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Sir Ben Kingsley Travels Through Time as Two Very Different Characters

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

Sir Ben Kingsley in “Oliver Twist.”



by Brad Balfour

While veteran actor Sir Ben Kingsley remains one of our greatest working thespians–having accrued numerous Academy nominations and won an Oscar for Gandhi – he rarely has two films with such different roles being released virtually at the same time. In Peter Hyams’ A Sound of Thunder he plays a man who operates a dinosaur-hunting time travel service; in Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist he plays the villainous Fagin–master of a thieving band of boys. Nonetheless, the 60-something British actor turns out fine performances in both cases.

You have played a complete range of characters from the angelic Gandhi to the satanic as well…

I have covered the complete range of experience for humanity. There’s no other way. I’m just like a musician who connects to any kind of music; as an actor I connect to the complete range of human beings. It’s the instrument we actors use. I have played every kind of individual including the serial killer in Sweeney Todd.

Sir Ben Kingsley in “Oliver Twist.”

These two films are very different, made by very different directors. How was the experience doing both of them for you?

When it comes down to it, all directors have to execute same rules and have the same goals–to complete the film to their satisfaction. They are like two orchestral conductors, both have their job to do; they need to conduct the orchestra whatever the compositions that they are playing.

What are the differences and similarities in the demands of Hyams and Polanski?

With A Sound of Thunder, I was able to bring a fully realized portrayal to my character, Charles Hatton. Peter allowed me to add my own my own take on the character of the shabby showman and I was able to the push the humorous side I was going for. He put the camera in the perfect place and allowed me to show that characterization. With Roman and his Oliver Twist, Fagin was pretty well fully realized by the time I came on the set. Because the role of Fagin is far more substantial than my role in A Sound of Thunder where my part was much smaller, I was on the set more. I was on the receiving end of Roman’s genius almost on a daily basis, and with all the boys there were far more people on the set than A Sound… so he was able to orchestrate more with me and get the best out of a scene. So, the two exercises were very different with the attention to detail, the periods, and the emotional dynamic between the characters but they filmed both very well.

Sir Ben Kingsley and Edward Burns in “A Sound of Thunder.”

Did you look at any other version of Fagin in doing this Oliver Twist?

I didn’t look at other material and didn’t think about other material because working with Roman is so absorbing and his concept is so fully realized and such a thorough investigation of material that there is very little time for speculation of what has been or what the other versions were. It was entirely myself and Roman and that whole cast and that pretty much stayed in the present during the whole exercise.

Fagin is an iconic figure. How did you interpret him?

I can really express my gratitude is to The Royal Shakespeare Company and the brilliant work they do where I started as a stage actor and was allowed to do the roles that stage actors do. So, when it became my turn to play Hamlet, I was so overwhelmed to play him for such a great company. That role is the most famous role in the Shakespeare canon so when i prepared for it, I was not remotely concerned about other performances before me. I wished to interpret it with the director and the audience in mind. At that time, the word classic was not mentioned. It was assumed the when I played a role that had been performed for four centuries the actors who had played him before me were the greatest names in the acting pantheon, so I quickly got rid of that psychological hurdle or stammer before playing famous roles like Fagin. I was released and free to create Fagin as a human being.

What struck you most about him?

I saw him as a parent. Now that word I use advisedly. I don’t automatically mean a good parent, but I saw him as confused guardian whatever his motives were. He was a guardian regardless of the criminal activities they were wards of his guardianship. He was a patriarch that emerging theme pushed an enormous amount energy into my performance. It was very stimulating. I never judge the morality of a bad person. He had to do what he had to do to survive.

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: September 24, 2005.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2005. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.#2 © 2005. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.#3 © 2005. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures. All rights reserved.

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