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Ben Kingsley

The Iconic Sir Ben Kingsley:
Up Close and Very Personal

Inside Hollywood With
Beverly Cohn

Sir Ben Kingsley
Sir Ben Kingsley has created memorable characters and for
his body of work, was knighted by the Queen Elizabeth II for services to the British film industry. Courtesy Photo

ngland's Sir Ben Kingsley is one of the world's most respected actors. His film career, which spans over 40 years, began with his breakout performance in Gandhi. He won the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi, which catapulted him into instant international fame. He also won a Golden Globe, BAFTA, and London Film Critics' Circle Award for his riveting performance. Subsequently, he has acted in three other films, which were nominated for the Best Picture OscarBugsy, Hugo, and Schindler's List, with Gandhi and Schindler's List winning in that coveted category, as well as six other categories.

Ben Kingsley with Liam Neeson in the film 'Schindler's List'
Left: L-R: Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, with Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern, in the Academy Award-winning film “Schindler’s List.” Right: Ben Kingsley gave a stirring performance as Itzhak Stern in Steven Spielberg's “Schindler's List.”Courtesy Photo

Kingsley's performance as Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List garnered him a BAFTA nomination. He also won a Screen Actors Guild Award for his role of Otto Frank in the television movie Anne Frank: The Whole Story, as well as a nod for his role of Sweeney Todd in another television movie – The Tales of Sweeney Todd.

Ben Kingsley as notorious mob boss Meyer Lansky in the film 'Bugsy'
Ben Kingsley played notorious mob boss Meyer Lansky in “Bugsy.” Courtesy Photo

film poster for the movie 'Learning to Drive'
Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson co-star in a story about two people coming together during a major life's transition and how they influence each other.
Photo: Broad Green Pictures

Every role Kingsley has portrayed is a masterpiece of acting and includes Oscar-nominated roles in Sexy Beast, and House of Sand and Fog. Some of his other films include: Sneakers, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Death and the Maiden, The Confession, Rules of Engagement, Oliver Twist, Elegy, Shutter Island, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Iron Man 3, and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Kingsley was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire, England. His father, Rahimtulla Harji Bhanji, is of Gujarati Indian descent, and his mother, Anna Lyna Mary, was English. His birth name was Krishna Pandit Bhanji, but as he became a successful stage actor, fearing that his real name could be an obstacle to his career, he changed his name to Ben Kingsley.

In his latest film, Learning to Drive, Kingsley gives yet another multi-textured portrayal as Darwan, a highly educated Indian gentleman who works as a taxi driver and driving instructor in New York City. Written by Sarah Kernochan and directed by Isabel Coixet, the film co-stars Patricia Clarkson as Wendy, a woman in transition following her divorce. She hires Darwan to teach her how to drive, but the lessons they learn from each other transcend just driving lessons. The supporting cast includes: Jake Weber, Sarita Choudhury, and Grace Gummer.

Ben Kingsley with wife Daniela (Danny) Barbosa de Carneiro
Kingsley currently resides in Spelsbury, Oxfordshire, England with his fourth wife, 34-year-old Daniela (Danny) Barbosa de Carneiro. Courtesy Photo

At a recent press day, Kingsley sat down with a group of select journalists and discussed his career, and the following has been edited for content and continuity for print purposes.

I have a really important question to ask you. Your father is Indian and your mother is English. How do you take your tea?

Kingsley: Oh, so we've segued into tea. (Laughter) My mother was part English, part Russian Jewish. My father was Ismaili and was actually born in Zanzibar, in East Africa, where there is a very large Ismaili community. But, to answer your question, I like my tea strong with milk.

Can you explain your relationship with the Sikh community?

Kingsley: From my perspective, and I speak with some accuracy, if you know one Sikh man, you know all of them because there is a tremendous consistency in their behavior, their approach to life, their courtesy, and kindness to others. So in the script, I believe when Darwan says, "This is the Sikh way," it is. It is not sentimental. It is not something he's made up. It is actually the way they do things. From my perspective as a portrait artist, because I had to create a portrait to present to the screen, I see a warrior race of men and women.

Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi in the film 'Gandhi'
Ben Kingsley's portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi garnered him the Best Actor Academy Award as well as a Golden Globe, BAFTA, and London Film Critics' Circle Award for his riveting performance. Courtesy Photo

Did you base your character of Darwan on anyone in particular?

Just think of the number of people I've met in my career. I do have an extraordinary memory and even though they may drift into the periphery of my memory, I can bring them back when I need them. When I was filming Gandhi, every day I was greeted by my Sikh bodyguard driver. I drove to the set looking at the back of his head – his turban, how he gently moved from side to side whenever I asked him a question – how he would have ferociously defended me had anything happened. I think one of the indelible images I have of him was him looking at me in his rear- view mirror.

Do you have one particularly memorable moment during that shoot?

He was driving me away from the largest crowed you've ever seen on screen in the cinema. It was a traumatic day for me because I was on the funeral wagon, hardly breathing for nine hours. When I got to the end of the road, I had to ask my first AD (assistant director) dressed in a British uniform, because all the ADs were extras in the film. I said, "Steve, how many people are here?" "40,000 sir." "How am I going to stand up in front of 40,000 people? I've been dead for nine nights." He lifted me up and I saw all those people who were very quiet because I had just broken the spell. I had come back to life. Fortunately, I was not wearing jeans under my Indian costume. He helped me stand and I turned to the crowd. One person started to applaud and then they all started to sing. The women, who had a blue stripe on the edge of their Saris, lifted me off the back of the wagon and carried me to a waiting car. The driver started his car and we had to move through 40,000 people to get back onto the main road to go home. The driver looked in the mirror and said, "Well done sir." That's what he said. "Well done sir." I treasure that moment and that's whom I'm playing in Learning to Drive. He'd be very proud if he knew I used him.

Ben Kingsley as Darwan in the film 'Learning to Drive'
Kingsley on his character's religious practices: “I really think that he believes that going to temple and praying is a ritual that sustains him.” Photo: Broad Green Pictures

What traits did you love about Darwan?

Kingsley: His stillness, his kindness, his strength, his economy of words and his decency, expressed in a very unsentimental, practical way. I would say that they are very unsentimental people, but very emotionally developed. I loved that about him and it's a great leap to play. After his brother has been shot, and his family tortured, he comes over to America to start a new life, and is still on the receiving end of abuse and misunderstanding. When Wendy asks him how he copes with adversity, he says that he prays every day. I really think that he believes that going to temple and praying is a ritual that sustains him. So, although he's well integrated into his new world, he still needs that faith to help him through each day.

Did you actually film in the temple?

Ben Kingsley with Patricia Clarkson in 'Elegy'
Ben Kingsley worked with Patricia Clarkson in "Elegy."
Courtesy Photo

Kingsley: We were allowed to film in the temple and as you know, not long ago, Sikhs were shot in their temple. Harpreet Singh Toor is a spokesman for the Sikh community in Queens, New York. He wore a turban and matching tie, and was beautifully color coordinated. He made sure that we were allowed to film in the temple so all those scenes are in a Sikh temple. It was an island of peace, tranquility, order, affection, dignity, and nurture in the middle of Queens, which can be a bit crazy. You walk into that temple and people are slipping off their shoes and saluting. Many people would come up to me and talk in Punjabi. I said, "I'm very sorry, but I don't understand. I'm a total imposter." (Laughter)

Had you met Patricia before?

Kingsley: Yes. In Elegy. We more than met. We were in bed together. (Laughter)

Kingsley and Clarkson in a scene from the film 'Learning to Drive'
Kingsley on feelings of attraction his character has towards Wendy: …”Whenever he needs to shut off from her extremities, he would fold his arms to keep himself contained.” Photo: Broad Green Pictures

How was it to play a character where you have this deep connection, but not on a romantic level?

Kingsley: Great question. Also, talking about intimacy, the genius of the screenplay was let's not set them it in a park where they have oceans of space in which to escape from one another. We're in a tiny car for a lot of the film – right next to each other. I don't know whether you noticed, but whenever he needs to shut off from her extremities, he would fold his arms to keep himself contained. I think that's a beautiful device in the film.

Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson in 'Learning to Drive'
Kingsley on Darwan and Wendy: “They take from each other the best…”
Photo: Broad Green Pictures

All the signals are here for intimacy. We know how this film is going to end. But, no you don't. It ends, I believe, not being trapped in a carnal relationship, but they take from each other the best, which is his appreciation of a liberated woman, and her appreciation of a warrior man. Let's face it. Sexual contact ends in fatigue and disappointment. (Laughter)

Was there one memorable moment during the shoot?

Kingsley: It was one sustained, unbroken moment thanks to our beautiful director. On many film sets, moments are invaded and broken. From day one, when dear Isabel saw me arrive on set, we sat together in the car and Patricia started to cry.

Your character's profession in India was that of a professor which was not valid in the U.S. How do you think he felt being relegated to a taxi driver and part-time driving instructor?

Kingsley: I'd like to think that he was a really good professor because in his DNA is that will to teach and it's unstoppable in him. So, that is beautifully translated into a driving instructor and you see from the opening of the film, that he is instructing at a much higher level than just driving.

Ben Kingsley and Sarita Choudhury in a marriage scene from 'Learning to Drive'
In an arranged marriage, Darwan marries Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) and these two strangers embark on the challenge of trying to understand and please each other.
Photo: Broad Green Pictures

What do you think of the scene where he wants his new wife to read him a poem as he lies in her lap?

Kingsley: There you have a highly educated man, probably a professor of English literature, loving those poems, and realizing that the poor girl can't read. But, she does make an effort. She goes to class and he's very proud of her. He tells her she's got to go out into the world. You know the friend she meets in the grocery store? That's my wife. (Big ohhh from the journalists – she's very beautiful.) She's actually Brazilian and worked with a coach on a Punjabi accent. She's a very good actress and I'm proud of her performance.

How did that casting come about?

Kingsley: I asked our director, Isabel, and she said, "Marta? She's perfect for Marta." So, Danny and I went for lunch with Sikhs. There were five men and they were helping her pronounce the word "pearl," and there were five different versions. (Laughter) (He does all five variations – much laughter)

You worked with female directors before. Is there a basic difference in their approach?

Kingsley: I do believe that the female director, as well as the writer, can bring an eye to male vulnerability that some man can't, because they can't face it. That said, Martin Scorsese puts male vulnerability on the camera beautifully, and Isabel does as well. She operates the camera, so what you seen on screen, she sees.

Ben Kingsley and Frances de la Tour in Peter Brook's stage production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
Ben Kingsley as Demetrius and Frances de la Tour as Helena in Peter Brook’s stage production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream." Courtesy Photo

What is the best advice you've received from a director?

I remember when I was working with the great Peter Brook on Midsummer Night's Dream that I had a long conversation with him. He was a great mentor and said that the actor should always find the quality in the person he's representing that is greater than the quality in you, so you always have something to stretch to.

One last question: Do you drive?

Kingsley: (Laughs) Yes, of course. I drive a stick shift.

Congratulations on yet another splendid acting job.

Kingsley: It's been a pleasure.

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Let Bev know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Thanks so much for those lovely tourism photos, especially of Ireland. I certainly enjoyed all the places you suggested, and am working towards my next vacation. Don’t forget Cuba. That’s an exciting place.

Rosalie, Los Angeles

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Enjoyed your article on Mira Sorvino. Such an interesting background – family, education, career and now human rights activist. I'm not a gossip mag fan so getting more meaty news about movie celebrities from you gives me hope that there are some inteligent life forms in Hollywood.

Peter Paul, Pasadena, CA

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Thank you, Bev. This reminded me to go see the movie, "An Education," which I had already almost forgotten about, having seen the preview a few weeks ago. I enjoy this actress quite a bit--she has a uniqueness about her and she pulls me in. I enjoyed this.

Sandeee, Seattle, WA

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Thank you Beverly,I really enjoyed reading about your intimate conversation with Forest, of whom I am a great admirer. I look forward to seeing the film "Our Family Wedding."

Yoka, Westlake Village, CA

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Thank you for the sending me the beautiful article you wrote about Ireland. We will use your recomendations for hotels in the Southern part. We plan to also go to Dublin and some other Northern cities so I will get some recommendations for these from others. After reading your article, I am getting more excited about going. I think we will be in Ireland for 8 days altogether.

Leah Mendelsohn, Santa Monica, CA

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Very much enjoyed Ms. Cohn's article about Munich, especially the visuals. Though it has been 25 years since my last visit, the piece brought back countless pleasant memories of the city and the people!! Many thanks.

Lawrence, Los Angeles

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Marianplatz and that general area is truly one of the best Christmas celebrations in the world. Between that and Oktoberfest (which I can only imagine) Munich is one of the greatest cities in the world for major annual events.

Christopher Dale, New York, NY

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Hi Bev, you have done some wonderful pieces on some great celebs...Great work. The travel articles are just wonderful too.

Scott Mueller, Huntington Beach, CA

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Your great Zurich article makes me want to go there for the holidays! I love the photos, too, especially the ones of you in the sleigh, the view over the houses and the zoo!

Anna Marie, Santa Monica, CA

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Lovely article! As a European, and having been to Zurich (albeit in summer) I can vouch for this lovely city. Great pictures, too!

Helene Robins, Santa Monica, CA

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Hi Bev,

Nice review, nice seeing you, nice website interface "...Talk to Bev" - Enjoy your Thanksgiving!

Richard D. Kaye, Marina del Rey, CA

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Hi Bev,

Your interview with John Cusack is very interesting. I always wondered why these actors/actresses always get top billing when really, if you think about it, the real work come from the animators, writers and tech whizzes who spend far more hours on the movie than those actors. I know, I know, it's the all about marketing. The names of these actors are what bring in the big bucks. Still, I think these actors are way overpaid for the "little" that they do.

I remember that once upon a time, the early animation classics never mentioned the voices behind the characters. I think it was only later when Walt Disney tapped into the voices of known celebrities like Walter Matthau in the Jungle Book or Zsa Zsa Gabor in The Rescuers that the voices became a marketing magnet.

Keep up the good work. I enjoy your interviews as you peer into the lives of the Hollywood celebrities.

Peter Paul of South Pasadena, CA

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