Though he had performed onstage and on British television for more than 15 years, Ben Kingsley was a relative unknown when he won the leading role in Richard Attenborough's 1982 epic Gandhi, which swept the Oscars. Kingsley's Best Actor award didn't pay initial dividends, perhaps because he was identified too closely with the part, but when he earned a second Oscar nomination in 1991 for his role in Bugsy, his versatility was undeniable. Since then, he's offered up Oscar-nominated turns in Sexy Beast and House Of Sand And Fog, and memorable roles in Searching For Bobby Fischer, Dave, Death And The Maiden, and Schindler's List. He's been particularly prolific this summer, appearing in The Wackness; The Love Guru; War, Inc.; and Transsiberian. In the new film Elegy, based on Philip Roth's novel The Dying Animal, Kingsley stars as David Kepesh, an aging college professor and notorious lothario who launches a complicated affair with Consuela, a shy Cuban student played by Penélope Cruz. Kingsley recently spoke to The A.V. Club about how acting is like playing a symphony.
The A.V. Club: Philip Roth's novels have had a notoriously difficult time transitioning to movies. What made you believe Elegy could break the trend?
Ben Kingsley: I read the screenplay first. So my first impressions were of a darn good screenplay, beautiful. And I got a little bit acquainted with [Elegy director] Isabel Coixet's wonderful work, My Life Without Me and The Secret Life Of Words. I thought Penelope was perfect casting. Then I learned that it would be Dennis [Hopper], Peter Sarsgaard, Patricia [Clarkson]. So I was fairly happy that we would at least get off to a good start, that we had all the basic ingredients to try and make a darn good film. It didn't really cross my mind ever that we'd fail to make that transition. I read the screenplay before the novel. I read the novel while filming, and still felt that we were on track. And then I watched a documentary on Philip Roth made by a friend of mine. Very charming documentary. I was very intrigued and pulled in by him; he's a magnetic, lovely guy to watch on the screen. I've later learnt, although this is in hindsight, that Philip Roth has seen the film and he likes it very much indeed. So I didn't have many trepidations about that particular aspect.
AVC: Were you fairly well-versed in Roth's work going in? Do you have a good sense of his character type?
BK: No, I wasn't really well-versed. I came into it very fresh. I didn't have any preconceptions. I just responded to the character, to Isabel's wonderful direction and camera operating, and then my colleagues on the set. I prefer to work that way, to bring almost nothing. A blank canvas, if you like. Of course, I learn my lines and have various skills that I try and bring to bear in simple craft. But I didn't bring any preconceptions about this chap that I was to play, David Kepesh. I liked him on the page, I was intrigued by the character. Very playable, actable, a good character to get inside and explore that unique journey. So that was really my mindset when I joined everybody in Vancouver.
AVC: And that's true of your work in general? You talked about a blank slate. Is that how you like to work? Is there a certain problem with preparing too much for something, or knowing too much about something going in?
BK: I don't want to be like the actor who rehearses everything in the bathroom, then comes to the set and carries on completely uninterrupted while the other actors tiptoe away. I'm so dependent on reacting to the other actors on the set, and to the director. I'm very responsive. I react. And I treasure the energy that reaction gives. I feed off that and work off that. I don't like to be too prepared, no. However we define too prepared, if I feel it's getting that way, then I'll back off. My line-learning is very special. I like to learn the dialogue of the whole film before I arrive.
AVC: Your character in Elegy is consumed with jealousy, though he's always been something of a libertine. Where does his jealousy come from?
BK: I think it comes from the simple fact that if you are a libertine, if you're not given to long-term faithful relationships, you tend to project your behavior onto everyone else. It's like the person who knows they're not trustworthy; they tend to mistrust everyone else. It's a projection, a stage that he has to go through in that journey to genuine commitment and intimacy. He's terrified of intimacy. Doesn't really understand the word until he completes his journey of growth.
AVC: Do you feel like his age feeds into that as well?
BK: It seems like those traits have been around quite a long time, a long grudge, born in somebody quite young. And I think since leaving that relationship [with his wife], it's been going on a long time. He definitely had a long-standing affair, a protracted one-night stand with Carolyn, Patricia Clarkson's character. That's 20 years of avoiding intimacy. So I think more the narrative is exploring a long-standing habit rather than chronological years. He's just entrenched in this habit of flitting from one to the other. And then having a longstanding, completely uncommitted relationship with Carolyn.
AVC: Philip Roth's work is so unmistakably masculine. Do you feel like having a female director transformed the work in a significant way?
BK: You might have hit on something very important there, and I think equally important was Isabelle's contribution to it. She operated the camera as well, so we literally had a female behind the camera, as well as the light and delicate touch of her directing. I think it did provide an enormous balance and gave us an opportunity—gave the film an opportunity—to explore male vulnerability in a way that's not often explored on the screen. And I think that the female sensibility can explore male vulnerability in a different way, and I think that was valuable for our film. That you see male vulnerability as something to be embraced. Kepesh refuses to be vulnerable; that's why there are so many changes in his relationships. Move out, move on before you become vulnerable. And this time he can't. It doesn't work.
AVC: Having a romance between an older man and a woman more than 30 years his junior isn't always easy to pull off. But there's a lot of chemistry in this movie between yourself and Penélope Cruz. What went into that?
BK: Not a lot. There's an automatic compatibility. And the great approach she has to her work and I try to bring to mine, and the whole cast brought to their roles. And Isabel gave us a great space in which to explore the losses and the games and the jealousies and the frustrations and the final triumphs of that relationship. Very private, very splendidly guarded space by Isabel. And also the fact that chronology seems to disappear, and the important issue is finding one's equal partner. And an equal partner can be from a very different culture, very different background, very different education, very different taste, very different—all sorts of things. That doesn't mean they're not equal. An equal partner can come from a very different setup, a very different set of measures, if you like. And they enhance the relationship, and they enhance the equality rather than unbalance it. So I felt it was a quest toward an equal partner. And this is, I think, what Consuela chooses: an equal partner. She needs that experience and that maturity for an equal partner. She doesn't need a boy. And that, I think, is also another lovely thread that the film explores. Equal partners aren't always what we envision as being manifestly equal. Equality can come in many different shapes and sizes and combinations.
AVC: Did you meet with or work with Cruz prior to getting on the set, or was that just generated right on the spot?
BK: It was pretty well generated on the spot, because of her total commitment to her character, and mine to the journey of mine. Very briefly, my wife Daniela and I met her at a very nice party she had in L.A. when she was nominated for Volver. We just said hello and had a brief chat. I think it turned out to be really good casting, and I always felt it would be. And all of the characters, all of the actors in that film, I think—can't speak for myself of course. [Laughs.]But I think they're all very well-cast.
AVC: You've been in four movies that came out in America this summer, and there look to be more in the pipeline. What's keeping you so prolific these days?
BK: I think there's been an influx of good material. I think Sexy Beast was an enormous boost, a great addition to how people perceive me. I like to be seen out of the box and think out of the box. I love surprising myself, and now I think young directors, since Jonathan Glazer in Sexy Beast, who was a first-time director, are all now confident in approaching me. Rather than thinking, "Ah, no, that's out of the question, don't even think about it," they do think about it, and quite confidently. Which is a great gift to me. Also, I have my own production company, so I'm attracting novels and screenplays and writers to work with me. Trying to build up a beautiful slate of films, which we are doing. On many fronts, the work is multiplying at the moment.
AVC: Since Sexy Beast, you've played a lot of heavies in movies, and your image has altered. Was that something you set out to do deliberately?
BK: There's no rhyme or reason. It just was a role that I found very compelling. And pure. There was a pure villainy there. And I found it really enticing. Probably linked into my Shakespeare work, something pure about Shakespeare villains and something pure about this one. Just gave me an opportunity in a different way—to be the moral challenge of the film instead of the moral center. And allowed people to think of me a little bit outside the box. I love variety. I was thriving on it in theater for years, then went into film, and fortunately that's happening as well, which is great.
AVC: Since Gandhi is the role you're most associated with, and these roles are so far removed from that—there's a kind of shock. This is not the Kingsley of the popular imagination.
BK: There's getting to be quite a long list, though, so maybe the novelty will wear off soon. [Laughs.] 'Cause the list is getting longer and longer, which is great.
AVC: How has time changed the way you do things? Do you feel like you're a different actor now than you were 25 years ago?
BK: I hope I'm more economical. I hope I'm able to achieve more on camera through stillness, through focus, through being quite careful to do less on every take, rather than more. So I'm reducing, rather than adding. Which hopefully is a good exercise. That's what I'd like to do.
AVC: Did it take time for you to get the confidence to do less? If you're trained in theater, where you have to project, maybe your instincts are to project more.
BK: They fell away very quickly under the guidance of [Gandhi director Richard] Attenborough and the scrutiny of that lens. And I have admired actors onscreen for their stillness. Those are the ones that leave a lasting impression on me. So maybe it's emulation and admiration instead of trying to acquire a new approach to the craft. I'm hoping it's getting stiller, and will continue to get more stillness, conveying the narrative more precisely to the audience. And then again, I like to get messy. I like to get messy and careless, and I do in The Wackness. Of course, my dialogue was perfect, I was word-perfect on my words, but within that discipline, I enjoy being messy. Not being so careful. But I still tried to employ stillness in that role where it was appropriate, where it meant something.
AVC: How much you do paint outside the lines in a performance? You say you know these lines going in, but do you try different things when you're actually there and shooting?
BK: I don't try different words. I never do. But I will try perhaps a slightly different inflection, or something would occur to me where the rhythm or the flow of that gesture or that line will focus on a particular point. And I'd like to hit the point rather than miss the point. So I'm aware of that, and I'm aware of experimenting on each take to that balance, where the action and word, or the action and the silence, or the stillness and the silence, convey precisely what the lens needs at that stage of the story. You need that particular note or rhythm in the symphony to be that minor key, or that sharp key or major chord. In musical terms, I try to hit the right note. But not alter the score of the music, just emphasize the note correctly.
AVC: What is the ideal working situation for you in terms of what you need and what you don't need from a filmmaker?
BK: What I do need is the confidence to rest assured that the director is watching everything I do, isn't missing anything, and truly sees what I bring in front of the camera. That they do not impose what they want to see, or feel they ought to see. That they start from what I have to offer and then build on that. That's very collaborative, it involves a lot of trust, and it has, so far, in an overwhelming number of cases, worked for both the director and myself. And Isabel is a great example of that. As is [The Wackness director] Jonathan Levine. I can't remember Jonathan ever saying anything to me. But he put the camera in the right place. He was encouraging. I've always felt he knew when to ask for another take and when to stop. The actual direction, in verbal terms, was absolutely minimal.
AVC: That's the way you'd prefer it?
BK: It varies. It varies from director to director. With Scorsese [on the upcoming film Shutter Island], it's a wonderful ongoing debate. And that's also something I find really exciting. A debate about the predicament, the patterns of behavior, the flow between characters. The needs of the character in any particular scene. And I warmed to that as well, because again, he never imposes something that's not in the scene, or the character, or in the casting of the character in the first place. He casts his films extremely well. And he lets the actor do what he or she needs to do in that moment. Lets them behave as the character needs to behave in that moment. And then we'll make some adjustments, sometimes even with the lens, or a bit of lighting, not even the acting, which is very exciting. You're repeating exactly the same thing, but the way the light is falling on your face tells an entirely different story. And he's a master of that, as is [Roman] Polanski.
AVC: What about the reverse case? Scorsese and Polanski are very seasoned directors, but you've also worked with a lot of first-time directors and less-seasoned directors. Do you help them along?
BK: It's very collaborative, what I do for a living. Which I think is very healthy. I don't do anything that would ever come across as advice or suggestion, but it's just part of a debate. Like, "I would like to try this," or "Let me do another one with more stillness, let me emphasize that." Rather than "I think you should emphasize this, I think"—you know, I don't impose choices on them. I just offer choices. But I offer choices within the narrative of the film, not outside the narrative of the film. Then I have a certain amount of control over what ends up in the editing room in the first place. And then the editor goes from there.
AVC: Your movies have taken you to India, Russia, Romania, Poland, and all over the world. Is the impetus to travel a big part of being an actor for you? Are you drawn to roles that will take you to new places?
BK: When I was in the theater, mostly with The Royal Shakespeare Company, touring with a play was a benign conquest. You'd go to a town and perform your play, and it was like a benign conquest. And I feel like making a film is life-affirming, and to make it in different cultures and surroundings is a wonderful way—not of conquering, because that's not quite the same exercise with a film. You don't go to a town to present the play and have applause at the end of it, but that's benign conquest. It's a glorious way of exploring other landscapes and other cultures in a very life-affirming way.