From playing Hamlet on stage to Gandhi on screen, Sir Ben Kingsley reveals why his profession has been his life’s passion—and his salvation.

“I look upon theatre as landscape painting, and now I’m a portrait artist,” says Sir Ben Kingsley, as we settle into discussing his new film. “It’s the same craft, but now I focus on one individual and portray them, rather than bring the whole landscape to the attention of the audience.”

Sir Ben, as he’s routinely addressed, spent the formative years of his career performing Shakespeare, so it’s no surprise that the 72-year-old actor knows how to spin a metaphor. But his reverence for his profession is entirely genuine—he’s a thespian in the truest sense.

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Sir Ben was intrigued by the character of Darwan Singh: “I found him profoundly decent”

“Storytelling is healing,” Sir Ben says, enunciating each word as if projecting from a West End stage. “It’s an ancient, tribal ritual through which we explain, comfort and guide. I realise its potency and I realise I do have a place in it, for which I’m eternally grateful.”

And yet his latest project Learning to Drive is one story that Sir Ben very nearly didn’t tell. Centred on the burgeoning friendship between a Sikh driving instructor (Kingsley) and a highly-strung literary critic (Patricia Clarkson), it’s a gentle and understated sort of film: full of undertones, allegories, and characters undergoing private struggles. It’s the sort of thing Sir Ben excels at—which was rather the problem. “As an actor, if you pursue a certain vein of roles, they can become burnt out, just like an electricity circuit.” 

He thought that Darwan Singh, grappling with displacement and finding contentment in a new world, was too close to the character of Colonel Behrani, which he’d recently played in The House of Sand and Fog

 

 

“As an actor, if you pursue a certain vein of roles, they can become burnt out."

 

 

“If I keep on portraying displaced persons, that creative part of me would become tired. I don’t become tired, I’m fine,” he clarifies, “but that particular creative set of wiring, nerve endings, sense and sensibilities —whatever you want to call them—will become so.”

He turned the role down. But, as fate would have it, the project was put on hold, the script refined, and second time around Sir Ben’s “over-amped electric circuits had calmed down completely”, so he accepted the part. Thus began the process of bringing Darwan Singh to life.

“It’s crazy what we do for a living, trying to print a page into flesh and blood on screen. It’s a series of bizarre miracles and a lot of hard work.”

What helps Sir Ben in the nuanced process is a trick he honed during his many years on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company—that is, distilling the character to a dramatic archetype. “Darwan’s archetype is warrior,”

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Sir Ben Kingsley with Patricia Clarkson in Learning to Drive

Such a majestic vision isn’t easy to detect in the prosaic image of a driving lesson (which forms much of the film), but Sir Ben insists on his paradigm and his enthusiasm is infectious. “Darwan’s battleground is learning—he teaches people how to drive and how to live. At his heart, I imagined him wearing a sword, as Sikhs are supposed to do ritualistically.”

Like Colonel Behrani—and, of course, Mahatma Gandhi in the 1982 film for which he won the Best Actor Academy Award—Sir Ben brings a great sensitivity to the part. There’s a certain irony to the fact that some of his strongest and most applauded performances have been those where he’s portrayed non-Caucasian characters, because early in his career he changed his name, distancing himself from his heritage. 

 

 

"Storytelling is an ancient, tribal ritual"

 

 

He was born in 1943 to a Gujarati Indian father and a British mother, and was christened Krishna Bhanji. “The changing of my name was partly due to the fact that my birth name was so ridiculous,” he explains. “I have a Hindu first name and a Muslim second name. In India, that would be ridiculous—it wouldn’t exist.” 

It was also a name that didn’t do him any favours at all when he was auditioning for parts back in the 1970s. “I did two auditions close together, one in Huddersfield and an identical one in Leeds. The first one was under my crazy birth name and they said, ‘Wonderful audition, but we wouldn’t know how to place you in our repertoire.’ The second I did as Ben Kingsley and they said, ‘When can you start?’ ”

“I don’t think this reflects badly on anybody,” he insists. “Now Ben Kingsley is simply what I choose to sign my portraits with.”

 

Read the full interview in the June edition of Reader's Digest

Browse Ben Kingsley films in our entertainment shop

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