the urgency of communication when you are robbed of it at a certain stage of your life. And I truly appreciate the value and the urgency, now, of clean, pure, life-enhancing communication,” Kingsley explains. “I mean life-enhancing, as in House of Sand and Fog, as in Schindler’s List, as in some of the darker films that I’ve been privileged to appear in.” When I elaborate that “life-enhancing” might be the process of bringing greater understanding to a difficult or horrible situation, Kingsley agrees heartily.
After referencing his family, when I comment that I’m not attempting to be his therapist, Kingsley quickly shows his lighter side:
“Well, how much do you charge an hour?” He laughs.
Although generally perceived to be a “serious” actor, Sir Ben’s filmography tells another story. Between the numerous dramatic roles that he’s best known for are sprinkled a handful of unexpected appearances and cameo roles, such as the character “Guru Tugginmypudha” in the Mike Myers film, The Love Guru, along with family movies and made-for-TV films that most people haven’t heard of. At the moment, Kingsley has roles in more than 10 upcoming projects in various stages of production. It’s hard to decide which looks most interesting – a Ryan Reynolds movie, Selfless; a science fiction film with Gillian Anderson, Our Robot Overlords; a Ridley Scott film based on the Old Testament, Exodus, also starring Sigourney Weaver and Christian Bale; and the list goes on. At almost 70 years old – and with his big birthday this New Year’s Eve – Kingsley conveys an energetic, possibly unquenchable, thirst for his craft.
Most recently, he has been on the media circuit to promote Ender’s Game, a futuristic sci-fi movie also starring Harrison Ford, and featuring the first-ever virtual Audi concept car. Kingsley’s general awareness of Audi, however, is peripheral, despite the vehicles also being featured prominently in Iron Man 3, for which he played the role of The Mandarin. “I don’t know the R8,” he admits. “I’ve been driven around in Audis but I see the insides of them. I just have to get in the Audi and go to the cinema and get out of it quickly. Oddly, paradoxically, although I’m inside them, I can’t really appreciate the external architecture of the vehicle.”
Kingsley currently owns a four-wheel-drive luxury sport-ute which, he speculates, if put in an aerodynamic tunnel, “would be spit out the other end!” Living in the Oxfordshire countryside, in southeast England, Kingsley notes, “We get several feet of snow drifting through the country lanes… and very often, it’s the only vehicle on the road.” His naivete of the Four Rings brand is revealed as Sir Ben follows this statement with, “Audi does make a four-wheel drive, don’t they?”
Surprisingly, for someone who has often been branded “arrogant” by the same Internet that he disparages, Kingsley comes across as humble and receptive – repeating my name many times as he speaks, listening and responding in a way that makes it progressively easier to get past the idea of “Sir Ben Kingsley, Academy Award winner and Hollywood legend, knighted by the Queen herself,” to the crux of who he really is.
Kingsley chooses his roles based on his sympathies, his desire to explore human nature, his urge to share insight with his audience, his impulse to create art – or, sometimes, because of a compelling instinct to have fun.
Most likely, it is some combination of all of these, and not the urge to become “the biggest and the best.” Although, Kingsley admits, his ambition won’t let him stop pursuing his dreams: “I’m very ambitious. There’s always, always something creatively enticing over the next hill. I may not even know what it is.”
Because of these creative instincts, Kingsley admits he has always been compelled to be a story-teller. “My career was that of a very adventurous, excited, ambitious actor playing very modest roles with the greatest company in the world, the Royal Shakespeare Company – and those were my beginnings, and therefore I am rooted in my craft,” he says.
“To tell truths is, paradoxically, the actor’s role. Yes, we are pretending to be somebody else – yes, we are dealing with possibly fiction, certainly at times fantasy – but our mandate is to impart certain truths to the audience that remind them of what life is, and where they are in that journey now.”
One of the truths that Kingsley also wants to clarify is that his roles are less based on research, than on instinct. “I respond to my roles intuitively. I steep myself in the script and my fellow actors, but as for ‘research’ – external research – I really think I should drop that mantle that I don’t actually deserve, or have earned.” Certainly not the words of an arrogant man – in fact, Kingsley deglamorizes his role throughout our interview, describing the process of acting in terms that make it sound more practical than romantic.
“It’s almost like engineering. It’s almost like architecture. It’s almost like levers and fulcrums – you put the actor in the wrong place, nothing will happen. You put the actor in the right place – frame him or her beautifully, use the right lens, surround the actor with the correct, provocative intelligences that will bring something wonderful out of them, the chemistry of casting – all these elements can come together, as in Schindler’s List, with Steven Spielberg; as in Sexy Beast, with Jonathan Glazer; as in Shutter Island, with Martin Scorsese; as in Gandhi, with Richard Attenborough. When you listen to the names that I mentioned, I’ve been very blessed!”
The conversation, despite moments of levity, remains serious. Kingsley emphasizes his concern that he might be validating the blind ambition of youths who hope to follow in his footsteps. “What worries me a great deal about the young reader of this article, especially the aspiring actor, is that being on the cover of a wonderful magazine like Audi magazine may be their goal, and they may think, ‘Oh, I’ve arrived, I’m on a magazine cover’ – but to arrive, you have to learn to memorize your dialogue, respect the other actor, communicate the story with accuracy and energy and commitment!” he enthuses.
“All the priorities have gotten really wrong. Which is very sad. It’s a struggle for the young actor to prioritize, it really is.”
To these people, he has clear advice: “Do what I did. I was on stage for basically the first 15 years of my career. And I drove second-hand cars because I couldn’t afford the new ones. And I was a very happy theatre actor.”
Apparently it’s difficult for Kingsley to imagine doing anything else, because when asked what he would do, if not acting, he answers, “I would carry on being a story-teller. If I had to quit acting, I would carry on producing and working with writers and directors to make beautiful films. Definitely.” He later clarifies: “I try to be useful. I work here on this earth as a story-teller. That’s what I do.”
A “story-teller” who was knighted by the Queen in 2002, he admits that the validation of an Academy Award versus recognition from Her Majesty are not on quite the same level: “They are definitely different – one is the recognition of your peers, which I accepted with deep gratitude; the other is the recognition by one’s culture and country. I love the English language, I love the culture, and although there may have been a disconnect in my family between the matriarchy and the patriarchy – and myself – to be embraced by our own matriarch really is to be considered and welcomed. it was a total surprise!”
A few moments later, as if on cue, Kingsley’ publicist interrupts with a quick interjection: “Can we get a final question?” We’re comfortably chatting as if we’ve known each other for years – but abruptly, that moment must end. It’s much as Kingsley describes the experience of being on set:
“I have had colleagues, with whom I have worked, that have made those moments exhilarating – and then they evaporate. It is ephemeral. But it is on the screen forever, and that’s a blessing. That is a blessing!”
After I thank him for his time, he offers one last quip: “And do I pay your secretary on the way out?”
A few days after our interview, Sir Ben Kingsley appears on a late-night show, and bows with hands clasped, Gandhi-style, while the audience thunders – as they often do, when Hollywood royalty appears.