Sir Ben Kingsley has played his share of iconic characters and never repeats himself, constantly hiding behind some extraordinary characters. But none so unique as Fagin, the aging criminal who is part of the journey of one Oliver Twist. In real life, Kingsley is an intellectual, urbane and a thinker, the polar opposite of his unrecognizable Fagin in Polanski’s Oliver Twist a character he says he borrowed from his own reality, as he revealed to Garth Franklin.
Question: Can you begin by talking about why you feel it’s important or necessary to retell this story again?
Kingsley: Well, I think by definition its a classic, therefore, I think it has enormous resonance, and I think it was written with great care, great compassion, and great attention to detail – like a great piece of music people don’t tend to say, do you think it’s relevant that you’re playing Beethoven today, because we listen to Beethoven every week either on the radio, in the car, In the same way, Dickens puts words together in a certain sequence and gives indelible images of a child -an endangered child in a world of adults or with agendas fighting over him – fighting for him, dying for him.
Question: How do you make Fagin unique, as an actor?
Kingsley: All the characters I think in Dickens’ novel and Polanski’s film have a kind of dreamlike quality, as if they’re all inside a dream. they are very boldly described and there’s nothing faint about how they’re described. It’s bold, it’s strong – they’re very clearly delineated. I think they’re all aspects of Oliver, all parts of Oliver’s journey. So I had to find, my way of being the perfect dark angel in the story of that child’s journey. Ah, there are good angels and there are bad angels and there are violent angels and there are comforting angels, and each person has to find their role in Oliver’s journey – and so I got a great deal of my performance being aware of the fact that my role had to be that particular ingredient in that story, that milestone in that child’s life. A lot of it came from Barney from how innocent he was, how angelic his face was, so that I allowed Fagin’s response to be entirely to Barney, for that Oliver.
Question: Are there added pressures or responsibilities in playing a famous literary character – and then one interpreted by other actors?
Kingsley: I’m surprised if there are. Roman made me blissfully unaware of them. When I was there I was very focused on the children, as I just said, very focused on the boys – the young ones in the cast. I broke a rule and very, very rarely came out on the set so that none of the children would see me straighten up, stretch my back – God my back hurt at the end of the day, and my knees, and my feet, and my mouth. – but I stayed in character the whole day and continued to very gently explore that role. And Roman and the work and the set, the ambience, the rhythm of work, gave me very, very little time – really – and space to speculate on other Fagins, on the responsibility of playing that almost iconic figure, because that debate was a debate that couldn’t take place on Roman’s set because that’s not the tone he set. His tone was, for example, telling me one morning that he couldn’t believe I was inside there – “I can’t believe that’s you inside there”. and the same morning later on he said, as he was looking at me again, and he said, “I grew up with these people” – a bit of his childhood that he remembered that was in me. So I’m sure that it was those suggestions from him, from Roman, and that guidance that created my bit of Oliver that’s necessary to understand his story. And honestly it hardly ever – if at all – crossed my mind once I’d started working.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about how the makeup and the costume affected you?
Kingsley: Its evolved very much from me. When I was filming Schindler’s List I found in Krakow and bought some sepia photographs in a store, in the Jewish quarter, of, late 19th Century Jews in Krakow – ah, wonderful faces, extraordinary clothes, really bizarre clothes, and I was very fond of them. They were part of the performance in Schindler’s List. I lived them and I wanted them to be part of my Fagin too and also because of the period I was setting him in I looked at old engravings and pictures of Shylock by Edmund Kean and how they interpreted that great icon as well. The costume came from an antique dealer, a junk dealer, I met as a child who sold junk – foreign coins, stamps, old musical instruments, clothing. I used to go and buy things from him I was fascinated by him. He wore three overcoats tied together with a piece of rope, just like I do as Fagin, and he was always bent over and he had all sorts of things, but they came from me, they were all my ideas.
Question: To what degree do you think Dickens’ social messages still hold true today?
Kingsley: Unfortunately the dilemmas that exist that millions of children are disempowered and we need to empower them., I think is still very, very true. I hope that we have premieres in this film for Save the Children and other charities – First Star, Save the Children, UNICEF, The Princes’ Trust – have masses of charity premieres for organisations who are absolutely committed to empowering and saving children.
Question: How important is it for you to empathise with Fagin and what aspects of him did you find empathetic?
Kingsley: I speculated on his history, invented a history for him that seemed to me to have a symmetry with Oliver, and I could empathise with it as an actor. So I thought perhaps his grandparents came from Russia to England, and perhaps his grandparents brought him up as a little boy, and perhaps they couldn’t speak a word of English – so you already have an isolated, exiled child – that his grandparents died and Fagin was a street child in London and he’s an orphan, Oliver’s an orphan, he has a strange understanding of Oliver… a strange parental relationship with him – talks to him about gratitude in a rather patriarchal way. very twisted, very distorted, but somewhere in there there is an orphan child who longs to have a family and he creates this family around him – all of this I can empathise with and therefore give him a reality and then distort it. But it’s there in its pure form and then it gets distorted.
Question: Do you think an actor always has to empathise in order to play a character?
Kingsley: I don’t know…
Question: I’m thinking of Sexy Beast.
Kingsley: I love that – ah… I loved that character. (Laughter)
Kingsley: I loved it. I loved him. I don’t know. I don’t know about other actors. I think there are some actors who tend not to.
Question: Does Fagin have a positive influence on Oliver do you think?
Kingsley: I think that the positive contribution in the story – because I’m just part of the story. Fagin doesn’t exist, he’s part of the story. and that’s a tough one for us to get, because now in the cinema he’s walking around even though there he is in flesh and blood on the screen. Maybe his lesson to Oliver – you cannot earn profound forgiveness unless you understand what it is to be wounded and to forgive that which has wounded you. It always… it angers me when people say, with the Holocaust, it’s time to forgive and forget. I say, how dare you – how dare you say that! Have you been in the camps, were any of your relatives in the camps, have you been to Auschwitz and seen the ashes and think that could be my grandparents? I mean – how dare you say it’s time to forgive and forget. Oliver learns the lesson of forgiveness the only way you can, which is by being deeply hurt, terrified and at the same time saying you, you’re going to be dead soon, you’re going to hung, but I’m telling you now in this room you were kind, you take that to your death from me – that’s my gift to you. That’s an extraordinary gesture at the end of the novel – and the end of the film. So Fagin, Fagin is there to teach Oliver some-… everyone, everyone’s in our life for something. You wonder what the hell is this person doing in my life sometimes, but they’re all there for a reason – they’re all there to teach us something, and Fagin I think is there to teach Oliver what it is to be magnanimous to go back into that hell, look at the devil and say, actually something in you is good.
Question: You worked with Roman ten years ago in Death and the Maiden, right?
Question: Can you explain – this is a much different film – how did he change as a director, I mean, after The Pianist and you see him again, what did he bring to this film that was different from that film?
Kingsley: For me, because I’ve seen him over the years and, been with him over the years – just the occasional dinner, the occasional lunch and the occasional social meeting – and more recently I was at Deauxville with him and he was Chairman of the Jury. So I spent ten days with him and it was wonderful – I was on the jury. It was beautiful. he loves his wife and he loves his kids and that gets in deeper the more I know him. When I first knew him ten years ago, I think one of his children was tiny and the other I think maybe had just been born or about to be born. He’s a lovely dad and he’s a very happy man. He deserves to be because his childhood was… it’s a miracle he’s alive. It’s a miracle he survived the stuff he’s been through.
Question: You work so much, what drives you to work so hard?
Kingsley: Not what initially attracted me to being an actor – definitely not. I think an actor has a tribal role, as the archetypal storyteller. I think that tribally there was definitely a time when the storyteller, the priest, the healer, showman, all in one body and that person, male or female, used to weave stories at night around maybe a small fire just, just to stop the tribe being utterly terrified at the fact the sun had gone down and it might not come up again – because they had no proof it was going to come up again. So the storyteller I think has evolved into various forms now – we have political leaders, doctors, ah, lawyers, actors, writers, artists, but it’s sort of exploded and fragmented – but one of the lines that probably closest to the original is the actor because we still in order to earn a living do nothing more complicated than pretend to be somebody else – that’s what we… absurd what we do for a living, but it’s very closely linked I think to the ancient art of storytelling, which is profoundly healing. That attracts me very much now and keeps me going – that tribal membership of storytellers.
Question: Where do you get your energy from?
Kingsley: I think something from what we were discussing – that strange old tribal pulse, right-in-the-middle-of-it-all, you know, to do with storytelling and… actors are hunters, we hunt for our characters. You know, it’s interesting when a film director has a good take he says, “Got it!” – as if he’s caught something… hunting something, you know. So lots of primal things…