The award-winning thespian discusses his villainous role in the latest installment of Marvel Comics’ Iron Man action adventure feature series.
Actor Sir Ben Kingsley
Tavis: You wouldn’t think a character created for a comic book would generate so much controversy it might be kept out of certain countries, but the role Sir Ben Kingsley undertakes in the new “Iron Man 3” did just that before it was even rewritten.
The character is called “The Mandarin,” and the original version was, to put it carefully, something of a stereotype of the so-called “evil Asian” that littered movies back in that day. Needless to say, that whole approach was re-imagined for this current iteration of “Iron Man.” Let’s take a look at Sir Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin in “Iron Man 3.”
Tavis: Wow. Good to have you back, first of all.
Sir Ben Kingsley: Lovely to be here.
Tavis: So let’s deal with this right quick. I’m told that the international number – this was released internationally before we see it here this weekend.
Kingsley: That’s right, yeah.
Tavis: Okay, so this weekend it is everywhere here in the States, released internationally last weekend, and whatever the controversy was that existed. Almost $200 million later (laughter), on opening weekend –
Kingsley: It’s gone, as they say.
Tavis: Yeah, it must be gone. So what was this all about?
Kingsley: I think that what the team tried to avoid, as you rightly pointed out, is the Asian stereotype, which can be dismissed as an alien threat and therefore is eccentric and crazy and alien. But to have a homegrown voice, homegrown iconography, the costume, comprised of U.S. Army boots, fatigues, dog tags, a political t-shirt, and the Chinese coat, the Japanese hair, the beard, the voice, is all –
Tavis: And the AK-47.
Kingsley: AK-47, all set to confuse the audience of those political broadcasts – to confuse, to manipulate, to shock, and to have a knowledge of Western iconography, Western history, Western aspirations, culture, take them and crush them and manipulate them through language, through words, cannot therefore be dismissed as an oh, a crazy alien threat.
It sounds more like a threat from within. Even though the newsreel footage suggests that he’s somewhere in the desert, we find out that actually, he’s a lot closer to home than we at first thought.
Tavis: How’s the – I’m always fascinated by this. It’s one thing for something to get bootlegged, but you guys have been so good at keeping this thing secret. I’ve been trying to find a bootleg copy – I shouldn’t say that. (Laughter) I’ve been trying to find a copy all week to see all of this before I talked to you.
Kingsley: I can sell you one.
Tavis: No, that’s – (laughter). You could sell me one, that’s funny. So you guys have been – all jokes aside, the studio’s very good at keeping this stuff under the wraps.
Kingsley: Amazing, yeah.
Tavis: I don’t even know how they do it these days, but I’m curious as to how a controversy like this even erupts, pardon my English, if ain’t nobody seen the project.
Kingsley: I suppose if you go back to the comics of the ’60s, because The Mandarin was invented in the ’60s.
Tavis: So they assume that that’s what “Iron Man 3” was going to embrace.
Kingsley: I think the baddie was polarized, the baddie was so alien, was so solid evil, and now the enemy’s far blurred, the areas are gray, the enemy’s manipulative, manipulates our airwaves, just as The Mandarin does here.
So I think that the controversy might have been a response to the old ’60s stereotype rather than what Marvel have reinvented and presented in this movie.
Tavis: Right. So I’ve seen precious little of this, and –
Kingsley: I can give you best bits.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, well, (laughter) I’m glad you said that, because here’s where I want to go. I’ve seen precious little of this, and I’m anxious to see it, like everybody else, this weekend. But every time you come on this program, and I’m always so delighted to have you here because as I said to you in the hallway when I bumped into you on the way to the studio, I’m always going to learn something, I know, when you come on.
You always push me and challenge me to re-examine my assumptions. You help expand my inventory of ideas. So I’m always excited about the conversation beyond whatever the project is you’re working on.
Kingsley: That’s totally intimidating, what you just said.
Tavis: No, no, no, you always give me something to take away and to marinate on after the conversation.
Kingsley: That’s great. That’s great.
Tavis: But in our previous conversations, I don’t think there have been one, there’s not been one conversation we’ve had over these 10 years where we have not somehow gone off into some rich conversation at your leading about Shakespeare, because it is such a part of who you are as a thespian.
I recall from one of our previous conversations you said to me that you have to resist the temptation to bring some Shakespeare some sort of way to every character that you play. You know where I’m going with this.
Tavis: So how did Shakespeare factor into The Mandarin?
Kingsley: His speech patterns are extraordinary. His speeches are created for him, because they are broadcasts, and therefore there is a use of repetition, rhythmic speech, and also from my Shakespeare days, loving the way Shakespeare put his words together, the actor can dwell inside a word and stretch it until it becomes – until you hear it freshly for the first time or you listen to it differently.
So I used all my theater, Shakespeare experience to pump that kind of rhythm into his rhetoric, but at the same time, having played Shakespearean villains, particularly Richard III, who will announce himself as The Glorious, Righteous King, and he has a sense of commitment and righteousness, and all of Shakespeare’s quote, unquote, “villains” have this sense of righteousness and conviction.
They can speak eloquently about their own destiny, their own place in history, and their own path and how it is unswervingly right. Looking back, welding that onto some of the broadcasts that I’ve seen – not contemporary – going back to Europe in the 1930s, where you started to use that kind of political language and manner on radio, on newsreel, in broadcasts.
It was the first use of mass media in Germany in the ’30s, and to look at the key speaker, he has a sense of unswerveable righteousness and sense of destiny. So historically and from my great Shakespeare heroes, you mustn’t play a villain villainously. You must play a villain somber, sober, patriarchal, fatherly, presidential, a teacher, a preacher, a giver of lessons. So I played him as the giver of lessons.
Tavis: See what I mean? (Laughter) We’re not even halfway through yet and you already have given me stuff to noodle on and think about. I’d never thought about it in quite that way – you mustn’t play a villain villainously.
Kingsley: You mustn’t, no. That’ll push the performance back to the ’60s, and the stereotype. Hello, boys and girls, I’m evil, you know? (Laughter) Rather than –
Tavis: So what, then, attracts you – you’ve just explained in this mini-version of a master class, you’ve just explained how to play a villain best. But what is it that attracts you to these characters? I started our conversation by saying you’ve played everything from Gandhi to gangsters, and you do them equally well and the awards that you’ve racked up over the years speak to how gifted you are as an artist.
But what is it particularly that attracts you to these villainous characters that you play so well, like The Mandarin?
Kingsley: I don’t know whether it’s specifically that they’re villainous, but they certainly, when they’re well-written, when they’re well-conceived, and when you know that the director who, in this case, he’s also one of the writers, two great writers on this, when the director will place the camera in such a way as to endorse everything we’ve just said, which he has in this beautifully, you learn as an actor, hopefully, and we go back to Shakespeare, where his patterns of human behavior in his plays were flawless.
They are so flawless that they’re even used now in psychiatric studies, and there is such a thing as the Othello syndrome in psychiatry, whereas Mr. Othello never existed. But Shakespeare’s version of his paranoid jealous, fed and stoked by Iago, his nemesis in the play, is such a case history and so true from that author that it’s entered into psychiatric language.
So I look for what I call the human dance or the pattern of human behavior, and I see exactly where my character fits in the dance. If it’s real and has a truth, I can play him – or her, but I haven’t had that opportunity yet. (Laughter)
But once I see, wow, you have put on the page a classic pattern of human behavior, and it’s in “Iron Man 3.” The classic act of revenge undertaken by Tony Stark because his best friend, thanks to me, is in a coma, it’s pure revenge. It’s ancient, it’s archetypal. It’s not a copy of a copy of a copy.
So if I see something that’s archetypal in the human dance, in the pattern of human behavior, I have to play it. I have to give it a shot.
Tavis: Let me do a complete 180 now, given what you’ve just offered. For you, where is the fun in doing this? When you’re playing The Mandarin, when in the filming of this are you having fun, just unadulterated fun?
Kingsley: I am eventually, as The Mandarin, confronted by our hero, Robert Downey Jr., and that was being in the first class Wimbledon men’s finals, and you see the ball coming at you and you get your racquet and you whack it back, and it goes backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards.
He is such a gentleman, such a great performer, a wonderful colleague. It was thrilling to play with him. I also had a later seen with Don Cheadle as well. Thrilling.
My broadcasts, where I’m solo and hidden in a studio and connect with the world through, as we are doing today, through technology, that also was thrilling in that I had to find those exact tones and that righteousness and that broadcasting of the truth, the giving of the lesson.
I had to find that timbre to it, but joyfully, it was playing with Robert and Don. That was joy.
Tavis: There will, without doubt, be a lot of young people who will see this movie this weekend and in the weeks to come – for that matter, in the years to come. So young people are going to eat this up and they’re going to see it two, three, four, five times.
Conversely, I wonder what you think would be gained by having these same young people exposed to Shakespeare in their schools week after week after week?
Kingsley: I think that – well, I did see a marvelous documentary film crew follow schoolchildren from London who were completely ignorant of Shakespeare and act “Romeo and Juliet” beautifully. These were kids who in their syllabus and in their curriculum and the kind of schools that they were allocated as kids.
You’d never think that they would put a Shakespeare play together. But their imagination, their energy, and when they finally got that suicidal, passionate journey of both these lovers and their relationship with their parents and their peers and their friends and gangs.
Because “Romeo and Juliet’s” about gang warfare, it’s the Montagues and the Capulets. I choose this play only because I did see it come to life, and Tavis, it was extraordinary. It was very moving how, with their wonderful, boundless, adolescent energy, they filled these characters to the fingertips. It’s bursting out of them. They were bigger than the characters.
They had so much great energy to give, and to be read Shakespeare, to have to study it on the page, is a really tough exercise. But what I used to do when I taught American Universities is I used to go, with my little team of Shakespeare players, go into the classroom and act scenes from Shakespeare to those that were studying it, and the “Oh,” from the classroom was beginning.
Because they got this (makes sounds) the odd couplet on the page and suddenly, bang, it came to life in front of them. So I would love to direct American kids in Shakespeare if I had the opportunity again. I have done it briefly.
My master classes do, in fact, exist (laughter) in education institutions, and one of the last ones I was privileged to give was in the University of New Mexico and we did a scene from a crazy play by Samuel Beckett called “Waiting for Godot.”
Tavis: Love that play.
Kingsley: It came to life in these children.
Tavis: I love it. Yeah.
Kingsley: It came to life. It was very beautiful. So I love to work with the young, imaginative mind. They grab hold of great language and they run with it.
Tavis: See, if I were to imagine – I suspect you will never retire from acting, because it is in your DNA, but I suspect if there was something that you would be just beautiful at and brilliant at doing, it would be spending more time teaching. You’re such a great teacher.
Kingsley: I love to be in touch with that aspect of me, and of the craft that’s energized by enthusiastic young people. Sometimes there’s 200 of them in a room. I work with 10 of them, the other 190 watch, but it’s so thrilling.
Tavis: I want to circle back to “Iron Man 3,” because when you think of roles you’ve played, again, like Gandhi, that’s powerful, powerful stuff, wrestling with history. “Iron Man 3” is, to my mind, at least, my word, not yours, escapism.
I wonder if you might say a word from your vantage point about the value, particularly these days, of embracing escapism or being exposed to escapist work.
Kingsley: Well, in this particular case, in “Iron Man 3,” the joyful, mischievous and spectacular escapism is always linked to a moment after there’s a great action sequence, for exactly. Always immediately following is a moment of vulnerability, tenderness, love, affection, anger, absurdity. Always brings an audience that’s excited and energized by something, and they take that audience attention and say now here’s a bit of vulnerability.
So the escapism is always rooted in what I call the patterns of human behavior, which is why it was such a joy to be in this film. So I think with this you get the best of both worlds. You get touched by a human story that at times is really intimate, and then excited and thrilled by the beautiful action sequences.
I think this is the best of both worlds, and it’s possible to have the best of both worlds. You don’t need to hammer people over the head all the time with explosions. The human heart is in the middle of this film.
Tavis: Speaking of vulnerability, I can’t imagine how anyone becomes the kind of, develops into the kind of humanist, my word again, not yours, but the kind of humanist that I take you to be without coming to terms with his or her own vulnerabilities.
Can you say a word about that in terms of your own journey, to accepting and embracing, wrestling with your own vulnerabilities?
Kingsley: I think my vulnerabilities, in my non-accepting of them, or my inability to confront them creatively, have led me to crash and burn quite a few times.
The philosopher Krishnamurti, of whom I know absolutely nothing, only one quote, (laughter) but it sounds great, says, “I have died many times,” but that also means that – I mean, he’s putting it modestly, where he’s also saying is I have had the opportunity to reorganize my molecules and gather myself together and recreate myself or refresh myself many times too.
So there have been – all linked to the past and a childhood. There have been dark moments, dark nights of the soul, definitely, but I think my craft and my ability to tell stories, which in itself is healing, occupy other men’s dilemmas and struggles and passions, which has given me a perspective, and really rely on my empathy as an instinct and an intuition.
I think I am by nature empathetic. All human beings are, but it can be knocked out of them or bullied out of them. But I’ve managed to keep in touch with my empathy, stay vulnerable, and always learn, always learn, always learn. But honestly, Tavis, I’ve crashed and burned many times. Not publicly, yet.
Tavis: See, as you offered that quote, which I’m going to dig up and do a little research on this myself; it is a powerful quote. But as you share it, about having died many times, my mind immediately went – I don’t know the quote, but I went to what I do know, which is in the Christian tradition the biblical notion of dying daily.
You don’t really start to live until you learn how to die daily.
Tavis: That means to die out to those things that aren’t good for you, to die out to those things that you are better than, to die out to those things that tempt you that you never seem to overcome. So the only way you ever get to being alive is to die daily anyway.
Kingsley: I think that that’s the parallel Christian quote to Krishnamurti’s quote, absolutely.
Kingsley: There’s a profound link there in embracing something that is linked to mortality, but in embracing that you’re not into preservation, you’re into reinvention.
Tavis: Crucial distinction.
Tavis: Yeah. So to your point that you have not at this point – and I don’t think you will at this point – crashed publicly in this way –
Kingsley: But I have in performances. Sorry to interrupt.
Tavis: I was about to ask you that. That’s what – see, you’re reading my mind.
Kingsley: But I have ritualized it in performances. I’ve been assassinated as Gandhi, I’ve been horribly imprisoned and humiliated in the Holocaust films I’ve been privileged to be in, I’ve committed suicide in films, pulling a plastic bag over my head in utter despair.
So maybe in ritualizing these deaths I’ve come to terms with something that others may not have the opportunity to come to terms with. They say that mortality is depressing, it’s morbid. It is, in fact, a fact of life, and you cannot – forgive me, but it’s better to confront it either ritually – this is why people go to the cinema. This is why people love drama.
Tavis: I was about to say I would and could never be an actor, one, because it starts with having some talent, number one, (laughter) but beyond that, the thing that I am forever jealous of every time I talk to an actor on this program is that they get to do what the rest of us don’t get to do, which is to act this stuff out, to play people who they are not, and get paid for it.
Kingsley: For you. We do it for you.
Kingsley: We ritualize this dance for you so that you can sit and watch and empathize. So it’s collective. We do it for you.
Tavis: It’s a beautiful thing to be able to share in that. So how big is “Iron Man 3” going to be?
Kingsley: Well, it’s off to a colossal start.
Kingsley: I’m really delighted, because again, it shows that its popularity must lie in the great metaphor of I have an iron suit, and inside this iron suit, I’m a guy.
Kingsley: That’s beautiful. You don’t have – so often the knight’s armor isn’t – you never see inside the knight’s armor. He’s on his horse, he’s covered in steel, and bang, he’s victorious. But Robert’s character says look (makes noise).
Tavis: The guy –
Kingsley: I’m struggling here, not – it’s beautiful.
Tavis: Yeah. The guy in the iron suit this time is wrestling with the guy sitting here tonight, Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays The Mandarin in “Iron Man 3.” I don’t need to encourage you to go see it. I think everybody is going to see it (laughter) in a matter of hours later this week.
So I am always delighted to have you on, and once again, you didn’t let me down. I’ve learned two or three things, and I’ve got to get out of here and go look up a quote and do some research, thanks to you.
Kingsley: Thanks for inviting – thanks for asking me. It’s lovely to be here.
Tavis: Good to see you, my friend. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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