From Marvel Villains to Gandhi, Sir Ben Kingsley Can Do It All

As Kingsley readies to premiere Marc Turtletaub's "Jules" at the Sonoma International Film Festival, he reflects on his career to IndieWire.
Ben kingsley in jules
Courtesy Sonoma International Film Festival

Sir Ben Kingsley, 79, has one foot planted in Beverly Hills, the other in Oxfordshire, England — nearly 200 miles southeast of his native Lancashire, where he was raised by his British model and actress mom and his father, a Kenyan-born family doctor of Indian descent.

“[Oxfordshire] is more Shakespeare country,” Kingsley said on the phone. “The Cotswold Hills, limestone hills that run through the center of the British Isles across the Channel into France. It looks like Normandy. Our house looks rather French, a petite château. It looks like it should be on a wine label.”

Wine is front and center, per usual, at this year’s Sonoma International Film Festival, where Kingsley is attending the world premiere of “Jules,” from director Marc Turtletaub and writer Gavin Steckler. In this sci-fi heart-tugger with a senior twist, Kingsley delicately portrays elderly Pennsylvania suburbanite Milton. He’s losing control of his memory, so no one believes him when a flying saucer lands in his backyard and he finds a trembling extraterrestrial (Jade Quon). Two other lonely neighborhood seniors (Harriet Sansom Harris of “Licorice Pizza” and Jane Curtin of “SNL”) come to share Milton’s secret and form a family around the friendly alien they call Jules.

Kingsley saw Shakespeare’s mythological archetypes in the script. “Really good material is quite rare,” the actor said. “When I find it, if the writing is good and the character beckons me earnestly to portray him, I am guided to write a condensed one-line version of the story.” The actor slipped the one-liner into his pocket on the set, “close to my heart. It’s a wonderful way of building a lodestar throughout the performance.”

For “Jules,” the line was: “Once upon a time, there was man guided into the afterlife by the hands of a child.”

“Jules” might be his 90th film (Kingsley isn’t sure), if you count all the TV movies he’s notched with the likes of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach from his early BBC days through the present. “I rarely look back,” Kingsley said. “I owe a debt of gratitude to those chaps at the Royal Shakespeare Company, especially director Peter Brook, with whom I worked on ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and toured America and London and Stratford-on-Avon. It was a groundbreaking, extraordinary experience to be in that room with that man for 10 weeks of rehearsal. He was galvanizing and focused and taught me what it means to be an actor.”

Richard Attenborough directing Ben Kingsley on the set of GANDHI, 1982
Richard Attenborough directing Ben Kingsley in “Gandhi”Courtesy Everett Collection

Kingsley’s years at the RSC taught him “how to bring extra language and gesture to life, to light a performance,” he said. “I couldn’t have played Gandhi without Shakespeare. My stamina, commitment, and the transmission of body language made that possible.” But as much as he credits the theater with training him for the title role in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 “Gandhi” — the first of four Oscar nominations and his only win — Kingsley has no plans to return to the theater.

“When I was introduced to cinema after years in classical theater, I learned the subtle and crucial difference,” he said. “If I were a craftsman painter and not an actor, theater is landscape painting and cinema is portrait artistry. I am now a portrait artist, not landscape, and I have no desire to go back. Things may change. But I am so inspired by cinema portraiture that I find it totally consuming and enthralling. My portrait artist is very separate from my canvas. I put everything onto the portrait. It is not me. It is framed by a cinema or TV screen. I put my brushes down at the end of the day and leave and return refreshed.”

After “Gandhi,” Kingsley did return briefly to the boards, earning raves in the 1983 one-man Broadway show about the early 19th-century tragedian “Edmund Kean.” He then starred in two lauded Harold Pinter films, “Betrayal” (1983) and “Turtle Diary” (1985).

OPERATION FINALE, Ben Kingsley, 2018. ph: Valeria Florini / © MGM /courtesy Everett Collection
“Operation Finale”©MGM/courtesy Everett / Everett Collection

Kingsley is proud of his projects that honor the Holocaust. Most notably, he portrayed Oskar Schindler’s influential accountant Itzhak Stern in Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture-winner “Schindler’s List” (1993). He also starred in Emmy-winning “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story” (1989, HBO) and “Anne Frank: The Whole Story” as Otto Frank (2001, ABC). On the other side of the coin, when asked to name the most evil character he ever played, the answer is instant: Nazi architect Adolph Eichmann in Chris Weitz’s “Operation Finale” (2018), in which he starred opposite Oscar Isaac.

Clearly, while Kingsley savored creating uber-violent Don Logan for Jonathan Glazer on “Sexy Beast” (2001), the actor saves his kindest words for the experience of being directed by Martin Scorsese on “Shutter Island” (2010) and “Hugo” (2011). “He directs like a lover, with all the sensitivity and intelligence and romance of an Italian,” he said, “not like a commander in chief, not like a bully, not like the boss, but with an attention to one’s aspirations. He’s so affectionate.”

Up next: In another demonstration of range, Kingsley returns to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as slippery character actor Trevor Slattery, who previously appeared in “Iron Man 3” (2013) and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2012). “I’m working on Trevor Slattery as we speak,” he said proudly. “I’m making a TV series for Marvel Comics!” Created by Destin Daniel Cretton and co-starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, “Wonder Man” arrives on Disney+ later this year.

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