Sir Ben Kingsley took home the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Mohandas K. Gandhi in Sir Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. Three more nominations followed (Bugsy, Sexy Beast, House of Sand and Fog), but Kingsley's varied career encompasses storied theatrical productions (like the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby) and every genre of film: comedy (Without a Clue, What Planet Are You From?, Dave, Sneakers), drama (Searching for Bobby Fisher, Schindler's List, the upcoming Oliver Twist), thriller (Suspect Zero), science fiction/horror (Species, the upcoming A Sound of Thunder), family films (Tuck Everlasting, Thunderbirds), and multiple Shakespeare adpatations, including Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night: Or What You Will. I spoke with Sir Ben at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel during his 2015 press tour for Learning to Drive and, earlier, on the occasion of the 2005 Cinequest Film Festival, where Kingsley collected the Maverick Spirit Award. (Above find the audio of our discussion on Learning to Drive; below that find our brief exchange at Cinequest.)
Groucho: I'm very interested in your process. For your Shakespearean roles, and you've done many, how do you beat out the script and does your approach vary at all from your approach to any other character?
Sir Ben Kingsley: When I think of it, when I was working in theatre, when I did a lot of Shakespeare, it was very much under the guidance of a director or a group of directors who had already very thoroughly explored the text: the rhythm of the language, why certain words were emphasized in certain lines, why certain words rhymed to re-emphasize them, why certain passages were in verse and others were in prose or free of verse, free of amplitude. And to explore that, y'know, literally to explore the page—the writing on the page—with those directors, I think gave me an enormous insight into the process of writing and why a good screenplay—a good film script—really should actually defy improvisation. The script that someone's labored over, I would rather make work—I'd rather make the lines on the page work than arrive on the film set in the morning and say, "I don't think I would say this, I would say something else." Because it isn't me making those choices. It's the character who has to make choices. The character—of course cinema is not language-based, it's visually-based. Therefore, when language is used, I think that language has to be very accurately used and with respect to the writer. For example, okay, I did Shakespeare for—up until the early 80's really, and I came back and then did it—a quick Othello, if there is such a thing—but mainly it was fun, the middle 60's to the early 80's. And then, for example, when I performed Don Logan in Sexy Beast, I was able to bring my grasp of language in Shakespeare to him, and also my knowledge of Iago and my knowledge of the pure villain and why that has to be in any piece of drama—light and shade, the dark side and the lighter side and why the villain is there: in order to provoke the hero into doing things that he would otherwise not do—there's your drama. And my daughter, having seen Sexy Beast said that Don Logan was like a Shakespearean character, he was like a Jacobean tragic hero, a conventional hero. And also, although there have been some ideas put to me that we might have improvised some of that screenplay, not one word's improvised. And I prepared that role by absolutely sticking ruthlessly to the written word on the page. So that there are—I know there are a dock of thirteen "no"s [a loud brass band begins to play outside] in one scene, followed by a dock of eight "no"s, and I still remember how many "no"s I may be saying—this is my band, by the way—
SBK: They're a little early; they came a bit too soon. But every, every word, every word, every word on that page, my colleagues and I say, and the rhythm of those "no"s—"No, no, no, no"—I can remember exactly how many "no"s there were, how quickly Ray and I had to almost overlap each other with our dialogue, how perfect the rhythm was. It's that that makes it such a compelling film, I think: the rhythm of the writing is perfectly balanced. So really, I was taught to deeply respect the written word and get my character—to turn a role into a character is my job. And the role is on the page, the character is in me, and I suppose I bring my intuition and my wisdom and my love of language to that page, and that's how it comes to life. There's no set way. But I think I'm very intuitive, provided the map is good and I can release my intuition into that map, which is the written word.