Ben Kingsley Interview

The veteran actor re-teams with Roman Polanski for one of the year's most memorable performances in, Oliver Twist

Ben Kingsley looked like he walked out of the gym and straight to the interview. He was lean and taught, with a freshly shaved head and bold demeanor. He honestly reminded me of his character in "Sexy Beast". It was hard to imagine him as the hunchbacked, slinky Fagin in Oliver Twist. It gives you a deeper respect for his tremendous acting ability. Roman Polanski's adaptation of the Dickens classic is a superb film. It's an unexpected follow-up to "The Pianist", but leaves no doubt as to the talent of the filmmaker and his cast.

Why do you think it's important or necessary to tell this story again?

Ben Kingsley: I think by definition it's a classic. Therefore in it's authority as a classic; I think it has enormous resonance. I think it was written with great care, great compassion, great attention to detail. Dickens puts words together in a certain sequence and gives us indelible images of an endangered child in a world of adults.

Your interpretation of Fagin is very unique. Where did you find the character?

Ben Kingsley: All the character's in Dickens novel and Polanski's film have a kind of dreamlike quality. They're very boldly described. There's nothing faint or soft about how they're described. I think they're all aspects of Oliver. They're all parts of Oliver's journey. I had to find my way of being the perfect dark angel in the story of the child's journey. I got a great deal of my performance from the fact that my role, that particular ingredient, is that milestone in the child's life called Fagin. A lot of it came from Barney [Clark], from how innocent he was. How angelic his face was. I allowed Fagin's response to be entirely for Barney, for that Oliver.

Are there added pressures and responsibility to play a famous literary character, especially one that has been interpreted by other actors?

Ben Kingsley: I'm sure there are. Roman made me blissfully unaware of them. I was very focused on the children. I was very focused on the boys and the young ones in the cast. I broke a rule and very, very rarely came out of character on the set. None of the children saw me straighten up and stretch my back. God, my by back hurt at the end of the day; and my knees, and my feet, and my mouth. But I stayed in character the whole day and continued to explore that role. And Roman, and the work, that set, the ambience, the rhythm of work gave me very little time and space to speculate on other Fagin's. It was those gestures from Roman and that guidance that created my Oliver component, that bit of Oliver to understand the story. Honestly, it hardly ever, if at all, crossed my mind once we started working.

What recollection do you have of Alec Guinness or Ron Moody's performances as Fagin?

Ben Kingsley: I never saw Ron's, but I saw Alec's when I was very young. I remember the film being beautiful in black and white, and frightening. I remember Bill Sykes hanging in the film, but I didn't return to any of them when I was offered Fagin.

Can you talk little bit about how the make-up and costume affected you? Do you usually work from the outside?

Ben Kingsley: It evolved from me, very much from me. When I was filming "Schindler's List", I found some seepier photographs in a store in the Jewish quarter of late 19th century Jews in Krakow. Wonderful faces, really bizarre clothes, I was very fond of them. They were part of my performance in "Schindler's List" and I loved them. They were part of my Fagin too. I also had engravings and pictures of Shylock, by Edmund Keane, and how they interpreted that great icon as well. The costume came from an antique junk dealer that I had met as a child. He sold junk, foreign coins, old musical instruments, clothing. He was my Fagin as a child. I used to go and buy things from him. I was fascinated by him and he wore three overcoats tied together by a piece, like I do as Fagin. He was bent over and he had a voice like I do.

To what extent do you think Dickens social message holds true today?

Ben Kingsley: Unfortunately, the dilemma still exists, so it does hold true globally. Millions of children are disempowered and we need to empower them. I think it's still very true. I hope we have lots of premieres for this film, for Save the Children and other charities.

Does Fagin have a positive influence on Oliver?

Ben Kingsley: I think there's a positive contribution to the story. I'm just part of the narrative, part of the story. Fagin doesn't exist. He's part of the story. You cannot learn a lesson of profound forgiveness unless you understand what it is to be wounded and forgive that which has wounded you. Oliver learns the lesson of forgiveness the only way you can, by being deeply hurt, terrified, and at the same saying, "You, you're going to be dead. You're going to be hung, but you were kind to me. You take that to your death as my gift to you." It's an extraordinary gesture.

You worked with Roman ten years ago. Obviously this is a different film, but can you describe how he changed as a director? What did he bring that was different to this film?

Ben Kingsley: I've seen him over the years, been with him over the years. Just the occasional diner, occasional social meeting, more recently I was at Deauville with him. He was chairman of the jury at the film festival. It was wonderful. He loves his wife and he loves his kids. It gets deeper and deeper. When I first met him ten years ago, his children were very young. I think one was about to be born. He's a lucky dad and a very happy man. He deserves to be because his childhood…it's a miracle he's alive, the stuff he's been through, two holocausts in his life.

You have so many films coming out. What drives you to work so hard?

Ben Kingsley: Not what initially attracted me to being an actor, definitely not. I think the actor has a tribal role as the archetypal story teller. I think there was a time when the storyteller, the priest, the healer, were all one person in one body. That person used to weave stories at night around a small fire to keep the tribe from being terrified that sun had gone down. The storyteller has evolved into various forms, political leaders, doctors, lawyers, actors, writers, artists. It exploded and fragmented, but one of the lines probably closest to the original is probably the actor. We still, in order to earn a living, do nothing more complicated than pretend to be somebody else. I think that attracts me, keeps me going, that tribal membership.

Can you talk about "Mrs. Harris"? Your co-star, Annette Benning, is getting a lot of buzz from the film.

Ben Kingsley: That's at Toronto [Film Festival]. If it gets a cinema release, which would enable Annette [Benning] to get nominated, I'm sure she would get an Academy Award. It's extraordinary work. Her character is under the influence of a cocktail of drugs throughout the film. It's as if she's sleepwalking.

Do you miss the energy of live theatre?

Ben Kingsley: No, never have, because there can be so many people behind the camera while I'm performing. They give me tremendous energy. They put their working tools down, when they say quiet on the set, and very often the watch. It's a real act of perfection and collaboration when you know the whole crew is watching. And the boom operator is holding his microphone and the focus puller is following you. It's thrilling. It's an audience that's actively participating while you're doing.

Dont't forget to also check out: Oliver Twist