A Man for All Oscars
An interview with House of Sand and Fog star Sir Ben Kingsley
As if you couldn't tell from his four Oscar nominations (one of which—1982's Gandhi—nabbed him the Best Actor statuette), Sir Ben Kingsley is an actor's actor. His magnificently divergent personas—from a humble Jewish accountant in Schindler's List to a rancorous Cockney gangster in Sexy Beast—have made him one of the screen world's most exciting actors.
Kingsley's most recent role in director Vadim Perelman's grim character drama House of Sand and Fog earned him the fourth of those Oscar nominations. On Feb. 29, Kingsley will be competing against the likes of Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Bill Murray and Jude Law for the Best Actor Oscar at the 76th annual Academy Awards.
In House of Sand and Fog, Kingsley gives a tour de force performance as Col. Behrani, an exiled Iranian army officer reduced to working minimum wage jobs in America to support his immigrant family. When he seizes his chance at the American Dream and buys a crumbling seaside house at a property auction, Behrani unwittingly finds himself in a war of wills against the home's former owner, a recovering drug addict played by Jennifer Connelly.
Alibi recently had the rare opportunity to chat with Kingsley about his role in this Oscar-nominated film.
I know you spent quite a bit of time in Albuquerque last summer shooting Suspect Zero. When might we see that film?
I don't know. I think March I heard possibly it might be released. That's all I know right now.
How did you survive your stay in Albuquerque?
I had a great opportunity to do a master class at the University [of New Mexico]. I was with about 200 students in a big hall and I broke them down into small groups. They prepared—quite beautifully prepared—something from Taming of the Shrew, something from As You Like It and something from Midsummer Night's Dream. So we had three Shakespeares and something from Sam Beckett's Waiting for Godot. I'm familiar with all these plays from my life in the theater. So, I worked with the students in front of other students and the results were thrilling. Absolutely thrilling. I can still see a journey that one particular actor made that was so brave and magnificent.
Is that something you traditionally do when you are on location?
I like very much to teach, to be allowed to do a two-hour acting class at any major college or university that is within, say, an hour or so of where I'm shooting. So, maybe, if I was shooting for 10 weeks, I might get two classes in. Not many more, because I don't always have the time. I hope it's good for the students, and I find it very good for me. It's very stimulating, very exciting because it refreshes all my ideas about the craft of acting and, maybe, in the heat of rehearsal something is handed on to the younger actors. They're so brave, choosing to be actors. Goodness!
Nowadays, when you go into a role and you look at a script, do you look at the whole package? Do you look at the story or does it all boil down to your character for you?
No, I have to look at the story. And I did very much with House of Sand and Fog appreciate how beautifully the story is put together in a way that allows, even in narrative terms, for the man and woman, who are struggling in the film over the same dream, [to share the stage]. In filmmaking terms, the film was under Vadim [Perelman]'s direction shot for shot. But, on the page, it was perfectly balanced. You do not know which [character] to sympathize with because the script is so beautifully constructed that it's not a clearly cut case as to who is to blame for what—who should or should not have pushed at that particular moment, who should or should not have backed off. It was a great read. I really wanted to be a part of this extraordinary equation—this battle, this little war over this patch of earth.
When you take on a role like this, that's so different from yourself naturally, do you work with a dialog coach, do you look at culture, what goes in to preparing?
I jump. I take a huge leap from myself, a leap of faith. I am guided to a great degree by the script. I place a great deal of faith in the script and how the script dictates that my character behaves with other people in the film. That's my map. That's my main map. Then, hopefully [I] have a wonderful relationship with my fellow actors. So: relationship with script, fellow actor, director and finally a relationship with my character. But that will only come, that will only be in place, if the collaboration is there on all sides. So the collaborative element is essential to me, completely essential. I can't do it by myself. [Laughs.]