Ben Kingsley: “The lesson I learned is that every aspect of the character has to be bigger than me”


Oscar winner Ben Kingsley might have turned in one his finest performances in Hugo, but the award-winner admits he wasn’t always the acclaimed actor he’s often praised for being.

In a piece from The Daily Beast, Kingsley reveals that what made him the actor he is today was actually an insult.

“My philosophy in life is that everything happens for a reason. There are very few things I’d categorize as a mistake,” Kingsley begins, relating a story from his past as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  During rehearsals for what he calls the company’s “world-famous” 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kingsley and his co-stars were working with “the world’s greatest theater director, Peter Brook. We were rehearsing the section called ‘the lovers’ quarrel’… Peter said, ‘OK, let’s run the scene.’ We did, and I thought I’d impressed him with some funny, charming, witty acting.”  But Kingsley was mistaken.  Brook stood up, walked across the theatre, put his hand on Kingsley’s shoulder, stared him in the eye and said, “‘Dear Ben, that was absolutely suburban.’ There was a long pause after the word ‘suburban.’ And he said, ‘If we want to watch suburban, we’ll stick our heads over our neighbor’s fence.'”

However, Brook didn’t intend to just insult Kingsley.  He followed up his criticism with some necessary advice.  Kingsley recalls Brook telling him, “look at the words you just skimmed over. Give them their weight. Give them their value. He infused us with a sense of urgency, what was profoundly lacking in our mistaken reenactment of the scene.”

As a result, Kingsley looks at that exchange as an incredible moment of growth.  “I’m not being pompous, but I know that my work and my career turned a corner when he said the word ‘suburban.’ It shocked me. Perversely, I thank God we were so bad. Without me having to transcend the word ‘suburban,’ I don’t think I would have been able to play the amazing characters I have onscreen. The lesson I learned is that every aspect of the character has to be bigger than me. For example, let’s say I’m playing anger. My anger has limits; my character’s anger has to go beyond my limits.  You have to stretch yourself beyond the everyday, beyond the suburban, and offer audiences something heroic and magnificent. It’s not enough to be cute.”

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