Sir Ben Kingsley exists in that rare stratosphere of actors, that no matter what the role—whether it be a Jewish accountant in Schindler’s List, or a perennially blitzed psychiatrist in The Wackness—he commands respect. He has the ability to lend credibility to any movie he’s in, even if it’s called BloodRayne. Before Sir Ben bestows serious heebie jeebies on audiences this October as a nefarious doctor in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Kingsley lent his Oscar-winning clout to Fifty Dead Men Walking, a smallish IRA crime thriller set in the late 80s. In the film, written and directed by Kari Skogland and based on the autobiography of ex-IRA agent Martin McGartland, Sir Ben plays British handler Fergus to Jim Sturgess’ undercover informant. The film is a tense, razor-sharp thriller that depends more on emotion than it does action. I caught up with the legendary actor to discuss his latest role, the symphonic nature of film, and if he’s intimidated by being intimidating.
You are somewhat selective in the roles that you play. What is it that drew you to this script? Well, it usually has something to do with the work that I’ve done just before, because you don’t want to keep scraping away at the same set of nerves in the system. And there was something about this character that struck me as being really ordinary, in the best sense of the word. An ordinary chap, caught up in extraordinary circumstances. So, what drew me to him was his approach to the job. There was nothing heroic about him, whatsoever. And then there’s the arc of the film, which nudges him inevitably towards risking his life. I like a journey and that journey was from somebody acknowledging “gosh I’m ordinary” to “whoa, I’ve just done something extraordinary”.
Yeah, your character was incredibly powerful. I mean, it took until virtually the end of the movie until we knew if he was a good guy or a bad guy. Let’s talk a bit about your relationship with Jim. I thought it was more than anything a father/son type relationship. There is a powerful scene at the end, where the car is reversing and it’s as if you then realize you only have each other. By the way, that is a beautiful choice on the part of Kari Skogland the director. Because there’s nothing Jim and I could do, until she says, “Actually, you’re going to reverse out of the scene, and I’m going to keep the camera on the car reversing.” And then Jim and I go. “Oh, of course.” Cause we look at this script and we say “How the heck can we act that?” Because it’s almost unactable, that level of frustration of grief and loss. But then this wonderful director says, “You reverse. You reverse in the rain. With the wind shield wipers going on.”
And it was only then that you acknowledged and talked about your son as well. That’s right. But having, you know, what I like to do, is–because I’m a little bit musical.
What do you mean by that? I love music, and I was a musician for a little while when I was younger. I like symphonic structure, so a film could be like a symphony. But if you know while you’re performing the symphony what the closing notes are, you can adjust how you play all the other moves. You think, if I do it like this, those closing notes are going to sound even better. If I play this quick bit faster, the slow bit is going to sound even slower. So all the time I was aware that we were going to build up to a father and son relationship, so I tried to keep that sentimental side of him completely blocked.
You played the whole film with a straight face. Yes, until the cracks appeared and then the dam breaks.
Do you feel like the director thought about that in the same sense? As in, creating the plot by moving backwards from certain scenes? Did you vocalize that with each other? I do. And no, we had a very effortless way of communicating, quite brief. I always felt that she put the camera in the perfect place for what I and Jim were trying to do. Whenever you feel that the camera is in an odd place, you begin to question it because you’re like, “No the camera’s there, I’m not doing that, I’m doing that, so it should be there. Or it should be on my back, because I don’t want the audience to see my face.” But every time I was working with Kari, I felt that.
So, in terms of your character, did you have to put in a lot of research into the film’s story, or did you have a lot of trust in Kari and the script to guide you? A lot of trust in the script. And then once I had designed him and his interior, once I had designed and invented his back story, once I had decided that he was from the north of England, once I decided what part of north of England, what his parents did for a living etc, all of which took about five minutes.
Wow, really? Really. Because I’m from where he came from, because I know. But I never had that accent. He had quite a strong accent, but I do know those guys.
The IRA was a hot topic in the 90s. At this point in time, do you look at this movie as a historical film? I very much hope so. I don’t think that we’re going to go back to those days. It hasn’t really slipped back to anything at it’s worst. But still, in terms of the grayness of the area that it explores…
Which she documented so well. Yeah, because we perceive of the enemy as absolute evil, black and white. And it never is.
That’s right. And what I appreciated is that she did not depict any one side as extremely violent. That’s right. It’s the shady deals that are going on all the time, over glasses of whiskey in pubs. That’s what I find most terrifying, how you use people like pawns. You dump him and have him shot because you want to do a trade off with someone else, and that guy was working for him all time. Gosh, its so complex.
When you act in a role that’s been based on a novel, how do you typically deal with source material? Do you rely on the script to govern your character, or will you read the book? It depends. Because I was playing such a beautifully documented character in Gandhi, I really wanted to move and walk and look like him. So I read a lot and watched a lot of news coverage.
I think that worked in your favor. Yes. I have worn a yellow star in three holocaust films, and I still find the holocaust utterly incomprehensible, so I’m afraid I had to do it out of research. I had to watch the film footage, I had to read the books on the account, because I just found it utterly incomprehensible and unbelievable. I had to eventually realize, you know, you’re playing a tiny corner of a European catastrophe.
And what about Shutter Island, that was also based on the Dennis Lehane novel. Absolute intuition. Pure intuition. Although Marty was great about showing us films made—a documentary made in a mental institution at the time—and we all watched that. That was an enormous help.
This was your first time working with Scorcese. How would you describe it? Divine. Absolutely divine.
Everything you thought it would be and more? And more, yes. He is a champion of cinema. He is constantly fighting to redefine it, to refresh it, to keep it on track and yet keep it experimental and exciting. he is a true champion of world cinema, a gift.
I cannot wait to see that, the trailer is mouth watering. Yes, it’s in October I think.
You play very dynamic characters, it seems like your roles bounce back and forth between villain and hero. Well let’s go back to the symphony for a bit. I hear a piece of music, and it’s like the director saying, “You hear this piece of music?” And I say, “Yes, it’s fantastic, yes”, and he’ll say “I want you to be the drums in it.” Oh, great. And another one can be, “You hear this piece of music? I want you to be the violins in it.” Ok. Now the drums in it was me in Sexy Beast. That’s the percussion section. The violin section was me in Schindler’s List. As long as it’s perfectly integrated into the bigger picture, then it doesn’t matter whether I’m a villain, a goodie or a baddie, as long as I’m serving the story. Without that ingredient, you wouldn’t have the story. I always feel part of the bigger picture, not just one color. I’m aware of the orchestra around me.
You have two sons that are also actors? I do, I do. Edmond and Ferdinand. I have four children and my two youngest are actors.
So, Jim Sturgess said that he was slightly intimidated to work with you on this film. And you often work with young up and coming actors like Jim. Do you feel like being constantly exposed to your sons who are also actors allows you to relate to the younger, less experienced actors you work with. Yes, yes it does!
When people use the word intimidating to describe you, does that intimidate you? Yes actually, it probably lasts about thirty seconds, and then it’s gone.