Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sir Ben Kingsley On Méliès, Scorsese
And "Hugo"

Sir Ben Kingsley in Beverly Hills last month at the premiere of Jason Reitman's film "Young Adult". 
Getty Images


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Wednesday, January 4
, 2012

SIR BEN KINGSLEY is down to earth and effortlessly polite.  Any trepidation or nervousness one might feel at the prospect of talking to this British thespian dissipates as he addresses you, putting you instantly at ease. 

Sir Ben, as he's called throughout this interaction, is avuncular, friendly and very much relaxed in conversation and descriptive flourishes of speech.  With a resume of more than 90 movies tucked in his back pocket, he speaks with the enthusiasm of a keen beginner.  As he spoke on the phone last month, Mr. Kingsley, 68, was buoyant about life and the movies, particularly Martin Scorsese's acclaimed fantasy adventure film "Hugo", in which he stars as the world's first "cine-magician" Georges Méliès.

"Hugo" finds itself at the center of plentiful awards season buzz, nominated for Golden Globe Awards for best picture and several other awards.  Mr. Scorsese's film is expected to be Oscar-nominated by the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences on January 24.

Exploring Georges Méliès was a journey that Mr. Kingsley, who was born in northern England and resides there, immersed himself head long in.

"There were 90 (Méliès) films on DVD that Marty had access to, and that's where my journey began with the character," Mr. Kingsley said. 

There's joy and enthusiasm in Sir Ben's voice as he speaks about Méliès, the legendary and prolific filmmaker who made at least 500 movies. 

"He did everything: he was a director, an actor, D.P., writer, sound man, editor, set decorator.  Every film he made makes you smile, and you grin from ear to ear."

Mr. Méliès' most celebrated film is "A Trip To The Moon" (1902), in which a space capsule flies directly into the eye of a man's face on the moon.  The image is an iconic one, one that plays several times in "Hugo", which is set in 1930s Paris just prior to World War Two.  Based on Brian Selznick's novel The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, Mr. Scorsese's first foray into 3-D follows young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) as he tries to complete an unfinished invention his father started.

At the height of his day in the early 1900s Mr. Méliès was fashionable and trendsetting as a creator of some of the most integral instruments in filmmaking, first starting as a cinematographer.  He never truly received the recognition and respect he deserved, and was exploited and shunted aside in film history's annals. 

Still, in reflecting on the French filmmaking giant Mr. Kingsley remarked that behind the work of Méliès was a man with plenty of spirit, heart and adventure.

"He captured movies so well -- a film -- its beauty, its sensuality, its magic.  And you see how happy he is.  Marty gave me Méliès at the height of his powers, his feeling, his glorious energy," recalled the actor of the resources he worked with in creating the character for Mr. Scorsese, whom he worked with in the 2010 film "Shutter Island".

Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Sir Ben Kingsley as Georgess Méliès in Martin Scorsese's adventure film "Hugo".  Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures

Mr. Kingsley talked about conveying the essence of Mr. Méliès, of "the feeling, that glorious energy" that couldn't be contained.  An unquenchable passion.  Sir Ben was asked if he was quoted accurately as "being one with the director" when on set.  "Oh yes.  I think when Marty and I worked together that was exactly right.  I execute what Marty is asking for.  At best we are one.  So what I aim for is exactly what the director wants -- and I want to be on the same page."

Sir Ben also talked about the low points of Mr. Méliès' life he had to re-create for "Hugo".

"Those moments where -- you have to understand -- almost everything was taken from [Méliès] -- it was taken from me, too.  I felt it.  In life I could feel the bottomless pit of loss.  I couldn't sentimentalize Méliès."

Indeed, Mr. Kingsley's Méliès is bitter, fearful, isolated and humbled into a self-imposed silence, yet Mr. Scorsese makes sure that in "Hugo" he is exalted in a moving five-minute sequence that forms the film's climax.  Mr. Méliès receives a rejuvenation and reconnection to the continuum of cinema, one that is fused by the youthful energy and determination of the title character.

Mr. Kingsley, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1983 for playing the title role in "Gandhi", termed Mr. Scorsese's passion for films as "infectious". 

"It's a joy to see him light up when he talks about movies.  He adores them.  There are so many films inside his film ("Hugo") that will appear in this life affirmation," Mr. Kingsley intones, as if promising a spectacle worthy of big top circus wonderment.

Mr. Kingsley's career has been a kind of wonderment in itself.  Besides "Gandhi" he has a plethora of other notable and memorable performances to his name.  In 1992 Mr. Kingsley garnered an Oscar nod for his work as Mob boss Meyer Lansky in Warren Beatty's "Bugsy".  A year later he won acclaim in "Schindler's List".  He electrified in Jonathan Glazer's stylish and elegant film "Sexy Beast" in 2001 as maniacal gangster Don Logan, receiving an Oscar nomination the following year.  In 2004 Ben Kingsley received his fourth Oscar nomination, for his role as Iranian immigrant Behrani in Vadim Perelman's drama "House Of Sand And Fog". 

Since then Mr. Kingsley's film career has expanded, mainly in supporting character roles.  Like any seasoned actor he has sometimes appeared in films that weren't great ("The Love Guru") or smaller independent films few saw ("Transsiberian", "Elegy", "You Kill Me".)  His pedigree however, is consistency, and his performances have been indelible. 

Mr. Kingsley was knighted in 2001 and had been criticized in some quarters for wanting to be called "Sir".  Over the years reports have suggested that he's changed that much-reported stance, and in the U.S. at least, films with the actor's name do not contain the knighted title that precedes it.

Sir Ben Kingsley had a brief career on stage in the early 1970s and some television and film roles before moving on full-time to television and movies.  He revealed that he is in talks to return to the stage to play William Shakespeare in a play he is producing.  "I would love to do this," he says, with relish.  Nothing has been set in stone as of December, but Mr. Kingsley, who was born on New Year's Eve, said he'd "look forward to doing it."

Time was short, and Mr. Kingsley was asked to recall a moment or event from a film he was in that was most memorable to him. 

"Let me tell you about something from 'House Of Sand And Fog'.  I was in Los Angeles.  (He mentions The Grove, a farmer's market.)  "An Iranian family was shopping there -- and the son in the family came over to me and said, "did you know about my dad?  How did you know?" 

There is a pause on the other end of the telephone.

"And I found that deeply moving."

Did Mr. Kingsley plan on writing his memoirs any time soon?

"No.  I think I'll leave that -- anything that is said about me -- for my son to write."

"Hugo" is now in theaters across the U.S. and Canada.

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