Ben Kingsley: “I think when actors are playing villains, the best key is not to look at how evil they can be, but to look into their total conviction”

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ben-kingsley-mandarin-iron-man-3Without spoiling much, Ben Kingsley absolutely steals the show in Iron Man 3.  He plays the Mandarin, a terrorist who controls the television airwaves in order to broadcast his vicious acts.  However, there is so much more to the Mandarin than his mysterious yet oddly-accented warnings to the Western world, and much of that comes from the really effective performance of Kingsley. 

He spoke to GQ about playing such an offbeat character opposite Robert Downey, Jr. as the superheroic Iron Man.

Though Kingsley’s performance is rather eccentric and seems off-the-cuff, he reveals the performance is entirely scripted — as was the entire film.  He says, “I didn’t change a word. There’s a tiny bit of improvisation between Robert and Don [Cheadle] and I, but the actual broadcasts scenes I said to [director and screenwriter]Shane Black I didn’t want to change a word. Then in filming those scenes, we realized – I do have an appetite for documentary film – there is a sense of righteousness and destiny in these [terrorist]individuals that is hard to question. It goes back as far as footage from the Thirties. And what remains deeply disconcerting and frightening and fresh to this day is their sense of right, their sense of cultural destiny, their rhythm of speech, the timbre of voice. So because he’s such a disconcerting balance of ingredients, there wasn’t any one individual that I thought ‘Ah, he’s this person.’ I think when actors are playing villains, the best key is not to look at how evil they can be, but to look into their total conviction. That’s very frightening, because you can’t get through that barrier.”

Since there wasn’t much improvisation in the movie, Kingsley has a lot of praise for the script.  He says, “I think it’s very well written. I was brought up on very good writing – my first ten years were with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he was a pretty good writer, actually! If I can see in a script a pattern of human behavior that I can recognize, it rings true, it’s genuine – it’s not a copy of a copy – then I’m very much guided by the energy of the story, my fellow actors and the director. We didn’t necessarily have to struggle too much – the aspects of the character are there on the page.”

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