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Interview: Ben Kingsley

Few actors ever get the chance to go to the extremes that Sir Ben Kingsley has in his career. In 1982 he won an Oscar for the title role in Gandhi, portraying history’s most non-violent revolutionary. 22 years later, he would be nominated for another Oscar, this time for his portrayal of Don Logan, arguably the most brutal, animalistic, and outright scary gangster, ever, sent to persuade a retired bank robber out of retirement for one last job in Sexy Beast

Few actors ever get the chance to go to the extremes that Sir Ben Kingsley has in his career. In 1982 he won an Oscar for the title role in Gandhi, portraying history’s most non-violent revolutionary. 22 years later, he would be nominated for another Oscar, this time for his portrayal of Don Logan, arguably the most brutal, animalistic, and outright scary gangster, ever, sent to persuade a retired bank robber out of retirement for one last job in Sexy Beast.

In director John Dahl’s (Rounders, The Last Seduction) black comedy/romantic comedy/crime thriller You Kill Me, Kingsley plays Frank Falenczyk, a hitman for the Buffalo, NY Polish crime syndicate, battling with alcoholism. After botching a hit on a rival Irish crime family, his sympathetic uncle ships him to San Francisco to overcome his addiction. With the help of a supportive AA sponsor (Luke Wilson) and a new love interest (Tea Leoni), Frank finds inspiration to get sober, and get back to doing what he does best: killing people.

I had the chance to speak with Kingsley while he was in New York for the release of You Kill Me.

Ben Kingsley

Q: So I guess the question we ask you every time you do a movie is, what made you want to do this movie? What made this stand out against all the other scripts about killers and mobsters?
Ben Kingsley: I read it. As I turned the page, I loved the consistency of the writing, of his character. In so many lesser screenplays, there is an inconsistency, or you get five characters in the scene, and they’re all written in exactly the same way. So if you black out who’s speaking, you can’t tell, because they don’t have their own individual rhythms. In this screenplay, everyone has beautiful individual rhythm, and what I really enjoyed about reading Frank, is that he stays Frank from the beginning to the end. There is an interior shift, definitely a change, but he is the same child within. And the child stays the same throughout the film. He’s very childlike. And that’s what I also found really very endearing about possibly playing him, indeed was that childlike quality – somewhat monosyllabic, somewhat removed from society, not very grateful for the care and attention he’s receiving from his uncle and his cousin, not interested in that food his cousin brought for him, would rather open a bottle of beer. Keeping, in a rather childlike way, keeping affection away, until his whole resistance crumbles, and he can’t say no to affection anymore. And support. And that’s when Tea walks into his life.

Q: You’ve done an interesting panorama of killers in recent years. Does that somehow inform how you played Frank? Did it help you having delved into that sort of psychology before?
BK: Definitely. Definitely. It certainly did. Especially I think doing Sexy Beast, which is sort of a second cousin to Frank. Much more an animal in its pure form, in the sense of its pure violence. I can’t imagine Don Logan sending gift cards to people he’d killed badly, or hurt badly, or the relatives. So there’s no redemptive side to Don, but he’s one end of the scale that Frank could become if he’s not careful. He could disappear into a terrible blackness and probably self-destruct. It was good to have that background already in me, the knowledge of that world, or the familiarity with that world, almost a different act of violence, a casual act of violence.

Q: Can I ask you to compare the characters? Because the think I like about Frank is that Frank is a nice guy, which he shows with his kindness to people in the AA meetings, or in that scene at the Irish funeral – he volunteers to drive people home. Someone who is a maniacal killer probably wouldn’t do that. Did you see him someone who was intrinsically nice and happened to be a killer, was just doing a job, but beyond that and the alcohol was just a friendly guy?
BK: Definitely. I think the alcohol was a way of coping with the complete dichotomy of being a decent guy who kills people for a living. Frank is a decent guy. I think he’s almost innocent a childlike, and has a sense of decency. But if his uncle says go and kill someone, he’ll say, ‘Okay,’ and go and kill them, almost naively. I don’ think he’s that profoundly dark force that Don Logan is. Don Logan is a force of nature, a cruel force of nature, that’s why he’s in that film. But there’s definitely something redeemable in Frank that does get redeemed later on in the film. I think he’s a decent man, but he’s had to suppress and disguise and drown his decency in alcohol in order for him to function. But that stops him from functioning as well, so it’s a downward spiral.

Q: I think you kind of enjoy grappling with characters who have that one little part that’s so different from the other aspects of them. Even the Rabbi in Lucky Number Slevin sort of had that to, but you don’t realize it right away. That seems to be your challenge, having that element of the character hidden in there and having it emerge in different ways. How do you work that out in your own head.
BK: Well I think it’s very much how the other actors approach me. How the character Frank is illuminated by Tea’s presence. How the character Frank is illuminated by his uncle’s presence, or his cousin’s presence. Very much you see Frank in how he responds to other people. So with John Dahl as director, he always kept those responses linked to truth, he rooted it in truth, rooted it in reality. We never spiraled off into what was completely unreal. Everything had a very real starting point, even that crazy Irish wake had a very real starting point, in that is how the Irish say goodbye to their departed loved ones – they get a lot of whiskey and they drink. And I think it’s 99 percent for me, how other characters respond to me, and in turn, how my character responds to them. It’s not something that happens in isolation. And I honestly don’t know how it’s going to play out until I’m on the set and I’m face to face with the director and the other actors. I don’t have many preconceptions. I know how Frank is, but I don’t know how Frank is going to react until Laurel provokes me, or Philip, or Dennis, or Bill, or any of our great cast.

Q: Can you talk about Frank’s accent?
BK: Sure. I think he had – I wanted him to have – certain Polish rhythms, certain Polish slightly-old-world inflections. I also rather like the way he doesn’t talk too much, until its time for him to stand at the podium and explain to the AA meeting who he is, what his history is, and what his hopes are. And I think that that sense of family, of patriarchy, that eastern European thinking of vodka and sentimentality and loyalty – I think they all played a part in that voice eventually coming out the way it did.

Q: The AA meetings are really sort of key scenes in the film. Did you do any research, attend any AA meetings in preparation for the film?
BK:  No I didn’t. I was really thrilled with the AA meetings. When I walked into them as an actor, they were so detailed in their realism – even things the audience would never see. I entered the church hall, and to my right was a notice board. It was covered in AA help notices and phone numbers. There was not one thing to distract me, because my first entrance started in the doorway, and to come into the room I was full of the AA meeting information by the time I stood there for two second and realized they’d done that whole wall. It was completely genuine, the faces in the meeting, the characters, the lighting in the church hall, which is always that rather odd strip lighting that they use in church halls that makes everyone look like they are underwater, the smell of the tea and the coffee and the cookies to one side, its such an embracing environment. And I thought, ‘You know, why don’t you just walk into John Dahl’s version of an AA meeting, and see what that’s like?’ And I would imagine it’s very, very close to the real thing.

Q: Do you enjoy playing a character with an accent? Does it help you to envision the character, or help inform your vision of the character?
BK: It can help sometimes, a lot. In the last film I did, which I finished last week…

Q: Which film was that?
BK:  It’s a Philip Roth novel called The Dying Animal, (a.k.a Elegy) which I did with Penelope Cruz. And I asked the director, and the team, if I could please do it in my own voice, because I wanted it to be as dangerously close to me as possible. So when I was performing in the character, I was using my own speech patterns and my own rhythms, and it was quite thrilling actually. There was no mask to hide behind, there was no disguise to hide behind. I had to create him out of me. And sometimes an accent can become a trick you hide behind. I wanted Frank’s voice to be my voice, but with those Buffalo and those Polish tones in it, but not enough for it to overwhelm the character. And it can overwhelm the character sometimes. So I always try to find the balance.

Q: You mentioned that Frank does not speak a lot in the film, and a lot of his character is expressed through body language. I was curious about your approach to Frank’s body language, his movement, how he walks through a room.
BK:  Sure. I decided that I wanted to present the same silhouette, from the beginning of the film, to the end.

Q: Is that why you chose to wear black?
BK:  My choice was to wear a black suit, a black crewneck t-shirt, a black hat, and black cowboy boots. And I wanted to give the impression that once, he was a really cool hitman. He’s still got the uniform, but it’s all over the place now, it’s gone. But he still has that gesture of self-respect still left. So there was something redeemable in there. And that – the cowboy boots – actually changed how I walked. And wearing a really sharp black suit as I did, alters how you stand. And also, the hat. So really that outfit was a great help to me, and I said, ‘Please, no costume changes, at all. From the beginning of the film to the end, let the audience see the same guy change.’

IFC Films released You Kill Me in theatres last friday June 22nd.

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