What Would Gandhi Think?

Jon Burlingame is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Ben Kingsley has spent much of the last two decades trying to beat the "Gandhi" rap. His first major screen role, as the Indian pacifist leader, won him international acclaim and the best actor Oscar for 1982.

Make no mistake: Kingsley is grateful for the part. "Thank God [Richard] Attenborough chose me," Kingsley says of "Gandhi's" director. But, he adds, "it's time people realized that there are masses and masses more work pouring out of this man," referring to himself.

In recent years, Kingsley has played an array of significant parts, often sharply defined, thoughtful and intelligent supporting-character roles. He was Oscar-nominated for his performance as mob boss Meyer Lansky in 1991's "Bugsy" and created an indelible portrait as Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern, who typed up "Schindler's List" in Steven Spielberg's 1993 film. There have been other gems along the way: Cosmo, the campus radical-turned-embittered-industrialist in 1992's "Sneakers"; the decent, low-key vice president in 1993's White House comedy "Dave"; Dr. Roberto Miranda, the alleged torturer in 1994's "Death and the Maiden"; and, most recently, Otto Frank, the Jewish patriarch in ABC's high-rated miniseries "Anne Frank."

But it's safe to say that nothing Kingsley has done before quite prepares you for his performance in "Sexy Beast," the new British gangster film that opens Wednesday. He plays Don Logan, a small-time hood with a horribly foul mouth and a temper to match. The smoldering intensity of Kingsley's performance--the sheer brutality, lurking just beneath and occasionally on top of the surface--has already impressed critics on the other side of the pond who lavished praise on the actor when the film opened in England earlier this year. With this psycho south London hood, the actor has traveled to the opposite end of the spectrum from "Gandhi" to deliver a chilling performance that is bound to surprise anyone who only remembers him as the mahatma.

He's only on screen for half an hour, yet the wiry, wired-up Logan is the fulcrum around which "Sexy Beast" pivots. Ray Winstone ("Nil by Mouth") actually plays the lead, an ex-con named Gal Dove who is living in "retirement" on Spain's Costa del Sol with his ex-porn-star wife and two friends from the old days. The dangerous and famously unstable Logan arrives to demand that he return to London for a big bank heist being masterminded by crime kingpin Teddy Bass (Ian McShane). Gal doesn't want to go; let's just say Don is the kind of guy who won't take no for an answer.

"Beast" director Jonathan Glazer admits that Kingsley "wasn't first on my list for Don Logan, as he probably wouldn't be first on anybody's." But, he adds by telephone from London, "he swayed me within probably two minutes of meeting him. Apart from his actual eagerness to do it, it was plain to me that he was going to bring some kind of very strange authority to the role."

Kingsley played Logan "like a coiled spring," Glazer says. "He makes the whole experience of watching it quite nerve-racking. It was very naked for an actor of that caliber and fame to expose himself in a role that nobody would expect of them." The British gangster film, made famous in the early '70s by such classics as "Get Carter" and "Performance," has been making a comeback in recent years with such pumped-up entries as "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch" (both by the hip young director Guy Ritchie) and now "Sexy Beast."

Kingsley says he has no particular fondness for the genre. What does interest him is the Shakespearean nature of the drama. Having played Othello on the London stage, he sees Don as Iago, and he relishes playing one as much as the other.

"There definitely is in all of us the higher evolved human being and the animal down in the basement of the psyche. It was exhilarating to me to draw upon the lower depths of my psyche, all of which are just as intact as any other level, and to say to the audience, 'Ladies and gentlemen, we do have a dark side.' That's why we have drama--to show our audience the light and the dark. There's no light without shadow. They are intimately interwoven in our lives."

Over a hastily consumed breakfast of scrambled eggs and tomato juice at the Chateau Marmont recently, Kingsley--looking tanned and fit, with piercing brown eyes and a serious manner befitting the trained Shakespearean actor he is--says firmly: "I don't play bad guys."

That would be too simple, he explains, going to great lengths to explain the historical background of "Bugsy's" Meyer Lansky, and even rationalizing his genetic-scientist character in the 1995 sci-fi potboiler "Species" as "a proud dad who has had to kill his own child." In "Sexy Beast," Don Logan is a psychotic who might snap at any second. But to Kingsley, "he's an unloved child. I have great compassion for the unloved child. That's who he is. His cri de coeur in the kitchen, when he's having the row with Ray, is 'I don't want you to be happy! Why should I?' There is my key line. There is the link that will open the door to my character. And it's said by a weeping child with clenched fists in the corner of the playground."

Yet the 57-year-old actor is not eager to explain his characters to his audience. "I guess I'm closest to painters who specialize in portraits," he says. "The painter puts that portrait on the canvas. Who comes to judge that portrait, I don't know. Who says what about Don, I don't know. I know that he is a portrait created by myself. I can't categorize him. He was completely intuitive, as most of my roles are."

He is, however, careful to credit the writers. During an earlier conversation, Kingsley praised the Louis Mellis-David Scinto script for "Sexy Beast" as "writing that is so good, it has to be seen to be believed, the way it is punctuated, the way the rhythms interlock. Ray Winstone and I quite clearly did not wish to change one syllable of what was in front of us on the page. It was too good to mess around with."

But while Kingsley says there was no improvisation on the set--"if we got an 'and' or a 'but' wrong, we asked for a retake, because we wanted to be word-perfect"--and the situations and dialogue are intact, "there is no character on the page. There's a role on the page. The role becomes a character when the director and, of course, the actor breathe life into the role."

That dialogue is also as blue as he has ever uttered on screen. Nearly every third word is a four-letter one.

Yet he insists that he was not uncomfortable with the language, despite his unfamiliarity with pub crawlers or the kind of south London criminal element that gives rise to the genre. "Because I choose to portray him, it means I recognize him and am curious to know him. And that is how that creature behaves. It's my job."

Winstone, who has made a career out of playing these kinds of lowlife hoodlums dating to 1980's "Scum," says that Kingsley was fantastic in capturing the essence of Don Logan.

Winstone too admits to initial surprise at the casting. "It's the same old thing. You fall into the trap of thinking, well, I've never seen Ben play anything like that before. And you forget what a great actor he is. Now I could never imagine anyone else playing him."

Don Logan is surely Kingsley's edgiest character yet. "It's sort of manifestly 'out there,' " he concedes. "But there are other roles I've done where the containment and the intelligence and the sanguine nature of that character under difficult circumstances is, in fact, 'out there.'

"The work I did on 'Schindler's List' was just as demanding and just as difficult a tightrope in that my Stern could not scream with rage at his surroundings and his circumstances, but just had to keep it all contained."

Of course Stern wasn't illiterate, threatening or homicidal. "Don has a buried intelligence" is how Kingsley puts it. "The way I look at certain dogs who will lower their head and look up at me under heavy eyebrows. If I slowly move my hand towards that dog to pat it on the head, fractions of an inch away, I don't know whether that dog is going to allow me to stroke him behind the ear or take my hand off. Some dogs have this quality. You do not know what they're going to do next, and they can come right up to you and stare at you and sniff. That's Don. He's an extremely dangerous and unpredictable Rottweiler in that sense."

Those who have worked with Kingsley are awed by how far he will go for a role. Director Roger Young recalls Kingsley's performance in "Waiting for Godot" in London a few years ago. Kingsley was barefoot for most of the play, and Young visited him backstage after the performance. He was shocked to see that Kingsley's feet were injured and bleeding.

"Ben, you can't go on like this every night," he said. Kingsley simply smiled and responded: "It's what is required."

Young, who directed Kingsley in two biblical epics for TNT, "Moses" and "Joseph," describes the actor as "an extremely complex man. And that complexity is the well he draws from. He is humble and proud, powerful and weak, silent and full of words, opinionated and curious, sexy and withdrawn. His talent is the ability to take one or more of these characteristics of himself and make it into the primary driving force of the character that he is playing, while eliminating nearly all the other characteristics of himself--specifically, those that the character he is playing would not have. And that driving force he has chosen as the primary force of the character seeps out of him. It's not forced out; it's not 'displayed.' It becomes him, both physically and mentally."

Robert Dornhelm, who spent three months in Prague directing Kingsley in "Anne Frank," says that "it was like somebody gave me a Stradivarius, this most beautiful and expensive instrument. If you know how to play it, you can produce the most beautiful sounds. You just need to touch it, and it plays."

Even more, Dornhelm adds, he was grateful to Kingsley for "keeping the entire cast like a happy family. He was the most modest team player I've ever worked with. He would have the courtesy, if he knew it wasn't his scene, to not hog the light like most actors would do, but push his partner into a position where he felt it was advantageous for the camera. Then they would be in the center of the scene."

With "Anne Frank" ranking as the second-highest-rated TV miniseries of the season, there is already considerable Emmy talk surrounding Kingsley and his co-stars. "Otto Frank was a joy to play," he says. "It was for me far more the role of an archetypal father patriarch among this tribe and family, rather than a film about the Second World War." The son of an English mother and a father of Indian parentage raised in East Africa, Kingsley--who grew up in England--has spent nearly all of his working life as an actor. He is proud of his 15 years in England's Royal Shakespeare Company (where he is still an associate artist), the National Theatre and the Royal Court, and he credits that intense theatrical training with giving him the "tenacity and stamina" to tackle energetic roles like Logan. He says he returns to the stage "once every 10 years."

It was in 1981 that Attenborough cast him in "Gandhi," permanently altering his career. Might that success have come too soon?

"Definitely not," says Kingsley. "I was waiting to develop into something else in the late 1970s. I knew that theater was successful and I was loving it. But right then, when Attenborough phoned me, I knew that there was something else. It could not have come later. The preparation, the opportunity, bang, it came at exactly the right time. And to get an Academy Award at that age was to be given a golden key, which I hope over the years I've used judiciously in making choices."

Says "Sexy Beast" director Glazer: "I think he's probably lived the last 20 years with 'Gandhi' in his back pocket. Unfortunately, when anybody has that kind of success, it becomes a rod for their back. They may enjoy it for a couple of years, but afterwards everything's compared to that as a kind of yardstick. His great motivation, I think, was to bury Gandhi. And I think he's done that."

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