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Ben Kingsley's Tightrope with Mythology, from Attenborough's 'Gandhi' to Upcoming 'Boxtrolls,' 'Exodus,' and 'Jungle Book'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood August 26, 2014 at 4:43PM

Ben Kingsley relayed how sad it was that Richard Attenborough had suffered a massive stroke and could hardly string a sentence together, and that he had visited him not too long ago. But our entire conversation, which covered "The Boxtrolls," "Exodus: Gods and Kings," "The Walk," and "The Jungle Book," sprang from the actor finding those seminal moments of inner truth and character flaws in a script that he can build on from the inside out.
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Ben Kingsley as Archibald Snatcher from The Boxtrolls

It was so eerie discussing Lord Richard Attenborough and "Gandhi" with Sir Ben Kingsley on Saturday at the Beverly Hilton, and then hearing of Attenborough's passing on Sunday, just five days before his 91st birthday. Attenborough was the first director I ever interviewed as a senior at Cal State Northridge, and I couldn't resist revisiting the breakthrough, Oscar-winning performance with Kingsley.

I recalled how Attenborough was bursting with excitement about his lifelong pet project, which was still in pre-production in 1978 when we met, describing the lynchpin scene in which the young British-trained lawyer was tossed off the train in South Africa, and how the young actor, Ben Kingsley, was going to be amazing.

Richard Attenborough
Richard Attenborough

“Wonderful man,” Kingsley beamed. “And it’s interesting that he alluded to that scene because, for me, that was the engine of the whole performance. And after he’d seen the film, Peter Brook, a colleague and another great director, said to me, ‘That’s the angriest performance I’ve ever seen on screen.’ And I shook his hand and said, ‘You got it.’ It was a seminal moment: Do not throw me off the train. Isn't it extraordinary, that one gesture, and everything followed?"

Kingsley relayed how sad it was that Attenborough had suffered a massive stroke and could hardly string a sentence together, and that he had visited him not too long ago. But our entire conversation, which covered "The Boxtrolls," "Exodus: Gods and Kings," "The Walk," and "The Jungle Book," sprang from the actor finding those seminal moments of inner truth and character flaws in a script that he can build on from the inside out.

For his marvelous vocal turn as the villainous Archibald Snatcher in Laika's Oscar-contending, stop-motion "The Boxtrolls" (September 26), says Kingsley: "He's archetypal in the way that all of Charles Dickens' extraordinary characters are, Shakespeare's characters are. What jumps off the page when I read a script is that pattern of human behavior that absolutely rings true. It's as true as: Don't throw him off a train -- you've made a big mistake. And with Archibald Snatcher, it's: Don't tell him he can't join your club because he will use a battering ram to get in. The worst thing you can do to Archibald Snatcher is reject him because his psychological makeup is not wired to cope with rejection.

"He will bang and bang and bang to get that crown on his head [the white hat of the aristocratic, cheese-tasting elite] like Richard III. And also like Richard III, the beginnings of every gesture of Snatcher's is that terror of rejection, and that's the wound he's trying to cover, that's the flaw in him, that's the crack. If I can divine that in a script and love it and, in a sense, take care of it, the vulnerable part of him, then that's immensely exciting. At the heart of this story, which is how I can find my narrative function as Snatcher, is that we're basically dealing with two orphans who find each other in adversity."

In "The Boxtrolls," Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is adopted as a baby by a tribe of trolls that lives underground, which, Kinglsey points out, goes all the way back to the bible, and the girl, Winnie (Elle Fanning), is somewhat orphaned because she's ignored by her parents. 

Exodus (Christian Bale & Ben Kingsley)
Kerry Brown

But simply handing over his voice and letting Laika's talented animation team handle the body language wasn't easy at first. And Kingsley decided to borrow a little from "Sexy Beast's" Don Logan rather than Fagin for Snatcher. "I wanted to get that social pretension. Class and rejection figure very strongly in this film. And it was very freeing to be able to focus on the voice. I reclined completely while recording -- I didn't stand or sit -- with a microphone very close to me and the script was on a wonderful bracket near me. His voice comes from his protruding stomach and in reclining I was able to replicate that kind of a voice."

And Kingsley was amazed at the sophistication of the puppetry (which utilizes the best in CG and 3D printing for face replacement). "They sent me a link early on and he's holding forth about the human condition and in the studio I stretched a vowel and on that vowel they have Snatcher make a preening gesture with his lank strands of hair, and I thought, 'OK, they've got it -- they know exactly what I'm up to.'"

Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson in "Learning to Drive"
Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson in "Learning to Drive"

Kingsley's never been busier with a dozen upcoming roles ("Learning to Drive" premieres at TIFF) along with several projects he's producing with his production company. Currently, he's doing voice work as Bagheera the panther in Jon Favreau's live-action/animation hybrid retelling of "The Jungle Book" (October 9, 2015) at Disney (not to be confused with Andy Serkis' rival hybrid "Origins" version at Warner Bros., October 21, 2016).

"Another orphan story, adopted by a tribe, who are slightly demonized by humans. Moses, adopted by Egyptians," in reference to Ridley Scott's "Exodus" (December 12) starring Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Ramses. "It's such a pure, mythological, type of tale [in which he portrays Nun, the father of Joshua, played by Aaron Paul]. I always wanted to work with Ridley and, again, like Richard did, it's scraping away the accretions of history, distortion, and mythology and trying to get to the guy and what he was struggling with."

Meanwhile, in Robert Zemeckis' "The Walk" (shot in 3-D, October 2, 2015), there's the struggle of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his death-defying attempt to cross the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. "What pathos and poignancy that the Twin Towers are not there anymore," adds Kingsley, who plays Petit's mentor. "And you see them like golden pillars that Hercules has to conquer -- and he does."

With Kingsley, it's always a tightrope with mythology.


This article is related to: Ben Kingsley, The Boxtrolls, Richard Attenborough, Immersed In Movies


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.