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Shutter Island – Sir Ben Kingsley with his head in the heights of science

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Shutter Island - Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and Ben Kingsley
Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) discuss their suspicions about the mysterious disappearance on an island prison for the criminally insane with Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley) © Paramount Pictures

In Martin Scorsese’s new movie Shutter Island, Sir Ben Kingsley portrays a brilliant psychiatrist named Dr Cawley, who contacts the authorities when one of his patients, a murderess, manages to escape from a locked room. But when Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCapro) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arrive on the island to investigate the case, Cawley psychoanalyzes their every move, even as he engages them to find his missing and dangerous patient.

This is the first time the Academy Award winning actor has worked with Martin Scorsese, and at the press day for the movie he talked about the experience.

What attracted you to this project?

Shutter Island - Mark Ruffalo, Leonardo DiCaprio, Max von Sydow and Ben Kingsley
Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) discuss their suspicions about the mysterious disappearance on an island prison for the criminally insane with Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow) and Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley) © Paramount Pictures

This story is like an archeological dig where you keep finding layers under layers. I like that, and I like Dr. Cawley because there is some extraordinary stuff buried inside this character that comes to the fore. He has an interesting perspective on his profession at a period when there was a battle raging between the old therapies and the new drugs and surgical approaches like lobotomies.

Did you have any input into how Dr Cawley would look?

It comes from my Shakespeare days that I love to grasp the whole picture. So I chose his green suit and his pipe, as well as his shoes, which are wonderful Oxford brogues that link him to the earth. I think of him as a man with is feet on the ground, but his head in the heights of science.

What was it like to work with Leonardo DiCaprio and the rest of the cast?

Shutter Island - Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio
Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) and Teddy Daniels’ (Leonardo DiCaprio) © Paramount Pictures

Leo is at the Hamlet stage of his life and this role gives him a tremendous opportunity to show his depth. Mark Ruffalo just radiates affection and loyalty; Michelle Williams has a stirring, beautiful vulnerability; Emily Mortimer is exquisite, like a bird beating its wings against a window; Patricia Clarkson has such stillness and intelligence and Max von Sydow, with is towering authority, is magnificent. Marty has placed them all like a painter, putting one color next to another for great effect. What a thrilling project to be involved with.

Going into this film what was your process as far as what you had envisioned and how you were going to go about shooting the scenes?

Shutter Island - Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio
Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) and Teddy Daniels’ (Leonardo DiCaprio) © Paramount Pictures

I think stemming from Marty there was, Leo and I discovered, a vital ingredient to this character-driven piece, because the miracle of filmmaking is that you actually make something out of nothing. There’s nothing there at all, and then our collective imaginations create something that fills cinemas, which is I think extraordinary.

It is in a sense a love story, Marty directs like a lover, everything is held together by affection, affection for his craft, affection for his actors, affection for his crew, affection for the material and affection for the great journey of cinema in our lives.

And what you perhaps don’t see on the page, and even when we were reading it together in the hotel room, Leo, Martin and I, what did emerge was an extraordinary level of tenderness between the characters.

As Leo pointed out, if you see the trailer it looks like a thriller, the glue that holds it together is varying levels of tenderness for your wife, for your child, for your patient, for your friend, and that is an ingredient that you can’t rehearse, you can’t anticipate, is always surprising and can only be brought to the film by the director. So our great journey was making something out of nothing and on the way discovering tenderness.

What was it like working with Martin Scorsese?

Shutter Island - Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio, director Martin Scorsese and Mark Ruffalo
Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio, director Martin Scorsese and Mark Ruffalo on the set © Paramount Pictures

When you have a great working environment provided by Marty, one of the blessings of working under his love and guidance is that whatever you offer the camera he will see every single scrap, he doesn’t miss anything, the slightest movement of your eyebrow, an elbow, a reflection of a certain word, everything is noticed, everything is gathered and a great deal of what you’re striving to do will be in the picture, if not indeed all of it.

Because that environment is so trusting, you’re released, nothing needs to be demonstrated, it therefore forces an accuracy and an economy, you don’t sentimentalize your performance, you don’t embellish your performance, the environment forces you to be utterly dependent between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ on your fellow actor, because the environment is perfect.

So as an acting exercise it’s absolutely thrilling, that the focus that we had to bring to each other echoed in life, echoed in art. It’s full of surprises, but it all has a logic.