BEN Kingsley says he doesn’t read reviews even if he’s in a five-star hit guaranteed to have critics raving about his performance.
“It’s that one bad one that will have me waking up at four o’clock in the morning,” he says, cheerfully.
Either way, Kingsley won’t be having any sleepless nights for a while; although Disney have imposed a worldwide ban on reviewing his new film, Iron Man 3, until 22 April, his co-star, the irrepressible Robert Downey Jr, has already driven a truck through the embargo by announcing “Sir Ben is probably going to steal the movie”.
Yet when it was first revealed that 69-year-old Kingsley had been cast as supervillain the Mandarin, comic book forums lit up and the most popular debate was why a British actor had been chosen instead of a Chinese or pan-Asian actor. The film’s director and writer Shane Black has an answer for that: “You can’t do a straight version of the Mandarin because he’s essentially a demonisation of the threat to America at the time,” he told me this week. “The original Mandarin came out of Vietnam and was blown up by a landmine in Cambodia. What we’ve done is be faithful to that spirit, whilst playing around with it, and Sir Ben has rocked us with the most complicated character arc in superhistory.”
Pre-release, journalists have been warned not to share plot points and spoil the fun; reveal too much about Iron Man, it’s been hinted, and you risk being clamped inside an Iron Maiden. It rapidly becomes apparent that there’s another stumbling block when I meet Kingsley in London. I have seen Iron Man 3, but Kingsley has not. “I’ll watch it tomorrow night at the British premiere,” he says. “My heart will be pounding.”
I think he already knows it’s not going to be an unpleasant surprise because he’s very ebullient for a man who is talking about a film at 9.30am. Wearing a purple cashmere jumper and jeans, he arrives with a cup of tea and a wide grin, and is prone to clapping me on the back in an avuncular way.
So what can we say about Kingsley’s Mandarin? If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know he has opted for an empowering American accent. “Robert Downey Jr had a line in which he describes my voice as that of a Midwest preacher, so I ran with that,” says Kingsley. “It’s a Shakespearean trick: listen to what the other guys say about you, it’s such a great clue to your character. So I honoured that description – it was a great trigger to me.”
But there is also a second accent that the Mandarin employs in one of Iron Man 3’s best scenes, which UK audiences should enjoy. “It’s a provincial English voice,” he agrees. “I based it on someone I have worked with.” A pal? “Oh no, not a pal,” he says, a little horrified. “I would have lost the pal.” And he gives me another clap on the shoulder.
Like a comic book hero, there’s a lot of mythology around Sir Ben Kingsley. One persistent rumour is that he insists on being addressed as Sir Ben. He doesn’t, although he is certainly very proud of his knighthood (“a hug from Britain”). Another is that he is remote and rather grand, and that’s not been my experience either. He can be quite formal however, especially at first when he’s sizing up the situation, and he’s definitely a bit of a worrier. By 9.32am he’s fretting about being misquoted, though not by me. “I have to warn you that anything I say may be taken down, misquoted and used against me,” he says, in response to a quite innocuous question about the allure of the Mandarin. “It’s not your fault. Everyone now is an amateur journalist and it must make your life hell. I can say something here, and a million bloggers will distort what I said. It renders you so impotent – and it must make you so furious because you’re the journalist, the others are amateurs.”
This is the sort of talk we noble journalists love, but Kingsley does have a genuine regard for talented writers – or at least he adores Shane Black, who wooed him with an Iron Man starter pack of drawings, graphics, comics and the first two films, which the English actor had not seen. “There is something original about the franchise, and I felt it was an intelligent approach to this film,” he says. When Black sent over the script, it sealed the deal. “It was a wonderful text,” he says. “If something is lazily or poorly written, I must decline it because I can’t breathe life into poor writing, but this script was quite beautiful and there’s a bit of playing around.”
Iron Man 3 also plays rather smartly on our expectations of a Kingsley villain. Don Logan in Sexy Beast is the one we all talk about, the Hood in Thunderbirds is the one we don’t, but Kingsley always delivers great, glinting bad guys. In a career spanning 45 years and a stint in Coronation Street, as well as with the Royal Shakespeare Company, for a long time he was defined by his breakthrough Oscar-winning role in Gandhi, but he has always been versatile. He also works hard: there’s never a film where he phones in a performance, even though he admits that sometimes he took jobs against his better judgment because “you have to eat”. Unlike many great actors, he does try to tell us how he goes about creating a performance too.
“I was talking to Daniel Day-Lewis recently,” he says, during a discussion about watching old performances on TV. “We were both waiting for different planes in the same airport lounge, and he was saying there are moments when he watches himself and goes, ‘That’s not me’. For an actor, these are the treasured moments – the supreme moments are when you have let go to the point that the person isn’t you. They last nine or ten seconds at the most, but they transcend.”
This kind of ethereal talk is easy to mock as luvvyness, and Kingsley knows it. But instead of retreating, he presses ahead. He loves acting, clearly gets a bit irked that the process gets defined in rather reductive technical terms, boiling it down to 5.30am starts, memorising a script and hitting the camera mark on cue. In a profession that is so widely written about, he feels the craft isn’t fully understood, which he illustrates with a nicely rueful story about meeting the Iraq and Balkan veteran General Sir Michael Jackson.
“I told him that we had something in common,” he recalls. “And he immediately asked what that might be. I said to him, ‘No-one knows what we do for a living’. They don’t know what a soldier does, and they don’t know what an actor does. For very different reasons, they are surrounded by mystery. And he laughed and said I was absolutely right.”
• Iron Man 3 is in cinemas from Thursday