It’s always a joy to speak with Sir Ben Kingsley, because he’s always extremely outgoing and eloquent with his responses, maybe to a fault, as he was when we spoke with him on set and he LITERALLY gave away some of the big twists for the movie involving his character, including his fate. Even so, he probably was one of the more informative interviews we did, and we’ve put a suitable spoiler warning before he gives the entire game away at the end.
Q: So you’re not the King, but you’re his brother. Can you tell us a little bit about your character and the relationship?
Sir Ben Kingsley: Well, it’s an envy-based relationship. There is a moment in my character Nizam’s very young years where he had an opportunity to save the king’s life, and he took that opportunity, and because of the character he is and the mindset that he has, which I have had great pleasure exploring and bringing to life, he regrets terribly saving his brother’s life. Had he not saved his life and the tiger killed the brother, then Nizam would be king. So deep envy, but covered by many, many layers so that one hopes that the viewer quite a long way into the film is not quite sure. First, a decent brother and a good uncle and then the layers will start to be invaded and under great pressure I have to play my real hand, which is that I should be King, and he should have died years ago, and therefore none of my nephews would have existed. It’s a whole dynasty the time machine would wipe out.
Q: Is there anything particular about this project that drew you to it?
Kingsley: Well, the production is inconceivable when you receive a script, but if I can wind back the first news came from Mike Newell, our director. He expressed the desire for me to play Nizam and he wanted to pin me down very early on in the casting process, but I hadn’t read a script. I only know Mike Newell and I know how he investigates character. Then when I read the script, I realized this is not a character-driven script. It’s a beautifully-crafted plot-driven script. And why do you need Mike Newell? To balance it. Always. Very often you find that a combination between writer and director is one of balance rather than all going down the same road, and that’s much more interesting. So I could see from the page that we really needed to investigate a lot of energy into the character. The plot? No need to do anything. There it was. Beautifully laid-out. All you do is film the plot, but then if you explore character then many, many deep layers will come into play in this dysfunctional family, and so it was Mike Newell that really was the number one attraction. Number two (was) the combination of the script and Mike and then everything coming together and going to Morocco, which I love. I’ve done six films there now. And then Pinewood. So I’m working from home at last. Coming in from my own house. So that was a very attractive proposition but that that’s secondary. Of course, we film anywhere and wherever the work is but the number one combination was the great plot and then Mike’s wonderful curiosity about character.
Q: It’s a pretty great cast he’s assembled, so who do you have most of your scenes with?
Kingsley: He’s a solitary character as most envious people are. They lack trust, and it’s very hard for them to build relationships. So I think that Mike has exploited his solitude and then coming from there I would say the scenes are with the boys, with the nephews with Dastan, Tuss, and Garsiv, and I have more or less an equally-balanced… less with Garsiv but most of my
scenes are with Richard and with Jake, as their uncle. My boys.
Q: It doesn’t sound like you’re playing a typical villain, but it’s a more complex group of characters.
Kingsley: Well you’re right I suppose. As I say, it’s a beautifully-crafted plot-driven script, however I think that without Jerry choosing Mike Newell to direct we might have been cornered into an entirely plot-driven game. Because it’s become far more character-driven and you see the flaws and the hunger, which I voice in the screenplay. Garsiv, the youngest nephew, is desperate to charge into battle and Tuss is desperate to be king. Dastan is desperate to prove he’s not a poor street kid, and I exploit these insecurities. Now without that exploitation of those insecurities, I think we’d have a much thinner poorer screenplay. Dysfunctional family. Nearly everyone has one. (Laughter)
Q: Is there any hesitation to do a movie based on a video game?
Kingsley: No, not at all. It’s obviously a very successful game. There’s something about it that’s very attractive to those who play it, and to build on that platform of enthusiasm is exciting because it’s two things. One, you may have a built-in audience who followed a formula that we just talked about, but two, you could have a built in audience that go, “Nah, that’s not the game I played” or you could have an audience that go, “I see. That’s the why behind the how. That’s why these people behave as they do.” I think it’s a very, very good starting point. Yeah, very clever, very clever choice.
Q: We’ve had a chance to see some of the weapon and armor that everyone gets to carry around. Is there anything that you have particularly that you get to use?
Kingsley: Particular weapon? My secret weapon is a group of men, my sort of horrible Gestapo, they’re called Hassansins. I employ them as one would employ a battery of missiles. They are absolutely lethal, horribly disciplined, and they’ll just carve into any enemy. And I have their services at my command. I also have a sword and my character is a pretty mean fighter with the sword, and occasionally pull out a dagger to surprise everyone and play dirty.
Q: When was the last time when you played a role where you could do stuff like that?
Kingsley: “The Last Legion,” not that long ago, so I stay in touch with that side, the physical acting, as much as I can. I enjoy it very much.
Q: Are you getting to use an accent for this movie?
Kingsley: No, Nizam is an ex-member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. (Laughter) No, it’s lovely to use my own. Not too many layers. Not too many disguises. So it is my own voice. We’re all using our own voices except Jake who uses an impeccable English accent.
Q: There are a lot of animals on set. Did you get to work with any of them?
Kingsley: Yes, I dismount from a camel, which is very exciting–they’re beautiful beasts–and I ride a horse. Although not on camera, I did stroke a massive cobra snake. They had many snakes in one of the scenes I do, so yes quite a lot.
Q: Where does this part rank in your distinguished career?
Kingsley: Well, you’re very kind. I haven’t finished yet, so I might really fall flat on my ass in doing it but the whole experience and him are going to rank pretty highly. Being blessed with my beginnings in Shakespeare, who always investigated his characters so thoroughly. They were psychologically sound and it’s finding that psychological soundness for an action movie I find the balance is wonderful. It’s a wonderful balance.
Q: Which do you like better? Doing dramatic movies? Action movies?
Kingsley: I’ve done a lot of comedy recently with “The Wackness” as one of them, which I loved doing. I’m comfortable with an enthusiastic director, with happy and enthusiastic fellow actors and a great script, and that can move right across the board. As long as those working conditions are life-affirming and decent and where we’re making a life-affirming film and a good film and I think this is life affirming because goodness does triumph in this film. So providing the circumstances are good, any genre suits me.
Q: Has there been any advice that you’ve given to Jake?
Kingsley: What I try and do, rather than… of course if I’m asked, I give it but I think the best thing that an experienced actor can give his young colleagues is example. That you behave in a very focused manner on the set, that you are accessible, that you know your lines, you hit your mark, and you will do as many takes as are necessary to make it work and to make it right. That’s the beautiful thing about my business is that it is entirely collaborative and therefore you can operate by example rather than get someone aside and say, “Look I need to give you a good talking to.” So it’s hopefully by example. So if I’ve destroyed all the young actors in this film it’s entirely my fault. I set the wrong example. (Laughter)
(SPOILER WARNING: From this point on, Sir Ben gave away a few too many secrets about his character and his fate, so if you don’t want to know more, you may want to skip the rest.)
Q: What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced with the filming?
Kingsley: The balance of playing a man who’s lying, so you have to strike a balance between I can’t fool the audience because I can’t fool my nephews. They’re three very intelligent nephews. So I have to sustain this Machiavellian approach but with a smile. As Shakespeare says, “You smile and smile and smile and be a villain.” So the challenge is never to be villainous as we were saying earlier but to have that absolute assurety that it is my character’s manifest destiny to be king and to play that inner security, as opposed to villainy, is the great challenge. It makes it very exciting for me to be guided by Mike through his journey so that one hopes eventually the people who watch it will wind back their DVDs and say “THAT’s when I knew he was a real villain.” Others may discover later. It’s universally known towards the end of the film, but there are moments where the clues are. You really have to look for the clues, and I want to lay clues but not make them obvious. The way I look at the dagger out of the corner of my eye, the way I the way I manipulate the brothers against each other, that sort of thing.
Q: Is it possible you might return in possible future installments or does your character meet a grizzly death?
Kingsley: Well, there’s this thing they have, which winds back time so however grizzly the death is… and I do fall on a spear at the end of the film, I’m speared by my nephew. There’s every possibility that Nizam will be back.
Q: Do you have to sign something or did Mike convince you to sign for more movies?
Kingsley: Nizam doesn’t sign things. (Laughter)
Q: What about Sir Ben? Does he?
Kingsley: He certainly would. It’s a lovely experience.