Oscar winner Ben Kingsley is poles apart from Gandhi as he plays a psycho thug in the wickedly funny and audacious Sexy Beast. It might be early days yet, but come next March, pundits are already predicting a second Oscar for the esteemed Brit, while Mr Kingsley just loves to act. He spoke to Paul Fischer following the film’s first North American screening during last year’s Toronto Film Festival.
Ben Kingsley’s first appearance in the dark comedy/thriller Sexy Beast, has him enveloped in a character we rarely see him play, a profane, violent, psychopath, who hardly bears any similarity to Mahatma Gandhi, or the equally gentle characters he played in the likes of Schindler’s List and Dave. “It was very releasing to play him,” said Kingsley of the vile Don in Sexy Beast. Out of the 60 or so roles Kingsley has played, he happily reports that Don remains unique. With the film’s visually opulent opening, it initially centres on Gary (Ray Winstone), a retired gangster in the twilight of his career, who has just retired to a posh Spanish hacienda with his loving wife Deedee.
However, all is not well in paradise. Rumbling over the horizon comes Don “Malky” Logan (Kingsley), the one-time friend but now ferocious enemy of Gary intent on persuading him to return to London for one last big job. Kingsley’s portrayal is chillingly evil, but thematically necessary, the actor insists. “I’m holding a mirror to the audience and telling them there is a violent person in all of us,” Kingsley reports. If the violent scenes in Sexy Beast seem jarring, the actor sees that as a positive thing in what is becoming a too-correct film world. “The way Jonathan [Glazer, director] has put it together,” says Kingsley of the director, “it is far more life-affirming than it is corrosive”.
When one thinks of the usually distinguished Mr Kingsley, one doesn’t necessarily see him as a foul-mouthed psychopath. For Kingsley, getting this most juicy of parts was born out of a series of mutually beneficial circumstances. “It so happens that, fortunately, there’s a connection between MY agent and Jonathan’s. THEY got together and thought it was an ‘interesting’ idea”. Interesting indeed, but Kingsley knew that if he “could come face to face with a director, they’ll get it and get in one. And soon as I walked into the room, having read this brilliant screenplay, I could taste Don like a chemical in my body”. Kingsley, who in reality is the clear opposite of this character, says that he must “had something of Don in me when I met the director; I must have had SOME intent, because it wasn’t conscious, yet Jonathan thought I was terrifying”.
Most actors need to have something of the characters they play inherently within them. In the case of Kingsley and Sexy Beast, he had little time to prepare, as he was involved shooting other films, and had to arrive on set already immersed in the character. “I couldn’t do any research on this bloke. I mean if I were to walk into any English pub looking for someone like Don, I’d get killed for starters. So I would talk a little bit about what he might wear and the fact he’d wear tattoos, but once they yell ‘Action’, at the end of the day all the tattoos in the world aren’t going to help you, if you have not accessed some essential quality in YOU that can be used FOR Don”.
So while Kingsley would never become Don, he explains, “but the rage, the obsessive quality all came from somewhere in me, nothing is an impersonation”. A frightening prospect, one suggests. “It would frighten me if I were to learn somewhere along the line that all of those emotions had been suppressed throughout my entire life, that would be very scary, because nature would express them, somehow, in some form”. Kingsley describes his job as being empathetic and illustrative, and my job is to portray people and a lot of good portraits say as much about the portrait artist as they do about the portrait. “
Truth is an important quality for Kingsley and insists that his films should “reflect who we are, where we are and why we are”. “I was fortunate as a young actor,” he explains, “to go straight to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where I learned that being an actor can bring with it wonderful responsibilities”. The son of a Ugandan Asian doctor and christened Krishna Bhanji, Kingsley – the name came from his grandfather, a Zanzibar-based spice trader nicknamed King Clove – fell in love with theatre when he saw Ian Holm’s Hamlet. He was soon starring in Coronation Street; Brian Epstein of The Beatles management, however, sought to lure him into rock music. “I wonder if I’d still be alive by now,” Kingsley reflects. “As a singer, I might have fallen among thieves”.
Instead, the theatre beckoned. Over some 20 years with the RSC, Kingsley starred in Trevor Nunn’s Nicholas Nickleby, Peter Brook’s legendary Midsummer Night’s Dream and in the title role in Othello. He won an Oscar and unanimous plaudits for his starring role in the epic Gandhi, and continued to do work in grandiose productions on stage and screen . as well as some less exciting screen work in the likes of Species, What Planet Are You From, Rules of Engagement and Michael Winner’s notorious 1998 flop Parting Shots. As well as such Hollywood favourites as Dave, Schindler’s List and the very recent TV miniseries Ann Frank, to name a few. Kingsley says that these days, he is at his most creative. “There is a lot of creative energy in me right now. In the work I’m now doing, I know that my soul – my soul – is fully articulate”.
A ‘Grande Homme’ of the British theatre, Kingsley has fallen in love with cinema all over again, and is currently putting the stage on hold. “There are so many more opportunities for me on film, and I am involved in so many projects, the theatre just has to wait. I’m producing and actively developing films, it’s a wonderful time for me”. Kingsley is a self-confessed workaholic, and continues to be driven by a childhood which forbade him to articulate his own desires. “As a child, I was neither seen nor heard. I was not taken seriously. Everything I attempted to articulate was diminished, distorted or interrupted. It’s a miracle that I got out of that: affluent, middle-class, horrible. That is why I honour that child and voice in me by saying: ‘They’re going to hear me, and see me, and I’m not going to be interrupted. I’ll put them in a place where they can’t interrupt me’.” After seeing his riveting work in Sexy Beast, would interrupt the man they once called Gandhi.