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No end to Kingsley's game
6:00am Saturday 2nd November 2013 in Celebrity Interview
With a career spanning more than 45 years, Sir Ben Kingsley is one of the UK's most revered and respected actors. Shereen Low catches up with a legend.
There's an air of serenity surrounding Sir Ben Kingsley.
For his latest film, Ender's Game, the Yorkshire-born actor tapped into this Zen-like state in the make-up chair as his character Mazer Rackham's entire face is covered in tattoos.
"When I am in make-up, I tend to sit very quietly. I don't chat, none of that blah blah goes on," he says, as he sips his tea.
"I close my eyes and go into this meditative state - I sometimes run my lines, I sometimes go blank. Why over-complicate things?"
Within minutes of speaking to him, you realise that Kingsley, who won an Oscar for playing Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, is old school. He refers to acting as the "craft", characters as "portraits" and movies as "canvases".
But it was the actor's face that became the canvas in Gavin Hood's big-screen adaptation of Orson Scott Card's book. Rackham is adorned with ritual facial inkings which prove his ancestry from the Maori warriors of New Zealand. The 'tattooing' process initially took around two hours.
"In the army, there are campaign medals and ribbons. A Maori warrior is allowed to wear these campaign medals on his face," he explains.
Kingsley didn't have any reservations about having the tattoos done but admits the South African director skirted around the issue.
"Gavin was quite nervous about mentioning them because he was afraid I might say I wouldn't wear them," he says.
"He nervously embarked on this dissertation about whether I would want a Maori expert and the meaning of the tattoos, and I said, 'Hold it right there. If it helps you tell your story, I shall put them on in make-up'. It's that simple with me."
Kingsley saw first-hand the impressions the tattoos made on his fellow cast members, which included his Hugo co-star Asa Butterfield, as well as Hailee Steinfeld and Harrison Ford.
"Everyone was gathered together for Gavin's birthday. I walked in, in my Maori make-up for the first time, and it changed the way my fellow actors looked at and listened to me," he says.
"It was the missing ingredient in my character that I didn't need to act."
There was no temptation to keep the tattoos though. "What's important about the process of acting is you put a mask on and as soon as that gesture is completed, the mask is totally redundant and you take it off," says Kingsley.
"There's no skill in keeping a mask on - you learn nothing, and there's no differentiation or leap."
Kingsley was Hood's first choice to play Mazer, the military commander given the task of training Ender (Butterfield) to be Earth's ultimate leader, who can save the planet from an alien invasion.
"It was only months later after we finished shooting that Gavin said, 'I had you in mind right from day one'," he recalls.
"I admired him telling me because when writers say they wrote it for you, it's needy. There's a neediness that I tend to resist, almost like a knee-jerk reaction. But Gavin's not the type of man to go into that territory."
The film marks a reunion for Kingsley and Butterfield, who previously starred together in Martin Scorsese's Hugo in 2011.
"Asa is a beautiful actor - he's still expressing himself in the same way as he did on Hugo and I feel confident he will always," he says. "He has a great intelligence, a very agile imagination and a purity.
"He has had enormous pressures on him as a young actor and the fragility of being a child actor. I think he will join Emma Watson and the people who have transcended that wonderful period in their lives at Hogwarts, who will definitely mature into more splendid actors."
As much as the younger cast learnt from the likes of Kingsley and Ford, the appreciation was mutual.
"Young actors remind you not to put filters between you and the camera. They work from the heart. Harrison, Viola Davis and I had to step up our game to be as pure as they are," says Kingsley.
Ender's Game may be set in the sci-fi world but for Kingsley, who was knighted in 2002, it could well be Shakespeare.
"The context is science fiction, just as the context of Hamlet is Denmark," he says. "But the struggle for a young man's soul, from adolescence to young adulthood, is classic. This story could have been told about an ancient Greek warrior four thousand years ago."
Born Krishna Pandit Bhanji in Yorkshire, he spent the first 15 years of his career on stage before moving to the small and big screens. After starring in a number of adaptations of William Shakespeare's plays and a role in ITV soap Coronation Street, he found fame when he starred in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi in 1982.
Since then, he has swung between independent films and Hollywood blockbusters, including roles in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island and Hugo.
"I love independent film because that's where your actors, writers and directors are rebirthing cinema," he says.
Four times married with four children, the actor won't disclose his proudest or favourite role to date, but admits he has a soft spot for Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast, in which he stars as violent sociopath Don Logan, alongside Ray Winstone and Ian McShane.
As he prepares to celebrate his 70th birthday on December 31, he admits he is "non-reflective".
"I'm very much future-oriented and I want to be present. I never look back. It's always the next challenge, the next thing," he says.
His acting future includes roles in Ridley Scott's Exodus and a top-secret Marvel project, following his scene-stealing stint as the Mandarin in Iron Man 3.
"I'm not allowed to say anything. You're going to have to wait and see. But it was lovely to see so many of the Iron Man 3 crew again," he teases.
He has also been linked to roles in Star Wars: Episode VII and Mary Mother Of Christ. But he doesn't keep up with the rumours.
"I never read any articles about me, I never read reviews about me, I never surf the internet looking for my name. I'm completely free of that, thank heavens.
"I sleep at night, I wake up, I do my job. I love my job as an actor. The rest is blah, blah, blah."
Extra time - Kingsley's top roles
:: Gandhi (1982) - Kingsley's film debut won him Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe awards for best actor.
:: Schindler's List (1993) - The actor's performance as Oskar Schindler's accountant Itzhak Stern won him praise and a Bafta nod.
:: Sexy Beast (2000) - Kingsley claimed his award-winning portrayal of Don Logan was based on his "vile" grandmother.
:: Iron Man 3 (2013) - This marked a rare comedic turn for the normally dramatic actor.
:: Ender's Game is released in cinemas on Friday, October 25
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