Over the summer, a small independent movie called Elegy was released. Directed by Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me), the film was adapted from Philip Roth’s novel “The Dying Gaul” and it starred Sir Ben Kingsley as David Kepesh, a literary professor who gets into a relationship with his much younger student Consuela, played by Penelope Cruz, a relationship David proceeds to sabotage at every turn.
In a career full of amazing performances, it’s one of Sir Ben’s most memorable ones in quite some time, maybe because it’s also the first character in a long time where he uses his own voice and accent as well as his own look. He’s also been paired in many scenes with Dennis Hopper, another veteran actor who’s been making movies for over 50 years, playing David’s best friend poet George Ahern.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to Coixet over the summer, but last week, we had a chance to talk separately to Kingsley and his co-star Dennis Hopper about their roles in the movie, when they stopped briefly through New York for the Gotham Awards. Yeah, it’s kind of weird doing a feature on a movie that’s no longer in theaters and isn’t yet on DVD, but it’s one of those rare opportunities you don’t pass up.
Sir Ben is easily one of the better interview subjects a writer can possibly have because he gives you such intelligent and thoughtful answers to your questions that it always makes you feel like your questions are the best ones he’s ever been asked.
Also, check out our separate interview with Dennis Hopper here.
ComingSoon.net: It must be strange revisiting this movie so long after you shot it.
Ben Kingsley: When did we film this? June of 2007. So it’s about a year and a half ago.
CS: Had it been in development for a long time before that?
Kingsley: I think it had because I was sent the script five years previous and so was Penelope. I think she was really the one who championed it to Gary Lucchesi and Tom, and then it surfaced again in 2006 and my wonderful agent at CAA read it, sent it to me and said, “We’ve really got to try and make this work.” He was wonderful with them, Chris my agent, and said that I would do it, that they should really hang in there and raise the money ’cause they very much wanted Penelope and I. We hung in there and the miracle happened and we were walking onto the set in 2007.
CS: I think Isabel told me that you two had a conversation at dinner and that she wanted both Dennis and Patty (Clarkson), and that both agreed to do it since you were on board.
Kingsley: How lovely. That’s lovely how things grow.
CS: Were you familiar with Philip Roth’s work beforehand?
Kingsley: Going back a bit I was, but more recently I was able to watch a documentary made by a German filmmaker on Philip and really enjoyed. You weren’t quite with him, but it was quite an intimate searching documentary and he’s a very charming, urbane, raconteur, lovely sense of history, of his parents, of America, of his culture, full of irony, very witty. I really enjoyed watching him on the screen and found him immensely likeable. I’m sure that face to face, one on one I’d find him such a daunting intelligence that I’d probably be completely schtum, but watching him on the screen I found him most endearing.
CS: I always felt like his characters are an extension of himself.
Kingsley: They’re not, he says they’re not. He says that they go where he doesn’t.
CS: As far as this character, were you able to relate to him at all? One thing different about this movie is that you’re using your own voice and you look closer to the way you normally do, which is different for you. I was curious about that, coming into this knowing that you wouldn’t have those other things to use in building the character.
Kingsley: Yes, because it’s such a study in male vulnerability, I didn’t really want to opt for any disguises like a hairpiece or a different makeup or clothes that I wouldn’t normally wear, or indeed, lurking behind a voice that isn’t mine. What I wanted to offer to Isabel and to all the cast, but perhaps most importantly Penelope–and because it is with that character that Kepesh meets his nemesis, his equal opposite, and the love of his life all in one–that I wanted to be able to work with them. Then when the director said, “Cut,” I didn’t want to go to that peculiar area of going back into my voice. What I don’t do ever is sustain a character. I’ve only ever done that once.
CS: With Fagin in “Oliver Twist,” I remember that.
Kingsley: Yes, yes, with the little boys. But otherwise I don’t and I felt I really didn’t want to keep jumping in and out of me because it’s such a study in vulnerability. Why put on a mask? Why put on armor plating? Why put on a disguise when I really need to take risks and be vulnerable in front of the camera? Also, I was able, thanks to Gary and Tom and Isabel, I asked them if I please could have him be an English professor which they incorporated into the text, just one line, but it made it feasible. Then, in the simple wardrobe fitting, if I could while occupying his body as an actor, I could just see textures that could very easily be mine because I never looked down and thought, “Oh, I’m wearing someone else’s trousers.” Sometimes that’s a great help to a character, but with him, I didn’t want anything to come between me and him. So in a sense, the closeness of the two made it much more difficult and I didn’t allow myself to sentimentalize him, didn’t allow myself to judge him, didn’t insist on the audience liking him, made him quite unlikable sometimes. Just try to look after Consuela, his vulnerabilities to the best of my ability, offer them to the camera, to Isabel, and to Penelope for them to work with and react to. I think it allowed Penelope the lack of disguise allowed her to be very vulnerable to me. And I think the wonderful thing that we shared on the set was that vulnerability and trust.
CS: Isabel is amazing. She told me she actually does the camera work herself.
Kingsley: She’s behind the camera. She’s operating the camera and there were times in scenes between Penelope and I most certainly, and also with Dennis and Patricia and Peter, that she would emerge from behind the camera visibly shaken and would say, “I don’t want to film that again. I want to move on.” We’d all know that we’d arrived at some hoped for target on her journey, a milestone on her journey of the film, and she would say, “We’ve passed that milestone” a lovely feeling. Other directors, I’m sorry to say, don’t know where the milestone is, don’t know when they’ve touched it, that’s like another forty takes. It’s such a waste of energy.
CS: You really see it on screen; you and the other four actors are doing some of the best work I’ve seen.
Kingsley: Thank you. It’s not many takes. It’s not many takes. I would say that when we’re up to five and six, it was getting unusual. A lot of it’s one or two or three.
CS: As far as when you’re talking before about being so close to Kepesh. I saw parts of your personality creep into him once in a while. Was it hard to separate that when you were in between takes or set-ups?
Kingsley: No. It’s beautiful making films like this because we were all so engaged in examining male vulnerability and examining the male terror of intimacy if you like, that the debate never–not that it was a vociferous debate, a sort of blah blah, but those questions were ricocheting around the room all the time–jokes, conversations, gestures, a little bit of help, notes, acting notes, changing of lens, changing of angle, changing of lighting, opportunities to just be totally still in front of the camera. Instead of acting loneliness, Isabel allowed me to be totally still in front of a window. It’s like a Greek painting called “The Loneliest Man in the World.” So that wonderful quest for defining male vulnerability and defining terror and intimacy, and defining and loving Consuela’s unswerving decision–there he is. Complete, and from the beginning of the film to the end–there he is. And my swerving escape route (laughs), constantly swerving away from… what’s that saying? “A man chases a woman until she catches him”? It’s a classic example of that.
CS: What does Consuela see in your character?
Kingsley: Oh, dear. I don’t know how to answer that. (laughs)
CS: Is it because he’s different or because of his fame?
Kingsley: You’d have to ask her… (laughs)
CS: He’s such an interesting character because we see so much confidence in him–it takes that confidence to go on television for instance–but then we see this other side of him. I guess everyone who’s that confidence must have some amount of insecurities buried inside them, but to actually see them come out like that.
Kingsley: I’m going to see if I can successfully dodge answering this question. Certainly I think that the director saw a positive value in male vulnerability where it’s very often, particularly on the screen, it’s male invulnerability that’s valued and I think that’s really got out of wack. It’s really got out of wack. I think it is possibly the whole side of him that Consuela saw–the man meeting the outer world and the man struggling with his inner world–and I think the arms just go around men like that for some women, they’re big enough to hold that embrace–(that’s a) difficult man, a difficult man to love. She stood her ground and she stood that test. I think that brings the film a beautiful symmetry – the end part. I say in my voiceover basically, “I want to get her into my bed,” says Kepesh, that the last gesture he makes is to get into her hospital bed. I find that quite beautiful as a piece of balance to filmmaking, symmetry.
CS: I wanted to talk to you your character’s relationship with Dennis Hopper’s character George. Originally I wanted to talk to you both together, but you’re both so busy it’s hard to get you in the same room. You’ve both been making movies for so long, but you’ve never worked together before this movie. Had you ever met before?
Kingsley: Very briefly.
CS: In the movie, you guys seem like you’re the best of friends.
Kingsley: But actors are very good. When we’re talking about real actors, there is a general bond, born of struggle, of love of craft, of discipline; there’s a genuine bond. I think when you throw people together who are not actors–they’re called actors, but it’s very unfair ’cause they’re not–they really dislike each other because there’s no trust, there’s no bond, they don’t know what they’re doing and they don’t realize that it’s all collaborative. They think it’s all about them.
CS: Do you think actors make the best directors for that reason?
Kingsley: Yes, Attenborough is a spectacular director to work for and Scorsese is a very good actor and he’s wonderful to work for. I think you need to cast your film extremely well. As you were saying earlier, that she did cast Patricia and Dennis and Peter after Penelope and I were in place. She chose actors who, under certain circumstances, who under the right ones, and this film is the right one – who could really bond. Bond because they knew that the story they were telling was worth it. This exploration of our deep seeded terror of intimacy and the struggle to overcome that, and the avoidance of that confrontation, and ultimately that God’s saying to Kepesh, “You can’t avoid this anymore ’cause we’ve got to bring you this. Now, get out of that one.” And you can’t.
CS: I wanted to ask you about the vulnerability with Kepesh. Philip Roth wrote another novel that showed Kepesh earlier in his life. Did you ever read that and incorporate some of that into his personality?
Kingsley: My Kepesh is a mosaic of people that I’ve met, people that I know, and he’s a collection of vulnerabilities that I find very endearing and important that one should tackle. Like any great stage character or film character, the overcoming or the collection of vulnerabilities and flaws are what compels an audience to watch and to examine and it really is, I would say, ninety percent intuitive jump with Kepesh.
CS: As far as Dennis’ character, George, do you feel like he is David’s conscience? Do you feel like he is the devil on your shoulder?
Kingsley: I don’t really know.
CS: It’s a very strange relationship.
Kingsley: They love each other. They confide in each other. I think ultimately they are good for each other. I think it offers itself to the audience saying, “Here’s a friendship, where do you fit into this?” And I’m sure many men would say, “Oh, yeah.” In fact, it was a woman who said to me having seen “Elegy,” “How did you know my best friend’s ex-boyfriend? How did you know him?” And it’s stunning.
CS: Was she talking about you or Dennis?
Kingsley: Me; apparently Kepesh is this girl’s girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend. If I set out to say, “Kepesh is this,” I’d block off all those possible connections in the audience, so I think we must go back to the script I think. Debby Harry says, “He saw you, you saw him for what he really was,” and I think it’s that seeing of the other that’s really important in love and in friendship that you really, you just see the other. It’s not judging, it’s seeing.
CS: It’s amazing that Roth can write something so beautiful as what you just said, but also come up with lines like “Beautiful women should be invisible” or “When you make love to a woman, you get revenge.” Things like that make his characters seem almost misogynistic, so how do you feel about that part of the text? Obviously you can’t judge your character, but things like that make him seem so angry and hateful.
Kingsley: I’m afraid that’s where he was in his journey. I think that the Kepesh during the relationship with his beloved cancer-suffering beauty would not be capable of saying something like that. You have to show the terribly difficult journey that man has to make to get away from saying those things. At the point of saying them, I have to be completely in that moment in order for the audience to say, “Oh, look how far he’s come from that.”
CS: Did Isabel have you do that narration beforehand or afterwards?
Kingsley: It was during. Sometimes she’d clear the set and I’d sit down and narrate a scene that I’d just done. So we were really in the Kepesh zone.
CS: That’s really interesting.
Kingsley: Yeah, it’s a lovely way of working.
CS: Yeah, I’m sure no one else ever does that.
Kingsley: They don’t. You do it in a studio cold afterwards and it was beautiful how she did it allowed me to do it.
CS: As far as the title, obviously “The Dying Animal” is a very specific title…
Kingsley: Which one is the “Dying Animal”?
CS: Exactly, that’s the thing, but they changed it to “Elegy”…
Kingsley: I loved the title “The Dying Animal,” but I think it was a sensible audience choice. I love the title “Elegy.” I have no qualms about it at all, and I think that you do have to translate a novel for the screen. It is a process of translation. It’s very difficult to compare one art form with another and I think it’s a very appropriate title.
CS: I’ve got to ask about the Martin Scorsese experience. When I talked to you in January, I don’t think it actually happened yet. You filmed “Shutter Island” right after Sundance, right?
Kingsley: I did. I was just about to go to “Scorsese Land” as I called it.
CS: As an actor, having worked on so many films, do you still get as excited working with someone like Scorsese as a 25-year-old actor might?
Kingsley: Most definitely. Most definitely.
CS: Did it meet your expectations and everything that you hoped from doing a film with him?
Kingsley: I think that the level of attention that he brings to a set is quite extraordinary in that, like Isabel, whatever you offer the camera during a take between action and cut, he has seen every single gesture and every intonation, every person in the scene including fifteen extras or twenty five extra, or how many other extras, and the movement of traffic, and the rain outside the window, everything.
CS: That’s quite a talent. I wonder how somebody is able to hone that talent.
Kingsley: He must end the day either high as a kite, or exhausted, but there’s no middle ground with Marty.
CS: “Gandhi” was the first thing you did where we learned about you in the States, and you were 37 at the time. Is there anything about your life before that point you would like people to know about?
Kingsley: What, in the theater?
CS: Sure. We’ve seen you in so many movies and roles since then and you’ve done a lot of press, but there must be some area of your life before you turned 37 that we don’t really know anything about.
Kingsley: Isn’t that wonderful?
CS: It’s interesting because usually when you’re at that age, you don’t look forward and think, “Oh, I have years ahead of me.”
Kingsley: I did “Pascali’s Island” when I was forty three, but “Gandhi” was six years earlier than that, and before that I became a stage actor when I was twenty-one and I’d been fifteen, sixteen years in classical theater mostly Shakespeare, Chekov, Pinter, Brecht, Johnson. They were great years where I really learned what it is, what it means to be an actor, what it is to be an actor. There’s only one way to learn and that’s by really doing it, sometimes under very difficult circumstances. I never stopped working. I haven’t stopped working since twenty-one. When I was thirty-six, thirty-seven, I was becoming very restless about the theater. I felt boxed in. It’s an easy metaphor to use about theater, but I really did. Boxed in by the proscenium arch, boxed in, boxed in, and I didn’t know what to do about it or why I felt boxed in, but Attenborough rang me and talked me out of the box.
CS: There you go. And the rest is history.
Kingsley: (laughs) The rest is history.