The man who played Ghandi has portrayed many other heavy characters throughout his long career, but a king of comedy, he's never been. Sir Ben Kingsley is the first to own up to this, but it seems worth giving it a shot in order to work with a man whom he mentions in the same breath as Charlie Chaplin.
"The great ones, like Chaplin and Sacha Baron Cohen -- definitely say them in the same breath, definitely -- make it look effortless," he says. "It's not effortless."
In the latest film from the man responsible for Ali G, Borat and Bruno, Sir Kingsley portrays the menacing uncle of Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen), the dictator of fictional African nation Wadiya. Though he's not dropping the one liners the way Baron Cohen gets to, this English actor brings an air of sophistication to the film, and even to our own interview with him.
With any Sacha Baron Cohen project, the humor comes out of how truthful it is. What's the most important 'serious message' that this film delivers?
I am hoping personally that it will reveal in people perhaps some hidden fears or prejudices. ... [Baron Cohen and his creative team] voice certain phobias, prejudices. ... It might cause people to feel resentment, not offense, because Sacha's character is saying things that, if they said it, they would be arrested or lose their job, but they are capable of saying those things. I think that's where satire is really valuable.
You got to spend a lot of time holding Baron Cohen's hand throughout the film. How was that for you?
That is the relationship, you see. I am his uncle, and I know that he's still a child, so whatever street he has to cross, be it in the U.N. or arriving in New York, or going to a nuclear facility, he's crossing a street. I know he's a total idiot and I've done nothing to further his education, or his well being. It's better for my character, the uncle, to infantilize and keep him there.
So then would you put this performance on par with playing Ghandi?
My body chemistry changes to the same degree on the word action, no matter what I'm doing. Whether it's a marathon or a series of sprints, I still have to use the same muscles, so I can't really differentiate.
We hear you're going to play "The Mandarin" in "Iron Man 3" -- can you confirm that?
Almost -- but not quite. I'll be able to confirm them by the end of this month.
Why do a comic book movie?
I loved comics as a kid, not so much as an adult, but I really would love to go back to that world. It won't be fun. It'll be a lot of work.
Sacha Baron Cohen was responsible for "Borat," which many have said was one of the best movies of the last decade. It did not receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Why do comedies never get recognized in that category?
I think there's this misconception that's completely understandable, that comedy is easy -- that we're basically having fun. I could talk for years trying to dispel this myth, but nobody wants to hear. Sacha was talking to me about the science of comedy -- how he numerically grades from 1 to 10, the value of a certain reaction. Where it is in the film, whether to go for two 7s or cut them and go for a 10 and always to keep poking at the [prejudiced] nerve that I was referring to earlier.