Ben Kingsley recently had a dream about Richard Attenborough, the late director who guided Kingsley to a lead-actor Oscar for his unforgettable performance in the 1982 film “Gandhi.”
“I adored him,” Kingsley said. “There were certain great men in my life — Richard, Simon Wiesenthal — who were a dad to me.”
Kingsley, the father of four grown children, loves to play fathers in his reel life.
“I have played extraordinary patriarchs,” he said, citing Nazi hunter Wiesenthal, accountant Itzhak Stern in “Schindler’s List,” Otto Frank, Mahatma Gandhi and “the heroic dad” in “House of Sand and Fog.”
One could say he’s been playing the father he never had.
Kingsley’s father, a doctor, and his mother, an actress and model, were not warm parents.
“It was bordering on indifference,” he said. “A child has no yardstick to measure his or her early years because you are stuck in a bubble and you think, ‘Well, this is it.’ ”
One of his few early memories from childhood is being at a restaurant and watching a happy family at a nearby table.
“I was completely absorbed in watching them,” Kingsley said. “I heard a voice in my peripheral hearing. ‘Do you want to join them? Do you want to join them?’ It was my father. It was a rather cruel thing to say because it was sarcastic. I think he resented the fact that I was more intrigued by them.”
From that moment on, Kingsley, 71, became fascinated with observing patterns of human behavior. “I am a portrait artist,” he said of his craft.
And he’s been creating a lot of portraits of late.
Kingsley has a small but fun role as Damian, an ambitious, ruthless real estate mogul who’s dying of cancer and shells out millions to have his consciousness transferred to the body of Ryan Reynolds in the thriller “Self/less,” which opened Friday.
Beginning Sunday, he stars as King Tut’s advisor Vizier Ay, who has his own aspirations to become pharaoh, in Spike TV’s three-night miniseries “Tut.”
On Aug. 21, Kingsley is reunited with his “Elegy” costar Patricia Clarkson and director Isabel Coixet in the romantic comedy-drama “Learning to Drive.” Kingsley gives a quiet, nuanced performance as a Sikh driving instructor in Manhattan who teaches a middle-aged author how to drive. He described the film as a “dance between two strangers.”
The actor also is starring in director Anton Corbijn’s forthcoming “Life” and in Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk.”
During a recent interview in Beverly Hills, Kingsley was gracious and friendly but also had an intensity and focus to him. He spoke of having a “fragment, a little saying in my back pocket when I am performing a role.” When he played Otto Frank in the 2001 miniseries “Anne Frank: The Whole Story,” he had a scenario in mind that guided him through the film: “A little girl is at school, and her father comes to collect her at school, and she turns to him and she turns to her friends ...”
He stopped talking and touched his hand to his heart. “It still affects me,” he said, his voice welling with emotion. “She points to him and says, ‘See that man over there? That is my dad.’ I invented that for myself to sustain me through the film.”
When he met with Steven Spielberg to play Stern in 1992’s “Schindler’s List,” Kingsley said, “I had one precious word in the back of my head. I said, ‘Steven, what do you want me to do? How can I help? What is my dramatic function?’ He said, ‘Conscience.’ I said, ‘Witness.’ We had almost the same word. I was the witness.”
Tarsem Singh, the director of “Self/less,” had planned to work with Kingsley a decade ago, but the project never came to be. When this film came up, he approached the actor again.
“For somebody like that who becomes prepared like he does, you never need to worry,” Singh said, referring to how the actor shaped his character. “I used every scene that Sir Ben did. Everybody wants to be on their game when he is there.”
Kingsley is playing yet another father in “Self/less,” this time a selfish patriarch who spent little time with his now-resentful daughter, played by Michelle Dockery. Before he undergoes his consciousness transfer, he tries to make amends, but she refuses.
“There is unfinished business, Kingsley said. “He is very vulnerable. I did find that very appealing to explore.”
Ay in “Tut” takes on the role of patriarch when Tut’s father dies when Tut is a young boy.
“I move into that vacuum driven by ambition,” Kingsley said. “But again, what I think, if I may say so, what colors that ambition or clouds it or is parallel to it, is a huge amount of love for him.”
David Von Ancken, the director and executive producer of “Tut,” described Kingsley as the “consummate chameleon,” someone who has the ability to play well even when he’s still. “Your eyes just fall on him when he does nothing.”
The actor, Von Ancken said, would sit down next to younger cast members and asked them if they wanted to run lines.
“Of course they said, ‘We would love to run lines,’ ” Von Ancken said. “And he would start running lines for a scene that wasn’t playing for seven or eight days. He just raised the bar.”
The first day of working with an actor of Kingsley’s caliber can be intimidating, “Learning to Drive” director Coixet said. “But since then, we have a very free and collaborative way to work. He has his ideas, and I have mine, and somewhere in the middle we agree.”
She loved watching him interact with the Sikh community in New York’s Richmond Hill neighborhood during rehearsals.
“You see this Oscar-winning actor, this actor who has done everything sitting on the floor of a kitchen of a temple with 100 people just sharing their food and having fun,” she said. “It is always so rewarding working with him.”
When: 9 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)