Ben Kingsley discusses taking on The Mandarin in Iron Man 3, in theaters May 3
There are many things that makes this weekend's fascinating superhero sequel Iron Man 3 (CLICK HERE to read my full review) so great. Of course, there are obvious reasons such as Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), and Paul Bettany (the voice of Jarvis) all reprising their roles from Iron Man and Iron Man 2. Then there is writer-director Shane Black's masterful work behind the camera, including one of the more inventive action sequences I have ever seen. Then there is the villain, the big baddie known as The Mandarin, played to perfection by Ben Kingsley, whose performance is just the latest in a resume chocked full of classics such as Gandhi, Schindler's List, Hugo, and dozens more in between. I recently had the honor to sit down with this legendary thespian to chat about The Mandarin, how he crafted the villain's unique voice, working with director Shane Black, and much more. Here's what he had to say.
I really enjoyed what you did with The Mandarin's voice. It had such a unique quality to it. Was there anything in particular that influenced you when creating this distinct voice?
Ben Kingsley: I got a great deal from the script. I've taught myself to, when reading the script, not only to read my particular bits, but also to read what other people say about my character. There is a moment in the screenplay, and it's on the screen too, where Robert's character Tony says to Don's character, 'He sounds like a preacher.' That was definitely one segment of the voice. It has to have that authority, it has to be patriarchal, you have to use the rhythms and repetitive patterns of speech that preachers use, and they do. It's a great device. Then, parts of my own dialogue involve me saying, 'Some people think of me as a terrorist. I consider myself a teacher.' That gave me a sense of the pedagogue, the teacher, the preacher, and, 'I consider myself a teacher' is such a self-confident line, that it brings a sense of righteousness, a sense of destiny, of knowing what's best for you. I'm breaking it down into bits, but I think very quickly when I'm preparing a voice. I'm deconstructing it a bit. There's a Presidential tone, so it's oddly benign, priestly, if that's not too dangerous a word to use, paternalistic, and pedagogic, as a teacher. In cooking these ingredients together, I went back to the script and saw the rhythm of speech, the repetition, the vowel sounds that I can stay inside for just a little too long, they're all there on the page. I didn't have to do anything. I was wandering around my hotel room, quietly, with my script, and this weird voice came out. I thought, 'Oh, that's interesting.' Then, the next day, I was with Shane Black, who was going to Comic-Con, but I couldn't go. He said, 'We're going to get you some clips, and we're going to put something together for Comic-Con, but we do need some voice from The Mandarin. We sat down in this trailer with his recording apparatus, and out it came, this voice. He said, 'That's it! There he is! That's him!' The wonderful thing about Shane, is when you offer him something, he accepts it and puts it in the film in the right way. Shane has a very confident quality of having put the cast of the film together, Don and Gwyneth (Paltrow) and Rebecca (Hall) and Guy (Pearce), an amazing group of people. He then actually steps back and watches the chemistry evolve. He's very good at casting, at putting people together. The chemistry between Gwyneth and Robert is legendary. It's beautiful. It's effortless. He gave me this extraordinary role of The Mandarin and then he just watched the monitor and watched me, came down and did that, then sat down again. He trusts. He just lets go, and, because he lets go, the actors know they're not going to be interrupted in mid-flight. That's dangerous. It's like waking up a sleepwalker. You can see an actor cooking, and if you interrupt them, you'll never get it back. I don't know what it is, but something is inhibited, for the rest of the film, if you interrupt in the wrong way, if you arrest the development, stop a movement. He never does. All the twists and turns these characters take, we were able to take risks and jump a lot further than we would have been able to do with a director who was less generous and less intelligent and less trusting of his actors.
I really enjoyed his overall look, the robes and the rings. There's a subdued sense of style there too.
Ben Kingsley: A great sense of style.
It's not like your typical terrorist in fatigues. You could see there was this style there, and it added something very unique to his look.
Ben Kingsley: Yeah, The Mandarin is very accurate in attacking icons and turning them on their heads, and also pieces of history that he will suddenly hold up in a very threatening and disconcerting way, and making bizarre connections. The way that (costume designer) Louise (Frogley) put the costume together was, yes, with army boots, yes, with fatigues, then with a very clever, cunning, political t-shirt with some witty statement on it, then the Chinese warrior gown, then the armor-plated chest sometimes, then the samurai ponytail. Now where are we? Then there's the tattoo on the neck? Now where are we? There's a bit of biker in there. Now where are we? I think what Louise achieved, which I completely accepted, is justifying the line, 'You will never see me coming.' It's a very hard target to hit, The Mandarin. You don't know where he's coming from, culturally. You don't know. You can't say, 'Ah, you're that! You're just a crazy foreign guy!'
Is there anything that you're lining up that you can talk about?
Ben Kingsley: I'm lining up a film called Our Robot Overlords, which I'll start shooting very soon in the United Kingdom. Then, after that, I'm doing an Edgar Allan Poe film (Eliza Graves), I think, and then I'm producing at the moment, so I'm talking to writers and directors for stuff on my own slate. Nice and varied.
You have to mix it up.
Ben Kingsley: You do. You can't just be an actor. There's so much to do. There's animated features, there's video games, there's voiceovers, there's massive things to do.
Excellent. That's my time. Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure.
Ben Kingsley: Thank you, thank you.
It's almost too bad there is so much stuff we can't talk about, because of spoilers.
Ben Kingsley: I know! It's for a good cause.