The celebrated actor mixes up his many talents to bring you the character of Frank Falenczyk
It isn't every day that your phone rings and it's Sir Ben Kingsley on the other end wanting to speak with you, but that's exactly what happened when the star and producer of You Kill Me dialed my phone.
In the film Kingsley plays Frank Falenczyk a man who loves his job, which just happens to be the hit-man for his Polish mob family in Buffalo, New York. But Frank's got a drinking problem and when he messes up a critical assignment that puts the family business in peril, his uncle (Philip Baker Hall) sends him to San Francisco to clean up his act. Played with gruff charm by Kingsley, Frank is not a touchy-feely kind of guy. But he starts going to AA meetings, gets a sponsor (played by Luke Wilson) and a job at a mortuary where he falls for the tart-tongued Laurel (Tia Leoni), a woman who is dangerously devoid of boundaries. Meanwhile, things aren't going well in Buffalo where an upstart Irish gang is threatening the family business. When violence erupts, Frank is forced to return home and with an unlikely assist from Laurel, faces old rivals on new terms.
Basically, of all the characters you've played in your career what attracted you to Frank Falenczyk?
Ben Kingsley: I was very drawn to his vulnerability, Evan. Although he has a very tough exterior and that's why I wanted him always in that black suit of armor. Black suit, black shoes, black hat, everything black, to give the impression of some kind of a black knight. I was sure from the reading of the script that he is very efficient at his job. When he loses that efficiency it's a major crisis for everybody but it was his vulnerabilities. He seems to me to have a childlike quality that I found very endearing and compelling, that I wanted to explore that strange pull between the childlike and the violent. He has that great journey through all these extraordinary people that he would never have met had he not been forced into L.A.. I love the everything happens for a reason side of the screenplay and his journey meeting the most unlikely best of friends. He would never have met any of these people if he wasn't forced to go into L.A., so maybe hitting rock bottom is what they say it is. There is actually only one way and that's up.
Looking at those aspects of the screenplay, the black suit of armor and everything... did you and Director John Dahl talk a lot about the character...
Ben Kingsley: We did. I had the pleasure of bringing John on board because I'm one of the producers of it and Tea, I brought on board too. We had the kind of conversations that were almost finishing each other's sentences. We were very much on the same page already which is a great start for a movie; it's pretty well essential. Both Tea and John were very keen on presenting the characters as they were written in the screenplay. No backstory, no explanations, no twisted childhood, no abusive husbands, nothing. That was all conjecture, we didn't want to go there and Tea and John and I agreed, lets do what's on the page and let the audience find out rather than pushing everything into their face. Also, he found Frank very endearing, loved Tea's character so John started from a very affectionate standpoint. He was very much on the same page and there were lovely discussions that weren't long, and they carried on in a gentle way throughout the filming. Mainly it was to affirm what was originally thought about the character.
When doing a film such as You Kill Me which mixes aspects of the comedy, crime and thriller genres, how do you balance those tones so that one doesn't overcome the other?
Ben Kingsley: I think that one of my guidelines was to make sure that Frank never became too knowing, too aggressively adult, that he maintained that almost childlike, innocent quality to him and it's that quality that takes him through the journey of meeting these remarkable people. They're all sent to him to test him, to bring something out of him. Whether or not he fails the test it's up to Frank. All keeping in mind the fact that here was a man who could kill himself with substance abuse, who has been forced into recovery. Keep him innocent, keep him childlike and give him a chance to recover. Always keep that lovely balance between comedy and reality and how we kept that was with John Dahl's taste. As a director, when he finds something on the set he'll smile. You never, very rarely, ever hear John laugh out loud. I think that's because he knows that it distorts the performance. Actors are very vulnerable in that respect. It's so hard for them not to deliberately play to comedy once people start laughing. It was John who kept that balance very much.
And Tea of course, Tea's a genius so working with Tea I just found riveting. I couldn't take my eyes off her when working with her and she had great comedic taste. She's rather like Katherine Hepburn in that respect, she's one of the greats. I kept my eyes on her and she was very much a guide of the temper and feel.
From playing Gandhi, to Don in Sexy Beast, to Frank... what do you think it is about yourself as an actor that lets audiences forget that we know Ben Kingsley and believe you in whatever role you're playing?
Ben Kingsley: That's very generous of you. I think it comes from my very fortunate early years as an actor where I played this huge repertoire of Shakespeare, 26 plays, and I didn't do all 26 but I did a lot of them. They were very, very varied characters and in my early days even to my very last performing weeks with them, we had maybe 4 plays in the repertoire at a given time. Even in my later years, before I became a movie actor I was playing 4 leading roles in one given week, Evan. I was playing characters like Brutus, comedy roles, lovers, madmen, (laughs) and kings within the same week. I think I had to give every single one of them their best shot on Tuesday night, Thursday evening, Saturday afternoon, you know? Just a merciless schedule but it did teach me to keep watertight compartments between each character and at the same time fully investigate each character. There's no going to the audience, "Sorry I'm not very good tonight but I am playing three other characters this week you should see those!" (Laughs) They wouldn't buy that. It was that that gave me that sense of variety; extreme variety.
What are you working on next? I know that you're returning to Shakespeare with Will?
Ben Kingsley: We're hoping, it's early days, I've got the rights, we're now approaching writers. I've got a lot of interest from writers, it's quite a dynamite project. Once we have our screenplay we're then going to approach directors, even writers, directors who do both, but Will will be my role, Shakespeare, and I'm hoping to surround myself with like-minded actors, some of my colleagues from England, maybe. It's a beautiful project. In physical terms, because that's in dream terms, I'll soon be going to appear in a movie about the Irish troubles that we had here. As you know in the 90s, 80s and 70s when there was a mainland bombing campaign here in the UK. We had terrorism rife in Ireland so I'm doing a film about that. And hopefully a film about Georgia O'Keeffe and maybe a film about Sherlock Holmes. I'm developing my own company projects as well which include a Taj Mahal project in India and the William Shakespeare project in the UK. So there's a lot happening, I've got my hands full.
You Kill Me comes to DVD on October 9 from Genius Products.
Dont't forget to also check out: You Kill Me