Sexy Beast
I'm the Mirror
Interview with Ben Kingsley

interview by Cynthia Fuchs, 13 July 2001

Ben Kingsley has a very proper, perfectly cadenced, and unmistakable voice. The fifty-eight-year-old actor was born Krishna Banji in Scarborough Yorkshire, England. Though he may be best known for his Oscar-winning performance in Richard Attenborough's Ghandi (1982), he began his career on stage (he was accepted to the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967), and has appeared on television as well as in films (which he says he prefers to theater), including Warren Beatty's Bugsy (1991), Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), Roman Polanski's Death and the Maiden (1994), a 1999 television version of Alice in Wonderland (where he played Major Caterpillar), Mike Nichols' What Planet Are You From? (2000), and the upcoming A.I., as the narrator. 

Today we're talking about his new film, director Jonathan Glazer's feature debut, Sexy Beast, in which Kingsley plays Don Logan, a London-based gangster who is sent by his employer to enlist a former associate, the happily retired Gal (Ray Winstone), to participate in one last heist. Don is a very scary guy, full of rage and fear, which he is ever apt to unleash as full-throttle violence.

Cynthia Fuchs: Jonathan Glazer has described Gal's concerns in the film as focused on love and honor. I find these apt terms to describe Don's focus as well, and I'm wondering what you think. 

Ben Kingsley: I absolutely agree. He definitely has a code of honor as regards his loyalty to his tribe [the crime gang], and it's borne out through the film. He's very distressed to find that somebody who used to adhere to this old code of honor and the tribe, just has turned his back on the tribe. And it's his specific job to honor his hero and his employer, Teddy Bass, to [prove] that he [Don] is the man to do the job and see it through, to deliver Gal back to headquarters in London as it were. It's a kind of military exercise, with the kind of military dedication and military precision in a sense, and cunning that Iago has when he's dealing with Othello. It's that same hierarchy that Don honors and understands and deeply appreciates, a hierarchy within which you can and cannot do certain things. And Don is, I think, clearly placed within the hierarchy as a Sergeant Major, but he'll never be a general. He'll be the best Sergeant Major ever. In a sense, [he believes that] through his posture and his attitude, he barks at Gal as if Gal was a raw recruit, as if he can knock Gal back into shape, literally. That's the honor that I would allude to as regards Don, and it's that honor that keeps the actor, hopefully, from playing a clichéd "villain" or "baddie." And also in terms of love, he says twice in the picture, "I love you" to Gal and then to Jackie in his last dying breath. And that's to be reckoned with. It's stuff in the text that's not to be trivialized. There is a man capable of saying that, under extremely difficult circumstances. Don's in a cry, possibly, of "I love you, why don't you love me?" And it leads him to impossibly absurd contortions in his determination to set things right in what he conceives as his world. And he will not make himself vulnerable in the process and so of course, does, in front of all four of the other characters.

CF: On one level he seems to have a very acute sense of how alarming and intimidating he is, and on another, he seems quite bizarrely unself-conscious.

BK: Yes he does. He has the kind of sense of self that a Pit Bull or a Rottweiler has, the sense of self that a weapon has, you know, not so much a sense of self, but a sense of function. He's a missile. He's the boulder that comes crashing down the hill, he's the exploding barbecue. He's the jinx that stops all their guns from firing when they're shooting at the rabbit. It's wonderful how the screenplay and Jonathan set up these people as really seriously retired and a little inept at defending themselves. And it's that complacency that leaves you wide open to attack.

CF: That juxtaposition between that sense of serenity that they have and Don's eruption on the scene is quite funny.

BK: Most definitely. It is a black comedy.

CF: The airplane scene [where Don refuses to put out his cigarette, and threatens the flight attendant and a fellow passenger] is especially deft and alarming at the same time.

BK: Yes, and he does find a way of propelling himself back into his task. He asks to be jettisoned out of it by demanding a cab [from Gal's home to the airport] and then jettisons himself back into it by creating a huge ruckus on the plane, and he knows he'll be thrown off for it. It's an excuse to miss the plane and then go back and have one more try. It's unfinished business.

CF: There are so many neo-violent movies in play right now, but this one seems different, less celebratory in style and theme.

BK: I see it very much as a film whose context is tribal honor and the tribe is criminal, made of warrior bandits, warlords. It's not a gangster movie as such. It's far closer to being a black comedy or a love story.

CF: Or a samurai film, I suppose.

BK: Well, Don's code of honor is most definitely samurai. Loss of face to Don is cataclysmic, just as loss of face is to the samurai. And in a sense, because of loss of face, he goes back and almost commits suicide, standing there unarmed [before his enemies].

CF: Can you talk a little about the relationship between Don and Jackie, which is so complex and rendered in very few strokes?

BK: It's an animal attraction that he finds very disconcerting. She's one of the few human beings in his life that makes him feel vulnerable, which is why he talks to himself in the mirror, and says, "Never, never, never, never again. Never drop your guard again."

CF: He does tend to repeat when he's upset, as if that will force what he wants to happen, happen.

BK: Yes, like a barking dog.

CF: He seems especially vulnerable when he's confronting himself in the mirror. How was it to play that scene?

BK: It was very uncomfortable, because I never, never in principle or as a metaphor act in front of a mirror. I never do that, to see what effect I might have on a camera. For me, it's far more a process of letting go rather than a process of ensuring that I'm in control of the effect that I'm having on an audience. So, I'm the mirror. I have to hold the mirror up to nature. So therefore it's doubly strange to be a mirror, acing in front of the mirror, and have the mirror image acting back at me, the image of a creature I've created, who is a fragment of myself, extrapolated, and a very, very dark one indeed.

CF: You don't watch yourself on film, or in dailies either?

BK: Very rarely, not unless I'm specifically asked by the producers or director. I feel more in touch with what I'm doing if I'm looking at the other actor, and not at me.

CF: The promotional materials for the film suggest that Ray Winstone and you work very differently, that he's more "method" and you're classically inclined.

BK: I wouldn't entirely subscribe to that. There's a big common bond between Ray and I. I don't see the hiatus, because good actors always meet each other halfway because of the work we do automatically.

CF: That comes across on screen, as you're so intimate, often only by exchanging glances. Can you talk a little bit about working with new directors?

BK: I enjoy their energy, I enjoy their enthusiasm, and their clarity of vision, because they're so new and in a sense they're breaking the rules, because as yet, their rules are in the process of forming. And with Jonathan I enjoyed being in on a conspiracy, because the actor and the director have to be in on the same deal.

CF: Did you have a lot of time for rehearsal on this film?

BK: No, very little. I came in on a Saturday and we were filming on the Monday. I like that way of doing it, because then you have to be intuitive.

CF: It builds toward Don's climax, I think, with such intensity: I assume that you were shooting out of order?

BK: To a certain extent, but not very much. And that helped create that dynamic between Don and Gal, and the rhythm of the piece, and where I was in my "scream." Basically, he rises and doesn't stop until he leaves. That has to be modulated, and so we shot in almost perfect chronological order.

CF: I've read that Jonathan Glazer was originally thinking of the film as a kind of incursion into stereotypically stuffy British taste, but it's playing so well around the world now, that it hardly seems so specific.

BK: Yes, but it seems that the more specific you get, the more universal the appeal. And if you try to generalize, you lose the archetypal imagery of it. You can only enjoy and excel in archetypal imagery if you get very specific. It's archetypes that key into everyone's consciousness, and once you miss that essential target, you lose that wide appeal.

Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs' review.  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.