Kingsley drops the act
Transfixing audiences in the role of Gandhi or a psychotic gangster, Oscar winner Ben Kingsley says he has always found it easy to hide behind characters. Now 67, he tells Evan Fanning about psychological thriller Shutter Island and how he begged Martin Scorsese to use his own accent and body language
When Ben Kingsley talks to you he fixes you with a glare that feels like it will never end. It's one of those intense stares which forces you to shift uncomfortably in your chair and wonder if you should avert your gaze or simply keep your eyes locked on his and nod along.
Perhaps it's why Kingsley -- or "Sir Ben" as he is said to insist on being called, allegedly prompting theatre director Jonathan Miller to brand him a "little twerp" -- is such a magnetic force on screen, fixing the entire cinema audience with his glare and refusing to let go, whether he is playing Gandhi or psychotic gangster Don Logan in Sexy Beast.
It's quite a trick, and one which is again on display in Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese's McCarthy-era psychological thriller based on the Dennis Lehane novel, a film so cleverly executed that it will leave you squirming in your seat as the claustrophobic surrounds of the island engulf the audience every bit as much as the characters played by Kingsley's co-stars, which include Leonardo DiCaprio, Michelle Williams and Mark Ruffalo.
We meet shortly before his 67th birthday, but Kingsley looks lean and taut, tanned in a dark blazer and brightly colourful shirt, mixing stripes of pink, purple and blue. His dark goatee beard is there, providing the contrast with his bald pate, which looks sheened and polished.
His conversation is relentless and his answers lengthy, with great pauses when you're not sure if he's finished speaking or has gone so far into deep thought that he may have forgotten what he was saying. He never has, though, and returns with some poetic statement relating to the "unconditional love" that existed on set or how Scorsese allowed him to "exercise stricter economy" in the gestures he makes on screen or how "filmmaking is a quest for symmetry".
He drops names into conversation that add little to the story. "I was with Richard Attenborough," he might say. It's odd. It's not as if Sir Ben Kingsley needs to prove he's well connected.
At the same time he is unfailingly nice. I finish my glass of water and he immediately opens a bottle and pours me another, while he seems to put a lot of effort into giving you the most in-depth answer possible even if some of the time it is hard to fathom exactly what he is talking about.
He says he was only "peripherally aware" of Lehane's novel, but had a great interest in the era in which it was set. "Marty and I had met previously and we shared a great enthusiasm -- he far more actively than me -- for the Powell and Pressburger films that were made in the United Kingdom a while ago. I met him in Washington maybe 10 years ago and he gave this wonderful talk and, along with everyone else, I see him as a great champion of cinema."
In Shutter Island Kingsley plays Dr John Cawley, a Harvard educated psychiatrist who runs a hospital for the criminally insane on an island off Boston that itself could be consigned to the nut house. A patient has escaped and two federal marshals (DiCaprio and Ruffalo) are sent to investigate but become entwined in the warped goings-on in the hospital.
The role came after his "wonderful agent" (he later refers to his "wonderful publicist") told him Martin Scorsese wanted to talk to him. "It was immediately thrilling," he says. "He chatted to me, very warmly, and then he gave me the script which I found totally compelling. It was an absolutely easy thing to say unreservedly, 'Yes, I'm on the team'."
Scorsese -- who Kingsley veers between referring to as "Marty", "the boss" and "the maestro" -- created an environment where the cast felt very secure, he says. "Not that security is what acting is all about, but sometimes you feel great when you hear the cast and Marty and see the script. It's a wonderful combination with him at the helm. Marty is such a great 'bringer togetherer' of compatible chemistries that it was just a joy to let the energies flow with no impediment whatsoever."
At times it is not clear whether he's talking about making a film, or composing a symphony to be played at the gates of heaven while flocks of doves are released into the clouds. At one point he recites a haiku -- "all my favourite directors have heard my haiku story" -- which, I think, he feels represents his approach to acting: "When I am 110/ I will do the mountain, the birds, the clouds and the men/ In one stroke." Or so it goes.
Born Krishna Bhanji to an English model and actress, Anne Lyna Goodman, and her husband, a Kenyan-born Indian doctor called Rahimtulla Harji Bhanji, he grew up in Salford, on the outskirts of Manchester, where his ability to mimic quickly became apparent. "My father called me the Danny Kaye of the family," he says. "Acting for me has always been pretending to be somebody else, but I take a great joy out of that because when I was a child, I was very skilled at impersonating people. No sooner had somebody left the living room of our house than I could do an extraordinarily accurate impersonation of them for my parents. I had this facility to impersonate. I found that it brought a lot of pleasure to people, it delighted them."
Academia never really took hold, but performing did and his stage career began in a musical called A Smashing Day, produced by Brian Epstein, manager of The Beatles. Faced with a choice of pursuing a career in music or drama he chose the latter and travelled to London where, following rejection from Rada, he changed his name and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. He also had a five-episode stint on Coronation Street playing Ron Jenkins, who was involved with Ken Barlow's first wife, Val.
Richard Attenborough's son saw him play Hamlet, and told his father, who ended up casting Kingsley as the lead in his movie about the life of Mahatma Gandhi. It won the best actor Oscar in 1983 and remains his most iconic role, though he has subsequently earned three other nominations, two for best supporting actor (Bugsy and Sexy Beast) and one more for best actor (House of Sand and Fog).
"In a sense, the delight of creating a portrait of somebody has been very dear to my heart," he says. "If I was a painter I would be a portrait artist, I wouldn't be a landscape artist. I suppose I drifted away from the stage to cinema because the lens says, 'This isn't a landscape painting, this is a portrait painting'. It can get very, very close. You can wander over the tie, the pipe, the match striking. A film is a wonderful portrait painting by Scorsese or by a great director."
In 2007 Kingsley married Daniela Barbosa de Carneiro, a stunning South American model who is almost 30 years his junior. It is the fourth time he has been married. He has two children from his first marriage to actress Angela Morant which ended in 1972, and two more with his second wife, theatre director Alison Sutcliffe. That marriage ended in 1992 and Kingsley began a relationship with actress Kate Townsend, who he was still living with when he met German aristocrat, Alexandra Christmann, who was also 30 years younger than him, in a restaurant in Berlin in 2002. They married the following year but divorced in 2005 after he discovered pictures on the internet of her kissing actor Sammy Brauner. He confronted her and she admitted the affair.
Brazilian model-slash-actress Barbosa, who had small roles in Casualty and the Ali G movie, became Lady Kingsley at a small ceremony in Oxfordshire in September 2007. It's a scenario that is almost as complicated as one of his answers.
Shutter Island promises to be his most seen film for many years, although you somehow get the impression that the process of making it is what matters to him most. Like his previous film Elegy -- although he works so prolifically that there are five or six films each year -- Kingsley sought to play Dr Cawley as close as possible to himself in order to remove any barriers there might be between him and the emotional side of his character.
Before Elegy began, where he plays a professor who is involved with a much younger woman (Penelope Cruz), he asked the director if he could act with his own accent and his own look. "Because I'm too good at accents," he says. "I can hide behind accents. I can hide behind body language. I can hide behind all sorts of clutter, but I just wanted to be totally vulnerable to Penelope and the rest of the wonderful cast. So I said 'Please can I be as close to me as humanly possible?'"
That experience, he feels, "taught me a lot about being vulnerable. I gained a lot by dropping the old clutter, by dropping the disguises so I was again prompted to say to Marty, when Shutter Island came around so quickly after Elegy, that may I also play him as a British-educated psychiatrist who finishes his education at Harvard? Marty said it was completely logical, and it enabled me, aside from a pipe and a bow-tie, to have nothing else at all. Me. It leaves me very vulnerable to affectionately deal with other members of the cast. I'm not saying that those guys are me, but they are very, very close. Not to who I am, but I'm not manipulating my voice. The pretence is less."
So is he constantly learning things about himself and about his ability, even at this stage of his career? "Yes, and it's delightful. It's more exciting. I find that the tightrope is a little longer and the fall is farther because I'm not disguised. It's me."
There is no question that Shutter Island is a departure for Scorsese, in terms of setting and subject matter, dealing with psychological conflict rather than the physical struggles that have often marked his films. Scorsese fanatics may have mixed feelings towards this new direction, but Kingsley feels it is a change worth making.
"I suppose it's a similar kind of risk to when people associated me with being a national leader and a man of peace to go to saying 'f***' every other word in Sexy Beast and then headbutt somebody and knee them in the leg. We have to take these risks. We have to keep changing the picture, otherwise we're not craftsmen. We work with a new plastic piece of clay every time and we must have that freedom, so we can't really worry about what people might think, otherwise we stop dead in our tracks."
You get the impression that it would take an awful lot to bring a halt to Ben Kingsley. The look in his eye tells you that immediately.
Shutter Island is currently in cinemas