Ender's Game - Sir Ben Kingsley interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
SIR Ben Kingsley talks about the attraction of working with writer-director Gavin Hood on Ender’s Game and why he was more than happy to don his distinctive tattoos.
He also talks about his role in Iron Man 3 earlier this year and why Shane Black and company did initially have to battle Marvel to keep the big reveal, as well as why it’s hugely unlikely he’ll ever return to the stage.
Q. Are you a workaholic?
Sir Ben Kingsley: I think circumstance forced me to be. The difference, I think, strategically about being offered, say Uncle Vanya in the West End, I could say to the producers: “Yeah, maybe next year.” And they’ll come back next year and say: “Will you do it now?” If I say ‘no’ to Ender’s Game the train leaves the station without me. It’s the difference between movies and theatre. So, once these opportunities come – and they’re coming bang, bang, bang, one after the other, I can’t really say: “Well is it OK if I do it next year?” The answer is: “No, we’ll find someone else.”
Q. But the work has never really dried up…
Sir Ben Kingsley: There’s more demand now, I think. I turned a big corner with Sexy Beast, where I sort of broke a mould and re-invented something. I didn’t re-invent myself. I was always like that as an actor. I’ve always loved being versatile. But the business is a little bit slow to make use of versatility. But I’ve sort of arm wrestled them across the table.
Q. And then there was Iron Man 3…
Sir Ben Kingsley: Yes, yes. That was a great opportunity and I loved making that film. I think it’s more that I’m becoming the actor I really am, rather than receding from it. I’m getting more myself and getting closer to what I think acting is, which is wearing a variety of masks to tell a variety of stories.
Q. How nice is it to finally be able to talk about Iron Man 3 without giving anything away?
Sir Ben Kingsley: It’s lovely! It’s really quite wonderful. Drew Pearce, who wrote it, was so relieved because, again, talking about arm-wrestling with producers, there was a bit of a battle between him and Marvel. Marvel, understandably, said: “We don’t do this. We don’t set up and then deflate. We don’t have in-jokes like this. The fans, the Marvel fans, the Mandarin followers…” Shane Black totally agreed with Drew, they stuck to their guns and the head of Marvel, Kevin Feige, actually came to my house in Oxfordshire and sold me the idea. So, eventually Marvel were completely behind it and then they took the risk of can the actor pull it off? Well, thanks to Robert Downey Jr and his amazing collaboration and generosity I was given a good shot at it. It was very, very exciting to do.
Q. It makes you almost like a folk hero or icon in your own right within that universe?
Sir Ben Kingsley: I wouldn’t know about that. I stay very immune from anything that anybody says about me, with all respect to what you do for a living. I actually don’t get involved in it.
Q. So, you never read anything that’s said about you?
Sir Ben Kingsley: I’ve not read a review since 1984…
Q. What was that for?
Sir Ben Kingsley: I can’t remember. Isn’t that lovely [laughs]? I sleep at night. It’s wonderful. I don’t read anything that’s ever written or said about me. The reverse can be true with some of my colleagues who are so mesmerised by how they are perceived rather than being fascinated by how many different stories they can tell and how their characters are perceived. Somehow, the equation has got very distorted between actor and audience and we need to pull it back to what it is: we’re storytellers, that’s what we do.
Q. Can I ask you what drew you to Ender’s Game?
Sir Ben Kingsley: Definitely Gavin [Hood, writer-director]. I saw his South African work. He adopted a novel by Athol Fugard [Tsotsi] who was, or is a great colleague of mine. I did many of his plays. I thought he had adapted it beautifully and I loved the film. I then saw him jump from that to another genre, and another film I had huge admiration for, and when we met I LA and he enthusiastically showed me the graphics and told me the story I thought: “Well, here’s a guy I’d do into battle with any day!”
Q. He told us about a selection of ties story you told him?
Sir Ben Kingsley: I just gave an analogy to him that you don’t bring a collection of ties to my trailer to wear as my character, you bring one. I put it on and walk onto the set because again, it’s the costume designer’s job, and the director’s job, and the lighting designer’s job, to say “I think it should be that tie.” Fine, fine, I’ll put it on. That was the same with the tattoos because Gavin embarked on a long dissertation based on whether or not I might wear the tattoos. He was talking about a Maori expert and background information and would I like to know what the tattoos meant? I just said: “Gavin, I’ll put them on and I’ll go onto the set.” It’s a mask. It’s that simple.
Q. Did you find out what they meant?
Sir Ben Kingsley: Just at one sitting I watched a lovely documentary on the tradition of Tomko and the tattoos. I never deciphered mine. I always felt they allowed my fellow actors to look at me in a very interesting way. It was as if they were trying to search my face for what was going on. It transcended me trying to act that. They just brought it to the set. As soon as they walked onto the set and saw me, all the actors were looking at me in a very interesting way.
Q. I’d imagine you wouldn’t be wondering off for a cup of coffee with that face, or did you?
Sir Ben Kingsley: The first time after a make-up test was Gavin’s birthday, therefore the whole cast and crew were waiting to sing “happy birthday” to Gavin. I joined very freshly after the tattoos had been applied maybe the first or second time and that’s when I discovered how everybody… you know those Westerns where someone walks into a bar and everyone stops talking? It was amazing. I thought: “This is something I don’t have to exert. I don’t have to do this. It’s done.” It was very interesting.
Q. Is it nice for you to be able to work with someone like Asa Butterfield, who represents the next generation of home-grown talent?
Sir Ben Kingsley: Two of my sons – I have three sons – but two of them are actors, Edmund and Ferdinand, and both of are doing very well. They’re both in movies right now. I‘ve watched their work since they were five. I knew then, as with Asa, that they had great attitude and an aptitude for story-telling. They didn’t have any false ideas about the business because their mum was a director and they knew my career. So, they had no illusions. They knew it was very hard work and they applied themselves and it was with enormous relief that I saw them work both in the same play, when Ed was 13 and Ferdi was eight… Ed was Prince Hal and Ferdinand was Falstaff’s boy.
Q. Good material for ones so young…
Sir Ben Kingsley: Beautiful work! And it was lovely to see Asa remain completely Asa… undistorted, undiminished, in this crazy business. His mum is very special.
Q. Can we say that there is an Uncle Vanya on the back-burner for next year?
Sir Ben Kingsley: I find it impossible to think about returning to the stage, absolutely impossible. I produce films now, I love this business, so it’s extremely unlikely that I will ever appear on the stage. I can describe theatre as a landscape painter and I’ve put that brush down and I’ve picked up another brush as a portrait artist. It’s movies for me now.