Sir Ben Kingsley on How 'Hugo' Ranks With Other Martin Scorsese Films and His 'Sopranos' Cameo
Don't let the snarl in the above photo from the movie 'Hugo' confuse you: Sir Ben Kingsley is nothing like that in real life -- or, at least nothing like that during a 15-minute interview. When Moviefone spoke to the Oscar-winning actor this past week, Kingsley was humble, forthright and excited to discuss his new movie, as well as the joy he got from working with Martin Scorsese. Of course, this being Sir Ben, there's always going to be something interesting to talk about: recent projects of his, critically acclaimed roles he's had, even movies he hasn't been in. From his work on 'Hugo' and 'Gandhi,' to his love of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' to his cameo on 'The Sopranos,' Kingsley gave Moviefone a little taste of what goes on inside the head of an acting legend.
To help prepare for this interview, I went back and watched a childhood favorite of mine last night: 'Searching for Bobby Fischer.'
Oh, I love that movie. I remember that so clearly on the set of 'Bobby Fischer,' [writer/director] Steven Zaillan handed me the script to 'Schindler's List.'
It's funny, going back to 'Fischer,' there are a lot of similarities between that film and 'Hugo' -- in particular, the relationship between chess coach Bruce Pandolfini and iconic filmmaker Georges Melies, both patriarchal figures who've seemingly lost their way. In terms of Melies, did you find it difficult to research the role without having many recordings or interviews of his to go on?
What's out there are a box set of films of his that Martin Scorsese gave me. I watched about 90 of his films and saw, with my own eyes, how energetic he was, how skilled he was, how brilliant at multitasking he was, how he broke so many boundaries with film, how inventive he was and, most importantly, how happy he was. And that was a tremendous key to unlocking Georges, because when he's in the toy shop, everything has been taken away from him, and in order to measure how painful his exile was I had to fully appreciate and enjoy and inhabit how glorious his life was when he was at the peek of his fame and power. So my research was very much focused on the joys of his creative life and especially to have one's research continued in flesh and blood, by recreating those films in the glass studio and the joy of that, and then, sadly, having to burn everything for the sake of our movie, Hugo.
I must say that those scenes, personally, to film were very distressing and strangely tragic and melancholy, because I was burning beautiful artifacts from our own film set ... I was burning drawings, I was burning weapons and suits of armor. It was a very painful process following my happiness in the glass studio. So I was physically informed by his joy, then the loss of that joy, and then of course his exile in the toy shop. There are no one-on-one interviews of him but there are amazing photographs of him in the toy shop looking utterly forlorn, looking completely lost, unable to smile, almost dead behind the eyes, but some sparkle remaining.
In 'Hugo,' there are several scenes where Melies, directs his own films. Did Scorsese allow you to actually direct any of those recreations?
Well, with Marty it's always a collaboration. Marty choreographed the basic outlines, but then he allowed me to work within that [and] improvise within that, so I was able to pick out individuals on the set and give them direction, give them notes -- [Scorsese] captured it all with his camera. The wonderful thing about Marty is whatever you offer him, he will use, he will see, he will incorporate into the great massive of footage that he will edit. Very little is wasted with Marty. He sees everything, and that's a wonderful feeling for an actor, to be on the film set and know that whatever you offer the camera, that he will definitely see it.
Jude Law's character describes seeing Melies' most famous film, 'A Trip to the Moon,' and being blown away by the visuals. Is there any film that has had that type of effect on you?
'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' was an indelible experience for me when I first saw it. The visual resonance of that mountain and the drawings and the obsession of that shape. I remember the mailboxes smashing and rattling backwards and forwards. Spielberg using visual narrative, storytelling with lights -- and Melies was connected to that tradition. [He was] the father of it. Marty is also so much apart of that great tradition of telling stories with lights.
This may be tough considering you're actually in 'Hugo,' but I was wondering where you think the film may sit in the Scorsese pantheon, up against some of the greatest mob movies in history.
Well, what I learned working with Martin Scorsese on 'Shutter Island' and 'Hugo,' and looking at all his work, he is a maestro in the study of male vulnerability. 'Raging Bull': vulnerable man. 'Casino': vulnerable man. 'Goodfellas': vulnerable man. 'Hugo': the study of a vulnerable man rescued by a child. I can see an absolutely consistent thread and I feel it will fit right in the center, comfortably, of his body of work.
Going back to the film that set your movie career in motion, 'Gandhi,' you were 37 years old when you played that role, which ended up winning you an Oscar. Do you ever look back on that time and wonder if you could've handled being thrust into the spotlight at an earlier age, say 27?
The thing is, I [had been acting for] 15 years in the theater. And it gave me an appreciation of epic destiny, because I [was] in many Shakespeare plays. It gave me a stamina, it gave me an appreciation of following a unique destiny on an historical landscape, because all of Shakespeares plays are like that. So all I can say is this, honestly without Shakespeare, my performance as Gandhi would not have happened.
In 1982, having just won an Oscar for your first major film role, was there a moment where you thought to yourself, 'How can I top this?'
Not really [laughs]. I have been fortunate enough to be nominated three extra times, and I feel blessed every time I get up and go to the film set. It's all a surprise for me. It's all a challenge and a surprise and it's beautiful.
On a completely unrelated note, I was always curious about your cameo in 'The Sopranos,' where you play yourself. How did that come about?
They just asked me, it was great. They had this script that involved the gift suites or whatever they're called. It just happened: they rang my agent and said, would you look at it and give us a few tips. And I got to work with Lauren Bacall! That's something I never thought would happen. She's a wonderful person, I had met her socially but it was wonderful working with her. What a powerhouse.