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1996 Archives

Ben Kingsley, among the most respected and talented actors of the cinema today, is perhaps best remembered for his Oscar-winning role in "Gandhi". He plays the title role in "Moses" and the Fool in "Twelfth Night" in two new films.
Ben Kingsley: aka Krishna Bhanji
by Michael David

Krishna Bhanji was born in Yorkshire, England, on the final day of 1943. His mother, Anna, was an actress, and he grew up in Manchester where his father, Rahimtulla Harji Bhanji, a Kenyan Asian doctor had set up in practice.

Later, when Dr Bhanji heard his teenage son wanted to be an actor, he suggested that Krishna change his name his father's nickname - Ben - adding wisely: "If you want an acting career you had better get an English name".

A visit to the Royal Shakespeare Company to see Ian Holm's tremendous performance in "Richard III" sealed young Krishna's decision and helped his transformation to the actor known everywhere now as Ben Kingsley.

Enlightening Roles
Kingsley's acceptance into the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 1967 was the foundation for a career that is as impressive in the theatre - if perhaps less visible - as it is on film. But it is on the big screen that he has made his biggest impact. His first major film, "Gandhi", in 1982, proved to be the catalyst for his undoubted talents. His preparation for the part is well documented.

Kingsley lost masses of weight, read 23 volumes of Gandhi's collected works and described the experience as similar to "having a layer of skin peeled off my eyeballs but one of the most joyful events I've ever been party to". Watch his magnificent performance and you really believe that he is Gandhi. His Oscar-winning role in that work is one of many that have enlightened the cinema: the emotive lead in "Pascali's Island"; his Oscar nomination for best supporting actor as Meyer Lansky in "Bugsy"; Itzhak Stern in the Oscar-laden "Schindler's List" and his recent role as the alleged torturer, Dr Miranda, in "Death And The Maiden" opposite Sigourney Weaver, last year.

He looks like a professional actor rather than just a film star. In other words, he looks like a man on a mission rather than someone with homes in England and Los Angeles and film credits that put him among the great names of recent times.

Enormous Responsibility
The signpost to greatness was shown to him when he worked with Billy Williams, a much-respected director of photography, in his first major feature film, 'In My Life'. "Billy told me: 'The camera loves you, Ben'. And I believed him. It's as if he is saying: 'I am sorry but you are saddled with an enormous responsibility, you've just been accepted into the club'.

"I was scared because if he'd said: 'The camera hates you you'd think: 'Oh well, that's solved the problem' and you'd just go back to the RSC."

Lately, Kingsley has been rather busy: recent projects include two biblical films, "Moses" and "Joseph", to be released; one Shakespeare play and two narrations. "Moses'1, particularly, captured his imagination. This film, in his eyes, also illustrates the difference between working before the camera and working on stage.

"It was a wonderful exercise to investigate," he explains. "Why Moses? Why that man? Moses had a very bad stammer. Aaron often had to speak for Moses when he was in front of the pharaoh and could not articulate.

"There is a point in my characterisation where Moses's stammer stops. For the first time he can speak to the pharaoh and it is a very powerful moment on camera. It's something you can't do on stage. But you can capture the moment on film.

Knowledge of Guilt
"It is also at this point, for me, where events in the bible start to make sense. Moses realises he is the survivor of the holocaust, so there is terrible quilt. All the firstborn were killed but he escaped.

"I've met holocaust survivor victims, through other films, and I know what survivor guilt is like. 'Why me, why am I still here?' and they start to cry. They talk about their brother, their grandmother and they can't get through a sentence. So the 'Why me?' for Moses must have been enormous.

"Eventually he finds God (as his father) and he starts talking to God like a parent and he hands down God's parental law. It all makes wonderful psychological sense: exiled from his kingdom with no homeland, no father or voice. Then he becomes the voice and the founder of his homeland and the man who becomes the interpreter of the great patriarch. It's a massive pendulum swing of will and effort."

Kingsley has also been working on a new film version of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" (he plays Feste the Fool) and two narration projects including "Peter And The Wolf".

"I was cautious about doing 'Twelfth Night' because I am not a classical actor; I am an entertainer. I fell into classical acting by mistake and actually started out as a singer. I wrote the music for a musical play and it transferred to London and I sang the songs in London.

Actor's Method
"Eventually, I became sucked into the RSC and that's when I made a decision. The character I play in 'Twelfth Night' allows me to clown around, to sing all the songs in the play and I love doing both. There is something philosophical in it too, where my character is the one who can stop anyone in that play and say: 'What do you think you're doing?"'

One of Kingsley's memorable performances was in "Schindler's List" - among the most emotive films of this decade. He is quick to point out exactly how that film works. It has nothing to do with acting.

"That screenplay reads like a poem. The camera in that film is a witness to what's going on. There is no acting in 'Schindler's List'. It's all behaviour. The actors allowed the camera to film the behaviour under terrible circumstances. It taught me that the camera does not like acting. The camera is only interested in filming behaviour. So you damn well learn your lines until you know them inside out, while standing on your head!

Hard Work
"You learn your character so well that you don't have to do anything. All the camera does is film you - it is unbelievably hard work. You're listening to other actors so carefully, and the environment and the room. The alertness of film-making is light years away from the detailed and disciplined exercise of repeating a theatre performance night after night.

"When you drop your guard in films, the acting process compensates. You get lazy and you start acting. And the audience in the cinema will say: 'Who do you think you are kidding?'. If you're acting in close-up, they won't believe you. It just looks too contrived."

Kingsley has also done some narration work recently. "I like to do one or two films a year. But I can't prepare for something until I know what it's going to be. So I find that doing some narration, or maybe a documentary, is like going back into the gym for a couple of days. "With narration, you have to be very accurate with your voice. It's a good exercise to do. I did 'Peter And The Wolf' in aid of The Prince's Trust, something I believe in strongly. It is better for me to serve a charity as an actor or a voice, rather than at a luncheon being just a celebrity."

How does he choose a particular role and what criteria does he use? "I always try to make whatever character I'm playing a completely whole human being, with integrity, morality - or the lack of. I try to give the audience an opportunity of looking at the screen and recognising something.

"So when I choose a role it's either because I recognise the man, or, that I'm very curious to know him. If I neither recognise nor know him then it is better that I don't play him."

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