When Ben Kingsley walks into a room, no introduction is needed. His grace and presence cancel out the Sir in front of his name. Kingsley is one of the best of the best. He is in the top of his league. With Ghandi, Sexy Beast, Bugsy and The House of Sand and Fog under his belt, Kingsley has not only made it, he’s surpassed all.
In Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness, Kingsley plays Dr. Squires, a therapist badly in need of therapy himself who befriends a teenager to soon find out that they’re more alike than they both previously thought. Recently, Kingsley took time out to speak to LA.CityZine for his latest release The Wackness.
When you first heard about this project, did you have any advanced knowledge of this, what attracted you to the script, what made you want to do it?
What attracted me to the script was its perfect symmetry, it is a great comedy but it also has a heart, and of the heart it is this perfect symmetry of once upon a time there was a boy who had no parents, once upon a time there was a father who had no children. I love the way, if you start your story like that, the universe, in the story, finds a way of bringing these people together.
However momentarily, and they fulfill each other’s needs perfectly. I fulfilled my urgent need to parent somebody, because my stepdaughter doesn’t listen to me and my wife thinks I’m a joke. but I’m not, in me some where in my character is a really great parent, its clear because it works, and Luke’s parents lie to him continuously, and they fight in front of each other, and it must be terrifying for the child, to hear that awful language and to be lied to, and see your house being emptied before your eyes and not being told we have no money, and so he’s parent-less, I’m childless, and the universe brings us together, and for that crucial time we’re together it works, I found that symmetry beautiful.
Comedically, it’s flawless. I found it very, very funny. It’s dangerous, it’s tasteless at times, it’s elegant at times, it’s moving, it’s absurd, it’s never cynical. It’s never cruel or cynical, it never gets a laugh at somebody’s expense.
Wasn’t there also another aspect of your character where Dr. Squires wasn’t fully mature, I mean he was wise but he was also kind of an adolescent…
Very much, very much, I so love the vulnerability, its in the writing, it was there for me to exploit with Luke and of course my step daughter, with whom I’m far more comfortable as a fellow adolescent and as a parent figure, and the way that Josh’s (Peck) character and my character switch, he is the adult and I am the adolescent tagging behind, and I think our poster of me pushing the cart and Josh walking, there’s the adult (points to Josh) and there’s the adolescent (points to himself).
How did u find working with Josh?
Delightful! I learned later, he quoted from his favorite film to me very early on in filming, is Searching for Bobby Fischer, and he can quote huge passages from the film, we bonded over Searching for Bobby Fischer, saying the dialogue to each other from certain scenes, it’s a joy to work with an equal, I feel very at ease working with an equal, it’s like playing tennis, you can have a great game with somebody who plays an equal match with you, and everyone was equal in the film, I think Jonathan (Levine) casted beautifully, there’s not a weak link in the picture at all, it was a joy to work with him, an absolute joy.
You must be aware that everybody is on awe of you?
I’m not though, I’m not my dear, honestly I’m not.
But you get on the set and everybody is watching you to see what you’re going to do…
Well no I’m just another kid on the block I really am, it’s as fresh an experience for me. Day one for me is day one for them, the first take or first scene I have the same stomach full of butterflies that they have, the relief when the director says got it, let’s move on, is the same for me as it ever was and is for them, because as I said it’s a cast of equals, now if we were damned with a complete amateur playing Josh’s part, because he might look good on the cover of some magazines, it’s very cruel to the young man and it’s very hard on the other actors, and I’m afraid it does happen, but someone along the line says to this unsuspecting kid, “you should be in the movies,” and the poor unsuspecting kid says “oh ok,” and it doesn’t work like that and they must be so terrified and disappointed and challenged in all the wrong ways, it’s hard enough being them in the first place, but sitting them in front of a camera and telling them to act, no wonder they’re found overdosed, the gap is too big to bridge, they cannot do it, and it’s unfair to ask them to. Josh can, Josh absolutely can.
Josh started as a child actor, a lot people in this film did including Mary Kate Olsen, who you have an interesting scene with, do you think that, in your experience working with people who have been in the business as children, does it differ from person to person or do you find that they have a certain sense of discipline because they’ve been doing it for so long?
Yes they do have a sense of discipline, very often they’ve been in a television series, the demands from that as an actor are crushing, the turnout is enormous, the expectations very high, the consistency totally demanding, you cannot stray off your character, the audiences don’t like that, they want this, the writing and learning of the dialogue, the taping, the hours, the privacy, the onslaught on your personal life, they’re pretty extraordinary by the time they get into their early twenties, how old is Josh now (21), he’s about the age as my younger sons, he is a consummate professional, there is a difference because they last, those that are good last, those that can’t do it will tragically have to fall by the waste side, it’s ruthless, but you can’t ask someone to pretend to be an actor, it wont work, all the makeup, camera angles and script in the world wont work, you have terribly disappointed 20-year-olds when you throw it(television shows) away after 1 season.
This is a great role. When you read it, did you know exactly how you would play this?
Well I recognized the silhouette, his narrative function in the film, I knew what the character needed to do to make the film work and I think I had a head start as a young actor, being able to do a lot of Shakespeare, and because Shakespeare practically invented the human being, such a genius, there are certain roles I can read and think oh my goodness. For example Don Logan in “Sexy Beast,” its Iago, the bringer of destruction into Othello’s life, and I read this, I know that our director agrees with me, its a direct link echo from Sir John Falstaff and Prince Hal in Henry IV part 1 and 2 when he’s carousing in the town with John, its booze and serving wenches, its not the part but it’s exactly the same relationship, and he’s befriending the Prince, helping him, knowing that one day he’ll be the King and he needs to see this side of London in order to be a good King, in this sense the John Falstaff character, the crazy wonderful larger than life wizard needs to impart to the prince information that he’ll need when he’s King.
It’s so imperative that you and Josh had some kind of chemistry, do you think if he wasn’t who he was you still could have made it work?
It wouldn’t be the same film.
Because he didn’t audition with you, did you make sure you had him demonstrate?
I did see the screen test, Jonathan sent me Josh’s screen test, which I found beautiful. I did learn later, that Josh somewhere on some web site named me as his favorite actor, and I didn’t know this. he was asked who’s your favorite actor, and he said Ben Kingsley, and we end up working together. Just as the universe brings us together in the movie, I think the universe brings people together in life. And I’m sure Jonathan would agree, once the film;s cast and scenes begin to be assembled it s very difficult to imagine anyone else doing it other than the cast we have.
It seems that psychiatrists, it’s just a cliche I guess now that psychiatrists are just as or more screwed up than their patients, I wonder if you think that’s a cliche?
So when you read that did you feel, I want to make him solid, because that’s a cliche?
No, I think it’s a truism, I think it’s a truth that people who cannot heal themselves want power over others in order to look as though they’re care-taking some other, but it’s all projection, my character projects my entire adolescents on to Josh’s character, saying “don’t do what I did, don’t be like me.”
Can I ask you what film you saw when you were growing up that you realized that films could change people’s lives?
I was 4-years-old and it changed my life because I was determined to be a film actor. It’s called “Never Take No for an Answer,” by Maurice Cloche. Martin Scorsese found me a copy of it which is very kind of him, and he remembers seeing it when he was young too and I was taken to the cinema to see “Never Take no for an Answer” (0r The Small Miracle) and its been my motto ever since. It’s about a little boy whose donkey is dying in an Italian village and he cant get his donkey into the crypt of St. Francis of Assisi without special dispensation from the Pope, he goes to Rome, he gets the letter from his holiness, he comes back to his village and his donkey is allowed to be healed. And I looked exactly like the child in the film, I looked so like the child that the cinema owner announced the stars presence in the theatre, people were looking me up and down, saying “it’s little Pepino, it’s little Pepino, I didn’t have the heart to say “no I’m not.”
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics