Interviews: Ben Kingsley on House of Sand and Fog


Sir Ben Kinsley stars as Massoud Amir Behrani in DreamWorks’ House of Sand and Fog. His character buys a house that is on auction for back taxes, but the house has actually been improperly seized from its rightful owner, played by Jennifer Connelly. sat down to talk to Kingsley about the role which he has earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best actor in a drama.

Was there an uplifting element you were able to draw from such a depressing film?

Yes, definitely. And I think that there is a hugely uplifting element throughout the film and for me personally every time I entered into areas of the character’s hardship, like working on the roads, the character’s isolation like sitting in the garage toting up the cents that he’s saved for his accounting, whenever he went into the office of the legal aid person to argue his case, every time what I held as a kind of benchmark emblem for me was this is how much this man loves his son. That I find completely uplifting. I always find the scale of any drama beautiful, and if the tragic scale is large, for me I would say, magnificent. Relentless? Yes. For me, as it’s drama, as it’s a story being told to illustrate the struggle for our souls by various forces, I find that, I always find it uplifting. I think that to witness the scale of human experience and the scale as they say of how much a man can love his family, the scale, the distance an angel can fall, because I think Ron is a fallen angel in this, Ron Eldard is a fallen angel, I perhaps am a fallen warrior. Jennifer’s a broken bird. But it’s possible perhaps to see all these things compassionately and care for them. We aren’t allowed to judge our characters while we’re working. We don’t go there, but we have to offer a balanced argument to offer to the audience. I think the screenplay is remarkably balanced. It’s balanced like a brilliant piece of engineering. It doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own emotional density. It’s so beautifully made.

This character is so controlling compared to your character in Sexy Beast. What part of both characters appeal to you?

I’m not so sure that they appeal to me. I don’t think I have a voice in the matter. I actually think they’re both in me. It’s not an attraction from me towards them, it’s a recognition perhaps sooner or later I think the actor has to do this, to recognize the fact that you know, actually all of these people are inside me. They’re all in the actor and I think that perhaps as one matures and has perspective on life and learns more about life I think that you do realize that the only circumstance that determines whether or not you are a monster or an angel usually we hover between the two on a daily basis. I’m sure that both, that every thing is in us, all the potential, the possibilities, it’s just that we’re never faced with those choices. I also discovered this in “Schindler’s List,” that it’s circumstantial whether you are, I remember saying of “Schindler’s List” if I just can digress a tiny bit, of Oscar’s role, Oscar Schindler, of Gert, the concentration camp Commindant, and myself, and if they were asked at the end of the war why you did what you did, each one would’ve said what else could I have done. Each one of them. It really is, if all things are supposed to be in us as I believe they are, then it’s circumstantial how these things are pulled out. I know Don Logan is in me because I saw him on the screen. That doesn’t drop from the sky. You don’t have a Don Logan injection in the morning in the make up trailer. I’m sorry, but it has to come from me. If I were painting an oil portrait of Don Logan, or a bronze statue, I think he’s bronze, Don, then you could say ah, but that’s your statue and that’s the artist’s. But unfortunately, we are our voice our body and our imagination and therefore there is not that distance between the portrait that we create and the artist that, I hope it’s not too pretentious to call actors artists, sometimes they are for a few seconds on a good day, that there’s no distance between the piece of art and the craftsman working that piece of art. So Behrani is, he’s stone. He’s carved in stone, chisel, chisel, chisel, and he is a man who he’s the opposite of Don in that he is the suppressed scream. His screams are tragically, they are released at the end of the film by those terrible circumstances, but during the film he is a man amongst men, he is a colonial amongst his men, he’s a man amongst men, he serves his king, the Shah, the last of great Persian kings, extraordinary position to be in, to witness the downfall of that dynasty, and everything as a patriarch he’s always believed in. He tries to carry that patriarchy and his family, gathering them up, thousands of miles, placing them in America, but I think he insists on being the same man. He reinvents himself in the bathroom in order to be the same man at the beginning of the film. He insists, which I find just in narrative terms, remarkable. I find that beautiful, that insistence on being that man is beautiful.

After reading the book, I worried about you, and that the thoughts and culture of your character, although understandable in the book, might translate on film as selfish and greedy. How did you balance it?

The script is beautifully balanced. I’m beginning to see with even greater perspective on the script, the great exercise about what we’re doing now is that it gives us an opportunity to re-examine what we did last year. In re-examining it, I see that the script is so perfectly balanced that for example, Behrani is a man that loses his home, but brings his family with him. And Kathy is a woman who keeps her home but actually has no family support system whatsoever. So you almost have the perfect dramatic balance of a man who has this but not that, and a woman who has that but not this. Almost the little threads of narrative brings them inevitably into a head on collision. Because I suppose where we can be most hurt, where we are most vulnerable is where we will be attacked by the demons sooner or later, and you cannot sustain a level of defense for your entire life where for me great drama becomes such a gift to the audience is when the audience are invited to participate, where I’m sure some of us are sitting there thinking, “No, no, no, the worst thing you could possibly say, you just said to that man. You do not say things like that to that man.” Or, “Don’t give her another drink. It’s the worst thing you can do.” One drink, one drink to many here, one offhand remark there, you just inch these two forces closer together and the audience can sit and see this and I’m sure sometimes we want to stand up and interrupt and say, “No, no, no, just stop a minute. Stop and listen to each other.” Drama doesn’t allow us to do that. But it does allow us to participate on that level. It’s wonderful what you just said. I worried for him. That’s a wonderful thing to say because that means there’s growth in you. Doesn’t it? I mean, it does. Hopefully that’s the gift of the film to you.

One of my favorite lines of the film is when your character says Americans have big eyes like a child. How much do you buy that?

Well very little, in as much as I… When I played Hamlet, I did the soliloquy to be or not to be every night, but I felt that I was intellectually equipped to hold that soliloquy together for as long as I possibly could. I had just about gotten to the end of it because it’s a huge intellectual feat. Hamlet is the most intelligent man in the world, and I just had to jump up and down and pretend to be him for two hours on stage. To find the man who would say that is my job. It’s not my job for Ben to believe in those words. It’s immaterial whether I believe in them or not, which means I could play a fascist as well as a concentration camp victim, because I’m free. But my job is to find the man who would say that, to chip away at the portrait until I find, yeah, that is a man who would say something like that. He’s saying it to an American son because his son is American. He knows his son is American. His son has enormous choices between being a Behrani and being a Brown. He might change his name to Brown. In two generations, it’s Mr. and Mrs. Brown.

You mentioned that you can’t judge a character, yet you expect and want an audience to. Behrani lost me when he struck his wife. I lost sympathy for him and nothing that happened subsequent to that brought me back to that. Every viewer has his or her line. I thought that’s an interesting challenge for you as an actor to gage what the lines are because you want to engage the audience for the entire film.

One thing I learned, maybe on stage but maybe a long time ago is, and it takes a lot to learn this lesson and I always have to say it to young actors, it doesn’t matter whether the audience like you or not. It matters whether they believe you. If you lost Behrani at that moment, for me that’s a gift because you believed in him so much you actually believed that, you felt him strike his wife so profoundly that that moment for you is real and therefore we’re all doing our job and that’s great. I can’t tell you to hang onto him. You are privileged as a member of the audience to be the judge, to weigh the scales, to say you know, as an audience member I can’t hang in with you anymore on this one, I’m sorry. And that’s great. That’s happening if you have 400 people, yes, if you have 400 people you’re absolutely right, 400 different moments happen all the time. That’s why I love not watching a video by myself. I love sitting with other people because you can feel all those other cross currents. Because somebody might be hanging on and you’ve said, “No, I can’t hang onto this guy anymore.” But somebody’s still hanging on saying, “No, there’s redemption there somewhere.”

What kind of burden does it place on you as an actor to portray this guys’ background that was cut out of the film?

Well I did love reading the screenplay. I did encounter it as a perfectly-written screenplay, and so many of the lines, the circumstances were there as gifts for me as an actor. My first speech in the film is to do with loss, to talk about our beautiful country having its soul ripped out, my wish for my children’s future and happiness and their children, and surrounded by Iranian extras who were a part of that wedding scene, all of whom, I think it was the first or second day of shooting, all of whom were indescribably warm towards me. I didn’t hear many stories, but they were all nodding with tears in their eyes. Jackie’s mother actually left the set and Jeremiah, one of our producers, came to Jackie, who was sitting weeping and said, “Are you alright.” She said, “I am alright. It’s too real in there. It’s just like leaving Iran all over again.” That would seem to me to say that that speech and that wedding scene is so well set up that you actually have a little piece of Iran in tact before it’s all destroyed. So it was all there for me to exploit.