Mob leader a different role for Ben Kingsley

On movies

December 19, 1991|By Lou Cedrone

BEN KINGSLEY, who won an Academy Award for best actor for his title role in ''Gandhi,'' plays mobster Meyer Lansky in Barry Levinson's ''Bugsy,'' which opens at area theaters tomorrow.

So how does a man who played ''Gandhi,'' turn himself into a mob leader? And how does a man born in England manage to sound so authentically American in the new film?

''Well, I'm just doing my job,'' said Kingsley, calling from New York. ''I worked on the accent.

''It's great,'' he said. ''It's quite a different role for me, and I've gotten so much feedback because of it. It's so different from the roles I am accustomed to playing, and it's been great to work with Barry, who is the best. It was great to be part of the team. It was a totally satisfying experience."

Warren Beatty plays the title character in "Bugsy," the mobster who terrified Hollywood during the early '40s and was shot to death in the home of his girlfriend, Virginia Hill. Annette Bening plays Hill.

''The film deals with just a few years in the life of Bugsy Siegel,'' said Kingsley. ''Primarily, it deals with the excessive temperament of the man, a man whose love for Virginia Hill was a form of obsession. I think Barry made the right choice when he decided to focus on the relationship between Bugsy and Hill. Barry faces the tragedy head on.''

''I was in Los Angeles doing something else when Barry grabbed me. He said he always wanted me to do Lansky, that I was his first and only choice. Of course, I was happy to do the role. I was happy to be given the chance to work with Barry.''

Kingsley won the Oscar for ''Gandhi'' in 1982. Since then, he has done a number of films, though none has been as big as ''Gandhi.''

''I've done the roles I wanted to do,'' he said. ''I was offered parts. I said no to some and yes to others, and I have absolutely no regrets about those I declined.

''I was delighted to do [producer] Sam Spiegel's last film. That was 'Betrayal.' It was at the end of his career. He was a wonderful man.

''I've also done two films with [writer] Harold Pinter. 'Betrayal' was the first. 'Turtle Diary' was the second. I was blissfully happy with both those choices.''

He said he never expected to win the Academy Award. ''It took me completely by surprise. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have won it. It took me in an entirely different direction. It opened an entirely new career for me.

''For 15 years before that, I was in the theater. Today, I am acting, directing and producing. It has all been so diverse and wonderful. All in all, receiving the award was very positive. I consider myself very fortunate. Basically, I am a very lucky person.''

''Acting is all such a huge gamble anyway,'' he said. ''It's really the roll of the dice. It's where they fall.''

According to Kingsley, Levinson would have liked to have filmed "Bugsy" in black and white. ''But if you do a film in black and white, you immediately lose it,'' he said. ''Black and white makes a film more intellectually demanding, and when you go to black and white, the film immediately becomes an art-house movie.

''The texture, however, is absolutely remarkable. It is a modern film. 'Bugsy' is not period. We are not looking down a corridor of 40 odd years. It's a marvelous film. It is very easy to be taken by it.''

Kingsley is currently doing another movie called ''Sneakers,'' which stars Robert Redford.

''It's a good role,'' said Kingsley. ''I play another criminal.''

Is he worried about becoming type cast?

''An actor must remain free,'' he said. ''If you stick to one genre, then you might as well forget it and go home.''

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