Ben Kingsley is one of the most instantly recognisable of all British actors, with his bald head and piercing eyes. Having taken to stage acting in the sixties he made the move to cinema with his most famous role as Gandhi in the film of the same name, made by Richard Attenborough in 1982. His CV features over 100 different roles in TV, film and at the theatre, and includes the likes of Bugsy, Schindler’s List, Sexy Beast, Thunderbirds, Oliver Twist, Shutter Island and Hugo. He is also due to take up the character of a villain in the forthcoming Iron Man 3, opposite Robert Downey Jr.
Recently starring alongside Sacha Baron Cohen in the comedy film The Dictator, he talked about working with the renowned comedian, the power of satire on film, and looking forward to featuring in his first comic book role.
Have you seen the finished film?
Not yet. I was there when he was filming it, of course, but I don’t know how he is going to edit it. Sacha and Larry have a wealth of amazing scripted material and improvised material.
How much improvisation was there?
I would say it was about 50-50. We did about 50 per cent on script, which was invaluable, and then we’d have what we called alternate versions and we would do quite a lot of takes on the alternate versions, but always staying within the mandate of the scene. We never improvised into oblivion and strayed off just to be funny - it was always relevant to the scene and the thrust of the story. It’s a very clever political satire.
And did you enjoy working that way?
I do enjoy working that way. The first improvised movie I did was for Mike Leigh, who is the maestro of improvised movies. And provided the exercise has strict limits - you need to achieve something within the improvisation – then it’s always a joy. If there are no boundaries it’s like a tennis match with no net and no white lines on the court, it’s a mess. But if there are boundaries and targets within the improvisation, then it’s very exciting, especially with Sacha.
Fortunately, I was the straight man – I wouldn’t dare to try and be funny around Sacha Baron Cohen, because that’s more than my job’s worth! [Laughs] I loved being his straight man, but that was very challenging, because there were things going on right in front of my face that were screamingly funny and all I was allowed to do was look a little bit baffled.
So it was hard to keep a straight face?
Oh yes, it was very hard to keep a straight face. It was hilarious and to be two inches away from Sacha going at full blast and have to be stoically indifferent to what he was doing was the most challenging acting exercise I could imagine.
How did this come about? Because you had worked with Sacha before on Hugo. Did he talk to you about The Dictator then?
I worked with Sacha on Hugo and I didn’t waste any time telling him how much I admired him when we chatted on the set. We only shared a tiny scene together at the end of Hugo when I rescue the boy from him, but we were on the set together and I watched him work and we built a nice relationship. Then he phoned me and sent me the original script for The Dictator, from which we strayed very little, actually.
And he said, ‘Look, we are working in a very precise, scientific way, in that we construct a scene almost from the ground up. Would you come over to New York to work with Larry and me, and discuss the script and see how we all get on?’ And I had the most marvelous afternoon with Sacha, Larry and Scott Rudin, the producer, where we just dove into it and improvised. It was great fun.
When did you first become aware of Sacha’s comedy? Did you see Ali G?
Yes, I first became aware of Sacha when I watched his Ali G television show. I remember howling with laughter at the opening credits, and then those outrageous interviews he did. I thought it was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen. I’d also watched Borat and Bruno, and I preferred Borat, I just thought he was more on his game with that, personally. My wife was in Ali G Indahouse (2002), so she knew Sacha before I did. And she thoroughly enjoyed working with him.