Sir Ben Kingsley spent fifteen years performing for the Royal Shakespeare Company – along with a steady diet of BBC productions – before he made his first major motion picture. Emphasis on the “major.” He played Mahatma Gandhi, drawing universal praise and earning an Oscar for his “is it live or is it Memorex” portrayal of the beloved Hindu leader. A rich diversity of roles followed: Meyer Lansky in Bugsy, Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List, Feste in Twelfth Night, Don Logan in Sexy Beast and Fagin in Oliver Twist, among others. With Iron Man 3, you can add The Mandarin to that list: reimagined here as a seemingly omnipotent bin-Ladin-like terrorist with a grudge against Tony Stark. In an exclusive one-on-one interview with Mania, he talked about the character, and how it connects with some of the iconic figures he’s played in the past.
Question: There’s a certain duality to the Mandarin here, different faces he wears for different situations. How did you approach the challenge of unifying those disparate parts?
Sir Ben Kingsley: The script from Drew Pearce, who’s British, and Shane Black, our wonderful America writer, provided a strong road map to adhere to. It read beautifully, and given the amazing arc of the character, I felt it was act-able. I felt like I could put some energy into that journey and make it work. There are some scripts where the writing is too conceptualized or just not thought through enough. The characters aren’t individuated enough. There’s nothing to act. There’s no mold or vessel or shape to pour my energy into. The mold in this movie is really brilliant. Beautiful writing, that’s a great start.
Q: Characters like this tend to have this cache with fans, and certain expectations are raised. The Mandarin is a little different, since the Fu Manchu routine won’t fly in this day and age. How much of that equation lets you put your own stamp on the role? How did you work at making him your own while still addressing the needs of the fans?
SBK: If you’re fortunate enough to love the process of acting, and really embrace it as a craft, then there will always be an opportunity to make your mark. An actor’s only limits are voice, body and imagination. That’s all we’ve got to express ourselves with. So there’s bound to be – there has to be – some part of us in it. I don’t know which bits, but there has to be some perception or version of the truth in us that will form the character. Out of nothing. I was going to say clay, but we don’t even have clay. We have nothing. We have words on a page, and they need to translate into people moving around on screen in front of us.
Q: This character feels like a pretty singular extension of that. He’s just an image on a screen for a lot of it, and the film stresses the very scary notion that he could be anyone or anywhere.
SBK: There is definitely a removal. He is not one of us. And that removal has to impart a certain sense of righteousness. Those awful broadcasts he makes have to impart a sense of total belief in his destiny and his place in history. In the evolution of civilization. He also is quite knowledgeable about Western history, culture, iconography, language… all of which he uses to completely manipulate. The gift to the actor, and the gift – I hope – to the film is that you can’t dismiss him as a ranting alien. That’s a departure from the comics, I think. This man knows too much. He knows which buttons to press when addressing the President, when addressing Tony Stark, when addressing the whole nation and the whole world on every screen. And yet those screens serve to remove him. To separate him.
That state has been going on a long time. It’s been around for a long time. I love documentary footage, old newsreel footage. A great deal of the 20th century is captured on film. When I looked at the old newsreel footage of Gandhi in preparation for that part, he was there surrounded by the people. Smiling, chatting, interacting with the people. He was modest, he was probably full of self-doubt, but it was quite wonderful to watch. It’s alive, this wonderful seething mass of humanity around him. And he embraced it.
At the same time, in another part of the world, you have a European dictator who is behind a bank of microphones or on a balcony or on a stage. Totally stage managed by Riefenstahl or whoever was coordinating it. He rants and raves that he’s of the people, that he is the people, but he keeps his distance. At gunpoint in some cases. That state shows us animals like him in their pure and horrible form. There’s also this terrible sense of righteousness in Hitler and Stalin and men like that. Absolute belief in the righteousness of what they’re saying. It’s illogical, disgusting, bizarre and unnatural. And you can see it in the ritualized way they address people.
The actor looks at those things, as I did when I was researching for Gandhi, and he puts it in his back pocket to use later on. The actor needs to be able to see that and bring that out in characters like this one. To give the audience a sense of the true nature of the threat. How manipulative it is, and how it has been a threat in our world for a very long period of time.
Q: Does it help to have that cache when you’re playing a historical figure in ways that it might not in characters who only exist on the page?
SBK: It’s interesting. Fiction and historical drama mixed when I was a very young actor. I was with the Royal Shakespeare Company for fifteen years, and had the immense privilege (and terror) of playing Hamlet. A lot of people have their own conception of Hamlet; you’re given this role where everyone in the audience knows the lines! Sometimes they would read along during the performance. They’ve have their copies of the play and they’d be looking down and reading it, not watching the performance at all! Talk about preconceived notions! Even that doesn’t exist with The Mandarin; people don’t know what I’m going to say next here, unlike with Hamlet. I learned with my Hamlet – and it wasn’t conscious at the time – to be vitally present with the language of the play. I remember some nights, I would die in Horatio’s arms and I would hear people in the audience say “oh no, not him!” They all know Hamlet dies, but you have to keep them so present in the journey that it comes as a surprise to them.
Thank God for those years in classical theater, where I was faced with these massive iconic figures. I just had to roll up my sleeves and get on with it.
Q: That comes back to duality. Hamlet’s a character who puts on one face for the people around him and another face when he’s alone.
SBK: There’s definitely a shift in characterization with the Mandarin, not unlike Hamlet. A vulnerable man, a man perhaps with wounds or pain or anger, who experiences moments of profound invulnerability when he’s broadcasting. It’s bliss. And then once the wall is down and he’s confronting Tony Stark directly… the perceived invulnerability is still there, but now he’s vulnerable. Just like Tony himself in the film. Something has been protecting you from being vulnerable, and then suddenly you have to defend yourself without that protection. Robert [Downey Jr.] actually made the comparison when we were shooting the big confrontation. He said, “they’re actually quite close these two guys.” And I think he’s right.