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September 2005
Oliver Twist: An Interview with Ben Kingsley

Oliver Twist : An Interview with Ben Kingsley

By Wilson Morales

After seeing him take a check "Thunderbirds", "Suspect Zero" and most recently for "A Sound of Thunder", Sir Ben Kinglsey is back to making quality films; the films that automatically will get my money at the box office. Coming up next for this Oscar Winner (Ghandi) and newly knighted individual is the role of Fagin in the latest version of "Oliver Twist". The film is directed by acclaimed director Roman Polanski, who won Oscar for directing "The Pianist" in 2002. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Kingsley goes his role as Fagin and working with Polanski.

The kids all said they never met Sir Ben.

Sir Ben Kingsley: No, I stayed in character the whole time when the children were on the set.

And you're not really a stay in character actor...

SBK: No, I tend to jump right out. When a director says 'Cut!' I'm off and out of it.

How did you like it?

SBK: I enjoyed staying in character, because I also had a lovely rapport with Roman. So, I stayed as Fagin talking to Roman and giggled and giggled and giggled. I made him laugh so much. I used to ask him every morning who he was - as Fagin. 'Who are you?' I'd say. And he'd say, 'I'm the director.' And I'd say, 'Oh, what do you do?' (Laughs.)

The problematic aspects of the Jewish character the way Dickens wrote, I'm curious how you if you will recontextualize it and recreate it for the present context.

SBK: I think that as an actor I got enormous information and was hugely stretched by being allowed to play Simon Wiesenthal, allowed to play Itzhak Stern, allowed to play Otto Frank, Anne Frank's father and have some inkling of what those years must have been like. Just a tiny, tiny glimpse. So, from the standpoint of an actor it's filled to so many layers, but that yellow star on those coats that I wore in Europe and working with Roman who suffered so much during the Holocaust just gave me a place to stand as Fagin. A place from which to work in where that issue was never debated at all. Roman just said, 'Him. He's going to be my Fagin.' And because of our great affection for one another that debate was never, never infected the workspace or worried us. I was just allowed to explore Fagin as a collapsed patriarch. As a distorted parental figure, but patriarch and parent that is terribly corrupted and distorted. But, somewhere inside there is a tradition...he mentions it when he is dressing the wound. 'Handed down from father to son, father to son...' and then he stops and says, 'But, I don't know where from.' As if his tribal memory has snapped and I found that very sad in him. Poignant. And then I speculated that his grandparents came to England with this little child - not his parents, but his grandparents - who didn't speak a word of English. They were holed up in some strange place in the east end of London and here was this child in London with these Russian speaking grandparents who died when he was still a child then he was out in the streets fending for himself. Then you have two orphans in the same room: Fagin and Oliver. Both orphans and both having a strange understanding of one another and a strange interdependence and eventually a bond between them.

Is that why the ending thing was ending in the cell?

SBK: It is there in Dickens. I'm sure it is.

Because that was very poignant. You got that sense that they had a kinship. That Oliver understood him.

SBK: I think in terms of the myth of Oliver Twist in mythological terms that Fagin has to be there to teach Oliver forgiveness and compassion. Without Fagin present in his life, that crucial almost life threatening lesson would never have been learned. They were all there as milestones in Oliver's journey to see that lost child turn into something. So, of course Fagin doesn't exist. He only exists, because he's necessary to show how tortuous and ultimately triumphant that journey is. So, I'm that dark angel who is sent to Oliver to teach him forgiveness.

So, as an actor, do you approach a Fagin any differently than you do a more naturalistic character?

SBK: I have deep respect that he is an icon and that he is in the novel as a means where by Oliver can grow and learn. However dark and threatening, he has something true which Oliver grows and learns about the world and it would be part of his adult life forever. I wonder what Oliver what be like as an adult, because he's a wounded child that's for sure. But, as I was saying the idea of the grandparents really helped me. I think it came to me when Roman said something to me. Roman said on the set - he was looking at me, 'I grew up with these people.' And I thought that was a wonderful compliment to pay me. That maybe I reminded him of a grandparent in Poland that was born in the late 19th Century. Some silhouette that he was comfortable with. So, my approach was very flesh and blood. Very visceral. Very real. Knowing he's is an icon with a specific narrative reason and then making him flesh and blood.

The makeup transformation and the teeth and you mentioned hunched over for your back...

SBK: And I wore padding on my back to accentuate that...

So how did you work on the make up? Was there any of Ben's flesh just being painted on?

SBK: No, it was painted. And then I changed my face a lot. I distorted my own face and body a lot. It was simply a stuck on beard, wig, prosthetic teeth and paint. Nothing else was stuck on to my face.

That was your nose?

SBK: Yes.

What about the voice? The Fagin sort of sly...

SBK: The high pitched voice came just as an idea. People who spend a lot of time with children. When you're in a classroom with mainly 3 and 4 year-olds and it's up to maybe 8 year-olds the teacher tends to say (in a high pitched voice) 'Come on boys and girls, sit down, let's have some quiet.' The voices are high because they are talking to children. They always use a high register. So, that high pitched voice came from there and this man who used to own a junk shop when I was a child and I used to go and buy stamps and foreign coins from him. He was my template for Fagin. He had the same teeth, he had the same hunched back, he had the same gloves, he had the same fingers that were constantly stained with copper and metal so they were black and green fingers and he had a coat tied together with a rope around his waist. And so, I was very fast in the wardrobe department. I said, 'Give me that coat, that coat, that coat and give me some rope.' 'Is that it?' 'Yes, that's it.' 'But we've got 50 costumes to show you.' 'No, that's it.' (Laughs.)

How long did it take you to transform every morning?

SBK: An hour and a half.

And did the children try to play tricks on Fagin?

SBK: I taught them tricks. One of them, the artful dodger, tried to take things out of my pocket.

So, did you accepted the part on Roman offering it to you or did your read the script and have some interest in recontextualizing?

SBK: Ronnie Harwood, great writer. It was a telephone conversation. I picked up the phone in my kitchen. Roman was on the other end of the phone and it wasn't long. I'd seen him relatively recently, because he was head of the jury at Deauville and we had a wonderful time there. And chatted and had dinner together and caught up with our lives and everything. And so shortly after that, a lovely experience at the film festival, he rang me and said he had the script and he had the money and it was a real project and he was doing Oliver Twist and my heart went 'Budum, Budum' and there is only one role he's going to offer me and it's not Mr. Brownlow. And then he said, 'I'd love for you to be my Fagin.'

You seem to be having a good time in this acting gig. What's good about it?

SBK: I don't know. I think the director's that I've worked with over the years seem to be accumulating. I seem to be meeting up with people I worked with years ago. Roman, for example, 10 years later asked me to do this. Writers, producers, I don't know why it's so intense and compressed now.

Could it be 'Sexy Beast'?

SBK: Yeah, that was really a marvelous opportunity. Because, my agent at ICM London, Duncan Heath, specifically had the conversation with the director Jonathan Glazer suggesting me for Don Logan and Glazer of course, very politely said, 'That's a very interesting idea.' Meaning, 'No.' (Laughs.) But, ICM had seen my performance in 'Sweeny Todd' directed by the late great John Schlesinger. It was one of the last films he did. It was on television and I played Sweeny Todd as a serial killer and with a London accent and he was a terrifying character. Duncan had seen this film and said, 'I know he has this in him.' And I met Jonathan Glazer and within two minutes we were discussing the schedule and when I'd start. Jonathan got it immediately when I walked into the room. Cause I punched him. (Laughs.)

Are you working on anything now?

SBK: Yes, I'm filming in Tunisia. I flew in Friday night and I have to go back to Tunisia this evening. I'm doing 'The Last Legion.' It's a beautiful story, the last roman legion when the Roman Empire collapsed. It was the 9th legion and they were isolated in Britain and I take Romulus the young Cesar from Rome where there is an attempt to kill him. A 12 year-old Cesar who absolutely disappeared. It's true. He went to Capri and was never seen again. And we get him from Capri to Britain and there he becomes an extremely, extraordinary lineage which becomes the Arthurian knights.

Who is the director and who is playing the Romulus part?

SBK: Romulus is...this is where jet lag really sets in. It's the boy who was in 'Love, Actually,' Thomas Sangster and the director is Doug Lefler who is absolutely brilliant. He's done a lot of great action movies and now he's doing this meeting of mythology and history. He's a great director.

Tell us what Polanski brings to a project like this?

SBK: He will film the set in every detail and will adjust the set to make sure the stuff on the shelf over in that corner will become part of the narrative. And he'll move the vases and the pots around to enhance the story so the eye would go to a specific item on that shelf and then flip back to that narrative. He arranged the handkerchiefs that were drying by the fire. He would come in and adjust the level of heat in the fireplace. He spent 20 minutes in Fagin's hands to steam. 20 minutes fiddling around with stuff that made smoke and then he eventually gave up. It didn't matter. Always, puts the camera in a place that will attract and collect every cell of the actor's energy. Every molecule of the actor's contribution will be caught in that lens. He always, always, always puts the camera in the right place.


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