Sir Ben Kingsley On 'Hugo,' Hollywood And His Valiant Battle
Though the days of metal-plated armor and charging horses have long since passed, Sir Ben Kingsley believes he is fighting his own valiant battle. "I am a champion of my industry, and I'm fighting the committee," the Oscar-winner said, pitting his long-held ideals against the current (and, in his opinion, troubled) state of Hollywood. So he's taking the battle into own hands, ramping up the production slate of his 5-year-old production company SBK-Pictures.
It's an apt time for Kingsley to launch his effort to return the movie industry to its storytelling roots, given that he stars in Martin Scorsese's new 3D film "Hugo" as one of film's original pioneers, Georges Méliès. With over 100 film and TV credits to his name during a career that has already spanned 45 years, Kingsley continues to set a torrid pace, and has at least three more movies set to come out in 2012. He spoke with The Huffington Post on his concerns about the future of movies and his role in "Hugo."
Box-office returns have been struggling lately; do you and your colleagues worry about that?
I think the frustration or the anxiety is being reflected by the industry itself. This year, we have "My Week With Marilyn," we have "The Artist," and "Hugo." They're all exploring the narrative tradition of film, and once that narrative tradition has faded or broken or snapped, we're going to be hard-pressed to repair it. So our anxiety in the business is, how do we ensure that we carry on making character-driven, narrative films? That's our job as storytellers, and if we deviate from them and go to a film that is basically a string of sensationalist effects, the thread will snap and we'll find that people will stop going to the cinema, because people always look for the story. However disguised or sugared-over it is, they look for the story, and once the story is not there anymore, I think we've had it.
If these big blockbuster movies are flopping, wouldn't it make sense to make smaller, cheaper films with real stories? It seems the industry is shooting itself in the foot.
I think that once you start to make crucial decisions by committee and each member of that committee is extremely anxious about his or her job, then you're not going to have the right decisions made. You're going to have decisions that are fear-based, you are going to have decisions based on what they think they should say, or what they think their boss needs to hear, rather than going out on a limb and being actually creative. A committee as a body isn't normally creative. There are only so many creative people, and I think that fewer and fewer of them actually watch film. This is where Marty [Scorsese] is so heroic -- where he insists that we never lose touch with the birth of our industry, which was magnificent -- and if the business is run by committee and the individuals have no passion or vested interest in the progress of the industry, I think we'll be in bad shape.
You've worked with so many modern-day storytellers, including with Scorsese twice over the last year. Are there any other directors you'd like to work with?
There probably are. There may be some lurking out there, that are first-time directors that are absolute geniuses, they don't even have a name yet in my head. Those are the ones that excite me. To be with a director taking his or her first steps is thrilling.
You have such a long filmography and it seems like you're working now as much or even more than ever. Is that because you want to discover those new directors?
I want to discover new directors and new writers. I do have my own production company I share with my wife -- we have five screenplays on our slate. I have meetings here in L.A. to push it all forward. I have a passion for storytelling. It's really all I live for; it's all I have. It's what I do in order to be me.
In this film, you play a revered original storyteller. Did you study his films or his life? Which was most important?
What was most important to me was how to play the man's loss. So I started by examining his gain. In order to explore the terrible deficit in the toy shop, I needed to explore the gain, in order to appreciate and portray the anesthetized state he lived in his years in the toy shop. So I watched a whole box of DVDs of Georges, given to me by Marty, and I saw his colossal energy, his multitasking, his joy -- his absolute joy of being in his movies, writing his movies, directing, writing, set decorating, costume designs, editing, everything. And also, having the opportunity to inhabit George in his glass palace. He was the king of his glass palace, his studio. I was able then to appreciate how empowered he was by it, and then of course, Marty filmed the sequence of me burning everything. I felt a terrible pang of regret, not only as Georges but as myself, burning these things, standing next to that colossal heat of that bonfire and slightly singeing my eyeballs, I remember.
To hear you speak about the way you inhabited a man who lived so long ago, it brings to mind the many iconic figures that you played, that people know even more. What do you prefer: to play a known person, or to create your own fictional character?
I think where I would separate out the two categories would perhaps be for me to recognize something that's eternal, as opposed to something that is very transient and invented. Now, a lot of modern fiction movie scripts are very transient, very shallow -- you can't actually plug into the eternal. And what I love to do is plug into the eternal dilemma, and what I mean is the old myth. And the old myth that I embraced as Georges is the blind man in exile guided back into life at the hands of a child. I think that's an ancient Greek myth, thousands of years old, but it's totally relevant and it's embedded in our film "Hugo" today.