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Actors Studio: 7 Questions with Oscar Winner Ben Kingsley

Sir Ben Kingsley studied science at Manchester Grammar School to follow in his physician father's footsteps, but at college he became involved in drama.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   17-09-2015
Oscar Winner: Sir Ben Kingsley

Hollywood legend Sir Ben Kingsley has famously played Gandhi, psychopathic gangster Don Logan, financier Itzhak Stern in "Schindler's List" and a gallery of other indelible characters. 

Kingsley blew his audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) so never went to drama school. He says he was fortunate to find his artistic language, education and "university" in the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The character actor was born in Yorkshire, the son of a Gujarati doctor Rahimtulla Bhanji and a mother who was an English model. Kingsley studied in Manchester Grammar School to prepare for medical school like his father and brother, but he became involved in dramatics when he studied at the University of Salford and at Pendleton College.

Academy award winner Spencer Tracy's advice to aspiring actors was delightfully straightforward: learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture. The problem — as many Indian actors have discovered over the years — is that there is a great deal more to it than that.

Kingsley may be trusted to open a Hollywood movie in his own right now but there was a time not so long ago when Indian actors kept their origins a secret. Kingsley is honest about what prompted him to change his name from Krishna Bhanji: “It was a way to my first audition. My dad who is Indian was completely behind it. My first name, Ben, is my dad's nickname. My second name, Kingsley, comes from my grandfather's nickname, which was King Clove. It's a bit late to change it back now.”

Sir Ben Kingsley, who is half Indian,
says memory and intuition have helped him play
a range of stirring characters.

Kingsley edged out actors like Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Richard Burton, to play Mahatma Gandhi. "Gandhi" went onto sweep eight Oscars. Kingsley was given a knighthood in 2002 by Britain and a Padma Shri by India in 1984.

Spanish director Isabel Coixetwho has directed Kingsley in "Elegy" and her new film "Learning to Drive" says; “In the film I did earlier with Ben he was a Columbia professor, an intellectual, and a womanizer. He can be British, American, Sikh he can be anything. You ask Ben to play a chair, and he could play a chair!”

In Coixet's new film, “Learning to Drive” Kingsley plays a big Indian character after 33 years. “Learning to Drive” is a coming of (middle) age comedy about a mismatched pair — a Sikh driving instructor and a liberal Manhattan intellectual — who help each other overcome life’s road blocks.

As the movie tracks the friendship between a Sikh immigrant working two jobs and a well-heeled Upper West Side book critic, it builds a bridge for hope and tolerance. Kingsley plays to perfection Darwan Singh Tur, a chivalrous, dignified, resilient Sikh driving instructor who also moonlights as a taxi driver. Wherever he goes, Darwan, conspicuous in his bright pink or blue turban, faces possible harassment. Sikhs have been targets of hate attacks in the U.S since September 11. To undiscerning eyes, the turban has got terribly mixed up with Osama bin Laden’s headgear.

Kingsley talked to Braingainmag.com after the New York premier of "Learning to Drive" about how he hoped his new film would combat 9/11 scarred America's Sikh phobia. He also talked about how he trained to be an actor and explained why memory and intuition are vital.

  1. You have one Gujarati parent and one British. Has it been an advantage or disadvantage having somewhat of an Indian face, but an English name like Ben Kingsley?

    I have got nothing to compare it with other than my own journey which is beautiful. I have been accepted by so many diverse communities. I have had the privilege of working in three Holocaust films, the Jewish community have embraced me. After the "House of Sand and Fog," the Iranian community embraced me, the Indian community embraced me and the London cab drivers like me after "Sexy Beast." It's been a great journey. I do believe that story telling is fundamentally healing and I am a story teller. I hope that by telling stories, a little bit of help and healing is going on.
     
  2. You studied science in the Manchester Grammar School to follow in your doctor father and brother's footsteps.

    I did physics, chemistry and biology at Manchester Grammar School. I don't regret that. It has given me a forensic fascination with taking a character apart.
     
  3. How did you train to be an actor?

    I never went to drama school, but Trevor Nunn (artistic director for the Royal Shakespeare Company) gave me a wonderful run of parts. That became my family, my education, my university, my language, my embrace, my tribe. In Shakespeare, we see archetypal patterns of human behaviour that are flawlessly rendered, which comfort us, provoke us, offer us explanations, and which I’ve been attempting to pass on in every role that I do since.
     
  4. Gandhi was made in 1982, but substantial Indian roles haven't come your way for nearly 33 years.

    Darwan Singh Tur is worth waiting for! Maybe I was very  lucky, I wasn't inundated by them at all. Straight after "Gandhi" I played two Harold Pinter screenplays —  "Betrayal" and "Turtle Diary." Immediately I was plunged into London, 20th Century modern England. Fate gave me an opportunity to say actually I am quite versatile if you give me a chance. It's wonderful to keep the arc from Gandhi to Darwan Singh almost uninterrupted. It's really beautiful.
     
  5. What made you gravitate to your character Darwan Singh?

    As a portrait artist, why would I want to paint a delicate portrait of Darwan? Why does any portrait artist, walking down the street, suddenly feel, ‘I need to paint her. I need to paint him’?  They would say, ‘I don’t know, I just need to paint him.’ I was told in the aftermath of 9/11, it was the Sikh taxi drivers who turned off their meters, saw people in distress and asked, ‘Where do you want to go? Whom are you looking for? I’ll get you there.’ When I heard that story, having begun to occupy Darwan, a voice in me said, ‘Of course.’

    It's important to understand Darwan's stillness and dignity in the context of a pretty well steady flow of abuse. I hope that the film may allow audiences to look at the next Sikh they see in the street, or in a supermarket slightly differently. There is something so noble, generous and compassionate about wonderful Darwan Singh.

    The specificity of him being a Sikh and that silhouette is extraordinary, it's instantly recognizable. It has been confused for all sorts of, you know, ridiculous and tragic reasons.
     
  6. What helped you to play a Sikh character so authentically?

    When I was filming "Gandhi" in India I had a wonderful Sikh bodyguard-driver. I spent months with this man, one-on-one in a car. On one of the toughest days of shooting, I had to lie in the funeral wagon because the artificial body, the dummy didn't work. The director asked me if I would come out so I was on the back of that wagon for nine hours, people watching me, chanting and singing. It was like being on an extraordinary drug, very weird experience.

    I remember I was lying on my back and at one point I asked the second AD how many people? He said 'Oh, 40,000.' And, I said 'I got to get up.' He put his arm around me and lifted me up as I was very stiff. As I stood up, there was a hush. I did pranam to the north, south, east and west. The crowds started to cheer. Women from Gandhi's ashram sang his favorite hymn and lifted me off the funeral wagon and carried me to my Ambassador. There my Sardarji, looked at me in the rear view mirror and said "Well Done, Sir!" I thought, there he is. There he is! When I started playing Darwan, my straight-backed Sikh driver came sharply back into focus.

    Learning to Drive Official Trailer #1 (2015) - Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson Romantic Comedy HD

    For me it's memory and intuition. My memory of the wonderful people I met in India and also the massive generosity of Harpreet Singh Toor and all the Sikh advisers who were on the set. If I open myself things just start to flow. You just learn so much by being alert and observant.

    I am fascinated by people. I love watching them. I do have a vast memory bank and I can access it. It's a very lucky gift that I have, being able to absorb things. I think it is because I bring a level of attention to life. If you bring a level of attention to life, there's so much information out there. If you are not alert to it, you miss an awful lot, particularly in the heightened environment of making a movie.

    I learnt so much in a compressed space of time about India during "Gandhi" and it's paying off years afterwards.
     
  7. You have played diverse roles, but do people always go back to "Gandhi"?

    I hope so. I am so deeply proud of that film and that performance. I hope I am always associated with that film. "Gandhi" was my first major feature film, my first leading role on screen, and I was surrounded by passionate people. I was surrounded by Indians who were passionate that this story should be told correctly and beautifully. It was humbling and an enormous responsibility.
     

Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost and a writer for Forbes India. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism at the University of Westminster, in London. 

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