Ben Kingsley On Portraying Holocaust History

Sir Ben Kingsley has played a range of Holocaust-related roles, including Simon Wiesenthal in Murderers Among Us, Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List, and Otto Frank in Anne Frank: The Whole Story. Kingsley joined NPR's Scott Simon for a discussion in front of an audience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

No actor may have played more important figures from the Holocaust than Sir Ben Kingsley. The former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company played Simon Wiesenthal, the survivor who searched for Nazi war criminals in the 1989 TV movie "Murderers Among Us." He played Itzhak Stern, the accountant who helps a scheming businessman concoct a ploy to save the lives of Jews in 1993's "Schindler's List." And he portrayed Otto Frank, the father who hides his family in a factory attic, in the 2001 film "Anne Frank: The Whole Story."

Sir Ben Kingsley, who was born Krishna Bhanji in North Yorkshire, England, won the 1982 Academy Award for playing Mahatma Gandhi in Sir Richard Attenborough's film. We interviewed Sir Ben at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., recently. Began by asking: Can playing people who are considered heroes in the history of the Holocaust ever be just another role?

Sir BEN KINGSLEY (Actor): I think that the role of the actor, perhaps at its simplest and its purest, is one of the tribal storyteller, and that if you were to transport me back maybe 3,000 years, I'd be sitting around the fire at night with the little tribe, reassuring them about their past, hoping that they will sleep through the night, and comforting them about their future, and try and build those bridges of empathy - particularly aspects of life that are baffling and frightening.

To wear a yellow star in a film is an enormous responsibility. You are honoring ghosts. And sometimes, you feel that you're guided by them.

SIMON: Let us please take a look now at a - I think - quite a famous scene. They're all famous in a way, but a particularly famous scene from "Schindler's List."

(Soundbite of movie, "Schindler's List")

Mr. LIAM NEESON (Actor): (As Oskar Schindler) How many?

Sir KINGSLEY: (As Itzhak Stern) 8,050, give or take.

Mr. NEESON: (As Oskar Schindler) Give or take what, Stern? Give or take what? Count them. How many?

Sir KINGSLEY: (As Itzhak Stern) What did Goeth say about this? You just told him how many people you needed and - you're not buying them. You're buying them? You're paying him?

Sir KINGSLEY: The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around the edges lies the gulf - is the line that you didn't hear from that clip. That's compressed dynamite. What a beautiful gift to me, to be privileged to say those lines.

SIMON: Some of "Schindler's List" was filmed, literally, in the shadow of Auschwitz, wasn't it?

Sir KINGSLEY: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: What was that like?

Sir KINGSLEY: I visited it twice. It's a brilliantly, horribly designed place. It's all straight lines. It's regimented. There's no escape for the eye. There're no curves, no soft beds, nothing. I am proud to say - and I'm completely baffled to say - I left feeling dead, feeling deeply resentful that I felt nothing, because it took everything out of me. There was nothing left to feel.

SIMON: I want to talk about your portrayal of Otto Frank now. Anne Frank and the Frank family, I think for hundreds of millions of people around the world, are at the heart of their understanding of the Holocaust. And your portrayal of Otto Frank is the portrayal of the - in a sense, the unlikeliest survivor of that family. Tell me how you approach - did you begin by reading the diary? Do you begin with the script before the diary?

Sir KINGSLEY: It started during "Schindler's List." And I had no idea that I'd be offered the beautiful opportunity to play Otto. I had a picture of Anne Frank in my coat pocket, and I would say to this picture of this beautiful girl before takes: I'm doing this for you. My simple, direct line from me to her. And I was thrilled beyond measure when Robert Dornhelm asked me to play Otto in the film, because I already loved her.

SIMON: I think we want to take a look at a scene from that film now, which is after the Frank family are rousted from the attic in Prinsengracht and, I believe, ordered to Westerbork.

(Soundbite of movie, "Anne Frank: The Whole Story")

Sir KINGSLEY: (As Otto Frank) If I may, I'd like to request that my daughters be assigned to kitchen duties.

Ms. HANNAH TAYLOR-GORDON (Actor): (As Anne Frank) I can do anything. I'm very handy.

Unidentified Man: No privileges for criminals of S barracks.

Mr. KINGSLEY: (as Otto Frank) May I ask what crime we're accused?

Unidentified Man: Failure to report when ordered. Next.

Mr. KINGSLEY: (as Otto Frank) It's not a crime, sir.

Unidentified Man: Next.

Mr. KINGSLEY: (as Otto Frank) It's not a crime, sir.

Unidentified Man: Next.

Mr. KINGSLEY: (as Otto Frank) It doesn't make us criminals, sir.

SIMON: Help us understand the emotions of a survivor, as you had to play Otto Frank.

Mr. KINGSLEY: Well, I tried to define Anne, and in order for me to get into the role of her father, I had to appreciate the energy, the love from Anne to her dad. So I would have this mental picture, and it was Anne waiting to be picked up from school in the quadrangle - playground, whatever, courtyard - with her mates, her friends. And her father comes to collect her from school. And Anne sees him and turns to her friends and says, see that man over there? That's my dad. And it was that's my dad, that realized that I was a hero to her.

And I think that what astonishes me about Otto, what allowed him to survive, is - again - one, simple phrase that maybe he kept in his pocket: Listen to my child, listen to my child. And I think that his work proliferating that voice was phenomenal.

SIMON: How has playing all these roles affected you as a human being, as an actor?

Mr. KINGSLEY: I think I'm getting closer to a madman at the bonfire, telling stories. I think it's just very important to embrace tragedy as a real part of our lives. David Mamet, in his book "Writings in Restaurants," defined - let me slightly paraphrase and say Western civilization. Western civilization is a civilization determined to outlaw tragedy. If removed, the interpretation of tragedy, and the presentation of tragedy, promise shaman, who's sitting by the bonfire - you're telling the tribe nothing of real life. And it doesn't prepare us as adults. It's infantilizes us, and it dodges an enormous responsibility.

And all great mythology that we love and respect has included loss and tragedy, as well as great moments of salvation. It braided in. After a performance I gave of Hamlet, I was walking across a field near Stratford-upon Avon, and I saw a young woman on the other side of the field walking towards me. So I decided to go that way. And she moved that way. So I moved that way, and she moved that way. She was determined.

And she faced me in the middle of this field and she said - 'cause I played Hamlet on stage the night before - she said, I saw "Hamlet" last night. How did you know about me? That's my job. I know you. I'm trying to know you. And through knowing each other and holding onto that tribal bonfire, we'll be OK.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIMON: Sir Ben Kingsley, being interviewed onstage about playing Simon Wiesenthal, Itzhak Stern and Otto Frank, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

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