The Oscar winner, now playing Salvador Dalí in “Dalíland,” talks about “Waiting for Godot,” D.H. Lawrence and the way Britten’s “War Requiem” helps him understand history.
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By Kathryn Shattuck
Ben Kingsley takes his accolades seriously. Knighted in 2002 for service to the British film industry, he prefers to be addressed as Sir Ben.
But even a knight needs his sleep, especially if he’s been spending every waking hour shooting a Marvel series. No matter if it’s the coronation day of King Charles III.
“I wasn’t up that early but I did catch some lovely glimpses,” he said, calling from Los Angeles to talk about his latest film, “Dalíland,” out June 9.
Kingsley draws on a catalog of absurdist mustaches and sexual predilections to play the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí as he prepares for an important exhibition in 1974 while his marriage to Gala — muse, helpmate, tormentor — crumbles.
“It was a leap into genius that I found exhilarating and exhausting,” he said. “That sublime tightrope that he walked between caring desperately about what people thought, and yet being utterly indifferent to what they thought — that, I think, was the most challenging to portray.”
Kingsley, who soared to fame with his Oscar-winning “Gandhi,” likes to keep his characters varied. His latest projects include “Jules,” out Aug. 11, about a small-town Pennsylvanian who gets close to an extraterrestrial, and the upcoming Disney+ “Wonder Man” series in which he’s reprising Trevor Slattery, his recurring Marvel role.
And his cultural necessities change with his mood. “In other words, had you asked me two hours later, the list might have been entirely different,” he said. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
‘The Daughter of Auschwitz’
Tova Friedman was 5 when the Red Army liberated the prisoners from Auschwitz, and she has written this remarkable book on her childhood in Auschwitz. I spent a morning with her, and it was profoundly inspiring and humbling to be in her presence. She asked me to write the foreword to her book. My commitment to the memory of the Holocaust has come to me personally by spending such time with Simon Wiesenthal, with Elie Wiesel, with Tova Friedman and other heroic, extraordinary survivors who will, as Elie Wiesel says, tell tales of their history.
I have his collection of essays, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” that was given to me a very long time ago, and parts of it I still struggle to fully comprehend. The language is so dense and brilliant that I get glimpses of his universe and what he has recognized in patterns of human behavior that I, too, recognize as a portrayer. I delve into that collection time after time after time, and every time I read it I have changed. Therefore, the resonance of that passage has also changed.
D.H. Lawrence builds the poem dramatically about how he found a snake sipping out of his water trough and clumsily throws this lump of wood. Then he says, “I think it did not hit him.” Toward the end, there’s that wonderful line, “And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords of life.” I read the poem at Dickie Attenborough’s 80th birthday. As you know, he became Lord Attenborough. And I concluded my reading by saying, “And thank heavens I did not miss my chance.”
World War I History on the Page
Many of us who live in peacetime must find the First World War utterly incomprehensible, as do we find other parts of 20th-century history. Sometimes they have to be translated musically, graphically, poetically, dramatically. I’ve read A.J.P. Taylor’s history of the First World War. I have a monumental book at home in Oxfordshire, photographs of the First World War published in 1933, just when Hitler came into power. I’m even thinking about a film of the First World War.
World War I History in Music
Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” made that whole horrible period of history, to me, tangible. I somehow — and I can’t put it any other way — I felt it. That, I think, is what the artist does: allows us to feel that which we cannot comprehend. And that is the artist’s great gift, to share that feeling with the tribe.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
I saw him live at the Royal Albert Hall years ago, shortly before his tragic death. It was Pavarotti of all people who said the greatest voice in the world is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s. And it is the most extraordinary voice, the range. Devotional music — that which transcends, that which sings to and about the higher power — it’s performed with energy and magnificence, but it comes from a humble center.
‘Waiting for Godot’
I performed it with the late, great Alan Howard and was directed by the late, great Sir Peter Hall, who directed the first appearance of “Godot” ever. So it was a full circle for him. To be in a rehearsal room with that power — Beckett, Hall and Howard — was extraordinary. It was at the Old Vic, and I didn’t want the run to end. There were times onstage where I didn’t know whether I was performing or in a great act of prayer.
I went to a very good English school and by some wonderful stroke of fate, the head of the film society decided to show some Eisenstein films. I was utterly enthralled by the scale of them. I remember [in “Ivan the Terrible”] this endless column of human beings. Now they would say to the actor playing Ivan, “Don’t worry about that, we’ll CGI it.” Which leaves the actor without his counterpart. It’s acting in a vacuum. But some directors think they can capture the same body-chemistry change in the actor as when he’s being pursued by 100,000 people. Look at the Salt March in “Gandhi.” How do you think I felt at the front of it? Extraordinary. I don’t think my sandals touched the ground.
I wondered whether Dalí would love Gaudí, both being Spanish. I’ve seen Gaudí architecture in Barcelona, and it is remarkable. It’s as if the stone is melting, a little bit like Dalí’s famous melting clock. Gaudí — melting stone, the most beautiful curves, sensual. It’s extraordinary.
‘Never Take No for an Answer’
The film is about an Italian orphan called Peppino, who has a donkey called Violetta. The donkey falls very ill and he insists on going to Rome to get permission from the Holy Father, the Pope, to demolish the wall of the St. Francis chapel and let his donkey in to be blessed. I looked almost exactly like the little boy in the film and was hailed in the foyer of the cinema, mistaken for him. It left an indelible impression on me and I decided then and there, “I want to be him. I want to be Peppino.”
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