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House of Sand and Fog - None of us, as actors, have to do any auditioning for the audiences' affection



Feature by: Jack Foley

HE’S played some of the most prominent figures in history, such as Ghandi (in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning epic), Itzhak Stern, in Schindler’s List, and Meyer Lansky, in Bugsy, but it is the fictional character of Iranian Colonel Behrani, in his latest film, The House of Sand and Fog, which, for the moment, remains Sir Ben Kingsley’s personal favourite.

The role has already attracted widespread critical acclaim, and has earned the actor a fourth Oscar nomination, and it is clear that it commands a special place in his heart.

"Maybe it's because it's recent, maybe it's because it's fresh, or because the response has been so strong, but when I watch the film, it's a man I deeply care for on the screen," he told a recent press conference in London, ahead of the film’s release.

The role in question finds Sir Ben as a former colonel in the Iranian Air Force, now forced to work a series of menial jobs to maintain an illusion of affluence, who sees a small, coastal bungalow in North California as his last chance to bring back the prosperity his family once knew.

However, his purchase of the property brings him into conflict with Jennifer Connelly’s Kathy Nicolo, who inherited it from her father, and who kicks off a bitter, and increasingly desperate struggle to get it back.

What’s so striking about the film, however, is the way in which director, Vadim Perelman, refuses to manipulate his audience, for no matter how desperate things become, his characters - all of whom are flawed - are still worth rooting for.

And it was this aspect, particularly in light of the reaction to it, that has struck such a deep chord with Sir Ben, who had already been a fan of Andre Dubus III’s novel.

"The book's profoundly unsentimental, and the book never judges," he commented. "And Vadim, from his screenplay, his culture, and his history, and from his own life and experiences as an immigrant, outlaws sentimentality ruthlessly, which is great.

"Because there was no sentimentality or pre-judgement in the screenplay, then the actors are released from the burden of judging their characters as well. All we did was present their behaviour; their inevitable behaviour.

"In other words, this is what she [Connelly] has to do in that situation, and this is what this man [Behrani] has to do, because he is this man. All we needed to do was to find the inevitable. Why it is inevitable that Behrani would pursue that home for his family, why it has to be; and why it was inevitable for her to cling on to every single vestige of what she used to have and no longer has."

He continues: "Because it's in the screenplay, so beautifully structured, then none of us, as actors, have to do any auditioning for the audiences' affection, in any part of the film.

"We just spoke into the camera as purely and simply as we could, because Vadim always gave us the perfect working environment. He covered a million imponderables.

"The camera was always in exquisitely the right place. The point of view of the camera was how the audience will perceive us, because the camera is the eye of the audience, the filter, the funnel, the window, all those great words... and if the prism is in the wrong place, the light will scatter in the wrong direction. But if the camera is in the right place, the audience are invited to witness in a way that pleased every single character on the screen."

Perelman, himself, agrees with his star’s point of view, stating that, if he has succeeded, then audiences ‘can judge their actions, but not their characters’.

But Sir Ben maintains that he has, particularly given his experience of how the film has been received by the world’s media.

"What I would take away from junkets in America that we did, and thus far today, is that we definitely don't have the polarity of good and bad in this film. We're definitely exploring that very rich and extraordinary area in between.

"Once there is a good element introduced in the film, it never changes; and once the bad element is introduced, it never changes, so there's a status throughout the whole film and, therefore, the audience remains attentive. Whereas in other films, nothing really happens, because the good stays good and the bad stays bad and they bash it out between them, and they stay exactly the same.

"With this film, I found that people very much want to connect with us on a very deep level, that the press junkets are exhausting, because you're almost counselling people, because you certainly are addressing their concerns about loss, tragedy, family, home, on a very urgent and extraordinary level, and that's completely universal. It's across the sexes, and across the ages, and thus far, it's across all cultures as well.

"Vadim's film goes straight through the sternum and something happens to the heart, and that's the best response we could have hoped for, but I never imagined, personally, we would get."

What’s more, the trigger for the struggle which follows, is something relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things - in this case, Connelly’s refusal to open her mail, during a bout of depression triggered by the departure of her husband.

It is another intriguing facet to the story which Sir Ben was keen to explore.

"I’m always fascinated by these relatively insignificant incidents in history," he continued. "Prior to the battle of Waterloo, for instance, it rained, and the mud was so slippery, you couldn't get any traction in the mud, so Napolean couldn't get his guns up the hill.

"And also, because it was so muddy and so slippery, the artillery that did fire, instead of having that shrapnel effect of bouncing off hard ground, it just went [blows a raspberry], and stuck in the ground. It rained!

"History is made up of the most extraordinary little tiny things, that lead to God laughing at us.

"The Gods love nudging people together - oh, what would happen if you bring this nervy little alcoholic together with this extraordinarily pompous Iranian colonel? But they nudge them together, the two worst people in the world to have an argument, and they push them together."

The result, by everyone’s admission, is explosive, and makes for one of the most powerfully compelling movies of the year.

But while Sir Ben has certainly earned a reputation for selecting challenging roles - he won the Oscar for Ghandi, and secured nominations for Schindler’s List and Sexy Beast - his next project is altogether more lighter - given that he will be appearing as arch-villain, The Hood, in the upcoming Summer blockbuster, Thunderbirds.

"That was a film for children," he observes. "And it was directed by a man of great taste; a wonderful man to be with on the set. It was a joyful experience, and he never once trivialised what we were doing..

"You know, there's nothing worse than taking your children to a bad pantomime. When they're having more fun on stage than the kids are in the audience, it's insulting, it's demeaning, it's excluding, but I think this was a genuine piece of Sixties mythology, about heroism, and anti-heroism, which was made really with a big heart. And we all had a wonderful time doing it."

The House of Sand and Fog opens in cinemas on Friday, February 27, while Thunderbirds will follow on July 23 - with no strings attached.

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