Two sentences I never expected to say: “I matched all five winning numbers plus the Powerball,” and “Good afternoon, Sir Ben Kingsley.” If the chances of winning the lottery are the same whether you play or not, what are the odds of touching base with one of the world’s most celebrated actors? Pretty good, it turns out, if the talent in question has a personal commitment to his latest project.
Sir Ben was working the phone on press day to help draw attention to Operation Finale. He stars as Adolf Eichmann, Hitler’s Architect of the Holocaust, in a suspenseful account of the Israeli Mossad’s pursuit and eventual capture of the SS killing machine. During our 15-minute conversation, the Oscar-winning actor replied with the ease and familiarity of an old friend, his comments so carefully crafted and elegantly elucidated that one would swear an advance copy of the questions had made their way into his email box.
Kingsley’s connection to Adolf Eichmann dates back to the late 80s. He received a phone call at his home from Simon Wiesenthal — the man who located Eichmann in Buenos Aires — asking that he play in the HBO miniseries, Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story. His portrayal of Weisenthal eventually led to a friendship and many hours spent in the company of the man Kingsley calls, “a prophet of the voice of the Holocaust.” He was then invited to join Steven Spielberg on Schindler’s List, where he became close with several of the Schindler survivors. Next came the role of Otto Frank in the ABC-TV mini-series, Anne Frank.
Imagine: the phone rings, you answer, and an enthusiastic voice on the other end declares, “We have the perfect part for you. You are the only actor alive who can do Adolf Eichmann justice.” How does one go about accepting the role of one of history’s most reviled characters? Kingsley had been blessed with embraces and affection “from survivors whose grief is overwhelming and whose dignity is astonishing,” so when offered the role of Eichmann, Kingsley “knew exactly for whom I would do it, who would protect me from that man whilst playing him, to whom I should dedicate my performance — firstly, Elie Wiesel and six million souls that perished. And my motivation was to tell the truth about the Holocaust, because if we forget the victims, we will murder them all over again.”
Over a career that spans over five decades, Kingsley has nearly done it all. At one point a music producer saw in him the makings of a pop music star. Fortunately, an audition for Royal Shakespeare Company cut short that dream. After devoting 15 years of his life to the theatre, Kingsley finally made it to Broadway in the company of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
After that, it didn’t take long for him to find a way to break into movies. Kingsley’s first appearance of the silver screen was as a tough guy in Alistair MacLean’s 1972 crime drama, Fear is the Key. What began as a follow-up of sorts to co-star Barry Newman’s previous film, the wall-to-wall chase drama Vanishing Point, ends as an undersea treasure hunt aboard a mini-submarine. The majority of the Paramount release was shot in Los Angeles and Louisiana, but all of Kingsley’s scenes were lensed in the U.K. “I really didn’t think I was part of a big studio machine. I just took it on as an acting job. I thought it was a one-off.”
Kingsley breaks off, quickly, shifting the subject to the string of teleplays on which he proudly cut his teeth. “What I experienced happily,” he recalls, “was a series of beautiful films for the BBC directed by David Jones (Barbara of the House of Grebe), Ken Loach (A Misfortune), and Mike Leigh (Hard Labour). These were and are brilliant directors. I cut my teeth in front of the camera in these small films while also appearing as a theatre actor. It was during the filming of Grebe House, the beautiful Thomas Hardy story, that I remember falling in love with the process.”
Still, he found he missed working in the cinema, and jumped at the chance to play Ghandi when Richard Attenborough offered him the lead in his 1981 biopic. “I really fell in love with the camera, but for eight years was back working in the theatre. Richard’s son saw my Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company and said, ‘Dad, if you ever get the money, I know who should play your Ghandi.’ That was a wonderful opportunity for which I am eternally grateful.”
I can’t cop to having seen all of his movies, but with a good 80 percent of his work under my belt, there is one character who stands ahead of all others. I’m not convinced that Sexy Beast’s Don Logan couldn’t take Adolf Eichmann in a street fight. “You might be right about Don Logan,” he laughs. “Being so destroyed and needy of a personality, I think that Don Logan might well have gravitated towards an ultra right-wing group.”
We first meet Don taking a brusque walk through an airport, his suit coat pinched between thumb and forefinger, dangling before him in a manner that will keep it wrinkle-free. Logan pays more attention to the lines in his slacks than he does the emotions of others.
Where does one find the inspiration to play as vile a human being as this? His performance was based on a premise that he privately shared with director Jonathan Glazer and no one else: “Don was a non-healed abused child. He was damaged and this made him so violent and unpredictably dangerous.”
As for the Eichmann comparison, he says, “It’s possible that when you look at WWII and Eichmann, yes they were human beings, but possibly they were damaged. and we have to accept tragically that they were capable of doing terrible things to others.”
About a month ago, Operation Finale began its promotional campaign. If you’ve yet to see a commercial, it’s likely because you don’t own a television. When told that this interview might happen, a friend’s 23-year-old daughter wrote, “Wow! Isn’t Sir Ben Kingsley like the male Meryl Streep?” One problem with that comparison: Ms. Streep has never sucked face with Sacha Baron Cohen. That brings us to The Dictator. Kingsley has been very open about accepting certain roles based on the advice of his accountant. (“That’s true,” he laughs.)
If an actor of Kingsley’s magnitude decides to slum, better to do so at the mercy of SBC than a rusty Iron Man 3, right? It’s hard to imagine that The Dictator would have been a major payday. Surely he signed on looking to ride the wave of cutting edge contemporary comedy rather than picking up a few extra bucks? A long “Ummmm” ends with, “I would say 50/50, to be honest.”
Operation Finale joins Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and the German picture The Uniform as the third film to open in almost as many weeks that deals with Nazis. “I am a guest in your wonderful country,” he begins when asked if the resurgence of interest can be traced back to the current administration, “and I won’t presume to make any comment as a guest who has always been greeted and honored and having been given wonderful opportunities in this country. Nor am I qualified to answer your question. The only few souls left to fully answer your questions would be the Holocaust survivors who lived through the years of extermination between 1943 and 1945. Wherever they are in the world’s diaspora now — New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Canada, America — I am sure they are saying to their host country, ‘God bless you, because this cannot be compared to where we’ve come from.’”
Allow me to end where the interview began, with my usual ice breaker. Do you remember the first film you were taken to? Depending on the age of the interview subject, the question is usually met with “I don’t recall,” the title of a feature-length Disney cartoon, or one of the Star Wars installments. Not Sir Ben. “I absolutely do remember my first movie. When I was a young child I was taken to see a film in our local cinema called, Never Take No For An Answer.... The film portrayed a little orphan boy, Peppino, who had as his family, his conveyance, his pal, and his source of income a donkey called Violetta. The donkey was dying and the little boy was naturally grief-stricken. He wanted the entrance to chapel of St. Francis to be enlarged, the walls knocked down, so that he could take his donkey into the chapel to be cured. The clergy said no, a word the little boy refused take for an answer. Eventually, the film takes us all the way to the Vatican, where the Holy Father gives him a dispensation to have the wall removed so that the donkey can enter the chapel.
“I remember the closing scenes of the film… well, I partly remember because Martin Scorsese gave me a copy of it when I told him the story. I watched it quite recently. It’s one of Marty’s favorite films as well. I recall beautifully the closing chorus of music and sunlight pouring through the chapel onto this little boy and his donkey walking into the light. I remember howling my heart out for the boy, and also identifying with the Peppino, the little orphan on the screen. So while I barely remember that first encounter with the cinema, I do remember thinking to myself — and not quite knowing what I was saying — I want to be that one day. It was there that I decided later on... if one interprets what I meant actually, that that little boy wanted to become an actor. It was in that cinema and on that day.”