Kingsley: Storytelling is healing

Sir Ben Kingsley is fascinated by collective memory, as he lacks memories of his own childhood. At his master class yesterday, he posed an enigmatic question: Who leads us through the interminable night, when we’re not sure if we’ll ever see the light of day again? His answer – the storyteller. Today at 3pm at an award ceremony in Festival Park, he will accept the Actor’s Mission Award.

In the eyes of many viewers, your other roles are overshadowed by your Oscar-winning portrayal of Gandhi. Do you ever regret taking the part?
I bless the day I was offered that role. It allowed me to move from theatre to film. I would NOT have played Don in Sexy Beast without that Oscar for Gandhi! Now there’s a paradox!
Do you consider Gandhi the most interesting role you’ve played?
Being in India for the first time it was exciting for me to learn and understand that vast culture and to appreciate how enormous his task was and to accept how huge mine would also be. Honestly, the most valuable part of my preparation was how welcomed I was by the ordinary people. A great exercise in humility, which is always good.
Were you at all influenced by your own roots in Gandhi’s native village?
There are lots of wonderful myths surrounding my preparation for the great role of Gandhi; my paternal grandfather did come from the same region as Gandhi but certainly not the same village.
Were you left with traces of Gandhi in your own personality?
My life as a screen actor is so much like that of a portrait painter. When the portrait is complete (Georges Méliès for example), I clean my brushes, wash the paint off my hands and walk away. I retain nothing of the character, apart from tiny echoes. The joy is in doing and letting it go.
Where do you find inspiration and what is most important when you prepare for a role?
I find joy, energy and inspiration in my endless curiosity, which leads, I hope, to empathy.
You’ve also been heard to say that the more you learn, the more you realize how impossible learning actually is.
As for knowledge, the more I studied the facts of the Holocaust, the more impossible seemed the task as a mere actor of conveying the full incomprehensible horror. Yet now I have appeared, onscreen, as Simon Wiesenthal, Itzhak Stern and Otto Frank. I thank the dignity of the screenplays, the tenacity of the directors and the pure urgency to tell these stories.
What drives you to tell stories?
Stories delight and entertain; they also offer great comfort, insight and explanation on our life’s journey. Storytelling is healing. In my creative life, every day is different as is every role. I strive to make every character a useful part of the perfect story. Now, we’re back to mythology.
It’s said that you first dreamt of becoming an actor as a boy when you saw a film about an orphan named Peppino from a bombed Italian village, whose only remaining friend was a donkey. And allegedly for the next few years your constant companions were an imaginary camera and an imaginary donkey… A lovely story, but can you still relate to it?
Ah! Another charming myth. The film I watched as a little boy was Never Take No for an Answer starring, yes, a little boy and his beloved donkey. I made up my mind then to be a movie actor and enjoyed all those delightful fantasies.