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'Shutter Island' role adds to Sir Ben Kingsley's serious side

There's no hesitation in greeting Ben Kingsley as "Sir Ben" when he answers the phone.

Anyone royally knighted deserves respect. Besides, the Oscar-winning actor once famously pitched a fit on a movie set when colleagues kept forgetting the "sir."

I'm not taking any chances with Kingsley, 66, who's plugging the psycho-mystery Shutter Island. Kingsley could still be in withering character as Dr. Cawley, a psychiatrist obviously hiding something in a prison for the criminally insane.

Just how bad that would be is one of the film's many serpentine twists.

Instead, Kingsley sounds even-tempered like Gandhi, sophisticated without stuffiness, with a sneaky wit that shouldn't surprise anyone who watched him cut loose in dark comedies like The Wackness and You Kill Me, and silly romps like The Love Guru.

I mention to Kingsley that most folks didn't see those comedies, recognizing him only for weightier roles in Schindler's List, Bugsy, Sexy Beast and House of Sand and Fog.

"Then you must tell everyone," he says with mock "sir-ness." "That will be your charge, to tell your readers that I'm funnier than I seem."

Kingsley gives me another task later, after discussing his first movie with director Martin Scorsese, how mystery is protected in Shutter Island, and why he turned down career advice from a couple of Beatles.

Shutter Island fooled me, then a second viewing revealed lots of clues to the truth along the way. How do you play those moments without spoiling the surprises?

We avoided the desire to manipulate or withhold; just play the scenes in the purest possible way. We all know where we fit into this maze. I don't need to embellish the role with clever acting flourishes that could tip off the audience. My ego serves the character, not the character serving my ego. That's the way the equation has to flow.

The huge bonus is when you get onto the set. All sorts of magic things start to happen. I don't mean messing up dialogue; we were word perfect. I mean the interaction between characters, the sudden moments. In a terrifying scene you may find sudden moments of great tenderness or vulnerability that deepens the mystery. All those things arise under Martin Scorsese's impeccable direction.

Hard to believe this is the first time you've worked with Scorsese. How does his style differ from other directors?

They all have their extraordinary gifts. One of Martin's is the ability to see everything the actor offers between "action" and "cut." Not just an actor but the actors collectively. I don't know how he does it but there's a form of spread concentration, like a 360-degree vision.

Everything that we offer to the lens, he has noted, seen and appreciated. You don't need to embellish. You always know the camera is in the right place, and you know Marty gave you a role for a special reason. Now you can just sit in the character and do your job. I can't put it any other way, actually: You never feel like you're auditioning for him.

Back in the '60s, John Lennon and Ringo Starr encouraged you to pursue a musical career. Why didn't you?

Because I loved Shakespeare more than I loved that genre of music. Right about that time, I had the great fortune of auditioning for Trevor Nunn, who was about to take over running the Royal Shakespeare Company. Trevor and I hit it off, and I suddenly embarked on a career with the company that spanned something like 15 years, on and off.

I found everything in Shakespeare that I might have been looking for in music; the rhythm, the tones, the musicality of language, the extraordinary characters. It just filled me from top to toe with excitement and pleasure. I was swept along by it.

Plus, there's more longevity with an acting career.

I think so. I might have collapsed in a hotel room in the 1960s. (Laughs) This way, at least I can remember the '60s, and I survived them.

I'll confess to feeling a bit intimidated before speaking with you, after the knighthood thing and all. But you seem like a fairly down-to-earth guy.

Well, tell everybody. (Laughs) You've got two things to do now: Tell everyone that I'm funny, and tell everyone that I'm an okay guy, yes? That's a deal.

Steve Persall can be reached at or (727) 893-8365. He blogs on Reeling in the Years,

'Shutter Island' role adds to Sir Ben Kingsley's serious side 02/20/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 22, 2010 8:22am]
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