If you're like me, then you have two thumbs, a beard that needs to be trimmed, and will see anything that Ben Kingsley is in, or at least you'll try to. A constant workaholic, this Oscar-winning actor has, I kid you not, 14 different films that are either awaiting release or in various stages of production and/or development. This is after appearing in six films last year, including big-budget affairs like Iron Man 3 and Ender's Game, along with indie titles such as Walking with the Enemy.
The iconic actor lends his voice to the villainous Archibald Snatcher in Laika and Focus Features' The Boxtrolls, but unlike many animated movies that depend on the recognition factor of celebrity voices, Ben Kingsley creates a much different voice in bringing this nefarious character to life. Based on the Alan Snow novel Here Be Monsters, The Boxtrolls is set in the peaceful town of Cheesebridge, where residents fear the title creatures, who are thought to be deadly and vile, even though that is far from the truth. Snatcher convinces Cheesebridge mayor Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) to put an end to this Boxtroll infestation, in hopes that completing this task will allow him entry into their elite group. At the same time, Portley-Rind's daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning) discovers there is a young boy (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) living as one among them.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Sir Ben Kingsley on the phone (after some technical complications were resolved, i.e. my phone wasn't cooperating, for some reason), where he spoke about creating a unique voice for Snatcher, the unorthodox method in which he recorded his lines in the studio, and much more. Take a look at our conversation below.
Ben Kingsley: Good morning, Brian.
Good morning, Ben. How are you today?
Ben Kingsley: Very well, thank you. How are you? We finally tracked you down. What are you up to? Why are you evading us?
(Laughs) I'm not evading you, sir.
Ben Kingsley: We had all sorts of amazing scenarios in the hotel room, as to what you might be up to (Laughs). Far more interesting than what we're up to, I'm sure.
Just bad cell phone service, apparently. Anyway, I got to see this the other day, and I really loved it, so congratulations.
Ben Kingsley: Good, great. Great news.
One of the elements that I didn't fully grasp until the end was that all of the voices were really unrecognizable. There are a lot of animated movies that are playing to the casting.
Ben Kingsley: Right.
When they first described this character to you, what was the first thing you knew had to come across in his voice?
Ben Kingsley: I think the social climbing, the social pretentiousness, and also the social insecurity. The preening, the narcissism, the vanity and the ambition, really, were the things that made me, and also the writers and animators, think of Charles Dickens, the way he described people from their vulnerabilities along with their eccentricities. Trying to find that balance between that wound inside him that makes him so desperate to be acknowledged, and then the exterior, which is so bizarre and flamboyant and vain. It was a wonderful character to inhabit, so many layers. He's a mess (Laughs). But, he's determined to turn that mess into something powerful and necessary to his civic community. So, he lies. He invents an enemy and says he'll overcome the enemy and save you all, and then I'll be invited into the royal chamber and wear the crown, which, in this case, is a white hat, and drink the fine wine and eat the fine food, which, in this case, is cheese. These are all symbols for his ambition. He's a really a really great character and, you're right, because it's so character-driven, and so specific in the proper narrative sense, all of us actors were allowed to use an altered voice, even the young actors. Elle (Fanning), I must say, uses a beautiful British voice. It's really damn good. And the boy (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), his voice is quite different too. He's done something to his vowel sounds and he's colloquialized it. Every one of us has altered our voice, you're quite right, to fit those gorgeous silhouettes on the screen, and the animators created their silhouettes to suit our voices. They've given us our body language, which, for me, is very unusual. I'm usually in charge of both departments, my voice and my body. This time I had to delegate my body to a whole team of people, which is amazing, and they have done a great job.
One thing I really loved about Snatcher is he ignores how this elite stature can, basically, kill him.
Ben Kingsley: Exactly. He ignores the fact that power, once acquired, will corrupt him and kill him. Absolutely, yeah.
It was such a unique way to go about it. Was there anything in particular you had to tap into to portray that? He doesn't even acknowledge the fact that he's becoming this mess.
Ben Kingsley: I think, you know, there are very simple banner headlines that the actor can tap into, if the role is well-written. He's such a study in denial that one can include that into the portrait. I don't tap into anything, but I portray it, I put it out there, and it becomes part of the portrait of Archibald Snatcher that I collectively create with the animators. It's a fabulous exercise.
I actually got to visit Laika Studios a few years ago, before ParaNorman came out. That whole studio just blew me away, in the way that they actually construct these sets. Did you ever do any recording sessions at Laika, or did you get to spend any time at the facility?
Ben Kingsley: I have been invited, but I did most of my recording in the U.K. The animators were thousands of miles away. We worked in very separate compartments. I didn't even record my scenes with my three stooges. It looks as though, and I'm sure you agree, Brian, that we worked together with four microphones and we rehearsed together.
Ben Kingsley: I never saw them. I still haven't met them. It's extraordinary, isn't it? The animators and editors made a team out of us. It's a great achievement.
I read that you did record some scenes with Isaac Hempstead-Wright though.
Ben Kingsley: I only had about half a day with Isaac. I had very little time with him. It was good to meet him, and it was useful for us, I think, and useful for the animators, to see something, but it wasn't part of the classic exercise of me, a microphone and the recording studio, as was the case with most of us. But, of course, he's a great guy, and it was nice to work with him, but the dynamic, honestly, is between me and the microphone and Isaac and the microphone. It was good to work with him, yeah. I'm not going to lie and say it was essential, because it wasn't. We work alone. It was a bonus, let's put it that way.
When you go in, do they have sketches drawn up or maquettes of what Archibald will look like?
Ben Kingsley: I did see a sketch, and I could see immediately that the caricature of Archibald has a physical shape that is very, very different from my own. Therefore, my voice had to come from a different part of my body. I needed my voice to come from a belly that I do not have, so I decided to, very quickly, when I went into the studio I said, 'Look guys, this is going to work if you build be an airplane seat.' A reclining seat. Let me lie right back, so I'm completely relaxed. Almost like a sleepwalker, which sometimes he does, then bring the microphone down so it's right in front of my face. It released a very relaxed, deep voice, that I could start to really play with in an uninhibited and very experimental way. I used absolutely no body language in front of the microphone. It's a wasted exercise, and, I thought, if I resorted to body language, that means I'm not doing it with my voice. It means I'm compensating. Everything came through the voice, having gotten the horizontal recording position.
Ben Kingsley: They're two extraordinary directors, with whom I was absolutely delighted to work. Robert (Zemeckis) is a maestro, and decided to do something different. It's very exciting when you're with a director who decided to make a leap in another direction. He was hugely enthusiastic and a great presence on set. It's a beautiful story about pushing the human limits and, in a sense, Ridley Scott's film is also about pushing human limits, the endurance of an under-nourished, under-acknowledged, disenfranchised, tribe of Jews, leaving Egypt. Just that one episode of how he got them out, Ridley has put something together that's utterly thrilling, and totally character-driven. It was wonderful to work with those two guys.
Excellent. That's my time. Thank you so much, Ben. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
Ben Kingsley: Fantastic. Take care, Brian.