Sir Ben Kingsley: I’m bringing down the final curtain on my stage career

Sir Ben Kingsley, and below as Mazer Rackham
Sir Ben Kingsley, and below as Mazer Rackham
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He’s played Shakespeare’s leading men, mastered Chekhov, but Sir Ben Kingsley tells Phil Penfold why he’ll never act on stage again.

He will be 70 on New Year’s Eve this year, and – so far – hasn’t “got a single clue” about where he will be for any celebration, nor, indeed, if there will be much of a party. Sir Ben Kingsley, who was knighted just over a decade ago for his services to drama, is a little bit vague on the subject.

He is, however, pretty sure about something else. He settles into a huge wing-backed armchair in a very posh London hotel, puts his fingers together, and announces that it will be “very, very unlikely indeed that you will ever see me on stage again. In live performance. In fact, I think that it is impossible.”

Not even in his native Yorkshire, at the Crucible or the West Yorkshire Playhouse? “No,” he says, “flattering though it would be to be even contacted by them. I’ve made the decision, and that’s it. I love film far more these days. I produce movies, I direct them, I act in them. That is enough for me.

“Let me put it this way – theatre is like getting out an easel, a canvas and a brush, and painting a landscape. Film is like getting those tools of the trade together, and painting a portrait. And I am now into portraits. It’s the same brush, the same canvas, the same easel, but the results are very different.”

There may be howls of protest that Kingsley (born in 1943 in the village of Snainton in the North Riding) will never show us another Shylock, or Prospero, or deliver an Uncle Vanya or a Firs in The Cherry Orchard. While he remains an Honorary Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company, that’s it. The curtain has come down on that part of his career.

“You see, if someone from the Playhouse, bless them, calls me and says, ‘Would you like to do an X or a Y for us’, I might well say, ‘Yes, that would be nice, but I have to tell you that it won’t be until next year, or the year after’. And they lose interest.

“With a film, they say, ‘Can you start the week after next?’ and if I can fit it in, I will. I’ve just done four films, back to back, with only one weekend to myself in the middle. Circumstances have, maybe, forced me into being a workaholic.” Is this a reference to three previous wives before marrying Brazilian actress Daniela Lavender? Sir Ben doesn’t elaborate.

He’ll also never know the wider reaction to the news he is exiting stage left. He says he never reads newspapers or magazines which feature stories about him, nor does he blog or tweet.

“I haven’t read a review or a profile since 1984,” he says with some precision, “and I don’t intend to break that resolution now”. You wonder what was said, back then, that annoyed him or infuriated him, but again, he won’t be drawn.

At birth, Ben Kingsley was named Krishna Pandit Banji, the son of a hard-working (and fondly remembered doctor with a busy practice) and Anna Lyna Mary, a former model. There is a rich mix of heritage and blood in his veins – Gujarati Indian on one side, and Russian-German-Jewish (among other things) on the other.

He was “quite a popular little boy at school”, and when the family moved across the Pennines many years later, he caught the acting addiction at Manchester Grammar School, where he appeared in several school plays.

He went to the University of Salford to study, made up his mind that acting was going to be his thing, and had a pretty nifty move through the ranks working for people like Trevor Nunn and Peter Brook. He went to Broadway, came back garlanded with praise, and around 1980 changed his name because he felt that “a foreign name” would hamper his career.

He packed out Harrogate Theatre when he appeared at the venue in his one man show based on the life of the great actor Edmund Kean and had already broken into television – devoted fans of Coronation Street may well recall him as Ron Jenkins, a role that he played for almost a year. But then came Kingsley’s big chance.

Sir Richard (as he then was) Attenborough offered him the lead role in his epic Gandhi. The film was a international triumph, Kingsley won the Oscar for Best Actor and his movie career was launched. To date, he has appeared in nearly 90 films or TV movies, some of them jaw-dropping performances, others memorable for other reasons and there have been some where he seems to be just going through the motions. He feels that, after Gandhi, his next big cinematic breakthrough was 18 years later in Sexy Beast, when he was “allowed to do something different”.

“I am more in demand now than ever I was, and that’s probably because I turned a corner with Sexy Beast. I played a total sociopath, which no one had allowed me to do before. Until then, I suspect, I was always regarded as a ‘safe bet’, and no-one really recognised the fact that I could be, well, versatile.”

He has lit up the screen in films like Schindler’s List, Death and the Maiden, The House of Sand and Fog and Oliver Twist (where he was a chillingly unpleasant Fagin) and has also appeared in a lot of other well-paid but rather dull potboilers and franchises.

“I am an actor, that is all”, he says firmly, “and I wear a lot of masks to tell a lot of stories. I am fascinated, simply fascinated, by all the stories that there are out there – we are all storytellers, and that is what we do”.

A story did the rounds that when he got his knighthood, he requested all his fellow actors, the cast and the crew (and the director) should call him by his new title, and “Sir Ben Kingsley” certainly appeared on posters and on credits. It led to him being nicknamed “Surben” by some unimpressed fellow film-makers, and that seemed to cure him of this forgivable vanity.

Maybe someone pointed out that Laurence Olivier never ever used his “Sir” on movie advertising material. Today, he responds quite cheerily to being called by his first name.

He feels, he says, that he has come to a point in his acting, and his relationship with directors “where it is as if someone presents me with a selection of, say, six ties that my character can be seen wearing. And I just say to the director, ‘Tell me which one you want me to put on, and I will do it happily. I will be that man for you. You cannot get all hoity-toity about it, for what you have to remember is that it may all look a bit of a doddle, but it is, in fact, extremely hard work”.

He is currently waiting for no fewer than 10 films to be released and he is currently working on a re-make of Exodus in a cast that includes Sigourney Weaver and Christian Bale. Soon we’ll catch him as King Herod in a biblical number called Mary and his latest film, Ender’s Game (released this Friday) he is the legendary space hero Mazer Rackham in Gavin Hood’s adaptation of controversial US author Orson Scott Cord’s best-selling sci-fi novel. And you will see Kingsley as you’ll never have seen him before – his face covered in tattoos.

“They took nearly two hours to put on in the make-up-chair in the morning,” he chuckles, “and another two hours to take off. They are, I am told, based on Maori designs, but I never ever enquired what they meant, or deciphered them – it was enough that this man had had them done in memory of his own father.

“I did watch a lovely documentary about this form of ‘body art’ after we’d finished shooting, and that was very interesting. Even more extraordinary for me is that, before I’d actually been called on the set, Gavin, our director, had a party thrown to celebrate his birthday. I went down to the make-up people and I said ‘Can you make me look as I will do on the day I start filming?’ and they did.

“I walked into the party, and the looks of astonishment were amazing... they gave me precisely the information that I needed to tell me what reactions Mazer would have got from people when they first met him….”

Kingsley has two sons who have followed him into acting, Edmund and Ferdinand. “I first saw them in a school play when they were 13 and eight. I knew then that they would follow me into the business. But they have no illusions about it at all. They know that it is hard, hard, hard work. Wonderful to do, yes. It lifts the soul when you get a great role. But still hard work. Every step of it”.

Milestones in film career

Gandhi (1982): Directed by Richard Attenborough Kingsley’s film debut won him Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe awards for best actor and put his name on the international map.

Schindler’s List (1993): While he might not have walked off with an Academy Award, the actor’s performance as Oskar Schindler’s accountant Itzhak Stern won him praise and a Bafta nod.

Sexy Beast (2000): Kingsley claimed his award-winning portrayal of Don Logan was based on his “vile” grandmother.

Iron Man 3 (2013): This marked a rare comedic turn for the normally dramatic actor.

His latest film, Ender’s Game is on general release from Friday.