Ben Kingsley's no color-by-numbers comic-book villian
05:00 AM, May 05, 2013
Maybe it’s some sort of cinematic karma balance that has put Ben Kingsley, who once played Hindu leader and peace advocate Mahatma Gandhi, in the robes and rings of an iconic megalomaniacal comic-book supervillain.
Or, perhaps it’s just the fact that he’s a fine actor who has taken many a Shakespearean stage over the years and nabbed an Oscar to boot.
Whether it’s from the Bard’s hands or a comic book, the actor says, “you have to breathe a new life into them and make them a recognizable, however bizarre, human being.”
Kingsley makes his superhero-movie debut as the international terrorist the Mandarin, a foil to Robert Downey Jr.’s billionaire inventor Tony Stark, in Iron Man 3. And what an enemy he is: When Stark calls out the Mandarin after the baddie takes out one of his closest friends, he responds in kind by sending a bunch of helicopters to blow Stark’s Malibu mansion and treasury of Iron Man suits to kingdom come.
In the film, “Ben’s a real bad guy,” says co-star Don Cheadle. However, “he’s done it before. He’s played the best people in the world and the worst people in the world. He’s clearly got a lot of range.”
There is more to the Mandarin than meets the eye, though. “No actor should play a villain villainously,” Kingsley adds. “That’s a dead end and a one-gag performance. It makes him so shallow and two-dimensional.”
The Marvel movies, especially the Iron Man series, have tended toward realism with their villains — in this case, taking the Mandarin, an iconic Iron Man character who debuted in 1964, and making him a cyberterrorist who takes over the airwaves and mass media to strike fear in Americans.
“He backs up his threats with these real acts of terror,” Kingsley says. “The broadcaster is totally confident in his place in destiny, the future, history, the people culture, evolution, civilization — I’m afraid that’s been going on a very long time. You can go back to black-and-white footage of the 1930s. It’s the same guy with the same sense of total righteousness and self-conviction talking rubbish, basically.”
Stark likens the Mandarin’s strange voice to a Southern preacher in the movie, and that gives the character as much personality as his costume, a collection of items such as U.S. Army boots and fatigues, dog tags, a Chinese cape, samurai hair, and a beard aimed to be disconcerting and undermine the audience.
“Everything is calculated to say, ‘You don’t know where I’m coming from,’” Kingsley says.
The actor was pleased that Downey, Gwyneth Paltrow and others were so welcoming to the new guy on set, but that’s just the respect one gives someone of Kingsley’s caliber, according to the man in the Iron Man suit.
While Kingsley does have a tough reputation in some circles — there is an urban legend that he makes people call him “Sir Ben” — Downey found him to be “as playful as they come. He takes the work very seriously. He doesn’t take himself particularly seriously,” he says.
“He would say, ‘Please call me Ben.’ But I would call him Sir Ben since he’s earned that title. And it’s appropriate. I have had enough of foreign-exchange training shooting those Sherlock movies to know it’s appropriate to call him by his title.”
A four-time nominee, Kingsley won his lone Oscar for 1983’s Gandhi, and he feels that if superhero movies had been as de rigueur back then as they are now, he would have jumped at the chance to play Tony Stark or one of the Avengers.
With Iron Man 3, his longtime fan base gets to see him in a bigger action movie than they’re used to, while at the same time Kingsley enjoys opening himself up to a totally new demographic.
“I doubt it very much that it’ll be the people who watched The House of Sand and Fog who are going to watch,” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t think anybody’s going to be surprised — they’re just going to accept it as, oh, that’s that guy who played the Mandarin.”
Contribution: Bryan Alexander