Sir Ben Kingsley: 'I was blessed by being a very popular child

Here's a pub-quiz question: which one-time TV actor in Coronation Street and Crown Court released a record on which he sang selections from The King and I with Julie Andrews, before being told by two of the Beatles that he should really take up a musical career? You want a clue? His middle name is Pandit and he once played Doctor Watson to Michael Caine's Sherlock Holmes... Give up? Have another go: which Oscar-winning Yorkshireman appeared in Peter Hall's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, played The Hood in the movie version of Thunderbirds, and appeared as himself in an episode of The Sopranos?

To call Sir Ben Kingsley's career "eclectic" would be laughably inadequate, like calling Lady Gaga a bit of a show-off. Since his comparatively late start on celluloid in 1982, playing Gandhi when he was 38, he's never been off the big screen, but his choices have been those of a man happy "to extend his range", a polite way of saying "to try anything once". He can do so much with that combination of bright, glittering black eyes and soft-yet-implacable, dark-brown voice – he can play heroes, villains, saints and scary bastards with absolute insouciance.

Now 66 years old, Sir Ben is still most famous for playing Gandhi, his first starring role, which won him the Oscar for Best Actor. It set a kind of template. He went on to play several, slightly edgy, embodiments of virtue: Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List, the Jewish accountant who acts as Schindler's conscience; Simon Wiesenthal, the Jewish Nazi-hunter, in Murderers Among Us; Moses in Moses; Otto Frank in Anne Frank: The Whole Story. But over the years he's also convincingly nastied up as Sweeney Todd, Fagin and Meyer Lansky, the Jewish Mafia boss.

He is brilliant at radiating a sinister, uncompromising calm. Few people have ever intimidated Ray Winstone on-screen; but Sir Ben intimidated him beyond endurance as the Cockney hard nut Don Logan in Sexy Beast, bullying Winstone into returning to London for a heist, in between scorning the food at his idyllic Spanish retreat, eyeing up his wife and pissing on his carpet. As the wronged husband in Harold Pinter's Betrayal, he played cat-and-mouse with both his wife (Patricia Hodge) and her lover (Jeremy Irons), his voice hardening in the air as the conversation thrusted and fenced, and the miscreant couple realised that he knew about their affair.

His newest role finds him cast somewhere between good guy and badass. In Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese's latest film, he plays Dr John Cawley, chief medic in the maximum-security lunatic asylum housed on the titular island in 1954. At the start of the film, one of his patients (a woman who has killed her three children) has disappeared and two US marshals, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, arrive on the island to investigate. Dr Cawley is a key character. Bow-tied, pipe-smoking, besuited and puckishly amused by life, he seems a reassuring figure in this crime drama, keen on finding "talking cures" for his patients. He's also British. In the book, by Dennis Lehane (who wrote Mystic River, which Clint Eastwood later directed), he's American. Why the switch? When we met at London's Dorchester Hotel, as tiny flakes of snow descended from the sky outside the window, I asked Sir Ben: whatever would a frightfully English psychiatrist in a bow-tie be doing in a mental asylum in Boston Harbour in the mid-1950s?

"I discussed this question with Marty," said Sir Ben gravely. "Marty saw him as American. I said, 'May I make him not an American but someone on a quest? Someone who wants to live at the cutting edge, where it's most difficult?' Doctor Cawley is in the middle of an intense debate about whether to connect to patients by listening, talking and engaging in role-play, as opposed to the people who were travelling round the country at the time, performing lobotomies. I think he'd be drawn to somewhere he could really battle it out on the front line, rather than stay in Oxford or Cambridge as an academic researcher." He paused briefly, for a clincher line. "A knight goes where the dragons are."

Did Marty buy it? "He was very gracious. He said, 'Yes that's wonderful. That will work.' He allowed me to be as close to my own voice as possible."

And the character of Dr Cawley, with his fastidious, cultured manner, and his 1950s accessories? How did he build that up? "I absolutely claim the pipe!" said Sir Ben in triumph. "I think in the book the doctor smokes cigarettes, but I said to Marty, 'Please can we have a pipe?' He and I both love the films from the era of [Michael] Powell and [Emeric] Pressburger, that feature British actors of a type we don't have any more. In A Matter of Life and Death, there's a wonderful doctor, reactionary and tweedy and pipe-smoking, archetypically reassuring – but of course the doctor who smokes a pipe or bites his nails or sucks his thumb, it's a flaw. So I said to Marty..."

You could be forgiven for wondering what Scorsese, a veteran of actorish egos, really thought while Sir Ben blithely went about changing his character, his accent and his accessories. Did he really say, "Yeah, sure, wonderful" about Sir Ben's suggestions? And was it because it seemed safer to agree with the limey knight than to argue? For Sir Ben is not a man to be thwarted. He is terribly grand. His bearing is regal. His voice and delivery are seigneurial. His slightest remarks seem lapidary and monumental. Something about that bald head, that pointy beard, those glittering eyes make you feel like a medieval peasant meeting an Eastern potentate. You realise that Sir Ben's famous prickliness about wanting people to call him "Sir Ben" is because he really likes the idea of knights.

"What I love to do when I get a script is to break down the characters into archetypes," he said. "So in Shutter Island, Leo [DiCaprio] is the Bringer of the Tortured Soul; Mark [Ruffalo] is the Knight Guardian; Michelle is the totally destroyed Damsel in Distress..."

I felt lost. "Are you talking about Camelot?" I asked. "Or is this to do with Tarot cards?"

"I'm talking about mythological archetypal figures," he replied. "Often in the rehearsal room, you lock on to an archetype, who has a beautiful narrative journey, to tell the story to the audience. Mine – I discussed it briefly with Marty – I decided mine would be the Bringer of Unconditional Love. That became my rock, my mainstay. Everything I was saying [in character, to DiCaprio and Ruffalo] in the film, about lobotomy and healing, it came out, not as pedantry or an academic quest, but as unconditional love. Some people are gifted with it. It's very rare – but why not put somebody rare on screen?"

Why not indeed? Someone rare, like Sir Ben. He's rather good as the asylum boss who holds an enormous secret involving Leonardo DiCaprio's past – and reveals it at last while lighting his pipe, and surrounding himself with demonic, sulphurous smoke. The film takes a colossal, handbrake-turn twist in the last reel, and Sir Ben/Cawley is responsible for explaining all to the bemused audience. There's more to the movie than a police procedural or a psychological tease, however. Scorsese indulges himself with some fine exchanges about masculinity, and there's an intriguing Old Europe-vs-New World stand-off as the young US marshals, in their matching trenchcoats, are thwarted and sleekly humiliated by the Englishman Cawley and the island governor, played by Max von Sydow as a kind of crypto-Nazi.

It was the first time Sir Ben had worked with Scorsese. "I met him in Washington about 10 years ago at a cultural event. Marty was there to give a talk about his love for British films. Dickie Attenborough and I were like children listening to him. Dickie knew Marty and introduced me to him. Then there was a gap, and he rang me at home about this film and we had a lovely conversation, and I found myself in Boston on a film set."

And how did Scorsese direct Sir Ben? "He directs like a lover," breathed Sir Ben. "Some are like dictators, some like mechanics but, with actors, Scorsese works like a lover." How so? "It's very considered. Everything's important, nothing is trivial. You see him talking to Leo like this [brief impression of conspiratorial whispers] or to me, or the three of us, until he says, 'OK then,' and he'll walk across the set, knock everybody into shape, pull the lights around, shift the monitor, say, 'Get that crap out of the way'. One feels, in the best way, very safe. He never takes his eyes off you."

Whether or not Scorsese agreed with Sir Ben that Dr Cawley is the Bringer of Unconditional Love, or a sneakily manipulative trick cyclist, his directorial style is certainly tactful. "All he does is discuss the actor's thoughts and then, rather than say, 'I think you should do more of this or that,' he'll change a lens. He doesn't say, 'Do more,' he says, 'Keep talking and let's change the lens'. The marvellous thing about Marty is that, whatever you're doing, he'll whisper to the cameraman and put the camera where he wants the audience to perceive the characters from. Depending on where he puts the camera, a scene can be sinister or benign."

It's not surprising that Sir Ben cuts such a god-like figure in interview, since he was named after a god. He was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji on New Year's Eve 1943, in Snainton, a town between Scarborough and Pickering on the North Yorkshire moors. "I left Yorkshire when I was two, but I'm a Yorkshireman and have a great affection for the place." Deep in history, the Bhanji family had owned plantations in Gujurat, but later generations hailed from Africa. Krishna's father was brought up in Kenya, but came to London at 14, to school at Dulwich College. He studied medicine, became a GP and married Anna Lyna Mary, a Russian-Jewish beauty, who did modelling and acting. (Sir Ben, who has four children by his first two wives, is himself currently on his fourth marriage, to the statuesque Brazilian actress Daniela Lavender, who is 30 years his junior.)

A curious blot on the actor's family escutcheon was his "very strange grandmother", an East End rag-trade worker who was virulently anti-Semitic and whose verbal excoriations of Jews profoundly upset her grandson. "She resented the fact that she gave birth to my mother and then her Jewish lover disappeared, so it was a personal vendetta that came to include a whole race of people." Sir Ben's stern face took on a look of pain at this point. "It's horribly linked in with my watching the liberation of Belsen as a child. I remember seeing these unimaginable images on the screen – and in the same week, I heard this anti-Semitic rant from my grandmother. It was terrible." None the less, it inspired him. He has said elsewhere that he retreated from her into a fantasy world and that, "When I play great heroic Jews and heroic dark people, I'm sticking two fingers up at her."

The family moved to Salford and Krishna attended Manchester Grammar School. "Such a good school," he enthuses today, "such a wonderful melting pot of all sorts of boys. I was blessed by being a very popular child. I was often the life and soul of the classroom..." By coincidence, he was in the same class as Robert Powell. One of them went on to play Gandhi and Moses; the other to play Jesus Christ. It must have been some classroom.

Long before he became an actor, young Krishna had a eureka moment about the movies. He was five. "I saw a film that persuaded me to become an actor, a little Italian film called Never Take No For An Answer. It's about a little Italian boy with a sick donkey, and he wants to take the donkey into the chapel of St Francis, patron saint of animals. But they say, 'No you can't bring that animal in here, you'd have to knock the wall down, and you can't knock the wall down because we'd have to ask the bishop...' And the archbishop, the monsignor, right up to the Pope. The boy is determined to get a letter of dispensation from the Pope and ... Oh, I'm going to cry in a minute."

And blow me down, he was. This worldly man, with his conversational gravitas and his slightly conceited assessment of his own brilliance, had tears in his eyes because of a sentimental movie he saw as a kid. "The little boy walks into a big room and you see a hand holding a wax seal, giving permission. He comes back with the letter and the donkey is still alive and at the end credits, this boy – who looked just like me – is walking in with his donkey ... and the light ... is coming through the wall ..."

Sir Ben was by now quite overcome. "That's me," he snuffled. "Whatever my donkey is. Whatever the question is, you never take no for an answer." The key to this story is that the five-year-old Krishna resembled Peppino, the boy in the film. When the family walked in, the cinema manager shouted, "It's little Peppino!" and held him up in the air, to the applause of the foyer crowd. It wasn't a desire to act, so much as a love of adulation, that got young Krishna started.

He began to shine while working with the Salford Players, and received his first acting fee with a group called Theatre In Education, taking drama into schools. Seeing Ian Holm playing Richard III at the RSC in 1964 made him resolve to take up acting seriously. He always had another string to his bow, literally, as a singer and composer. "I sang as a child. I used to lead the choir at school. I very much enjoyed composing songs for As You Like It and other plays when I was in rep. The last thing I wrote was the music for Brecht's play Baal, just before I did Gandhi. Brian Epstein saw me in the 1960s [playing the singing, guitar-playing narrator of A Smashing Day, with Robert Powell accompanying on harmonica] and wanted to take it further – and I met John Lennon and Ringo Starr who said, [adopts flat Liverpool delivery] ' 'Ave a go.' " But he didn't. "I still love music, it's in the rhythm of how my character talks. And Shakespeare of course is music, it's non-musical opera."

He's a man of many parts and a few contradictions, Sir Ben, an actor of ferocious commitment who takes on too many silly roles (dare we mention The Love Guru?), a jack-of-all-trades who writhes with pretentiousness about "archetypes" and back-histories, a connoisseur of human psychology ("In Gandhi I wasn't playing a Good Person for three hours, I played an enraged man who had the intellectual prowess and stamina to turn that rage into one of the most magnificent political acts in history") who weeps over the memory of a sick donkey. But there is something positively noble about his self-admiration.

"Goodbye," I said as we parted. "It was lovely to meet you." "Goodbye," said Sir Ben. "I think you got some marvellous things out of me."

'Shutter Island' opens nationwide on Friday

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