Published in Idol Magazine, 2012. Original article here.
The mythology of Sir Ben Kingsley
Sir Ben Kingsley discovered a rich mythology in ‘Hugo’, Martin Scorsese’s playful 3D adventure. The veteran actor took us to the heart of the story, while Martin Scorsese dazzled us with us his passion for 3D as the next step in cinema history.
While ‘Hugo’ tells the dreamt-up story of a boy living in the clock tower of a Paris train station, the role played by Sir Ben Kingsley is plucked from reality. It is the life story of Georges Méliès which fascinates Kingsley, far more than the excitement over the film’s 3D format. As one of the world’s first filmmakers, Méliès made over 500 films, before a lack of money forced him into a life as a cranky toymaker at Gare Montparnasse.
“For an actor, to explore the light of Méliès in his glass studio, and then to experience the dark of the toyshop, the exile … to be Méliès at his most empowered, in order to appreciate that terrible loss when he can no longer function as a creative artist,” says Kingsley, as he fixes his eyes on you and pulls you into his narrative. “It was terrific to occupy the full sweep, the arc of the character. This was one of the greatest arcs I’ve ever been privileged to scale. Beautiful, perfect! The balance of it is perfect.”
Kingsley paints pictures with his words. The veteran actor is calm and focused as we meet in grand settings at London’s Dorchester Hotel. Dressed in a dark blazer and neat jeans, Kingsley speaks with consideration, whispering a bit here and there for emphasis. Sir Ben, as he is called by everyone around him, is 67 years old, but there is nothing to suggest the ‘Gandhi’-star is looking for any less demanding roles now that he is eligible for his free bus pass. For what would be the fun in that?
“I fear there is a desperate immaturity in me that means I will be stuck being a child for a long, long time,” laughs Kingsley.
Kingsley shares the spotlight in ‘Hugo’ with 14-year-olds Asa Butterfield and Chloë Moretz, playing the parts of Hugo and his friend Isabelle. While the film, based on Brian Selznick’s book ’The Invention of Hugo Cabret’, is suitable for children, it contains a wealth of detail which means it appeals also to a mature audience.
“There are many subtle metaphors in the film, like the heart with a key to unlock it,” says Kingsley; Hugo is trying to repair an automaton given to him by his father, but he is missing a heart-shaped key. “Méliès’ heart is closed, and the key to unlock is the most innocent of children. Also, Hugo has to recreate himself because of the loss of his parents. He is very brave living in the train station, winding the clocks, being the time keeper of the world.”
Kingsley is full of admiration for his young colleagues, to the extent that he claims they pushed him to do better job himself. “Asa and Chloë both bring to their work a purity. Their acting is unimpeded, it is uninterrupted by theory, it comes from the heart,” says Kingsley. “This then demands in me the same level of purity. It raises my game, which is for me very exciting.”
Children’s ability to inspire is a topic that Kingsley returns to several times during our meeting, both in terms of how it affects him as an actor, but also how it is the kids in ‘Hugo’ who inspire a change in filmmaker Méliès after he has given up.
“It is one of the ancient classic myths: the exiled man is drawn back into life by the hand of a child. I always look for the six-seven classical stories in the scripts that I am offered. If there’s a central myth that acts as a map to unlock a script and fill it with genuine life and feeling, that’s the script I will choose. I recognised that early on in Marty’s script: there it is, there’s the exiled man and the child! It’s perfect, perfect.”
His background from the Royal Shakespeare Company means Kingsley is more familiar with the classical myths than most. This influence remains clear even now: Kingsley’s words are akin to performance, uttered with a perfect grammatical structure usually found only on stage.
‘Hugo’ is the first 3D experience for both Kingsley and Martin Scorsese, and the format remains controversial. But the man who gave cinematic classics such as us ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Goodfellas’ has buckets of enthusiasm for the new frontier:
“I’ve always wanted to do something in 3D. Over the years I’ve been obsessed with it: the blue and red glasses, black and white 3D, I’m a fanatical about it all but I never thought we would be able to do it,” says Scorsese.
The technology has now caught up with the director’s inspiration, but the 3D experience in ‘Hugo’ is less gimmicky than we are used to. Still, the Hollywood legend does not necessarily agree that 3D has to add something to the story. “Everybody says 3D has to enhance the story, but you have to think of what that really means. Does colour enhance every damn film that’s ever made? No!” Scorsese becomes animated. “Does colour enhance the room right now? It is in colour! Guess what, it’s in 3D too!”
Listening to Scorsese is fascinating: he charges forward, he stops mid-sentence and jumps back and forth as he makes his point. But all the actors in ‘Hugo’ say the same thing: Scorsese is highly observant, and he makes everyone around him feel at ease.
“He doesn’t miss a thing, I’m not exaggerating,” says Kingsley. “Whenever you’re with Marty, in his lovely big glasses, you see that he’s always taking in everything: the world, the person with whom he’s speaking. And it’s that extraordinary appetite for life that allows him to entirely reinvent himself, and to be completely with the person in front of the camera.”
While Kingsley was not a fan of 3D before making ‘Hugo’, it seems the experience may have changed the Shakespearean’s view of the format. “You are asking me about 3D in the wake of a beautiful experience,” says Kingsley. “My first time with 3D was this little View-Master where you turned a disc to see things in 3D. As a child I loved it, I was inside another world. Until I saw Marty’s film I had never had a 3D experience with the same effect. Marty allows you to see things through your child’s eyes, and that’s an amazing achievement,” says Kingsley. “It’s a miracle, really.”