While Sir Ben Kingsley has only a supporting role in Night At The Museum 3: Secret Of The Tomb, he packs both of his scenes with the expected intensity. There’s no denying that this man has a really remarkable screen presence.
Earlier this week, I sat down with Sir Ben to chat about his acting processes and philosophies, the influence of documentaries on his performances, how Night At The Museum fits into the bigger picture of his career and, finally, about his approach to voice acting, as per The Boxtrolls and Jon Favreau’s upcoming Jungle Book where he’s playing Bagheera.
There’s a great variety of films on your CV but I’m left curious as to what kind of films you actually like to watch.
Ooh. Being a storyteller, I think probably by nature and certainly by craft, I am a watcher. I think I am an observer. I am probably more of a hunter than a collector and I do find that many documentary images have stayed with me. Outside of, perhaps, the knowledge one can glean from one’s everyday life, which here of course, and in the way I work, and therefore the lifestyle, if you like, that accompanies that, one can live in a bubble. It’s very easy to. Therefore I find observation of patterns of behaviour, of groups of people and of individuals extremely necessary and valuable to my work as a storyteller.
There are some documentary images that I have shared with film directors that have found their way into my work as gestures, because I was privileged, thanks to the documentary filmmaker, of being privy to some extraordinary [things] that I may not have been privy to within the normal course of my life. Therefore, in terms of watching fiction film, I think that – I know that – I respond to performances, direction and storytelling that are life enhancing.
Tragedy can be deeply life enhancing. Films that are made in a style that is completely appropriate to the story; in other words, Steven filming Schindler’s List in black and white. Perfect. And films that offer a story to an audience that they will happily sit through having paid hard cash, and sit through 90 minutes, 100 minutes of a film. Those are the films that I respond to.
If we were to think about Night At The Museum, which we are here to talk about, as a case study of your process, what can you tell me about how you worked on this film, and your relationship with Shawn Levy on this film, that illuminates something true about the way you work in general.
Gosh. It’s a very modest contribution I make to this film, my screen time is very slight. Therefore I wasn’t with the team for a very long period of time. I was parachuted in, I did my job and I left. I think I was there for maybe a week. I very much enjoyed my initial chats with Shawn because I am quite fascinated by people who manage to live in a bubble successfully and the Pharaoh is a man who lives in a complete bubble.
I wanted to offer to Shawn, rather than arrogance and pomposity, bafflement that he is being directly addressed, not through a series of rigorous etiquettes, but somebody is just standing, talking to him. This was obviously not where Shawn was going to put the camera, and I asked him to put it somewhere else, to film a different aspect of me – I don’t mean physically, I mean imaginatively. And he accepted it immediately.
Perhaps because I did bring, even in my modest contribution to Night At The Museum 3, I did manage to… I hope I managed to bring some of my observation of those who do live in a bubble, or those who are supported and supported by a very strict code of etiquette that one must break. The Pharaoh is in a world where that kind of etiquette vanished thousands of years ago but he’s not aware of that. That was the starting point.
It’s quite a remarkable joke for a family film, the one about the slaves. Extraordinary to see that in a film for a family audience.
I’m not aware of telling a joke.
The irony is that the Pharaoh believes he took good care of the Jews.
For me, that’s not a joke. I didn’t approach that as a joke. I approach that as someone who lives in a bubble who is completely non-empathetic.
There’s an amazing tension with the audience and the character’s point of view there, and it works as a joke.
I’m not aware of that, I haven’t seen the film.
It’s quite remarkable.
Filmmaking technology keeps changing and I know you’ve just done The Jungle Book with Jon Favreau, but I don’t know if he just used your voice…
Only my voice.
So no performance capture involved at all. How does it feel to know that so much of what the character does is going to be decided by another creator, another storyteller?
I’ve just done Boxtrolls. I don’t know whether you’ve seen that.
My voice in that comes from a different part of me. I wanted it to, so I recorded my voice for Archibald Snatcher reclining. I started it standing, that didn’t work, I continued it sitting, that didn’t work – we’re talking about just three minutes in the recording studio, we got to these decisions very quickly. I was ordered to get my voice out of a physical shape that bears no relationship to my own at all. I reclined. They rigged up a lovely seat that reclines backwards, stuck a stool under my legs and I was just lying down to record it.
It gave me [adopts Snatcher voice] “a very Archibald Snatcher relaxed voice” like that. The director said ‘Those vowels that you’re stretching, they’re such a gift to the animator.” I was in Oxfordshire, they were in the States, and I was practically getting calls from the studio there saying “Tell him to do that again.”
So I started to stretch and elongate my vowels, and I wanted to have a narcissist’s voice, whatever that is. And also an aspirational voice. He is a man who desperately wants to join a club that will never have him as a member. A classic situation. Therefore he puts aitches into words where there is not an aitch, in the hope that he’s speaking posh. It’s desperate, desperate social ambition.
I’m using physical gestures now to underline certain words, I just did it again, but when you’re in an animated feature, none of your gestures will go to the screen. When I watched the film I was absolutely delighted that, talk about “suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” from my dear Hamlet, the physical manifestation of my voice was absolutely perfect. It’s exactly what I wanted him to look like. I give them the voice and the animators… what’s it called, motion capture?
A very delicate process, taking ages. You saw the end credits, didn’t you? Of how they…
It’s almost a religious moment. Beautiful.
Thank you, Sir Ben. Now everybody rush out and pre-order The Boxtrolls to see just what it was he’s referring to.
Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb opens across the UK and US from the 19th December.
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