Sir Ben Kingsley is an enigma both on and off screen and is well known as a very private person. I first interviewed the multi-award-winning actor when he played Faustus at the Royal Exchange Theatre immediately after winning an Oscar for his screen role as Gandhi in Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1982 award-winning film.
“The stage was always my first love,” Ben told me then. “It’s the reason I became an actor. But after all the Hollywood glitter I felt I needed to be grounded again back home where I belong.”
Born Krishna Pandit Bhanji in Yorkshire, he was brought up in Pendlebury and was a student at Manchester Grammar School, where actor Robert Powell was in the same class. He went on to study at Pendlebury College, which now houses the Ben Kingsley Theatre and Salford University where he studied for a science degree.
“My father was a doctor and it was presumed that I would follow in his footsteps,” Ben explains.
“My mother had been an actress but they thought it ridiculous that I become an actor and I had absolutely no support from them at all. I really brought myself up and I was a rather lonely little boy. ”
Ben’s surprising candour continues as he reveals he found a substitute family in Salford Players, run then by John and Renee Caine.
“They were totally loving and supportive and became my family.
“Thanks to Salford Players, where I stayed a year and learnt my craft, I got my first job in professional theatre working in theatre-in-round so when eventually I came to the Exchange I felt quite comfortable.”
During the early stages of his career in 1966, Ben appeared as Ron Jenkins in two episodes of Coronation Street as well as in Crown Court. “That was good training because you learnt to think on your feet,” he says.
The following year he made his West End debut in A Smashing Day Out and successfully auditioned for the RSC.
Ben’s Broadway debut was with The National Theatre in ’71. During this period he changed his name officially to avoid type-casting and in ’82 appeared in Sydney in Death of A Salesman opposite a young Mel Gibson!
“I spent 15 years on stage and there’s no role left I still yearn to play,” Ben confesses.”
“My future definitely lies in film and I intend to set up my own production company making movies in which I will obviously appear. But I will also act in other films because that’s what I love to do and I can usually tell a good script within 10 pages.”
Ben’s certainly got the credentials. In his long screen career he’s won a Grammy, a BAFTA, two Golden Globes, several Screen Actor Guild Awards and a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He’s made a mark in every film he’s made including Schindler’s List, Sexy Beast, Death and The Maiden, House of Sand and Fog and Iron Man 3.
In 2000 Ben received the CBE and two years later was knighted by the Queen. Stories circulated that he demanded to be called Sir Ben on set – at odds with his version when we meet.
“I don’t do the work just for awards I take my job very seriously,” he insists. “I’m not a proud man. It’s just not in my DNA.”
Now his latest movie, Ender’s Game, sees the 70-year-old starring opposite fellow movie veteran Harrison Ford.
“Harrison and I have met several times and share a mutual respect,” Ben acknowledges. “We’ve already established a rapport which helps when filming.”
Set in the near future Ender’s Game sees young Ender (Asa Butterfield) brought into training as the bright new military leader in battle-scarred earth’s last attack on alien invaders. Ben plays legendary hero international Fleet Commander Mazer Rackham leading the final stages of training. He’s a Maori space age warrior complete with traditional face-painting.
“I spent years with the RSC where the text is everything so it’s all in the script. I also have the greatest respect for the directors I’ve worked with recently like Scorcese who directed Shutter Island with Leanardo DiCaprio. I’d certainly work again with Gavin Hood who directed this film which I think is a real family film with a strong moral message about a boy who finds love and support from the new team he helps to train.”
Married four times with four children, I venture it’s a pity Ben’s children are too old to be impressed that dad’s in a sci-fi movie.
“I’m fortunate my children are impressed by everything I do and in return I’m proud of all of them,” is his response.
Ben’s two youngest sons Edmund and Ferdinand from his marriage to director Alison Sutcliffe, are actors. “I knew they were gifted the first time I saw them on stage but I don’t believe in giving advice, I’d rather lead by example,” Ben admits.
What next for the busy actor? “This week I start filming a movie with Ridley Scott whom I admire and the movies I produce will reflect a truth about the human condition and tell a good story.
“Meantime I’m proud of Ender’s Game which I think has a wide appeal because it’s about family.
“Talking of family, please give my regards to everyone who remembers me at Salford Players.”
Ender’s Game opens in cinemas on October 25.