From the time he won the Academy Award in 1983 for his work as Mahatma Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, Sir Ben Kingsley has played a myriad of striking roles in film, on TV and in the theatre. Knighted by the Queen in 2001, Sir Ben continued has continued to dazzle his audiences with memorable performances in movies like House of Sand and Fog and Shutter Island.
He is currently starring in Disney’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time portraying Nizam, the uncle of Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man who is on a race against the dark forces to safeguard an ancient dagger capable of releasing the Sands of Time – which would allow its possessor to rule the world.
I spoke with Sir Ben about his role of Nizam, whose motives in the movie are questionable.
Can you talk about your attraction to projects like Prince of Persia, Blood Reign and Thunderbirds, that typically are slightly away from your usual repertoire of more realistic and often dramatic films?
When you are asked by the king of family entertainment (Jerry Bruckheimer), you can’t say no, and you know that it’s going to be so targeted and it’s going to have a message. The message of this film is to do with the break up and disintegration of a family through sibling rivalry and the rebuilding of that family.
So for me it was a seamless jump to go from Martin Scorsese’s set on Shutter Island to Jerry Bruckheimer and Mike Newell’s set on this, because this film is exciting, it’s thrilling, it’s an action packed drama but it’s character driven. It’s the character driven aspect of this film that to be honest has elevated it into a dramatic realm that I’m very happy in.
I love being in this film because it gives actors a great opportunity to delve into their characters and their cracks and flaws.
Given that you’ve had such a varied career, how hard is it for you to craft new characters in new movies and always make them fresh?
It’s my job. If I can’t surprise myself, I can’t surprise my director and my fellow actors and therefore the audience. So my quest is to surprise myself. Maybe it’s a little bit like a mountaineer always looking for a particularly dangerous mountain that maybe others have climbed before but not me. So I see myself as a bit of an explorer. A bit of a hunter; I’m always hunting for new opportunities and keep them fresh.
Which do you enjoy playing more, a villain or a good guy?
I believe that there’s good and bad in all of us. And I believe that there’s a light side and a dark side. So what I find fascinating and enjoyable is playing the balance. And in the recent movies I’ve done, what I have to do as an actor is to be unafraid of whether the audience likes me or not. I’ve got to be indifferent to that. I’ve got to tell the story.
So I know that there have been twists and turns in recent films I’ve done, Shutter Island, Elegy, and this one, where I’m not afraid of whether the audience like me or not. That’s not the point. As long as they focus on the character and see his journey through the film, that for me is thrilling.
For Nizam, did you tap into some of your stage experiences?
There is something Shakespearean about Nizam, and I did fifteen years in classic theatre before I did Gandhi and I did a lot of Shakespeare and the brilliant thing about his guise, his characters, is that there’s a man and then there are layers and layers of magic stuff behind the man.
Behind the costume, which is magnificent, is a man eaten up by such destructive forces presented as the most polite and helpful man in the world. So yeah, I did tap into the theatre, and even Shakespeare for this film.
What elements did you draw on to create your character and were there any real life historical figures or people that you knew that you drew upon, or did the inspiration coming strictly from the script?
Fortunately, I don’t know anyone like Nizam. There are historical precedents where you do see people who have bizarre ambitions, dangerous ambitions to do something with the world. And when they get the means to do that, they use it and it’s disastrous. So the worst person in the world to get hold of that dagger is Nizam.
There are historical figures who have gotten old of some technology and they have unleashed their mad fantasies. And I’m talking about quite recent history. And it’s been horrific. So I look at the realities of history and what it teaches us and I do see Nizam’s in recent history?