importance of being earnest
His parents treated him with 'total indifference' but in acting Sir Ben Kingsley found his voice ... and despite the gentle manner he refuses to talk down about his art
I'm standing in front of a plush hotel door, and on the other side waits a Knight of the Realm. I'm a little apprehensive. At least one person has passed on to me the rumour that Sir Ben Kingsley is an absolute nightmare.
I've sat across from him briefly before, at a press event for Iron Man 3, a film in which he turned in a hilarious and surprising performance as terrorist/villain the Mandarin – a small, but scene-stealing role. In person, he was smooth, socially agile and charmed the pants off every person in the room. Perhaps the man who seems to fancy himself as the second coming of Laurence Olivier is starting to lighten up?
Well, not exactly as it turns out. He's a little more muted today, though still desperately earnest. Not much prone to levity, is Sir Ben. Certainly, at least, when being interviewed about his art. Even if his art, in this case, is applied to the role of a tattooed hero of human-alien warfare.
But then, maybe gravity is appropriate. Enders Game, in which he plays warrior Mazer Rackman, is a rollicking CGI blockbuster true, but it has high-minded aspirations. It's also a nuanced metaphor about the dangers of using "security" as a fig leaf for war mongering, and the importance of trying to understand our enemies before simply blasting them out of the sky.
The story is adapted from the novel by Orson Scott of the same name, and follows Ender (Asa Butterfield), a talented boy-soldier who is selected from millions for his leadership skills and computer-game prowess to take on and wipe out an alien species which had shown threatening behaviour towards the inhabitants of earth.
It's also, as Kingsley points out "not about blowing up planets. The heart of the film is that delicate process of turning from an adolescent to a young adult".
His own adolescence was miserable. "One of the enduring qualities of adolescence – no matter how much the adolescent tries to disguise it, there is a need to please," he says. "And my need to please was translated through trying to emulate my father and perhaps my elder brother in embarking on a career in medicine. And, fortunately, it definitely didn't work out. Although I studied physics chemistry and biology in school, it did not lead to a career in medicine."
But for an actor, even grim experiences aren't wasted time. "What it did lead to is a forensic approach to studying character," he says.
He's spoken many times about his unhappy childhood – the paucity of love and encouragement he felt growing up, the son of a Gujarati doctor and a Russian Jewish mother. His mother, he has said, had "a circuit missing" and his father refused to countenance his son's creative ambitions.
"My memory of my adolescence is that, looking back, my motives were clouded by wanting to please that which was unpleasable," he says.
If his childhood suffocated his spirit, it was the Royal Shakespeare Company that can be credited with releasing it.
"The original you – the original anybody," he says, with careful attention to the rhythm of his musical baritone, "has hopefully, sooner or later, an opportunity to find voice. And I didn't find voice until, paradoxically, I put on a mask and pretended to be somebody else. But I did find voice through being a storyteller. But we, as actors, as storytellers, we have to slightly disguise ourselves in order to release that voice. It was being seen and heard as me that was completely unachievable in my adolescence."
As a result of the "total indifference" of his parents, his early attempts at acting were, he says a little "neurotic – I was shouting in the wilderness 'will somebody please pay attention!' If you are fortunate enough to work as hard as I have and as frequently, especially going through the Royal Shakespeare Company, you eventually are told: 'It's OK. It's fine. Translate it into something healing and artistic and beautiful, rather than a neurotic scream.' I was fortunate that I was able to turn it into that. Some people in my situation would have probably resorted to drugs and alcohol."
Luckily, the RSC embraced him with open arms. He says it was there that he found a sense of family and belonging. From there he went straight to the set of Richard Attenborough's masterpiece Gandhi, for which he won an Oscar, and laid down the foundation of his reputation as one of the greatest actors of his generation.
Kingsley comes in for a lot of ribbing for his unapologetically highfalutin manner. He's often described as the ultimate luvvie. And oh, it is easy to mock. If he is capable of perfect subtlety when acting, as himself: he always seems a little bit like he's over egging it. But there's something refreshing about his determined solemnity around his work – his refusal to wisecrack or be self-deprecating, to talk things down. And his manner is gentle and kind. There's something daunted and shy that never quite leaves those beady brown eyes.
He says that when approaching a character, it's necessary for him to find a point of recognition, a shard of himself in what he reads on the page. "I'm sometimes surprised when I bring so much energy to certain stories, but then, on reflection, or even during filming I realise that's not surprising – there's a buried part of you in this character. You are giving yourself a voice. I'm not saying that it's a one-way street – I'm not an actor to give myself a voice. But the voice gives me urgency and gives the story energy and strength and authority. If I feel somehow, 'Oh I know this! I recognise this!' And it can be in the most surprising of roles. But suddenly there is a commonality. And if there's a commonality it means I can be heard. In other words, if I find a commonality so will the audience."
There's a widely held view that the character he's played that is closest to Kingsley himself is the Phillip Roth creation, David Kepesh, from Elegy. Adapted from the novel The Dying Animal and directed by Isabel Coixet, he plays an ageing, divorced professor, erotically obsessed with Cuban graduate student Conseula Castillo but unable to connect with or commit to her. He is haunted by her power as a sexual object, but estranged from her as a human being. When Kingsley played the role, he was a thrice-divorced man in his 60s, and recently married to Daniela Barbosa, a Brazilian waitress and actress almost 30 years younger than him.
Does he see himself there? "I think I recognised his terror of intimacy," he says. "But it was only when I was no longer terrified of intimacy and in a very, very happy relationship that I was able to expose that part of myself to the camera with a female director who was brilliant at filming male vulnerability, in whom I had total trust," he says. "And I was able to dedicate the performance to my wife, because I had been able, through a series of lessons and encounters, to overcome my terror of intimacy. But, therefore, I had enormous compassion for David Kepesh, who was terrified of intimacy. Who would leave the bunch of flowers in the car. Who could not move, who was paralysed. And it wasn't, therefore, a mirror of where I was then, when I made the film. It was a mirror of where I was before."
He has just finished shooting a second film with Coixet. "It's called Learning To Drive and I play a Sikh driving instructor who lives in New York, so I worked a lot with the Sikh community there, which was beautiful," he says. It is one of a number of projects he's got going at the moment. At almost 70, Kingsley is busier than ever. He also has a production company, Lavender Productions (founded with his actress wife), with several projects on the slate. All of which, if they come to fruition, will be guided by Sir Ben's own particular calling of the soul. "To tell stories," he says with a wave of the hand, "that are beautiful and moving and exciting."
Enders Game is in cinemas now.