Ben Kingsley is one of the most respected actors his generation. From a career that has spanned everything from biopics of enormous humanity like Gandhiand Schindler’s List to recent family adventures, such as Hugo and Iron Man 3, Kingsley has traversed countless styles. However, to date he has done few full-length features.
So, when we sat down to talk to him at San Diego Comic-Con about this weekend’s The Boxtrolls, inevitably the question had to be what lured him to Laika. But what was the real surprise was what he showed them about his own entirely personal voice acting technique. He also was kind enough to discuss his upcoming projects with us, including Exodus: Gods and Kings, as well as his possible future with Marvel Studios’ Cinematic Universe.
There was a question during The Boxtrolls panel that went unanswered: why are the English people obsessed with cheese?
Ben Kingsley: They’re not. [Laughs] We do make good cheese, but I don’t think we’re obsessed as the French are.
Do you have a favorite cheese?
I do. It’s from the Pyrenees Mountains, and it’s a sheep cheese, and I can get it from another village close to where I live, and it has the most beautiful selection of cheeses in their shop. And I like that cheese very much.
So, tell us a little bit about your character and what attracted you to him?
He is a social climber. It’s as if he spends a lot of his energy trying to join that club that really doesn’t want him to join. So, he wants to be a central part of the mayor and the people surrounding the mayor of the town. It’s a small clique, an exclusive clique, of guys that run the community. And he desperately wants to be part of that, to wear the white hat, to be part of that gang.
They’re quite reluctant to let him in. He therefore invents an enemy. Politicians often do this; they invent an enemy, and then they say to their populace, “I’ll rid you of that enemy.” So, that has quite sinister connotations in 20th century history and 21st century history. So, he wants to empower himself by destroying a group of people. They are the very sweet, the very benign, utterly harmless boxtrolls. And he puts about the rumor that they eat babies—that they destroy human life.
So, basically in a nutshell, that’s his quest. To be up there.
So what attracted you to this role?
I love Laika. I love the work they do. I like Coraline immensely. I find they are quite fearless in family movies of putting light and shade together. As the boss said, it’s a dynamic filmmaking that combines light and shade—that combines bitter and sweet. It’s very mature filmmaking.
How do you vocally act out what your character is doing?
I worked in a studio that I know quite well, and they know me quite well—the technicians and the guys who run it—and our Laika people came to this studio in England. In order to exactly get what you allude to, to get that voice to come from a different part of me, I did most of my recording reclining. So, they rigged up the microphone, so that I could be completely—not a tense bone in my body. I was completely relaxed.
They rigged it up beautifully, and it did help a lot.
How did you discover this technique?
I just realized that one’s best work—or you can achieve things as an actor if you’re completely relaxed. You can’t go on a film set if there is tension in your neck, in your shoulders, anywhere. It will show; the camera will seek it out. So, I’ve tried to incorporate into my technique a very relaxed body and breathing. So, reclining to record his voice—I can’t do it in a movie. I can’t say, “Mind if I do this scene lying down, darlings?” [Laughs] I can’t do that.
Did the people at Laika think that was craziest thing they’ve seen?
They were fascinated by it, but when the voice came out, it made sense to them.
Was this the first time you’ve done that? Because you’ve done voice acting before?
I’ve not done a lot of it before. This is maybe only my third or fourth attempt at animation, and the most gratifying. I think it is the most beautiful. I love their work; it’s fantastic.
But is this the first time you’ve tried the lying down?
Yes, it is. It’s a keeper. [Laughs]
We’re seeing a lot of the best writing at the moment on TV now. And when you see things like Kevin Spacey on House of Cards, does it make television something you would like to do?
I am doing it. I’m in a six-part series on Tutankhamun. And I’m playing Ay, the grand vizier and advisor to Tutankhamun.
When are we getting that?
I think I start next month, so it will be out next year.
And are you filming in Egypt?
Are you into Egyptology?
No, but interestingly enough, it’s the third visit to ancient Egypt in the last 12 months as an actor. First, was Night at the Museum 3, which was really funny, and I played a pharaoh in that. Next was Ridley Scott’s wonderful film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, which is the Exodus of the Jewish slaves from Egypt. And this one is Tutankhamun. I don’t know why it is, but three [projects] in a row is very strange. Maybe in my DNA, there probably is some Egyptian.
The story of Exodus is so iconic because of the Bible obviously, but also because of The Ten Commandments and Cecil B. DeMIlle. How as filmmakers and as actors did you approach it differently to separate it from previous incarnations of this story?
I actually played Moses for Turner Television in their Bible series. And I tried to make his struggle as human as possible. And I know that I got—I didn’t argue back—but there was a strange advisor on the set from the Vatican, and he was a priest. He was quite shocked at the way in the scenes that Moses had to speak with God that I wasn’t on the ground with my hands together, speaking in a hushed voice. But I was arguing with him!
…And this guy was like, “You must pray. You must—“ and I said, “Get out of here!” I’m talking to my buddy. I’m having a row with the boss! Trying to find, as of course I did with Gandhi, as of course I have tried in my work, to demystify [figures], and say, ‘Look, these guys were fresh for blood, and they had a hell of a struggle’—Ridley of course has taken that further with the wonderful Christian Bale as Moses. Absolutely beautiful performance, but you see it’s gritty; it’s a guy struggling, and sometimes very out of his depth. Very human and very vulnerable. So, that’s what we all attempted as actors to do.
On the TNT film, you had a priest from the Vatican. Did you have a rabbi as well to just get a different perspective?
No. Isn’t that strange? No, no we didn’t. Of course not.
And what brought you to Night at the Museum 3?
Oh gosh, I was just asked by the lovely director. I read my role in it. It’s not that big, it’s a brilliant cameo, it’s not a big role at all, and I found it absolutely delightful. Just the complete arrogance of the man and this member of this ancient Egyptian royal family, not very used to talking to people. Not very good at talking to people. Rather surprised that people were addressing him without kneeling. It just baffled him people were coming near him and talking to him.
Did you share any scenes with Ricky Gervais’ character?
No, I didn’t have any scenes with him. But I did share scenes with Robin Williams. Beautiful man.
How do you access parts of yourself to be the bad guy, such as your character in The Boxtrolls?
I find the flaw—that sore part within you that can’t be eased or healed. I look for the crack and the flaw, and love it very much, and feel enormous empathy for it. When I was in a film called Sexy Beast, I played a very vicious man. And maybe on day one or day two, I realized, “My God, this man was an abused child.” Everything fell into place!
I also loved the abused child in him, but there was nothing I could do. He barked and barked, and barked, and barked like a mad dog, because he was deeply hurt as a child, and he would mead out revenge on the rest of the world for the rest of his life, as unhealed and abused children do, I’m afraid. So that’s what I try to find.
Do you have any grandchildren who can’t see Sexy Beast that can see this?
My kids were young when Sexy Beast came out and they were quoting it at school! [Laughs] They had whole gangs of them swearing at school. They were 13 or 14.
My younger two are actors, and I do have grandchildren, yes. What was the question?
Will you score points with this movie?
With this? Oh gosh yes. Very much so. And a couple of others I’ve done recently. Our Robot Overlords, they’ll love that.
Are there any roles you haven’t played that you would like to play?
Well, I’m very fortunate of having founded a production company with my wife, who is also an actor. And we are having a degree of success, and there are certain roles that the films are designed around—legitimately, not narcissistically—that I’m really looking forward to playing. Particularly a man of the military. I have a huge respect for the military. No one has any idea what they go through in their daily lives, not a clue; they never talk about it when they come home. And I am hoping very much to honor my affection for the military and their incredible sacrifice in a film that I am preparing now.
That is just one example. We have six films now on our slate. And they are human, narrative-driven character films; they’re getting a little fewer on the ground. There’s more character-driven work on television than there is in movie theaters. We’re trying to readjust a tiny bit the balance. And yes, there are ambitions that hopefully will be met on our slate.
Can you talk a bit about the other films?
There’s six of them, and I think I’m in at least five of them. And Daniela [Lavender], my wife, is in about five of them. We overlap in some of them and we don’t in others. One film is about the building of the Taj Mahal, in which I will play Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal. Deranged with grief, but screaming to the sky that he loved her, and it worked. I mean millions of us now go and see it, and he did it. He was a very strange and tormented man. That is one of our stories.
Another is the Battle of Jutland that took place May 31 to June 1 1916, and it’s the strange balanced relationship between the admiral of the fleet, myself, and a gunner, a 16-year-old boy, and how fate brings them together. And the boy actually is a hero in the Navy—he’s called Jack Cornwell; he was the youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross. He remained at attention, at his gun with most of his body missing from shrapnel wounds. And when asked, “What are you still doing here, boy,” by a superior officer, he said, “I’m still waiting for orders, sir.”
Absolutely shattering story. And that one gesture, we’re building the film around. “I’m still waiting for orders, sir.” So when the audience sees the film, the audience ideally would think, “Well of course he would. Of course he would. We know that boy. Of course he would.”
You speak with such empathy for all of your characters, villains, or heroes. Did you ever study psychology?
Not as a serious student, but I do think if you really squeeze every drop you can out of this job, which is beautiful, you can actually learn a great deal and decipher a great deal, and transmit a great deal. I believe storytelling is profoundly healing.
And why the interest in the military? Are there any family members?
Not in my family, no. My mother’s stepfather, I don’t know what his rank was, but he was in North Africa with Lawrence of Arabia and Allenby in World War I, and I found him fascinating. But it doesn’t come from him, really. I collected military memorabilia as a child. I found all that beautiful and fascinating.
In our research for our naval film, we had been invited by the Royal Navy to go to practically every single training ground ship. We’ve been on maneuvers with them; we’ve been onboard the Queen Elizabeth, the massive aircraft carrier, my writer and I. The Navy’s opened every single door, which enhanced further my admiration and respect for them—their discipline, their unquestioning loyalty; they’re just a wonderful bunch of guys. Wonderful.
And there’s a lot of military discipline that goes into making a film. If you haven’t got discipline on a set, you’ve had it. And I love that aspect of filmmaking, too. There is a hierarchy, you observe it, and everyone operates within this wonderful framework.
How are you enjoying your first Comic-Con?
Have you walked around the floor at all? I’ve talked to actors, and they’ll sometimes put a costume on so they can walk freely.
No, I don’t think I’ll do that. [Laughs]
Are there any characters from your career that you would like to see on the Comic-Con floor?
I’d love to see Trevor [from Iron Man 3] WITH A CAN OF BEER! [Laughs]
Marvel has a million TV shows coming out. You did the “All Hail The King” One-Shot. Do you think you’d ever return to playing Trevor or the Mandarin again?
I don’t know. I’d love to. That One-Shot is a little hint that might come back, but I’ve heard nothing personally.