Less is much more
In “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s 3-D fable about a boy who lives inside the clocks at a 1930s Paris train station, Ben Kingsley plays real-life cinema pioneer Georges Melies, a magician turned filmmaker who created his remarkably imaginative body of work before a single feature film was ever shot in Hollywood. When the tides of war and change abruptly ended his career, he bought a toy shop and exiled himself to a life in anonymity. Kingsley next appears in “The Dictator” with Sacha Baron Cohen, whom he met on the set of “Hugo.” Kingsley talked with The Envelope about finding the heart of the character and about working with Scorsese and the 3-D camera.
The situation that Melies is in when the film begins is quite poignant. What was the key to shaping the performance, for you?
When you see him hunched over his bench in that toy shop, he’s a man determined not to be reminded of how beautiful his life once was, because to be reminded hurts too much. He’s in absolute exile. He’s removed himself from his audience and his craft to such a successful degree that, in truth, people who once knew him thought he was dead.
But if you’ve decided never to be reminded of something, life will remind you, somehow. In our story, the force of memory is the child (Asa Butterworth), who jolts Georges painfully out of his amnesia. In a sense, the exiled blind man is led back into life by the hand of a child.
That’s an image I borrowed from classic mythology, and it gave me the foundation for my interpretation of Georges. I always feel that if I can put something like that in my pocket, so to speak, it will see me through.
Scorsese is well known for schooling his collaborators by requiring that they watch old films with him. Did that come into play?
Oh, yes. When Marty offered me the part, he sent along a DVD boxed set, as only Marty can, of all the surviving Melies films. And Georges is in all of them -- he’s the central character. He’s the man in the magic bedroom, or the man who goes to the moon. Always, he’s expressing a deep joy in what he’s doing. When we filmed the scenes of him making those movies, we built that glass studio to scale, and when he’s in it, he’s the king of his castle. I was deeply happy during those days of filming. And having appreciated how fulfilled he was making those movies, how electrified with adrenaline he must have been 24/7, and to then have it suddenly stop -- that joy, that again allowed me to play the deficit of him in the toy shop. Then I understood his exile.
Is it true that Melies’ films were melted down into boot heels for soldiers?
Absolutely. Sometimes fact is more bizarre than fiction.
Did the presence of a 3-D camera affect your performance?
I should say so. Unfortunately (he laughs), the 3-D camera is like an X-ray camera. It will see the thought before it rises on our face. It will see the gesture before your hand makes it. It anticipates everything. So it forced upon us a wonderful economy of voice, gesture and action.
This is your second role for Scorsese, after “Shutter Island.” From an actor’s perspective, what stands out about him?
He’s an immensely immediate director. You don’t ever have to worry about what Marty thinks, because he responds then and there. You never need to be concerned that Marty may not have noticed what you were doing -- he sees that and more. He sees what you didn’t even know you were doing. As Georges, I felt terribly vulnerable in the toy shop scenes. But I thought -- I’m not going to hide. Let him film this broken man. Marty helps the actor feel so cherished and secure that you really will be vulnerable. And he’s a very compassionate man.
How is that compassion expressed?
In his choice of material. From my perspective, all his major works deal with male vulnerability. “Raging Bull,” “Casino,” “The Departed,” “Shutter Island” and this film -- it’s all an examination of the various facets of masculinity and its corresponding vulnerability.
But compared to “Hugo,” “Shutter Island” has such a different tone.
Yes, but the currency’s the same. It’s male vulnerability, illusion, memory. All the crucial elements, the essences, are related.
-- Amy Dawes