Over the last 15 years, Ben Kingsley has virtually cornered the market on playing characters who radiate saintliness.
He started with a memorable, Oscar-winning role as Gandhi, the Indian lawyer who became a worldwide symbol of attaining human rights through nonviolence.
Since then he has played Simon Wiesenthal, the dogged Nazi-hunter who brought Third Reich war criminals to justice, and Itzhak Stern, the dutiful clerk in “Schindler’s List” who helped save hundreds of Jews from execution in death camps.
Now Kingsley has upped the saintliness stakes even further. As the star of “Moses,” a two-part film that begins Sunday on TNT, he plays the patriarchal Old Testament figure ordered by God to deliver the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and lead them across the desert to freedom in the promised land of Canaan.
“I’m not quite sure why I play these icons,” he mused. “It just seems to happen that everyone else says, ‘Here you are, Ben, carry the moral integrity of the film, OK?’ ”
He pondered this over lunch at a hotel in this small country town near Oxford, close to his home. Meet Kingsley in person and it is obvious why he has often been cast as a paragon of virtue: With his shaven head, his serene smile and eyes that can flash intensely and twinkle benignly, he exudes an almost spiritual calm.
It is suggested to him that having portrayed Moses, the next logical step would be to play God.
“Oh, but in ‘Moses,’ I played God too,” said Kingsley, not missing a beat. “For the scene where Moses sees the burning bush and first hears the voice of God, it occurred to me that in those circumstances you would hear God speaking in your own voice. So I asked [director] Roger Young to let God’s voice be mine. He distorted it and put it through various filters, but it’s my voice, my rhythms.”
“Moses” was shot in Morocco in a hectic eight-week schedule, though Kingsley enjoyed the experience. “The Moroccans had a wonderful way of entering into a story,” he said. “They’d greet me first thing each day and call me ‘Mos-eh.’ Which was great--you had to respond to them, so you were already in character.”
Kingsley’s approach to Moses was vastly different from other screen portrayals of the character--such as Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (which will air on ABC opposite Part 1 of “Moses” Sunday night) or Burt Lancaster in “Moses the Lawgiver.” Rather than having Moses constantly declaiming, Kingsley plays him as a stutterer.
“It says in the Bible that he was slow of speech, and it was necessary to pay heed to that,” he said. “When the burning bush burst into flames, his reaction was ‘Why me? You’ve got the wrong guy.’ He felt he couldn’t undertake this command from God--he couldn’t even speak without stammering.
“That gave me a great starting point. Because once the self-worth and vision and power was unlocked in Moses, he was the right man for the job. Roger and I tried to work out the best time for him to lose his stutter. It happened in stages--Moses went from being a man who could hardly speak to a man who roared.
“In those earlier films, Moses just booms all the time. I think you can arrive at that stage, but when he was found floating in the Nile as an infant, he wasn’t booming.”
Kingsley listened to audiotapes of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. before deciding on Moses’ speech rhythms when addressing the massed Israelites.
“If people have seen King and Mandela on their TV screens, they know the rhetoric that captures the minds of enslaved or disenfranchised people,” he mused. “They know what a man looks like when he’s trying to save his homeland. That’s the quality I wanted.”
Moses is Kingsley’s second role for a TNT biblical film: He also played Potiphar in “Joseph.”
“I have more than enough feature film offers coming my way,” Kingsley noted. “But to explore a role like Moses, I’ll do it for Turner because the feature film is not being made. And there’s less of a gap between quality TV and features than there used to be. Playing Wiesenthal for HBO was some of the best work I’ve done.”
Still, his next work is for the big screen. He is a ruthless Israeli intelligence agent in “Jackals,” now shooting in Montreal, and then has four film scripts to consider
“People think if you play a man like Gandhi, somehow it rubs off on you,” he says. “They were convinced I must have evolved spiritually when I did that film. I didn’t. I worked my socks off, learned my lines, lost a lot of weight and acquired probably the most eccentric set of mannerisms ever seen on screen. I had no time to evolve spiritually.”
Thus Kingsley won’t be playing many more saintly roles: “Maybe I won’t choose parts because they’re likely to win a nomination. I’ll be asking: Will this help me grow? Or have I done this 15 times already?”
He mulled this over: “It’s time to play an ordinary bloke at last.”
* Part 1 of “Moses” airs at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. Sunday, with Part 2 Monday at the same times on TNT cable.