LONDON – Ben Kingsley, who turns 80 today, had spent fifteen years on the English stage with occasional small screen roles when Richard Attenborough changed his life by casting him in the title role of his epic feature film ‘Gandhi’ in 1982.
Two years later, over a pleasant lunch in Hill’s Restaurant in Stratford-upon-Avon, he told me how he had adjusted to instant fame after being named best actor at the Academy Awards and the British Academy Film Awards.
When he returned from India after making that film, he went into a stage production of Alexander Dumas’s one-man 1836 play ‘Kean’ (below) based on the life of British theatrical star Edmund Kean. ‘He was a pop star of his time but he could not cope with the adoration his ambition craved and he died at 45,’ Kingsley noted. ‘I went from playing a man who was adored for his purity, simplicity and integrity to one who was adored for his arrogance, his totally hedonistic approach to life; a man who insisted that his craft serve his ego rather than his ego serving his craft. There was, however, a very similar context of a man who had to cope with fame. I learned a lot.’
The actor won the BAFTA award just before the play opened in the provinces and he was greeted with a standing ovation before he opened his mouth. ‘I had to spent the rest of the evening learning to cope with that,’ he said. The production moved to the Lyric Theatre in London and two days before he walked onstage there, he was in Los Angeles where he won the Oscar.
‘It was a many-layered challenge,’ Kingsley said. ‘It was a wonderful irony that while all the hyperbole was pouring in – which, of course, is wonderful after you’ve worked in the theatre for 15 years; it’s fabulous and I’m not remotely cynical about it or other awards – there was a man in a crisis of priorities, Kean, who I was reponsible for every night onstage. Then I’d go home and see this thing on my shelf, this Oscar. It tempered everything and automatically put it into the right perspective.’
Because of the intensity of his performances, Kingsley said he was often asked if he was a “technical” actor. “Well, of course, I’m a technical actor,’ he said. ‘We all are. We stab somebody to death technically as an extreme example but once you get into the realm of “don’t you really feel it while you’re doing it?” Heaven forbid. No!. We aren’t paid to feel it, we’re paid to tell a story. We’re paid to show people how it feels, not feel it ourselves. We’re paid to encourage the audience to feel it but not feel it, that’s it. Working too much from the inside can be dangerous. I don’t want to feel it. I want to give it away.’
Kingsley said he lived about nine miles away from Stratford in a house partly 15th century and partly Georgian opposite the church in a small farming village. ‘I love Warwickshire,’ he said. ‘I love the unequivical way the seasons change and, of course, because of Shakespeare who I know went to my village and was very drunk there because he wrote about it.’