Sir Ben Kingsley’s Kindlier Killer


While he could easily follow the likes of Sly Stallone and Bruce Willis by selling out and doing Gandhi II, Sir Ben Kingsley has not been resting on his laurels in recent years by taking obvious, traditional roles. In John Dahl’s crime-comedy You Kill Me, he continues his trend of playing eclectic characters with Frank Falenczyk, a Polish hitman working in Buffalo, NY, whose drinking problem leads to so many mistakes that his boss Roman (Philip Baker Hall) sends him on a journey of discovery to San Francisco, where Frank joins an Alcoholics Anonymous program and takes a new job in a mortuary where he meets Laurel, played by the film’s executive producer Téa Leoni. sat down with Kingsley for a brief Q ‘n’ A about his latest movie/role, and really, he could have recited from a phone book and we would have been caught up in his every word. What made you decided this type of gangster compared to some of the ones you’ve played in previous movies?
Ben Kingsley: As I read it, as I turned the page, I loved the consistency of the writing of this character. In so many lesser screenplays, there’s an inconsistency or you get five characters in a scene, and they’re all written in exactly the same way, so if you blank out who’s speaking, you can’t tell, because they don’t have their individual rhythms. Now in this screenplay, everyone has a beautiful individual rhythm. What I’ve really enjoyed about reading Frank is that he stays Frank from the beginning to the end. There’s an interior shift, definitely a change, but he is the same child within, and the child stays the same throughout the film. He stays very child-like and that’s what I also found really endearing about possibly playing him and then eventually playing him, that child-like quality, somewhat monosyllabic, somewhat removed from society. Not very grateful to the care and attention he’s receiving from his uncle and his cousin, and in a rather child-like way, keeping affection away until his whole resistance crumbles and he can’t say “No” to affection any more and support, and that’s when Téa walks into his life. Perfect timing.

CS: Did the other gangsters you’ve played inform this character at all, whether to play him similar or different?
Kingsley: Definitely did, especially doing “Sexy Beast” which is sort of a second cousin to Frank. Much more an animal in its purer form in a sense of pure violence. I can’t imagine Don Logan sending gift cards to people that he killed badly or hurt badly or to their relatives, so there’s no redemptive side to Don but he’s one end of the scale that Frank could become if he wasn’t careful, that he could disappear into a terrible blackness and probably self-destruct. So it was good to have that background already in me, the knowledge or the familiarity with that world of that almost indifferent, casual act of violence.

CS: Did you see Frank as being someone who is intrinsically nice and was just a killer doing a job?
Kingsley: Definitely. I think the alcohol is a way of coping with the complete dichotomy of being a decent guy who kills people for a living. Frank is a decent guy. I think he’s almost innocent and child-like and has a sense of decency, but if his uncle says to go and kill somebody, he’ll say “okay” and go and kill them, almost naively. I don’t think he’s that profoundly dark, Iago-type force that Don Logan is. Don Logan’s a cruel force of nature. That’s why he’s in that film, but there’s definitely something redeemable in Frank. It does get redeemed later on in the film. I think he’s a decent man, but he’s had to suppress and disguise and drown his decency in alcohol in order for him to function, but then that stops him from functioning as well, so it’s a downwards spiral.

CS: You seem to enjoy playing those types of characters where they have some hidden part of them that eventually emerges, so how do you work that out in your own head?
Kingsley: I think it’s very much how the other actors approach me, how the character of Frank is illuminated by Téa’s presence and by his uncle’s presence or cousin’s presence that very much you see Frank in how he responds to other people. With John Dahl as director, you always kept those responses rooted in truth, rooted in reality. We never spiraled off into what was completely unreal. Everything had a real starting point, even that crazy Irish wake has a real starting point of that’s how the Irish say goodbye to their departed loved ones. They get a lot of whisky and they drink. I think that it’s 99% for me how other characters respond to me and in turn, how my character responds to them. It’s not something that happens in isolation, and I honestly don’t know how it’s going to play out until I’m on the set face-to-face with the director and the other actors. I don’t have many preconceptions. I know who Frank is, but I don’t know how Frank is going to react until Laurel provokes me or Phillip or Dennis or Bill or any of our great cast.

CS: Did you have any second thoughts about doing the movie when you realized that it would have to be done a lot cheaper than planned, shooting in Winnipeg?
Kingsley: Well, Winnipeg turned out to be a beautiful experience. I had no second thoughts whatsoever. Once John was in place and Téa and the fantastic cast and the script is so strong and good, I felt that confidently could reconstruct the environment we needed to construct. The AA meetings were beautiful. All those details were absolutely marvelous, so I didn’t have any second thoughts at all. I was just so glad we were going to make the film.

CS: Can you talk about how you decided on how much of an accent to give Frank, as well as how Americanized you wanted that to be?
Kingsley: Sure. I think I wanted him to have certain Polish rhythms, certain slightly Old World Polish inflections. Also, I rather like the way he doesn’t talk too much until it’s time for him to stand at the podium and explain to the AA meeting who he is, what his history is and what his hopes are. I think that sense of family, of patriarchy, that Eastern European thing of vodka and sentimentality and loyalty, I think they all played a part in that voice eventually coming out the way it did.

CS: Does taking on some sort of accent help add to how you envision the character?
Kingsley: It can help sometimes a lot. In the last film I did which I finished last week—it’s a Philip Roth novel called “The Dying Animal” which I did with Penelope Cruz (Note: The film is called Elegy)—and I asked the director and the team if I could please do it in my own voice, because I wanted it to be as dangerously close to me as possible. When I was performing in the character, I was using my own speech patterns and rhythms. It was quite thrilling actually. There was no mask to hide behind. There was no disguise to hide behind. I had to create him out of me. Sometimes an accent can become a trick that you hide behind and I wanted Frank’s voice to be very much my voice but with those Buffalo and Polish tones in it, not for it to overwhelm the character. And it can overwhelm the character sometimes, so there’s always trying to find that balance.

CS: Because Frank doesn’t talk a lot, he has to use body language, so what was the strategy you came up for that aspect of the character?
Kingsley: I decided that I wanted to present the same silhouette from the beginning of the film to the end. It was my choice to wear a black suit, a black crew neck t-shirt, a black hat, and black cowboy boots. I wanted to give the impression that once, he was a really cool hit man. He’s still got the uniform, but it’s all over the place now. It’s gone. He still has that gesture of self-respect still left, so there was still something redeemable in there that you could take and you could heal. The cowboy boots actually changed how I walked, and wearing a really sharp black suit as I did, altered how you stand and also the hat. That outfit was a great help to me, so I said, “Please, no costume changes at all. From the beginning to the end, let the audience see the same guy change.”

CS: Those AA meetings are a key part of the film, so how much research did you have to do personally? Did you go to any real AA meetings?
Kingsley: No, I didn’t. I was thrilled with the AA meetings. When I walked into them as an actor, they were so detailed in their realism, even things that the audience would never see. I went to the church hall, and I remember to my right was the notice board, it was covered in AA help notices and phone numbers, not one thing to distract me, because my first entrance started in the doorway and had to come into the room. I was full of AA meeting information by the time I just stood there for two seconds and realized that it was completely genuine: the faces in the meeting, the characters, the lighting in that church hall which is always that rather odd strip-lighting that they use in church halls that makes everybody look like they’re underwater, the smell of the tea and the coffee and the cookies to one side. It was such an embracing environment. I thought, “You know, why don’t you just walk into John Dahl’s version of an AA meeting and see what that’s like?” I would imagine it’s very, very close to the real thing.

You Kill Me opens in select cities on Friday with a wider expansion planned for July 6.