SDCC2014: “The Boxtrolls” Roundtable Interview with Sir Ben Kingsley
Sir Ben Kingsley is an Oscar-winning actor with nearly fifty years of experience, having appeared in such films as Gandhi (1982), Schindler’s List (1993), and Sexy Beast (2000). He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002 and currently runs his own production company. He plays the villain Snatcher in The Boxtrolls.
During the 2014 San Diego Comic Con, Toonzone News was able to sit down with him for a roundtable interview session with several other members of the press.
Q: Why are English people obsessed with cheese?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: They’re not. We do make good cheese, but I don’t think we’re as obsessed as the French are.
Q: Do you have a favorite cheese?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I do, I think it’s from the Pyrenees Mountains and it’s a sheep cheese. There’s another village near my village where I live that has the most beautiful selection of cheeses in their shop, and I like that cheese very much.
Q: What’s it called?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: It’s called Pyrenees. Really nice.
Q: And loads of calories, I bet.
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I don’t worry about that.
Q: Tell us about your character and what attracted you to him.
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: He is a social climber. It’s as if he spends a lot of his energy trying to join that club that doesn’t really want him to join. It’s a small, exclusive clique of guys that run the community, the mayor of the town and the people surrounding the mayor of the town, and he desperately wants to be part of that. To wear the white hat. To be part of that gang, and they’re quite reluctant to let him in. He therefore invents an enemy. Politicians often do this, they invent an enemy, and then they say to the populace, “I will then rid you of that enemy.” That has quite sinister connotations in 20th century history and 21st century history. So yeah, he wants to empower himself by destroying a group of people. They are the very sweet, very benign, utterly harmless Boxtrolls, and he puts about the rumor that they eat babies. That they destroy human life.
Q: What attracted you to this role?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I love Laika, I love the work they do. I like Coraline immensely. I find that they are quite fearless in family movies, putting light and shade together. As the boss said, it’s a dynamic filmmaking that combines light and shade. That combines bitter and sweet, and I like that. It’s very mature film making.
Q: Is there anyone you had in mind for this social climber?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: There is someone that I modeled the voice on, but he is the most content, kind man and I just modeled my voice on his. He is not at all tormented by ambitions or notions of greatness or grandeur.
Q: Is it a neighbor or a friend?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I’m actually so close to his voice I better not say. Somebody might say “Oi!”
Q: When providing a voice to a character so physically different from you, do you use your voice differently to convey the physical stature of the character?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I worked in a studio that I know quite well, and the technicians and the guys who run it know me quite well. And our Laika people came to this studio.
Q: In England?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: In England, they came. In order to get that voice to come from a different part of me, I did most of my recording reclining. They rigged up a microphone so I could be completely, completely, not a tense bone in my body. Completely relaxed. And they rigged it up beautifully, and it did help a lot.
Q: How did you discover this technique?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I just realized that you can achieve things as an actor if you’re completely relaxed. You can’t go on a film set and work if there is tension in your neck, in your shoulders, anywhere. It will show. The camera will seek it out. So I tried to incorporate into my technique a very relaxed body and breathing, so reclining to record his voice…I can’t do it in a movie. “Do you mind if I record this scene lying down, darlings?” I can’t do that.
Q: Did the people at Laika think it was the greatest thing ever?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: They were fascinated by it, but actually when the voice came out, it made sense.
Q: Was this your first time you’d done that? You had done voice acting before.
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I’ve not done a lot of it before. This is maybe only my third or fourth attempt at animation, and the most gratifying. I think the most beautiful. I love their work. Fantastic.
Q: Is this the first time you tried lying down?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: Oh, the lying down, I beg your pardon, yes it is. Yeah, it’s a keeper.
Q: You began your career on TV. And now we’re seeing some of the best writing on TV. Is this something you would like to do?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I am doing it. I am in a six part series about Tutankhamen, and I am playing Ay, the grand vizier and adviser to Tutankhamen.
Q: When are we getting that?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I start next month, so it will be out next year.
Q: Are you filming in Egypt?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: Morocco.
Q: Can you tell us anything more about that?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I better not.
Q: Are you into Egyptology?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: No, but interestingly enough, it’s the third visit to Ancient Egypt in the last twelve months as an actor. First was Night at the Museum III, which is really funny where I played a pharaoh. Next was Ridley Scott’s wonderful film Exodus: Gods and Kings which is the exodus of the Jewish slaves from Egypt, and this one, now is Tutankhamen. I seem to be visited by Ancient Egypt. I don’t know why it is, but three almost in a row is rather strange.
Q: It’s a message.
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: Maybe in my DNA there is. There probably is some Egyptian.
Q: Did you go to Valley of the Kings?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I’d been to some of the monuments in Israel and in Morocco, but I’ve never been to the Valley of the Kings. I’d love to go. It must be staggering.
Q: The story of Exodus is so iconic, how did you approach it differently to separate it from previous incarnations of the story?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I actually played Moses for Turner Television in their Bible series, and I tried to make his struggle as human as possible.There was a strange adviser on the set from the Vatican who was a priest. He was quite shocked that the way in the scenes that Moses had to speak with God that I wasn’t prostrated on the ground with my hands together speaking in a hushed voice, but I was arguing with him.
Q: That’s very Jewish.
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: Well, Moses, come on! And this guy was “You must pray!” No, get out of here. I’m talking to my buddy. I’m having a row with the boss, but trying to find, as of course as I have done with Gandhi and I have done in my work, to demystify and say look, these guys were flesh and blood and they had a hell of a struggle. Ridley, of course, has taken that further with the wonderful Christian Bale as Moses. Absolutely beautiful performance, but you see it’s gritty. It’s a guy who’s struggling and sometimes very out of his depth. Very human, very vulnerable, so that’s what we all attempted as actors to do.
Q: What brought you to a family comedy like Night at the Museum III?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I was just asked by the lovely director and I read my role in it. It’s a brilliant cameo, not a big role at all, and I found it absolutely delightful. Just the complete arrogance of the man, of this member of this Ancient Egyptian royal family. Not very used to talking to people. Not very good at handling talking to people. Rather surprised that people were addressing him without kneeling. Just baffled of people coming near him and talking to him.
Q: I guess Ricky Gervais’ character is very arrogant. Did you have any scenes with him?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: No I didn’t, but I did share a scene with Robin Williams. A beautiful man to work with.
Q: He’s Roosevelt, isn’t he?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: Yes, that’s right.
Q: With this character in this film, he’s not a nice person, how do you access those parts of yourself to be the bad guy?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I find the flaw. That sore part within you that can’t be eased or healed. I look for the crack and the flaw and love it very much and feel enormous empathy for it. When I was in a film called Sexy Beast, I played a very vicious man, and as soon as I, maybe on day one or day two, realized my god, this man is an abused child, everything fell into place. And also, I loved the abused child in him, but there was nothing I could do. There was nothing. He barked and barked and barked like a mad dog because he was deeply hurt as a child and he would mete out revenge on the rest of the world for the rest of his life as unhealed, abused children do, I’m afraid. So that’s what I try to find.
Q: Do you have any grandchildren that probably wouldn’t have been able to see Sexy Beast that are going to be very impressed with this?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: My kids were young when Sexy Beast came out, and they were quoting it at school. They had whole gangs of them swearing at each other in school.
Q: How old were they?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: Thirteen, fourteen. My younger two are actors, and I do have grandchildren, yes.
Q: Will you score points with them with The Boxtrolls?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: Oh gosh, yes, very much so. And a couple of others I’ve done recently. Robot Overlords I’ve done recently, they loved that, yeah.
Q: Are there any roles you haven’t played that you would like to play?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: Well I am very fortunate in having founded a production company with my wife, who is also an actor, and, to touch wood, we are having a degree of success. There are certain roles that the films are designed around that I’m really looking forward to playing. Particularly a man in the military. I have a huge respect for the military. No one has any idea what they go through in their daily lives. Not a clue. And they never talk about it when they come home, and I hope very much to honor my affection for the military and their incredible sacrifice in the film that I am preparing now. That’s just one example. We have six films on our slate, and they are human, narrative, character-driven films. They are getting a little few of them on the ground. There is more character-driven work in television than there is actually in movie theatres. We’re trying to adjust, a tiny bit, the balance, and there are ambitions, yes, that hopefully will be met on our slate.
Q: Are these films going to be made in the UK?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: They’ll be made, if possible, in the UK, and some of them will have to be made abroad.
Q: Was there ever any time in your career you considered moving to Los Angeles?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: We do have a home there now. So we have a home in Oxfordshire and we have a home in Beverly Hills. We are so fortunate. And love them both.
Q: That’s because of production?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: Because of work, really, and where we both are in our careers.
Q: Can you talk about other films in your slate? Will you be in all of them?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: There are six of them, I think I’ll be in at least five of them, and Daniela, my wife, is in five of them. We overlap in some, we don’t in others. One film is about the building of the Taj Mahal, in which I shall play Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal, deranged with grief and screaming to the sky that he loved her, and it worked. I mean, millions of us now go and see it, and he did it. He was a very strange, tormented man. That’s one of our stories. Another is the Battle of Jutland that took place in May to June. May 31-June 1, 1916, and it’s a strange balanced relationship or connection between the admiral of the fleet, myself, and a gunner, a 16 year old boy, and how fate brings them together. And the boy, actually, he’s now a hero in the navy. He’s called Jack Cornwell, he was the youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross, he remained at attention, at his gun, with most of his body missing through shrapnel wounds. And when asked “What are you still doing here, boy?” by a superior officer he said “I’m still waiting for orders, sir.” Absolutely shattering story, and that one gesture we’re building the film around. I’m still waiting for orders, sir. So when the audience sees the film, ideally, the audience will think well of course he would. Of course he would. We know that boy, of course he would. So that’s what we’re trying to do.
Q: You speak with such empathy for all your characters, heroes and villains, did you ever study Psychology?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: Not as a serious student, but I do think if you really squeeze every drop you can out of this job, which is beautiful, you can actually learn a great deal and decipher a great deal and transmit a great deal. I believe that storytelling is profoundly healing.
Q: Why the interest in the military? Are there any family members?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: Not in the family. My mother’s stepfather was, I don’t know what his rank was, but he was in North Africa with Lawrence of Arabia and Allenby in World War I and I found him fascinating, but it doesn’t come from him, really. I collected military memorabilia as a child. Army badges, and I found all that beautiful and fascinating. Then in our research for our naval film, we had been invited by the royal navy to go to practically every single training ground and ship. We had been on maneuvers with them, my writer and I had been aboard the Queen Elizabeth, the massive aircraft carrier. The navy has opened every single door, which enhanced further my admiration and respect for them. Their discipline, their unquestionable loyalty, just a wonderful bunch of guys. Wonderful. And there’s a lot of military discipline goes into making a film. If you haven’t got discipline on the set, you’ve had it, and I love that aspect of film making, too. There is a hierarchy, you deserve it, and everyone works so hard and collaborates within this wonderful framework.
Q: Would you describe your own technique as like that?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I don’t know what my technique is. Other than I try to be a portrait artist. I try and create portraits of people that other people might have a glimmer of recognition for.
Q: How are you enjoying your first Comic Con?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: Very much.
Q: Would you walk around the floor at all?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: No, I don’t think I’ll do that.
Q: Are there any characters you’d like to see from your career on the Comic Con floor?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I’d love to see Trevor with a can of beer.
Q: Marvel has a million TV shows coming out. You did the “All Hail The King” one shot, do you ever think you’d return to playing Trevor, or The Mandarin, ever again?
SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I don’t know. I’d love to, and that one shot maybe is a little hint that he might come back, but I have heard nothing personally.
Toonzone News would like to thank Sir Ben Kingsley for taking the time to talk with us, and to Laika and Fumi Kitahara for arranging the session. The Boxtrolls opens on September 24, 2014. Don’t forget to check out the report from our set visit to Laika, too.