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THE ACTOR'S CRAFT

It's all about 'letting go' for Ben Kingsley

Whether portraying a teacher, psychiatrist, cop or villain, he hits his marks, then throws caution to the wind.

June 22, 2008|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times
  • ?THE WACKNESS?: Kingsley?s troubled Dr. Squires, left, becomes friends with Josh Peck?s teenage drug dealer, Luke.
?THE WACKNESS?: Kingsley?s troubled Dr. Squires, left, becomes friends… (JoJo Whilden / Sony Pictures…)

NO, IT'S not your imagination. Ben Kingsley is everywhere.

The Oscar-winning actor is perhaps best known for his performance as an avatar of nonviolence ("Gandhi") or a thug whose very existence seems to promise brutality at any moment ("Sexy Beast"). But in a slew of films this summer, Kingsley proves he can do a little bit of everything, from playing a cross-eyed spiritualist in the recently released comedy "The Love Guru" to the long-haired, burned-out psychiatrist who befriends his teenage drug dealer in "The Wackness," which hits theaters early next month.

"I love to be reckless between action and cut," said Kingsley, 64, between sips of English Breakfast tea. "I'm hitting every mark that's taped on the floor, guaranteed, but within those beautiful constraints which I love, there must be a letting go, a recklessness."

"Sir Ben" can also be seen skulking through cinemas as the sinister personification of the military-industrial complex in "War, Inc." And after "Love Guru" and "Wackness," he'll be back in theaters again in August with "Elegy," as a respected teacher and critic whose world is shaken by an affair with a much younger woman. Meanwhile, his turn as a Russian cop in the thriller "Transsiberian" awaits release, the IRA thriller "Fifty Dead Men Walking" is in post-production, and he'll soon complete work on Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" before playing the villain in the film adaptation of the "Prince of Persia" video game.

Even for a man who lately has averaged making three films a year, this is a lot.

"But it doesn't feel pressured because I love my job," said Kingsley. "It feels wonderful."

Kingsley uses what he calls "mini-myths" to anchor his performances, boiling the essence of his characters down to easily accessible micro-narratives, such as when he played Anne Frank's father, Otto, in the 2001 TV movie "Anne Frank: The Whole Story."

"I reduced [the role to]: 'Once upon a time there was a little girl at school waiting for her parents to collect her. . . . She saw her father standing at the school gate; she turned to her friends and said with a beatific smile, "See that man over there? That's my dad." ' That's all I needed. Her father was everything to her and he failed to protect her, and it devastated him.

"It's these little psychological gestures within a character that will sustain me," he explains. "And I find they unlock the same emotional energy now, today, here, as they did when I was filming them."

Getting to play silly

For "GANDHI," the mini-myth he created was: "Don't ever, ever, ever throw me off a train again," Kingsley said. For "Sexy Beast," it was: "Once upon a time there was an abused child. He grew up to abuse others."

Although his brief appearance in Mike Myers' "The Love Guru" wasn't one of his most challenging assignments, the actor enjoyed taking a silly vacation from leading roles.

"It offered me another opportunity for those little packets of recklessness. This was a lovely shoot, very joyful. I enjoyed the comedic value in that, and in Michael, simply by sticking to [the character's] mandate: 'You can't love anyone else unless you love and respect yourself,' " he said, admitting with a laugh that the message was conveyed "in rather ludicrous ways through the gurus that the West has invented in its desperate need for guidance."

"I had watched some of [Myers' Austin Powers movies]. I met him ages ago; he was very, very charming to my sons, who were very young at the time. He's very interesting to be on the set with because he's Chaplinesque in his relationship to the writing, the directing, the casting. . . . That's the greatest pleasure I got out of working with him, to see that overall command of the comedic exercise."

"The Wackness" finds Kingsley taking copious amounts of drugs, tagging walls in New York and making out with an Olsen twin (that would be Mary-Kate). His Dr. Squires is one of the wackiest of his current characters but also one of the saddest.

"Squires' vulnerability, his inability to face adulthood, his loneliness in his marriage and as a stepfather . . . rather like Falstaff and his surrogate son, Prince Hal," he mused. "So [the teenage dealer] needs a parent to guide him and I need a child to love because my own stepdaughter doesn't love me. For that limited amount of time, they function perfectly together."

Inspiring choices

As To the authenticity of his "narcotized" performance, Kingsley is quick to note that "No drugs were harmed in the making of this picture; I was using herbal tobacco. But every time I inhaled, honestly, I would have this uncontrollable fit of giggles. Every time I had to smoke or pretend to have pills or pot, I got high! As if it were a placebo, it worked. The trigger in my character was kicked into this recklessness."

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