Last year he played a mysterious doctor in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” and now Sir Ben Kingsley partners up once again with “Marty” as he affectionately calls him, but for lighter fare. In “Hugo,” Sir Kingsley plays one of the world’s first filmmakers ever, Georges Melies, who directed “A Trip to the Moon” and hundreds of other silent films in the early 20th century. Sir Kingsley gave Metro a few moments of his undivided attention to chat about the 3D filmmaking of “Hugo” and his upcoming film, “The Dictator.”
George Melies film “A Trip to the Moon” is one of the most iconic early films ever made. Do you remember where and when you first saw it?
Kingsley: When I was at school, we were able to watch some of cinema’s masterpieces that came from way back. I know that we watched Fritz Lang films, Eisenstein films, and I think in and amongst them was “The Trip to the Moon” because I know I’d seen it before I got [Martin Scorsese’s] offer. It was so familiar.
Did shooting in 3D for “Hugo” affect your performance at all?
Kingsley: Yes. The 3D camera brought a kind of bonus where it was detail, detail, detail, very little CGI, which fed our performances tremendously and kept us in character beautifully. Also, the scrutiny of a 3D camera is quite alarming. I noticed fairly early on that the 3D camera can see what you’ve done before you’ve done it. You can see the most delicate changes of body language and facial expression, almost pulse and heartbeat. One thing that 3D camera insisted on was, “don’t try to act. Don’t show off. Don’t be clever.” Of course, Mr. Scorsese would also say, “keep it simple. Keep it honest.” I mean, that’s almost his maxim.
On the set of “Hugo” you were known for staying in character as Melies in his later years, when he was quite cranky and withdrawn. How did your young co-stars Asa Butterfield (Hugo) and Chloe Grace-Moretz (Isabelle) react to that?
Kingsley: Staying in character for me was almost mandatory. I’m quite fit and slim but I had to strap on this pot belly and I had to strap on this hump in my shoulders to have this depressed body. I felt, it was going to be a huge effort to take all this off so I thought, “I must stay in character.” Even though he was a sad man and somewhat defeated, I quite enjoyed that I had to stay in character. I found it really fed the work so that whenever Marty said ‘action’ to Asa, he was already dealing with me.
Sacha Baron Cohen co-stars with you here, but you’ll also appear alongside him in “The Dictator.” Tell us about your character in that film.
Kingsley: It was either like being on a Chaplin set or a Marx Brothers set with that great genius pouring out of the central character. Everyone has their function. Mine, thank goodness, was the straight man because to try to be funny around Sacha is suicidal. You’re never going to match up to that. My comedy lay in deadpan. He plays a dictator – recognizable, very bizarre. He invented this two years before [the Arab Spring] started. I play his head of security and procurer of women, straight-faced. I loved working with him.