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Bang A Bong, Get It On - Ben Kingsley Interview

Author: Gaynor Flynn
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In his latest film, The Wackness, Sir Ben Kingsley plays a dope-smoking psychiatrist who gives out his sagely advice in exchange for drugs. He also carries on an affair with a much, much younger woman (Mary-Kate Olsen) and generally tries to act as disgracefully as possible in his old age. 3D’s Gaynor Flynn had the pleasure of sitting down with Sir Ben at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where he talked about why he has the best job in the world.

What attracted you to play a pot-smoking therapist in that movie-
His vulnerability. I loved what Jonathan Levine, the director, did with him. He has a lack of layers and I loved his shocking spontaneity. The way he will drop a water bomb out of his window, just for a laugh; the child in him, which is why he has such a good relationship with Josh Peck and ultimately a very good relationship with his stepdaughter Olivia Thirlby. The childlike quality in him is two things: it’s endearing and infuriating. That’s what attracted me to it and the struggle to get away from that child. He fixes his childhood with drugs. He fixes himself in that state of limbo and non-development by artificially suppressing his growth, by dosing himself out of adulthood.

The director told me that you are a non-smoker and he had to sneak outside to have a cigarette, so was it difficult playing a dope head-
[Laughs] It was fun. Anything that I am completely unused to discovering is marvellous, I knew nothing about bongs, really, I found them terrifying. Therefore it allowed me to allow him to do something as he has never done before. Even though he is addicted to pot, he always takes a joint so he’s never seen a bong before. He doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

So the therapist is really the one in need of therapy then-
Yeah, and he gets it from Josh. He gets it from the one patient who sits across the desk from him and challenges him. Josh in a way becomes the adult in our film who guides me from rock bottom to some kind of an adult life. So maybe there is a new beginning for him. The film is very redeeming, actually.

Although you’re one of the biggest actors working at present, you don’t seem to be hounded by the tabloid press. Why is that-
I suppose I’m too boring for them. But even if I weren’t I wouldn’t know, because I never read articles about me and I never read reviews. I haven’t read a review since 1986 and I never read anything in print about me.

What happened in 1986-
I did a Shakespeare play on stage and the reviewers were there for the first night. I couldn’t believe that one man wrote something and another man wrote something else about the same performance. I thought this is crazy, I’m too vulnerable to read a bad review. I know my limits. I’m just too vulnerable. I need my sleep, so I just don’t read articles about me. So I wouldn’t know whether I have escaped tabloids or if I’m in them everyday.

Well I guess the sex scene with Mary-Kate Olsen might get you some tabloid headlines.
[Laughs]. I think my agent told me something similar.

How did you handle the sex scene- What was it like filming it-
The important thing for all of us exploring the erotic side of the film is that there is a very clear reason for every single sexual scene. They are there for narrative reasons. Mine is to show his loneliness. In a phone booth, fumbling with a 20 year old and in bed with somebody whom I have been married watching a porno movie and having sex. It’s all so indifferent. You use comedy to exploit sex scenes to show loneliness. It’s a very clever device. Those scenes are terribly lonely. I knew they were lonely and that gave me the motivation to do them. I knew why they were in the screenplay. Imagine if you don’t know why a sex scene is in a movie and you’re asked to do it, it must be a nightmare.

You’ll probably always be associated with Ghandi. Does that bother you-

Not at all. That’s not a problem, because despite playing one of the most decent men in history I wasn’t typecast. I also played villains. Life always finds a balance. As an actor, I was allowed to fully explore that decency then the pendulum will swing the other way and suddenly I’m finding myself reading the screenplay of Sexy Beast. And I think, ‘there he is, that’s the guy I have been waiting for’. Everything swings back and forth, it’s always moving, so I have a huge amount of gratitude for that part – and huge gratitude for Sexy Beast because people saw that I could do something completely unexpected and that’s always fun.

What does being Knighted mean to you-

It’s a hug from England. The English are very like... When I am in New York or California, everyone will come up to me and smile and shake my hand and say ‘I love your work’ and that is really gratifying. In England they just look at you quietly. It’s very different. However with that seeming total lack of enthusiasm for what you’re doing, it’s balanced suddenly by this title. Suddenly the Prime Minister and the Queen say: ‘Oh, we know you are here.’ It’s a wonderful hug from England.

The Wackness is in cinemas now.