The Inevitable Actor

Ben Kingsley on Hamlet, 'House of Sand and Fog' and his endless quest for moments of authenticity.

In Search Of The Warrior

Actor Ben Kingsley reflects on the beauty of discipline and the purity of myth


December 21, 2003|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff Writer

The quest of Massoud Behrani is as ancient as dramatic literature. It's a search for home that is also a quest for a new self. Few actors could come better equipped to play such a role -- the starring part in the new DreamWorks film, The House of Sand and Fog -- than Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley.

The high-powered drama, which opens nationwide Friday, shows us a man in jarring transition. When the Islamic Revolution ousted the shah of Iran in 1978, Behrani, a colonel in the Iranian army, was stripped of power, honor and country. He took his family to America, but his journey was more perilous than the average immigrant's. The pride that won him prestige in his native land clashes with the indignities of a new reality he never asked to face.

The story's main conflict: Behrani sinks all he has into a seaside California bungalow being sold for a fraction of its market value. The problem is, it's up for auction because the rightful owner -- the bewitching Kathy Nicolo (Oscar winner Jennifer Connolly) -- has been mistakenly evicted. A cop (Ron Eldard, late of Black Hawk Down) tries to win her affection by helping her get it back by any means necessary. All take aim on the house of sand and fog.

For Andre Dubus III, who wrote the best-selling 1999 novel on which the film is based, and Vadim Perelman, its first-time director, only one actor was right for the role. After exploding on the international scene as Mohandas Gandhi in 1982, Kingsley has only deepened his skill at inhabiting a wide range of characters. Behrani's relations with his wife, Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and son Esmail (first-timer Jonathan Ahdout) interested Kingsley; so did the clash with Kathy, determined as she is to recover her home.

But Kingsley's notion of acting itself as a "hunt" may link him most strongly to the character. In a conversation with The Sun, the actor, who was knighted in 2001, spoke of his craft, of playing Behrani, and of a career-long quest for authenticity.

Let's start with film acting; if it's art, what are your brushes?

There's a palette, there are colors, there's a canvas. As a portrait artist, I have to make similar choices to a painter. I choose the size of the canvas. Before I lift canvas onto easel, I've limited its size. Then I must decide how much of the face will be on the canvas, how much of the head and shoulders. The raw materials are my body, voice and imagination.

How does the written word narrow your frame?

I'm limited by the text on the page -- in a wonderful way. I've always warmed to those limits. In the first 10, 15 years of my career, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, I developed a hunter's instinct to make what was on the page work. Not to change it to make it work, but to faithfully make, say, that extraordinary line of Shakespeare's work. In week one of rehearsals, a line might seem incomprehensible; in week four, you might realize, "That's it! This word is ironic, that one is held in the air for examination."

Take Hamlet, which is a milestone in any actor's career. I was offered that role for the RSC [in 1975]. I looked at the text and thought, "This is impossible; you don't have the strength, the stamina, the cleverness to play the most intelligent man in dramatic literature." But the absolute joy I found in hunting for Hamlet was in [developing] a portrait for the audience which made it inevitable that that man would say that particular line in that way -- that no one else in the world would say that sequence of words in that way at that moment.

Is that interpretation defined by who you are?

Oh, boy; here's where it gets tricky. An actor is only as good as what he or she knows, as what he or she is capable of experiencing or feeling. Unless, of course -- sometimes this happens -- the very action of creating a character gives you the growth necessary to portray [him]. When I set forth to construct this portrait of Hamlet, I think I activated parts of my brain I didn't know I had. Even though there can be a gap between [your] experience and the experience the role demands, if you're lucky, if you have a great director and great people around you, that experience can be the creating of that character.

Did such a thing happen with Behrani?

Well, I'm fascinated by the military. Acting, especially film acting, is a hierarchical, disciplined world. You have a commander in chief, people with huge responsibilities, a system. I like systems, hierarchy, order. Without them, films wouldn't be made. Without discipline, no painting would ever be painted; no musical note would get on the page. But constraints are liberating.

The military side of Behrani was enhanced by working in a disciplined environment, by working with Vadim [Perelman], who as commander in chief has extraordinary authority. To be one of his fellow warriors was exhilarating.

Did you discover a military essence in yourself?

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