It’s rare, but every so often, I get that sudden moment of extreme self-consciousness while doing an interview: “I’m really just sitting here chatting with Sir Ben Kingsley.”
For his part, Kingsley is so warm and gracious upon introductions, that this feeling didn’t occur until the interview was almost over. If I had to pinpoint an exact moment when it did occur, it was probably when Sir Ben impersonated Lauren Bacall getting punched in the face on “The Sopranos.”
In “The Dictator” (opening Wednesday), Kingsley plays Tamir, uncle of Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen), the dictator of the fictional North African country Wadiya. Here, Sir Ben discusses why he enjoys doing comedy (even if it involves kissing a few armpits) and points out one particular scene in “The Dictator” that could end his dramatic career.
You looked like you were having fun in this movie. Isn’t it great?
Comparatively, you came out rather unscathed compared to other characters. Right.
No poop fell on your head, or anything like that. Was that any concern? Not at all. Not at all. But I think that Sacha and [director] Larry [Charles] made the right choice in allowing me to occupy that corner: the corrupt relative. And we had to have that nub of truth in the film, around which the comedy can rotate. I was really indebted to Sacha and Larry, they would always encourage me to keep that mandate.
You did have to kiss an armpit, though. Yeah. That’s an amazing gesture for that uncle to have to go through. And it all ratchets up, staying in my contemptuous corner, in character. So all of those subservient gestures, all of that, is part of his extremely uncomfortable task of pandering to this infantile dictator.
Do you like doing comedy? I really love doing comedy. As a kid, I was the sort of clown — the comic of the family and then of the classroom and then of all of my peers. In the Royal Shakespeare Company in theater work, I also did a lot of great comedy roles — Shakespeare comedy roles.
But then you won an Oscar for an epic drama with “Gandhi”… A deeply serious guy! Who did have a sense of humor…
But, after that, people aren’t going to associate you with comedy. No, of course not. So, it’s marvelous to be in a comedy with the best of the best. So, just as being with Dickie Attenborough on “Gandhi,” or Steven Spielberg on “Schindler’s List,” or Jonathan Glazer on “Sexy Beast” — it’s so thrilling to be with these guys who are, in a certain sense, also taking first steps in something. Although Sacha is wonderful in “Hugo,” but this is only, to my knowledge, his second film in which he’s worked entirely with actors and no civilians have been harmed during the making of the movie. So, it’s wonderful to be with him — the Chaplin of our era.
I thought you were great in “The Wackness,” which had a lot of comedic elements… Oh, thank you.
But the last time you did a really broad comedy was “The Love Guru,” and people didn’t seem to like that movie. So were you at all hesitant to go down that road again? Well, I know Sacha quite well — from “Hugo” and just knowing him, fortunately. I loved the script, very much. And then I met Scott [Rudin] and Larry Charles here in New York to discuss the script with Sacha and maybe do a little improvising. Sacha wanted his cast to be comfortable– “comfortable” is a stupid word. To be excited by improvising. Energized by improvising. No one wants to be comfortable as an actor — you know, that’s for bedtime. So, I had no doubts at all about joining Sacha.
There are a lot of jokes in this movie that push the limits. Was there ever a time on set when you were thinking, Hm, I don’t know about that particular one? Well, I only thought it because I got a sense that everyone else was thinking it. In other words: Sacha and Larry said, “We’ll try it, but I think it’s going too far.” They, of course, were always right.
What’s an example of that? Oh, just certain improvisations that went outside the box of the narrative. And they were bizarre and funny in themselves, but they lived in a vacuum. They weren’t really connected to the deeper plot of “democracy just to make money and sell oil rights.” So, whenever we went into those areas, they were either cut from the movie, rightly, or we just stopped improvising in that particular direction.
How does Sacha work on a movie like this? Does he stay in character? In and out. In and out, because he’s a producer and he’s also very aware of the writing and the material. So he has to have his peripheral vision on full alert, but, then, once you get two minutes away from “action,” he will go into character. And there’s a song or a chant that we would use — and we would use some hand clapping. And I would even do that elation, “Oooh!,” that noise. And that always boosted up the energy and bonded us. It was a lovely little ritual we would go into.
Sacha and you have a prolonged kiss in this movie. Yes.
How many takes were involved? I can’t remember, but it’s definitely the end of my career as a serious actor.
Well, you still have that Oscar to fall back on. [Laughs] Right.
In another comedic role, you played yourself on “The Sopranos.” Were you wary of being referred to as “Sir Kingsley” by Christopher Moltisanti? No! Self-satirizing! It was wonderful. I really enjoyed it.
Did they send you the entire script? Yes.
So you knew that Christopher punched Lauren Bacall in the face? Yes! “Oh, my fucking arm!” We actually got to say hello to each other and kiss each other on the cheek as old pals. It was lovely.
Even for “The Sopranos,” that was a crazy episode. It was a crazy episode. it was a wonderful episode. And I think I’m about to work with that director [Danny Leiner] again, who directed that episode. Again, you’re working with a team that is the best at what it does. The best! And, so, it’s the same equation. It’s the same context. You’re with guys who are at the top of their game and it’s very, very exciting.
Well, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. I promise that people will remember that you do drama. Remind them!
By Mike Ryan