From his early days on Coronation Street to winning an Oscar for playing the title role in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, Sir Ben Kingsley has demonstrated a remarkable versatility across a career that stretches over 45 years.
If it’s hard to believe that it’s the same man playing the foul-mouthed gangster Don Logan in Sexy Beast as it is the proud Iranian in House of Sand and Fog (both of which gleaned Kingsley two further Oscar nominations), the Yorkshire-born actor - who turns 70 this December - has also demonstrated a fine talent in bringing real-life men to the screen.
Consider his Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story, Otto Frank in TV series Anne Frank, gangster Meyer Lansky in Bugsy, composer Dmitri Shostakovich in Testimony or the Russian Revolutionary in TV movie Lenin: The Train.
But perhaps none compare to his work on Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, playing Itzhak Stern, the Jewish accountant who helps Liam Neeson’s German industrialist Oskar Schindler to hire Jews to work in his factory, only to help save them from certain death in the gas chambers. Below, Kingsley explains where Stern fits into his gallery of characters and where he fits into Hollywood.
- When you made Schindler’s List, you’d already worked with its writer, Steven Zaillian, on Searching For Bobby Fischer...
Yes. I don’t think the distributors knew what to do with that film! I think by committee they must’ve thought, ‘What the hell do we do with a film about a kid who plays chess?’
It was written and directed by Steven, before we did his great Schindler’s List.
- Talking of Stevens, how did you get on with Spielberg?
Steven is a remarkable man and we got pretty close, which was very satisfying. But going in to see all those costume uniforms with the yellow star every morning does not exactly cheer you up.
We had to re-create, to re-enact, the epicentre of the world’s evil. You can’t help but be affected by that over a period of time.
- How did you cope with that?
It was like being at the centre of Dante’s Inferno - and the strange thing is, that’s exactly what Spielberg intended. He shouted, ‘Don’t act, improvise!’ And that’s what it was. Organised chaos and terror.
- Where do you rank your time on Schindler’s List with your other movies?
I’m trying very hard not to make any comparisons, and hold this experience against any other. With Attenborough, Spielberg, Jonathan Glazer... I’ve had the most extraordinary opportunities.
- How selective are you when picking your roles?
If I can afford to be, I am. I will choose a role that I recognise. Either I recognise him, and urgently need to tell his story - a voice told me I knew Don from Sexy Beast, for example.
Or with another character - as with Schindler’s List - where a voice went ‘You do not know this man, but, boy, you want to get to know this man. This man’s a Mensch.’
- Playing Itzhak Stern is just one example of you playing a non-English character. Do you find that easy?
I find it very liberating. Perhaps rather than foreign-ness, what people enjoy is an empathy I can bring to people other than me.
The empathy I can bring to the Polish Jew in Schindler’s List, the Austrian Jew in Simon Wiesenthal [Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story] , the German Jew in Otto Frank [Anne Frank].
There the gradations are quite delicate, but they are there. Somehow I was able to bring an empathy to it in maybe the way a portrait artist might paint a portrait that’s not really sympathetic but there’s empathy for the essence there. That’s what I try and do.
I try and create portraits. I haven’t done a whole stream of foreign baddies - the diversity is perhaps more to do with empathy.
- Did playing Wiesenthal help in prepping for Stern?
Yes, I became very immersed in Simon’s work and there’s a lot of Simon’s information in the portrait of Stern.
- How did you come to look upon Stern as a man?
He was like Schindler’s conscience. He was a scholar, a walking library, a link to his tribe, a temple on legs. Schindler chose an extraordinary man who was somehow equipped for the unimaginable.
- Stern is very much a solitary figure, the man apart - which ties in with many of your greatest characters, from Gandhi to Silas Marner. Is this where your tastes lie?
I had a family when I was Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s Dad; I had a family in Betrayal - for a while! I think that the families that I have been apart of, have been families that have been in very extreme situations.
At other times, I think I have been a man battling with fate on my own. Maybe that’s the portrait I find intriguing; the man in crisis, the man on the battlefield.
Maybe that’s what I find compelling - maybe because I’m not a man battling. Maybe because there’s a part of me that’s quite peaceful and integrated. I find dislocation and chaos quite awful.
- Do you find film acting more to your tastes than theatre?
I love the camera because it stops me acting. It says ‘C’mon, Ben don’t show us how clever you are as an actor, because the camera doesn’t want that.’
Letting go between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ is one of my sublime states. I need the right director, the right script, the right set-up.
- What inspired your screen versatility, do you think?
I think because of my early years in the RSC, and because of the way I worked with them through the ranks... I might be one of the few actors who played Hamlet and Othello for the same company.
It gave me the confidence to not have any pre-conceptions, or limits on myself. If you don’t have any limits on yourself... I think you invite pre-conception is what I’m trying to say.
If you feel limited, then you will invite people to think that you are limited. If I don’t think of myself in any way as limited, then maybe people are quite confident in you.
How about Don Logan, Itzhak Stern, Gandhi, Colonel Behrani and The Hood in Thunderbirds? I can’t see any confusion here. That would’ve been a classic week in the RSC’s repertoire, on different days of the week.
- How do you view actors and their process?
Actors are collections of people they met, people they know, aspects of themselves that they’re aware of, knowledge... it’s like a mosaic.
You build a portrait out of little bits of the mosaic from here, there and everywhere. You put it all together to create a portrait of somebody entirely separate and entirely new.
- You’ve just made Iron Man 3 in Hollywood. How do you think you’re perceived there?
I’ve got some very good colleagues in Hollywood: Stephen Zaillian, Ivan Reitman, Barry Levinson, Roger Donaldson, Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols. It seems not to be drying up.
It seems to be getting richer. So I’m thrilled about that. I’ve haven’t the foggiest idea how I am seen by anybody. I’ve no idea how I’m perceived.
Perhaps it’s just as well. Once you think you’re know how you’re perceived, you’re onto a losing wicket. You start to play your own image. My image is I’m a free actor. I’m an entertainer. No shackles.
- Is it difficult to balance your personal life with your workload?
Sometimes my family can travel with me, sometimes they can’t. But it’s a balance. I couldn’t have one without the other.
I honestly couldn’t. That’s my struggle is that battle. But it’s a joyful struggle as I love both so much.
- Your sons are both actors too. How does that make you feel?
I would wish upon them the same sheer sustained joy of creation that I’ve experienced. The rest is important but it’s somewhat peripheral. I also know that Peter Brook said ‘We can rehearse and rehearse but it’s incomplete until somebody comes and sees the work.’
I know that my beginnings with Peter and Trevor Nunn and all those extraordinary people at the RSC gave me that ballast, so that my ship won’t tip over when it gets stormy.
My boys have that ballast too. They have that love of Shakespeare, have been to great drama schools and I wish for them that same journey, which is the constant joy of being a storyteller within your society.
- Were there any other odd jobs you did before you were an actor?
You know, there weren’t. I was auditioned by a company who called themselves T.I.E. - Theatre In Education. I auditioned for them when I was 20.
They gave me the job, I started with them, and then went from there to Rep, from Rep to Chichester, from Chichester to the RSC. I have never turned my hand to anything for monetary gain other than pretending to be someone else. I’m deeply fortunate.
- Can you lead a normal life, generally?
I am myself. I’m not being facetious. I’m not playing a game. I’m not a mass of disguises. I continue to be myself all the time - unless I feel I have to protect myself from somebody really dangerous and corrosive.
Then my boundaries will come up. But for most of the time, 24/7, I’m myself. I lead a normal life.
- Do you have any career regrets?
To this day, I still regret never having had an opportunity to portray a commanding officer in uniform with the responsibility that goes under him and having to face a crushingly difficult decision.
I did have an opportunity to have dinner next to General Sir Michael Jackson, and I had the temerity to say, ‘You and I have one thing in common.’
He raised these amazing eyebrows and said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Nobody knows what you and I do for a living. They don’t know what the soldier does.
They don’t know what the actor does. They’re two areas of great mystery, for very different reasons.’ He laughed and said, ‘You know I think you’re absolutely right.’
The soldier is very mysterious, I think. I’m sure there have been great attempts but I’d love to be in that silhouette myself and just portray that moment of ‘When do you decide to do that?’ under enormous pressure.
Schindler’s List 20th Anniversary Edition is released on Blu-ray and DVD on 8 April from Universal Pictures