50 Dead Men Walking’s Ben Kingsley on Getting Into Character

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Back when he was 38, Ben Kingsley might have understandably assumed that most of the rest of his acting career would take place on the stage — after all, he'd gone from success to success in the British theater, while being told in no uncertain terms that he didn’t have what it would take to be a movie star. Then director Richard Attenborough cast the British-born, half-Indian actor to play the title role in 1982’s Gandhi, and, as they say, things changed. Whether in lead roles or supporting ones, the Oscar-winning Kingsley has become one of the most recognizable faces in film today, having appeared in everything from highbrow fare like Schindler’s List and Oliver Twist to such down-and-dirty titles as Lucky Number Slevin and BloodRayne. Sir Ben (he was knighted in 2001) has also entered into a prolific career renaissance of sorts in recent years, with acclaimed, award-winning roles in House of Sand and Fog, Sexy Beast, and Elegy. This week he can be seen in the Irish political drama 50 Dead Men Walking, playing the main contact for an IRA snitch played by Jim Sturgess. Kingsley sat down at a midtown hotel this week to answer Vulture’s questions.

Although 50 Dead Men Walking is based on a true story, your character is a fictional amalgam of different figures. I’m told you like to do a lot of research — did that make it hard to research in any way?
Well, there are two different versions of this. The honest one is that I do research when I feel it’s appropriate. But I wouldn’t say that I like to do a lot of research as a rule. Much of the time, I rely very much on the script and my intuitive take on it. However, I am also sensitive to the environment once I’m there. So, instead of reading tons of material and watching hours of video, I can arrive in Belfast — and if I’m alert enough, I can say, "There it is. There it is." I see it around me.

Had you been to Belfast before?
I had actually been there in 1989, when our film takes place, for a film festival — a very barricaded, rather underattended, brave little film festival. I knew what it was like then, ’cause I saw it. And a lot of what it was like then geographically is the same, though the barricades are down, so its character has changed. A lot of the murals are still on the walls — no amount of research can give me that kick in the chest the way something like that can. That’s the real thing.

How much information did the script of 50 Dead Men Walking give you about your character?
It gave me a great deal of clues. In his dialogue, I could tell my character was somewhat bitter about MI5. I wondered why — and I decided it was because he tried to get into MI5 and they wouldn’t take him. That’s usually when people are bitter about a certain institution. Other little clues like that, but they were all in the script. Later on, we discover that his son had left him. His family was in pieces. And Jim Sturgess’s character’s family had left him. So on the one hand we had a son who had no dad, and on the other we had a dad who had no son. In other words, my character has an unfulfilled patriarchal impulse — which he suppresses, because you’re dealing with spies in Belfast. But what you resist, eventually you can become. If you damp down those emotions and feelings, they’ll find a way to burst through: By the end, he risks his life for the other guy.

The other thing is that you often keep us guessing about a character’s true nature. We so rarely can tell whether you’re a good guy or a bad guy. That’s very much the case here. It was also the case in Transsiberian, the thriller you did recently.
That’s something I certainly look for in the script. If there’s something enigmatic about a character, that appeals to me. And the exercise in not judging or sentimentalizing the character hugely appeals to me. In some parts I’ve had to do for very strong directors, I’ve not been allowed to sentimentalize, which has been very good for me. Because to sentimentalize is to judge, to sentimentalize is to say to the audience, "You’ve got to like me." I prefer to keep them guessing, and I like scripts that allow me to do that. Shutter Island is the same. You just don’t know about my character. Apparently the trailer makes me look very evil. You just don’t know.

Both Transsiberian and 50 Dead Men Walking also allow you to do accents, which you’ve proven yourself quite adept at over the years — but in Transsiberian you take that extra step and actually speak Russian. And you spoke Turkish in Pascali’s Island. That must add an extra layer of difficulty.
I had a very salutary lesson about that recently. I was at a screening of Transsiberian in Boston. This very drunken Russian lady, reeking of cigarettes and vodka, came up to me: “I really enjoyed the film, very convincing… until you started to speak that horr-rrible Russian, then I completely lost interest.” I said, “Oh, I’ve been told my Russian is quite—“ “It was terr-rrible.” Where do you go from there? [Laughs] I said to the director he should dub me, but he said all the Russians had told him my Russian was quite good. Well, this Russian apparently didn’t. I think my Turkish was okay in Pascali’s Island, though.

I’m not very keen on the parochial, unless it’s very, very well done. I do like that international flavor. For example, I think Sexy Beast would have been a boring film had it all taken place in London. But because we were in that amazing Spanish landscape, and there were Spaniards in that film as well, it gave it a global quality, a mythological quality that I really loved. Entering into other cultures — Polish accent, Iranian accent, Russian accent, Manchester accent, American accents of various kinds — I enjoy doing that. The only film I’ve done recently without any accent was Elegy.

Most viewers probably don’t even know what your real accent is like at this point.
I was so glad to be able to act in my own voice. Since then I’ve begged directors to let me act in my own voice. Prince of Persia is my own voice, and Shutter Island is my own voice. I asked Marty [Scorsese], “Could he please be a psychiatrist trained in England?” And he said, “Absolutely.” 'Cause I do find that acting in my own voice is one less layer of disguise, and I feel a little bit more vulnerable and exposed, and that’s a good thing. I can hide a bit too easily behind makeup and accents and that sort of thing, and I don’t want to do that.

Is it true you recently did a Bollywood film?
It was a mainstream Indian drama called Teen Patti, which can’t really be categorized as a Bollywood film, because it wasn’t singing and dancing. It starred India’s biggest star, Amitabh Bachchan. But I did all of my scenes with Mr. Bachchan in Cambridge, because he visits Cambridge University.

Although your father was Indian, you had a very British upbringing. But when you were cast as Gandhi, I imagine you became something of a popular figure in India. Was it hard to reconcile people’s expectations of you in India at the time?
What expectations they had were met when they saw me come out of my trailer. We had hundreds of thousands of extras — that’s not an exaggeration, hundreds of thousands. No CGI, real people. Beautiful. They were immensely supportive and generous when they were on set. And their main expectation was that they hoped I would do a good job. Some of the older villagers would come up to me and say, “It’s so nice to see him again.” And I thought to myself, “My goodness. You’ve got to pull this off, mate.” When we opened the film in Delhi, and Dickie Attenborough brought me onstage to take my bow, the whole audience stood up. That was an unforgettable embrace from that country, and it was also a huge relief.