KINGSLEY FOR A DAY
Byline: Natasha Fraser
PARIS — A blindfold is being put across the eyes of Ben Kingsley.
“Not too tight,” he warns. Beads of sweat begin to run down the actor’s high forehead. The atmosphere on the set of “Death and the Maiden” (which just opened) is tight and tense, and the boyish figure of Roman Polanski oversees everything. Polanski is once again working with a cast of three, as he did on his first feature film, “Knife in the Water.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t higher on the eyes last time?” the director calls back to the continuity woman, who produces Polaroids to show it wasn’t. Sigourney Weaver stands nearby, wincing.
“It’s always traumatizing for Ben,” she whispers. Kingsley has described himself as being like a “blob of nerve endings” when his vision is blocked.
Kingsley has had his share of grandly traumatic roles: his Oscar-winning turn in “Gandhi,” his Oscar-nominated performance as Meyer Lansky in “Bugsy” and Izhak Stern in “Schindler’s List.” But if you expect to see a worried, neurotic man, search elsewhere. Kingsley is upbeat, dressed elegantly and, according to Thom Mount, this film’s producer, possessed of “an abiding sense of irony.”
But in his dressing room (the movie was shot last summer), he’s being very British and making his first pot of tea for the day.
“Ask me what you like, love,” he calls out cheerily to the interviewer.
Kingsley enjoys his craft and if he has one complaint, it’s that he wishes directors would see beyond the “great Shakespearian actor” image and allow him to play ordinary roles.
“I’ve told my agent, no more isolation, barbed wire, loners or victims. It’s time to shift and I’m absolutely determined to do it,” he says emphatically. The 50-year-old actor says that each time he has worked with directors such as Ivan Reitman, Barry Levinson and Steven Spielberg, they’ve had the same reaction. “They ask why I have never done light comedy, and I agree with them,” he says. “I don’t want to reach John Gielgud’s age and not have shown that side.”
Kingsley’s need for comic relief, after his role in Ariel Dorfman’s play-turned-film “Death and the Maiden,” is understandable. The actor describes the story as one of revenge. “I help a man change his tire, we go back to his house, we drink and bond, I fall asleep on his settee, his wife wakes me and knocks me unconscious,” he says. The wife, Paulina, played by Weaver, thinks she recognizes Kingsley’s voice as that of the man who tortured her when she was an Argentine political prisoner 15 years before. The screen relationship aside, the two get on quite well behind the scenes.
Kingsley jokes, “I’m going to miss not having Sigourney’s knickers in my mouth,” at which Weaver replies, “I’m going to miss all that tying up and practicing my knots out on you.”
The film is a thriller, a whodunnit; no one on the set, apart from Polanski and Kingsley, knows whether Kingsley’s character is innocent.
One of Polanski’s main reasons for casting Kingsley was his ambiguous physique.
“You can sympathize with him and suspect him at the same time,” Polanski says.
“Roman is like Spielberg,” Kingsley says. “He hates seeing acting on the screen. He’s very particular; he’s always saying, ‘Do less,’ and then he creates the right space for you.”
“I like clean, organic acting,” Polanski admits. “Ben is very gifted and you can technically ask him anything.”
Kingsley liked the fact that Polanski understood how chaos and an agitated state can overwhelm people’s lives. “He’d rather deny it, but it’s true,” Kingsley says. “It has a lot to do with his childhood in Kracow; he was one of the children who miraculously survived.”
Polanski even confesses a slight regret that the film had to come to a close.
“It was such a good experience, such a smooth shoot, that I’ll miss it all. We had what you called good vibes,” he notes.
Kingsley had to stay an extra two weeks to “bury” his part.
“I couldn’t carry it around with me on my next film,” he confesses.
He learned about getting rid of his role each night when he was filming “Schindler’s List.” “It was a great breakthrough,” he says. “Before, I used to be so frightened of losing the character. Then I decided to put it down between takes. I mean, an artist doesn’t walk around with a brush in his hand, outside his studio, does he? During ‘Schindler,’ I was never relaxed for the whole three and a half months of filming. At least in Paris, you are safe on the streets.”
He decided afterward that he couldn’t look at another swastika, another German uniform or hear another German song. He has nothing but praise for Spielberg and remains in close contact with co-stars Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. “It felt like we had been through the war together,” Kingsley says. “It was very tough.”
Sensitive to an anti-Semitic atmosphere in Poland, he says, “I was playing a Jew and I felt it was a hostile place. We were attacked in a bar one night and we had graffiti sprayed on our set.” Coincidentally, Polanski had been considered to direct “Schindler’s List.” “He told me he thought it was beautiful, but he couldn’t have done it, it was too close,” Kingsley says. “I think my performance in ‘Schindler’s List’ is probably better than my performance in ‘Gandhi.’ It was a harder role, but I had been allowed to move laterally.” In spite of recent successes, Kingsley doesn’t think of his film career as a smooth sail. After box-office failures like “Without a Clue” and “Harem,” he acknowledges, he climbed out of a hole when he worked with Barry Levinson on “Bugsy.” He then worked with Robert Redford on “Sneakers;” other recent films include “Searching for Bobby Fisher” with Joe Mantegna and “Dave” with Kevin Kline.
And Kingsley is not cynical about his Hollywood experience. He was thrilled when he won his Oscar and keeps it in a place of honor in his apartment. “Everyone can see it and I love that,” he says. “Of course, it matters.”