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House of Sand and Fog - Sir Ben Kingsley Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. Sir Ben, did it have a big emotional impact on you, because I think you read it quite early on, apparently?
A.
Well Fontaine, who is married to Andre Dubus, sent me the novel, really quite some time before you [Vadim] got the finance for it. I don't think you'd even spoken to him before.
She said, in her letter, that her husband had used me... what did she say, he had you in his mind's eye while putting Behrani on the page. So I guess I was a kind of rough sketch, or a starting point, or scaffolding for a building, but the kind of thing that you throw away once you've achieved the actual process of putting Behrani on the page. It was a step that he took in creating Behrani, but not the step that would move towards me as Behrani, but actually away from me, as a starting point. I was just step one, two, three, and then hopefully he would dispense with it, as you do with scaffolding ofter you've finished the building.
It was only later, when Vadim read the novel on an airplane that, after dis-embarking from the plane, he had already made up his mind to approach somebody for the rights.
Vadim: Well, what happened was, I called my agent and I said, well, how do you do this? I had no idea, it was my first time. And they said, well we have to contact Dubus, and they did that and came back and they said, we've had many, many enquiries from producers and studios and directors, so you have no hope in hell'. And I said, well I don't know how this works, but is there any way I can get his phone number, and I called him. He lives just outside of Boston and we had a two-hour conversation, where I told him about my life, about how I was going to keep his baby safe, and pure, and to his credit, he gifted me with his trust. He didn't have to, and I certainly didn't warrant it, up to that point, as I didn't do anything to make him believe I was an established film-maker. It was just my passion for it.

Q. And how did the casting come about?
Vadim:
Well, during that conversation, Andre did mention Sir Ben and I said, of course, perfect, there couldn't be anyone better. And then, from then, he was the lynchpin of the casting process, basically. And from there, we just branched out.
I met with a lot of actresses, but I thought Jennifer was an incredible actress, but also has this wonderful vulnerability, and a sense of the broken bird quality that's mentioned in the movie. I wanted the brave actress that she was, because in all of films, she didn't feel the need to show for the audience, and I think that was important in her portrayal of Cathy. She's an actress that's not afraid for her character to be judged, sometimes harshly.
Sir Ben: Well, the book's profoundly unsentimental, and the book never judges.And your screenplay, from your culture, and from your history and from your own life, you outlaw sentimentality ruthlessly, which is great.

Because there was no sentimentality or pre-judgement in the screenplay, then the actors are released, of course, 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 has to do in that situation, and this is what this man 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.
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.
You care about Ron Eldard in this film. He's like a wounded knight, wondering around. He's lost his battlefield; and he doesn't know how to fight this battle. He locks them in a toilet, for Christ's sake, but he's trying to do the right thing, and he realises it's slipping through his fingers, and I think as a member of the audience, you don't think, 'you bastard'.
We care for Cathy when she has that drink, we try and stop her, but we don't judge her.
Vadim: Hopefully, we can judge their actions, but not their characters. That's the distinction, and a lot of people make the mistake of blurring the distinction, and they say, obviously he's a bad guy. But I think his actions are up for judgement, but the characters are just like us. I think none of us can say that we're all good, or we're all bad. We can see the difficulty of the situation.

Q. Behrani is forced to take on some menial jobs, I was wondering if there were any you had to take on while you were starting out?
A.
You know, there weren't. I was auditioned by a company called Theatre in Education. I auditioned for them when I was 20. They gave me the job. I started with them, and went from them to rep, from Rep to Chichester, from Chichester to the RSC, so I've never had to turn my hand to anything for monetary gain other than pretending to be somebody else.

Q. So you must count yourself very lucky?
A.
Deeply fortunate, deeply fortunate, yeah.

Q. Do you have a view on how the perceptions of the characters might be seen by different audiences?
A.
Not really. 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.

Q. We've heard from Vadim about his experiences of being an immigrant, but did you bring anything to the movie based around your experiences of growing up in Yorkshire, as your parents were immigrants?
A.
You know, it's very, very difficult to be objective about one's childhood and childhood experiences, because you have no perspective on it, whatsoever. That was my childhood, and I have nothing to compare it with whatsoever.
The only way I can lead any kind of a comparison life is to portray other men. And, in my own experience, in portraying other men, and earning my money by becoming somebody else, as I said to your colleague earlier. It has stamped me with what the actor is, which is tribally central and socially, totally peripheral.
I enjoy this status so much, feeling that I'm close to the heart of a tribe, whatever that means, as a storyteller and as an actor, but socially quite distant, because I don't fit into any particular comfortable slot. So there is always a part of me that is migrating, always, and I feel that it's very much a part of my attempt to portray all these different men. There is some migration always going on between from me, to the other, and from the other to me, and from me to my fellow actors, and from me to Vadim's sensibilities. There's also a migration in filming in Latvia, in Prague, in Mexico, and Los Angeles, and Pinewood. So, the sense of being displaced from my home and home language is a very real part of my working life. But I've never suffered for it, in the way that Behrani has; I've never felt bereft of anything, I've never lost my king, my kingdom, my landscape and my battlefield, and my son. I've never gone through anything remotely compared to that.
But it's my privilege to play, or to hold up that colossal crash from that bronze statue at the begining of the film, and see it fall into pieces at the end, and for the audience to examine that, the fall of that warrior standing on his balcony at the beginning of the film; that totally intrigues me, and I guess everything that made me what I am sitting here today, is part of that process of being intrigued and curious.
But as for any specific trigger from my childhood, I really couldn't put my finger on it.

Q. You talk about acting very passionately, but we haven't seen you on the stage for quite some time. Are there any plans to return?
A.
No, I haven't any plans right now. The problem is that when a project is greenlit and the boat is pulling out from the harbour, you're either on that boat, or you're not. If I was offered Uncle Vanya, I could perhaps say to the director who very kindly offered me Uncle Vanya, you know what, maybe 2007 I could do it. But once Vadim's wonderful boat has left the dock, if I'm standing saying, 'maybe I can...', still standing on the dock, it's completely impossible, so I have to stay so locked into schedules for the moment.
It sounds like a very dry, practical answer. But the short answer is that I'm completely in love with film as a medium, and I'm in love with the minimalism that it forces, the economy and the truth that the camera insists on, and very in love with the fact that the camera is revolted by acting, and loves behaviour.
I would think that if I was to go back on stage, I might be in grave danger of acting! [Laughs]. I avoid that at all costs. I love it when Vadim's camera, or a director's camera is just watching, hopefully, the behaviour of my character. But who knows, I may, but not in the foreseeable future.

Q. There are some very powerful themes running through the movie, but the catalyst proves something quite trivial. So can I ask you, do you open your mail?
A.
I had three weeks of mail, which I opened yesterday, including a set of voting papers, so thank God I was just on the right side of voting.
But no tax bills, nothing like that.

Q. But does it make you think of a certain morning in 2000, when a letter landed on your doormat?
A.
Yeah, I read it and I was shaking, and then I put it in a drawer in my office and got up at 4am and opened the drawer and looked at it again to make sure I wasn't dreaming.
But the opening of the mail... I'm fascinated by these relatively insignificant incidents in history. Prior to the battle of Waterloo, 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 - I'm judging him, I beg your pardon, the God's are judging him, not me - but they nudge them together, the two worst people in the world to have an argument, and they push them together.

Q. You seem to be an actor who always seeks challenging roles. But how does Behrani rate in the scheme of things for you? Is he one of your favourite roles?
A.
Gosh. Is there such a thing as talking candidly in a room like this? Gosh, you know, I'm trying very hard not to make any comparisons; not to hold up this experience against anything other, because with Attenborough, with Spielberg, with Jonathan Glasier, I've had extraordinary opportunities...
But I think that, in terms of fondness of a portrait that I've done of someone, I think Behrani is possibly the portrait I'm most fond of. 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. I'm surprised, actually, I was surprised when I first watched the film, at how detached I was, and how I was able to, from my detachment, move towards understanding him and almost admiring him.
I've droppped a huge clanger there, haven't I?

Q. How did working on Thunderbirds compare with working on something like this? Was it fun?
A.
That was a film for children. 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.

Q. The scene between yourself and your end is truly hearbreaking and powerful. Where do you get something like that?
A.
From Johnny. Jonathan Ahdout, who played my son, walked into our rehearsal room, and brought with him, his extraordinary heart and whole demeanour, and his extraordinary family, both of whom we know very well. We're very close to them, and when he walked into our rehearsal room, he comes from an extraordinary family and culture that allows young people to have, and gives them space to have, tremendous respect for their elders. And when Johnny walked into our rehearsal room, he was the final missing link, the ultimate catalyst, and a great sacrificial lamb, and the heart of our film. Throughout filming, it was very difficult not to be moved by everything he did on the set; his ideas, he'd made choices in front of the camera, he'd be astonishingly simple, he'd give a gesture with his eyebrow or his hands. By the time we came, chronologically - as I said earlier, Vadim gave us the perfect space to do our work - the timing of the terrible tragedy on the steps of the courthouse was very good indeed.
We were very closely bonded, and I knew while we were filming it that Johnny's mum and Jackie were watching the filming, and she was there all day. She and I were very close friends, and Johnny and people like that, they're just people who just fill you up. I can't put it any other way; they fill you up, and are extraordinary people.
When the special effects took effect, and the safety guy rigged him up, and wired him, and the first squibs went off in his chest, my body just went into total shock. There was no acting needed; that was everything Johnny and I had worked on, throughout the entire film, was coming to this critical point. How he would die in my arms. Had I loved him enough, in the film, to really justify this film being filmed? All these threads came together.
Vadim: We didn't want to discuss it, Sir Ben and I, how he would play this. There was absolutely no direction, no discussion.

 

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