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The Original Primal Storyteller: Sir Ben Kingsley on "Learning to Drive"

After my interview with Sir Ben Kingsley, he caught me off-guard later by asking me, of all things, if I liked my shoes. “How do you like your Mer-rills?”, he inquired, in his bonafide English timbre. “I love to wear mine on set,” his free endorsement concluded, my witty retort lost within my surprised state. But though jarring at first, this moment made sense in the larger picture of his filmography—definitively unpredictable, at times thoroughly pedestrian, but all with an appreciation for the specific, human things in one’s character. He’s a massive presence, one even with kudos from the Queen herself, but in his own words still sees himself as someone with primitive human qualities, telling stories in front of a campfire.

Kingsley’s chameleonic, prolific relationship with many, many different campfires (from “Gandhi” to “Iron Man 3” and everything in-between) hits a sweet-spot with “Learning to Drive” from director Isabel Coixet. In the film, Kingsley plays Darawn Singh, a selfless Sikh driving instructor who helps a recently-single New York book critic (Patricia Clarkson) get her driver’s license. Through his calm, sometimes comical philosophy of driving, and her experience with relationships, they support each other with their marital worries.

Kingsley and Clarkson previously worked with Coixet in the 2007 film “Elegy,” based on the Philip Roth novel “The Dying Animal.” Aside from being a striking rumination on very Roth-ian themes nonetheless from the directorial perspective of a woman, “Elegy” also gave the diverse actor one of his most exposed roles. It also features some very touching scenes between Kingsley and the late Dennis Hopper.

As one can imagine from the soul that he puts into his disparate set of characters, such as with the tenderness in how he treats Darwan, Kingsley is a fascinating presence, even when just sitting across from you in a hotel room. Before I talked to Clarkson about her involvement with “Learning to Drive,” Kingsley spoke to me with equal humility and zeal about his “function in life,” the importance of his character being Sikh, how “Gandhi” provides an untranslatable experience for an actor that CGI could never repeat, and more.

When taking on this character, what was most important to you in your representation of Sikh culture?

Oh! I actually saw it as an individual. I didn’t see him as representing a group. I think that can be misleading for the actor, and I think it can lead to generalizations. Since I’ve done fifteen years in the theater as you know, and since moving from the theater to movies, I think of myself more as a portrait artist, rather than a landscape painting. Theater is landscape painting, and cinema is the delicate process of getting one individual’s face onto the canvas, or the screen. So, I try to present a portrait of a decent man. And a man who is committed to doing the right thing. And the choice of him being a Sikh, I think is perfect for the narrative in a way that Shakespeare chose Othello to be North African. Because there is certain cultural buttons that you can press in different people, and they’ll react entirely differently. For the purpose of the narrative, my function is to bring to a shattered, broken woman, who has lost faith, and feels that there is no decency in manhood, whatsoever. And the heavens send her the perfect embodiment of, he who does not shave his beard, he who does not cut his hair, he who wears a turban, he who carries a sword. They send a warrior. That is what I focused on. And the rest, from my colleague onset, Harpreet Singh Toor, who helped me tie my turban on, and other folks that I’ve met, they are the external embodiment. They are the body language, and the voice, the present how he meets the world. And as you know, Sikhs wear a kind of uniform. And not only that, the wonderful thing about the Sikhs is that they wear matching tie and turban. That’s common, it really is a uniform. And honestly, it’s such a great choice on behalf of the writer to say, “No, no. You send her one of them!”And so, to have at the end of the film her being able to say, “Youre a good man, youre my faith,”is an amazing journey for her. How she could ever, in the back of that cab, ever think that she’d every say those words, to him! The cab driver! She didn’t notice him, of course not. He doesn’t exist, he’s invisible. And suddenly, he’s visible. I don’t know how many times you have perhaps left your phone on the counter and go back for it, and think, “If I hadnt left my tablet on that counter in that store, if I hadnt gone back for it, I wouldnt have met that, seen that, or heard that.” Life-changing. She leaves a manuscript in the back of my cab, life-changing! Or is it? Is it the heavens, saying, “You need to see this guy again?” I’m still working it out. Is there any such thing as coincidence?

Either way, its all a very bizarre set of events. Life is unpredictable.

It’s amazing! And yet, it is the perfect pattern. With [her] scream to the heavens, of “I loathe men!,  to “Youre my faith.” Amazing.

Is it easier for you to become a character who comes with a mythology or even previous interpretations, or is it easier for you to play a civilian?

Ahh, gosh. I’m a storyteller. I have also offered you the fact that my stories are now portraits, and I hope that I’m descended from the original primal storyteller, who was essential to his tribe, her tribe. The storyteller was absolutely crucial to the survival of the tribe, for maybe something as simple as lighting a fire as it grew darker, which must have been terrifying because they have no guarantee that the sun would come up again, which took a long time to work that one out. So religion must have started by, “If I say something, the sun will come up. Ooh! It worked!” I bet you that’s how religion started. I bet you! If somebody in even a slight position of power said, “Okay, leave it to me. IF you believe in me as a priest/priestess, I will go, Blah blah blah blah blah’ and the sun will come up.” My goodness! They can do it! So I think I’m descended not from the “blah blah blah,” but the genuine leader, maybe a bit of “blah” too, who encouraged, comforted, provoked the tribe with stories. That’s really my job, my function in life.

Is that what interests you in taking on such diverse roles, of various time periods, experiences, and religions?

It’s honestly by invitation. I have been nowhere without the offers that come to me. I can select, I do, but it is by invitation. And I don’t think I have any visible strategy, or conscious strategy. I think maybe it’s buried. It’s deep in my self-conscious what I should do next, or could do next. But it will only be informed by when a script that arrives, and I read it and recognize that that is what I must do.

If you had to choose between a large project or a smaller project of equal potential, which were shooting at the same time, which would you choose?

Try and do both [laughs]. A very good agent will say, “I’ll talk to them.”

Thats perfect. And you shot this in five weeks, if I read that correctly?

No, 25 days.

So what it is about a director that makes you say, I will go work with them again in that amount of time?

Profound accuracy, [and] always putting the camera in the right place, not only for the performance but also for the environment, the landscape, what she wishes to be on her canvas, and that she operates the camera herself. What she sees through the eyepiece is what you in the audience will eventually see. A wonderful capacity for using every ounce of creative energy that the actor can offer to the camera. Nothing is wasted with her. And you never, as one does have sometimes with some directors, have an inkling to say, “Did you like the bit where I?” which I call the “actor’s begging bowl.” It’s partly that. But it’s partly a lack of faith that they’ve got the camera in the right place, and they’re not seeing all those layers that you’re bringing to the portrait. But with Isabel, you know she’s seeing everything. Every single layer that you’re offering, she will see it and build on it.

What about your experience with Elegy has resonated with you years later?

Well, the experience is parallel to this. In that because Isabel is Isabel, she therefore brings a version of male vulnerability and male tenderness to the screen that very few of her male counterparts are capable of doing. I tend to see many male directors now presenting to the screen a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a stereotype.

In terms of men, or in general?

In general; the male. Whereas with [“Learning to Drive”] the short story was written by a woman [Katha Pollitt], the screenplay is written by a woman [Sarah Kernochan], and Dana Friedman, bless her, [who] decided to fund the film with her male colleagues, and they were a great female presence in the film. As with “Elegy,” there was a man, very different from Darwan Singh, but at the same time one doesn’t understand intimacy but is capable of it. And the other, David Kepesh, plays with intimacy, and is intellectually removed, cocooned. But both are vulnerable. And I have just felt that Isabel allowed me to bring those colors to the screen that other directors may be completely blind to.

It was certainly interesting, and distinct, to see woman direct a movie based on a Philip Roth novel.

Very. But perfect!

Theres one big question in particular that connects Elegy and Learning to Drive”—do you feel that there is a definitive answer about marriage and even fidelity, or is it to always remain a question?

I think it has to remain a question. I think that there are so many different versions of the word marriage, and so many different versions of our patterns of human behavior, which are very much in flux, and have hardly taken baby steps in terms of evolution. It’s so funny that archaeologists and paleontologists have been looking for the missing link for years, and it’s driving around here, we are the missing link. You’re looking at it. These remain questions. Rilke said, “Love the question,” didn’t he? And I think we should love the question.

Gandhi was a massive movie, and still holds the world record for the most extras in a film. Do you feel the epics of today have gotten bigger than that scale, or are there just more of them? Do you feel that were seeing a David Lean, Richard Attenborough size, but just in a different form?

CGI has removed thousands of people from the screen. There was no CGI in my film. They were there. And for the actor to react to the presence of thousands of people coming to their feet, and shouting my character’s name, is an experience that defies translation sitting here now. The body chemistry, the extent to which the body chemistry changes and therefore governs your performance. Because at any given time, a performance is a translation or an expression of the body chemistry of that moment. Somebody with a ping-pong ball at the end of a stick, running in front of a green screen saying, “Crowd over here! Crowd over here!” Sorry, it doesn’t work. It invites terrible over-acting, and also your opposite player—for me it was India—won’t be there. CGI is not fool-proof, you can tell. So, it was a terrible loss.

How has your perception of audiences changed since youve started film acting? Or, has it remained the same?

My perception has to come from that simple perspective of me sitting by that bonfire, telling that story. And therefore, and not in a pompous way, not in a power or ego-driven way, but in a tribal way, and in a way that’s full of gratitude, I am glad I do what I do for a living, and I am glad there are still people listening to stories. And they will always be, because storytelling is profoundly healing.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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