Sir Ben Kingsley

The Oscar-winning actor shares what it was like to star in Martin Scorsese’s first 3D film, Hugo, and explains how 3D film impacts the work of acting.

One of England's most respected actors, Ben Kingsley earned international stardom after his Oscar-winning lead performance in the film Gandhi. He's balanced an impressive stage career with a wide range of film and TV work, including the features Schindler's List, The Wackness and the action-adventure Prince of Persia and the telefilm Anne Frank. Also a talented musician—he wrote the music, sang and played guitar for the London stage production, A Smashing Day­—he turned down a recording contract. Sir Kingsley was knighted on his birthday in '01 and is next up in the Golden Globe-nominated family drama, Hugo.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Ben Kingsley back to this program – excuse me; Sir Ben Kingsley. The four-time Oscar nominee and of course Oscar winner for “Gandhi” is once again featured in an Oscar-worthy project.

The film is called “Hugo,” directed by Martin Scorsese. Here now, a scene from “Hugo.”


Tavis: You and I were just having a little chat about history on the set here a moment ago, Ben, and this is Martin Scorsese’s first, first 3D picture.

Sir Ben Kingsley: Absolutely.

Tavis: And you happen to be in it.

Kingsley: Yeah.

Tavis: How’s that feel?

Kingsley: Well, it’s thrilling to be with any director taking their first steps in anything. It’s exhilarating, it’s refreshing and also it kind of democratizes the set, because everyone’s working on something new. Marty was completely unabashed about discovering as he went along this extraordinary device that he was using, and I think using to great skill.

It’s not an add-on, it’s not gratuitous. He’s using it as a narrative tool, so as he was refining the cameras and the angles and what was gently floating in and out of 3D focus, because you can adjust these camera to almost pinpoint something on the screen and make it shimmer and come out to you a little bit more, we knew that he was enhancing the narrative rather than creating some effect for the audience. So it was really great to be with him on that.

Tavis: I hear how he’s using it to advance his craft and to advance the narrative, or to bring it to life.

Kingsley: Yeah.

Tavis: Does working in 3D alter what you do as an actor in any way?

Kingsley: I think it does.

Tavis: In what way?

Kingsley: Well, the Panavision close-up, the regular close-up, demands an economy, it demands a stillness, it demands an accuracy, and it demands a truth. When you’re really in close up the camera can see the thoughts behind your eyes.

The 3D camera can see the thoughts in your brain before they’ve started to happen. (Laughter) It’s an X-ray device, so you really have to be so perfectly in character, so on top of the game, and you have three forces coming at you on Marty’s set.

You have Marty, who demands a very special version of the truth, you have little Asa Butterfield, who’s a child actor who has no filters, he’s all from the heart, and that also demands that you respond in that way, and then the 3D camera.

So it was a tightrope, but one that was exhilarating to walk. You could never explain between action and cut. You could never comment, you could never demonstrate, you just had to be.

Tavis: When you said that Martin Scorsese – I don’t well enough to call him – I can’t call him Marty as yet, but Mr. Scorsese for me – when you said that he demands a certain kind of truth from you, unpack that for me. What do you mean by that?

Kingsley: Well, I don’t mean demand in the demonstrative sense. I don’t mean that he literally asks you for it, but he is such a tender, intelligent, pure guy that you have no choice but to get out of your corner by offering him the truth.

This is where he enhances the work of every actor he’s worked with. You always find that they have, he or she has given their best performance for Marty. Once Marty has given you – I can call him Marty, isn’t that wonderful?

Tavis: Yes, you can. (Laughter) I cannot. You can.

Kingsley: Once Marty’s given you the role, a part of you can completely relax and know that you don’t have to audition anymore, you don’t have to demonstrate anymore and you don’t have to go after him with your actor’s begging bowl to ask if he liked what you just did, because he’s seen everything.

One, he’s cast you, in his mind, ideally, and two, once he’s said, “Action,” you’re free to be. You’re not being tested. He is so secure in his craft and so confident in his craft that he knows we can do it.

He puts his chemistry together in such a great way that he knows the sparks will fly between me and Asa, for example, or me and Chloe. He just knows. That, for me, is very releasing and freeing for me to be with Marty.

Tavis: I think it’s fair to say, being that we all want to be appreciated in life for whatever it is that we do or who we are, we all want to be appreciated, we all want to be affirmed and paid attention to.

Kingsley: Yes.

Tavis: So as kind as you were being about Martin Scorsese, he has gone on the record a few times now saying that he desperately wanted to work with you. That happened for the first time on “Shutter Island.”

Kingsley: Correct.

Tavis: It’s happened again now on this project, “Hugo.” So you’re getting to be like Leo with Mr. Scorsese. He wants to work with you and has done so now on a couple of occasions.

Kingsley: Yes.

Tavis: So I say all that to ask how it feels to have someone of his stature, of his regard and his reverence in this town to want to work with you?

Kingsley: Very humbling.

Tavis: Yeah.

Kingsley: Also as a storyteller it demonstrates a kind of kinship between he and I that I didn’t realize existed, that’s not particularly visible, that’s never discussed or demonstrated, but it’s like a tacit, silent pact that we have that we’re both storytellers and we both love telling the same kind of stories. That makes the genre vast.

But where I think – where I find Marty most appealing is that combination he has of total virility and tenderness. It’s a very remarkable combination. I find it very affecting. If you look at his work, what he’s done, he’s put male vulnerability on the screen in a very extraordinary way.

“Raging Bull,” male vulnerability. “Goodfellas,” male vulnerability. “Shutter Island,” complete male vulnerability. The masculine ideal, somehow he manages to film the masculine ideal that somehow can’t fit the social silhouette that it’s supposed to fit, and the flaws and the cracks and the vulnerabilities are so tenderly filmed.

Tavis: You’re making me completely rethink his work in just 30 seconds here, and I’ve seen most everything Martin Scorsese has done.

Kingsley: Right.

Tavis: The masculine identity is what I immediately think when I think of his work. It’s graphic and there is a lot of, again, masculine identity there. I never thought of it in terms of male vulnerability until you just ran the list, and I’m now rethinking the characters, and you’re absolutely right about that. He has done exactly that.

Kingsley: To be asked to join that battalion of vulnerable males is very thrilling for me, because I find it immensely valuable culturally to say to the world men are vulnerable.

A lot of our male heroes are completely invulnerable, verging on thick, (laughs) and demonstrate some copy of a copy of a copy of what we think a man should be. It’s much more complex and interesting than that.

Tavis: So let’s talk about then your character and more broadly about the project “Hugo.”

Kingsley: My character was a man who was completely empowered by his craft who was one of the first great narrative filmmakers in the world round about 1906, ’07 through to 1913. He, because of World War I, having achieved the peak of magic and technique and exploration in cinema – he was an amazing – he used greenscreen and bluescreen 100 years before it became commonplace. He was experimenting with 3D, he was experimenting with motion capture, everything.

Then the First World War came and suddenly nobody wanted to see his films anymore. The social trauma was so great that he lost his audience almost overnight.

He then went on to sell all his negatives to be melted down into plastic to make shoes and to burn all his props and to allow his studio to collapse. So my starting point for Georges was his joy and his affirmation of life and life’s magic, and then to see all that taken away from him was the resulting Georges you see in the toy shop, who’s exiled himself from life, who many people thought was dead, he did it so successfully.

A man who is dedicated to forgetting, or dedicated to not being reminded of how beautiful life was.

Tavis: Until he meets this young boy.

Kingsley: Well, in life I think if you ever are determined not to feel something anymore, life will intervene and jab it at you and wake that whole set of nerves up and say, “No, I’m sorry, you can’t do that.” It’s not possible to anesthetize a whole part of your psyche.

The little boy plays memory, if you like – plays a reminder, plays life. Life saying, “Come back. I won’t let you drift away into darkness. I won’t let you slowly commit suicide of the soul. I’m going to bring you back into life.”

So the man in exile is guided back into life by the hand of a child, and that’s a very, very classic ancient myth that Marty and Brian and John have brought alive in the book and now the film.

Tavis: “And a child shall lead them.”

Kingsley: “And a child shall lead them, yes.”

Tavis: Ben Kingsley is a great storyteller. I could listen to this guy (laughs) – he’s so bright, he’s so erudite, love the accent, love the sound, and he’s just amazing. He’s welcome here anytime. It’s impossible to imagine Martin Scorsese and Sir Ben Kingsley together in something that does not work well, so I think you’ll want to go see this. Sir, always an honor to have you on the program.

Kingsley: Oh, it was absolutely wonderful to talk to you again.

Tavis: Good to see you. You’re welcome anytime.

Kingsley: Thank you.

Tavis: As you well know.

Kingsley: Thank you.

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Last modified: December 19, 2011 at 8:18 pm