Sir Ben Kingsley On His Career And His Craft Since Sir Ben Kingsley's Oscar-winning portrayal of Gandhi, he has been considered one of the movie industry's most acclaimed performers. Kingsley talks about his career, the challenges of character acting, and his latest role in the upcoming film, Fifty Dead Men Walking.

Sir Ben Kingsley On His Career And His Craft

Sir Ben Kingsley On His Career And His Craft

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Since Sir Ben Kingsley's Oscar-winning portrayal of Gandhi, he has been considered one of the movie industry's most acclaimed performers. Kingsley talks about his career, the challenges of character acting, and his latest role in the upcoming film, Fifty Dead Men Walking.


And now, Sir Ben Kingsley. He is most famous, of course, for his Oscar-winning performance as India's iconic leader, Mahatma Gandhi. But he's also been praised for his depiction of a violent sociopath in "Sexy Beast." In his latest movie, "Fifty Dead Men Walking," the versatile actor plays a British intelligence agent fighting against the Irish Republican Army in Belfast in the '80s.

(Soundbite of movie, "50 Dead Men Walking")

Mr. BEN KINGSLEY (Actor): (As Fergus) It's a dirty war. And everyone seems to think the end justifies the means, which is why you and your mate are even walking around.

Mr. JIM STURGESS (Actor): (As Martin) How do you know I can do it?

Mr. KINGSLEY: (As Fergus) You've got no choice. Neither have I.

WERTHEIMER: Ben Kingsley plays Fergus, who is a - that's a nom de guerre, I guess, in the - in the Irish Troubles. And Fergus convinces a young Irish hustler to infiltrate the IRA and report back. But it's far more dangerous, and horrifying, and conflicted than the young man understands until he was in the middle of it.

In a moment, we'll speak with Sir Ben Kingsley about his latest role in his career. And if you want to talk with Ben Kingsley about what he does and how he does it, we want to hear from you.

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is

And can I just say that it is a given that many of us are fans. We're asking that you call not to praise Sir Ben, but to query him - more about his career, his film choices perhaps. He knows already that you love him.

Joining us now from our New York bureau, Sir Ben Kingsley. His new movie, "Fifty Dead Men Walking," opens this Friday, August 21st. Welcome to our program.

Sir BEN KINGSLEY (Actor, "50 Dead Men Walking"): Oh, Linda. I can go, I think, now, after that splendid introduction.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Don't you dare.

Sir KINGSLEY: You know, the clip that you were listening to, I was delightful to hear it on your wonderful headsets here. That's a Northern accent. That's an accent that comes from the north of England round about the Manchester area in Lancashire. And I specifically chose that accent because it is the accent of the ordinary cop, you know what I mean? I didn't want to glamorize. I didn't want to overfictionalize(ph). Kari Skogland wouldn't allow it. History does not allow it. The Irish people don't deserve it.

So what we try to do was to bring an ordinariness, two ordinary guys caught up in, as you very eloquently described, a situation that becomes extraordinary, unbelievably dangerous, threatening, and it all takes place in this gray area, which most of our conflicts, as I know, you know, Linda, take place in - the gray area.

WERTHEIMER: The agent you play in "Fifty Dead Men Walking," is obviously trying to get information on what the IRA are doing. But he becomes enormously fond of the young Irishman, this conman that he puts into the soup here, played by Jim Sturgess. How did you see the character, your character, as…

Sir KINGSLEY: I saw Fergus as somewhat ordinary. As somewhat…

WERTHEIMER: I did notice that he had a very ordinary toupee.

Sir KINGSLEY: Well, actually…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sir KINGSLEY: I hope you're not going to imply to the audience that my character wore a toupee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sir KINGSLEY: That is his hair.

WERTHEIMER: I see. Well then he had a very ordinary haircut.

Sir KINGSLEY: Yeah. Okay. Fair enough.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sir KINGSLEY: But - I mean, he is the kind of man that lacks all that kind of vanity, therefore, he would not wear a toupee. That's his hair. And his ordinariness is, in some ways - I think he would like to have joined the MI5, but MI5 is only open - or was only open, at that time, to a certain class of Englishman with a certain educational background. And therefore, I think, Fergus seems somewhat put out, dismayed, disappointed that he's not mainstream MI5. I do not think he enjoys being in Ireland at all.

It's not as if it's a great burning quest of his to solve the Irish problem. He's doing a job and surviving in that job day by day, and everyday is different. It's absolutely exhausting job that he's in.

WERTHEIMER: At one point, one of the characters who is an Irish member of - an Irish member of IRA says to this young Sturgess character: You're not a man if you don't have a cause. Is that one of the things that attracted you to this movie, the notion of cause and something greater than yourself and that sort of thing where ordinary people do extraordinary things?

Sir KINGSLEY: Well, I think that - I don't believe that Fergus has a cause. I believe he's doing a nine to five job that becomes a 24/7 job. He's in a horrendously difficult situation. He's special branch. He is in charge of undercover ops in Belfast, which was a war-torn city at the time. I - it's an extremely exciting, gripping political thriller. Its context is one that explores the simple inevitable consequences of partition.

A little earlier, you were talking about Palestine and Israel. We look at partition in Ireland. We look at partition in former Yugoslavia. We look at the partition all over Europe. We look at partition everywhere - India, Pakistan, Bangladesh - horrendous consequences. And I think that, you know, this story is a victim of tribalism and partition. However, I must stress, it is a great political thriller. It has you on the edge of your seat and if…

WERTHEIMER: It has many completely terrifying moments.

Sir KINGSLEY: Yeah, it does. And if the IRA guy says: You're not a man unless you have a cause, I say that's absolute BS. It's dangerous rhetoric and it's divisive and it's tribal, and I hope one day, we all evolve beyond it.

WERTHEIRMER: Let me suggest that we're sort of moved of this particular movie. And let me ask you - because I'd like to hear you talk about how you do what you do when you've played so many extraordinary characters.

We have an email from Austin(ph) in Denver who says that, you are a shining light to a young actor like me. He wants to know if you have any sort of training or - sort of process, which you bring to a role, Stanislavsky, Alexander. I mean, do you - or do you just go straight to the script?

Sir KINGSLEY: I go straight to the script. I didn't go to drama school. My first experience as an actor, one of my early experiences, was with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and that was blessed. I was extremely fortunate that it was my third job in my very, very early 20s. And it was there that I learnt like a forensic scientist, to explore character through beautiful writing and surrounded by immaculately gifted actors and very skilled directors.

I rarely landed on my feet, Linda, early in my career unless you are able to take these first steps whereby you are almost - how can I put it - ennobled by the fact that you're a storyteller and an actor, and not socially peripheries and denigrated as many celebrities are these days. And it's a ludicrous word by the way, celebrity. Ludicrous.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Sir KINGSLEY: Because celebrity means celebrated, doesn't it? And celebrities are mocked and lampooned and derided. So my advice is, be attracted to good writing. Work on anything you can find of David Mamet, anything you could find of great writing, because if you haven't got great writing, really good writing, you do not stand a chance of electrifying your audience.

I don't necessarily mean by the words you say, in great writing, I mean, the predicament that the actor finds themselves - finds him or herself in those amazing forces of nature that mold a performance or mold a character as we see in this film.


Sir KINGSLEY: The writing is extraordinary by Kari Skogland, absolutely extraordinary.

WERTHEIRMER: We have - who also directed it…

Sir KINGSLEY: Who also directed…

WERTHEIRMER: …and was one of the producers of it.

Sir KINGSLEY: That's right.

WERTHEIRMER: Let me go to a caller in La Grande, Oregon, Mike, who's asking a question that I'm also interested in. Let's hear - here he is.

MIKE (Caller): Hello.


MIKE: Since, apparently, we're not allowed to be effusive into our praise of Sir Ben, let me just…

WERTHEIRMER: Absolutely not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MIKE: …let me name a few movies. I printed out a list from Netflix of all Ben Kingsley's movies, and some that I've seen, just let me name a couple here really quick, "Betrayal," "Sexy Beast," "Schindler's List," "Elegy," "Death and the Maiden," "Suspect Zero."

A lot of actors these days, especially the very well-known ones, they bring their own personality, their own ticks, their own quirks, their own movement, and it's always that person doing that role - I'm not going to name any names because it's not part of this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIRMER: But I take it, it's not true of Mr. Kingsley?

MIKE: What I admire most and why he is really my favorite actor, and Jeff Daniels, who was on the other day, is very similar in this way. They seem to submerge themselves. They're not that person who they are, they are the character.


MIKE: Now, I wonder if Sir Ben wouldn't mind just saying what is it in his craft that enables him to just completely disappear and be just as absolute killer in "Sexy Beast" or the character he was in "Betrayal." I'd really like to hear that because it's wonderful.

Sir KINGSLEY: What a beautiful question. It is - and it's an elemental question and it's an essential question. When I'm working with young actors, everybody has a different method. But my particular method, especially, in film, and I love - I love filming very much. And I love the exquisite moments that occur between action and cut where one is almost transported. It's almost a transcendental experience. It's thrilling. And what I try to do before I hear the director say action is go to what I call, personally, absolute zero. In other words, I do not psych myself up, I psych myself down. I do not - I do not pump up my adrenaline, my ego, my passion to win the scene - whatever that means. I try to be as open, as empty as possible, so that whatever is there at that moment, which is all we have to work on. We make things out of nothing, as I can hear the wonderful listener asking this question knows, we make stuff out of nothing. It's a miracle - filmmaking.


Sir KINGSLEY: And I start from zero. However you interpret that, you know, the guys listening, the young actors listening, however you interpret that, your own zero is different from mine. But I try to go into a completely zero, empty state and let all the intuition, all the training, all the lucky breaks, the knowledge of the dialogue, the knowledge and love of the character fill that empty space and keep myself serving the character, not allow the character to serve my ego. I'm not interested in that.

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Sir Ben, here's - I wonder if you remember the first time that happened, when you just realized that you had lost yourself?

Sir KINGSLEY: I see it more, Linda, when I watch my own work on film. There are times. And I had a lovely conversation with Daniel Day-Lewis about this recently at an airport, and he watches his work too. And there are times when he looks at the screen and says, I do not remember creating that moment. I don't remember that. That isn't me. I became someone else between action and cut. I don't remember that.

So, although there is great feeling, Linda, a hint that you might have let go, you can only tell, I'm afraid, in retrospect, which is possible on film, that's the miracle of film. So there are moments in film where - maybe in a really good movie, I've let go for about 15 to 20 seconds.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's go out to Portland, Oregon. And we have another question that is sort of along the same lines from Jim.

JIM (Caller): Hi, this is Jim.


JIM: Hi. I was curious about the character that you played in "Sexy Beast," Mr. Kingsley. That very vile man - is he based on any one person, like a historical person, or was he just a fictional…


WERTHEIMER: A relative?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sir KINGSLEY: Yes, a relative.

JIM: Okay. Thank you very much.

Sir KINGSLEY: A relative. I'm sorry to say, a relative.

JIM: Oh.

WERTHEIMER: I have - I totally made that up. Was that right?

Sir KINGSLEY: Yes. I regret to say that that comes from my own family knowledge of somebody extremely violent within my family.


Sir KINGSLEY: Not physically violent, but verbally violent and extremely unpleasant to be around.

WERTHEIMER: And so you knew about - knowing about him, you were able to come to that. I was interested in the way that…

Sir KINGSLEY: It wasn't him, he was a woman.

WERTHEIMER: Her. Whoa. Even more interesting.

Sir KINGSLEY: Mm-hmm.

WERTHEIMER: You cannot - you have not been typecast in your movies, you won the Oscar for "Gandhi," but you've also done all sorts of other movies. And I've wondered if perhaps the fact that you sort of are an ethnically ambiguous kind of person that people kind of don't identify you as one thing or another thing. Does that help?

Sir KINGSLEY: Or identify me as everything.


Sir KINGSLEY: I, you know, I dislike tribalism, yet at the same time, I have sufficient ego left to enjoy the fact that there are certain tribes that claim me and embrace me. And that's absolutely wonderful. Maybe to be a storyteller to all people is perhaps a return to an ancient form of - the position of the storyteller within the tribe, Linda, you know that hopefully, the old stories come through you in a different way.

I love mythology. I love all kinds of mythology and the pure ancient stories. And I heard, Linda, once, somebody say, there's no such thing as a new story. And it's probably true. They're all reassemblies of the old stories, the old ancient stories that touch our hearts because they're elemental. They, you know, they deal an elemental stuff - in real stuff.

WERTHEIMER: Tell us what's your - what is next for you.

Sir KINGSLEY: I'm producing my own stuff. And hopefully, we'll get four films off the ground very soon, and I'm appearing in all of them. I have a Martin Scorsese film opening in about a month's time, and then I have "Prince of Persia" opening in the spring. So I've got some wonderful openings to look forward to and my own work to look forward to as well working with writers and directors in cooking, you know, bringing great ingredients together to make a film. Extremely difficult but very exciting.

WERTHEIMER: And my sense is that you don't necessarily - I mean, you're experimenting. You're doing things that are a little, maybe - look a little strange for an actor of your stature.

Sir KINGSLEY: I'm very plastic. I enjoy being plastic. I think one of your lovely questioners alluded to that. But I don't necessarily want to - it is no interest to me to be the same, the same, the same, the same. I love pushing the elastic of me around a bit in order to tell a story. I love telling stories. I was born to be a storyteller on the face of this earth. It turns out that I'm an actor, not a writer or any kind of intellectual. I'm an actor, but I love being part of the great storytelling tradition of us human beings.

WERTHEIMER: And lucky us that you did.

Sir KINGSLEY: You are very kind.

WERTHEIMER: Sir Ben Kingsley joined us from our New York bureau. He plays a British intelligence agent in the movie "Fifty Dead Men Walking," which opens Friday.

Sir Ben, thank you so much.

Sir KINGSLEY: Very kind. Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Tomorrow, the Political Junkie.


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