Over his long and distinguished career, Ben Kingsley has shown his ability to play a scoundrel as crisply and convincingly as he portrayed the saintly Gandhi. In his latest film, Learning to Drive, he plays Darwan Singh, a gentle and patient Sikh driving instructor, much more mahatma than Sexy Beast rascal. The Globe and Mail spoke to Kingsley from Los Angeles about an actor's responsibility, painting a character's portrait and honouring Sikhism.
Learning to Drive is set in New York, an iconic location that is almost a film subgenre onto itself. How does making a movie in New York, as opposed to anywhere else, add to the filming experience as an actor?
The whole experience for me was measured by how much I loved staying in character, out in the streets of New York, in my armour, as it were. And particularly the armour of my costume. The wonderful turban with a matching tie, the beard, the neat shirt, the pressed trousers – what a great guy, so well turned out, so dignified. And to have that island of Sikhism in me, in New York, was quite wonderful. Exploring that Sikh warrior silhouette in a city only pretending to be New York, it would not be the same.
And what about your character, a Sikh driving instructor and taxi driver in New York?
Life in art, you know? A guy from the Punjab, who is a university professor, but cannot get academia work in the United States. So he teaches people – teaches people to drive. Still the professor. The gentle, loving, life-affirming professor behind the wheel. All that was enhanced by me, an actor from England, in complete disguise, working in the extraordinary environment of New York. There's a kind of link there between him and me. We're both discovering at the same time.
The character comes right out and says that his turban and beard are how he knows who he is. What makes you know who you are, as an actor?
The important thing is that I'm creating a portrait of somebody else, and that I think that person might be of interest to the audience. So when I'm invited to embark on these beautiful journeys, I get the script, I read it and I think, 'Do I want to create a portrait of this guy?' Because it's hard work. Portrait painting is a delicate process. A painter sits for hours with this person in their studio and puts that person on canvas. I work for hours in front of a camera. I try to create Darwan Singh. It's a very similar process. So, this portrait painter/storyteller is what I do to be me.
And a Sikh character, this is a new kind of portrait we're seeing, isn't?
I can't think of any others. It's extraordinary, isn't it? Where is there a Sikh character with a turban as a lead in a film? Nowhere.
Is there an extra level of responsibility in doing it first and getting it right? That you instill such a sense of dignity to the character, seems particularity significant in this kind of groundbreaking role.
I hear you. But I would slightly adjust the word 'responsibility,' so that it's perhaps less of a burden and more of a joy. A joy to be responsible for creating the portrait of such a lovely and decent man, who is determined, after terrible loss to himself and his family, and his exile, to still do the right thing.
His nobleness, after going through such things: Could Westerners learn something from him?
He's not embittered at all. He's very generous and open and compassionate. I say this with huge respect to my Sikh friends, and I have two or three, but if you know one Sikh chap you know them all. Because there is something wonderfully consistent about their approach to life. Of course they differentiate, but there is something about Sikhism that is their backbone. That's what I enjoyed playing – that backbone, that spine. Almost military, because they are a warrior group, the Sikhs. I'm so fond of my character, and I am his custodian. I hope that I honour that responsibility through playing him as honestly as I could.
This interview has been condensed and edited.