Sir Ben Kingsley | The Backlot Podcast | New York Film Academy

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy.

Aerial: And I’m Aerial Segard acting alum. And in this episode, we bring you a knighted performer who’s portrayed everyone from Vladimir Lenin to Moses to Gandhi,.

Eric: From infamous Nazi Adolf Eichmann to you, to Itzhak Stern from Schindler’s List to legendary Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

Aerial: From a chess master to gangster to cinema visionary George Mellies The Oscar winning Sir Ben Kingsley.

Ben: The camera. The lens is allergic to acting. It flies off the lens like fried egg off Teflon. However, if you can present the camera with the behavior of your character, then the story you’re trying to tell will communicate to your audience.

Clips: I am the pale horse of death and hell follows me, boy.

Clips: One hundred thousand Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians if those Indians refuse to cooperate.

Clips: You have to have contempt for your opponents. You have to hate them.

Clips: As far as the actual jobs concerned it’s a piece of piss monkey could do it. That’s why I thought of you.

Clips:  Happy endings only happen in the movies.

Clips:  I’m trying to do something that people, yourself included, don’t understand, and I’m not going to give up without a fight.

Clips: And you’ll never see me coming.

Eric: He’s also brought fictional characters to equally riveting life, the intense and intensely profane Don in Sexy Beast, or his Oscar nominated turn as the tragic owner of the House of Sand and Fog.

Aerial:  And he’s now brought his steely intensity to TV as Pastor Byron Brown in Perpetual Grace. All of these amazing performances can be traced back to being a young boy who just wanted to be noticed.

Ben: I had an absolute compulsion. As a child. And then as an adolescent, however motivated and whatever caused this obsession is debatable, but I’m sure you can draw your own conclusions when I tell you that my absolute desire. Was to be seen and heard. Clearly, there are some negative implications to what I just said because the unheard child and the unseen child is in a sense unacknowledged and can’t feel his or her own. Perimeters. Space. Feet on the ground. Belonging. And it became clear to me that I was best at being seen and heard. When I was perhaps impersonating the person who had just left the room or I was able to impersonate very accurately to my school colleagues in the classroom the teacher who just left the room. In other words, I found that because of the to a certain extent, vacuums in myself. And this is either a good thing or a bad thing. Nature abhors a vacuum. It will be filled. Impersonation gave me great comfort in that I could for a fleeting moment. Acquire an identity and a voice and by the accuracy of that impersonation, entertain and connect with people. And this became empowering to me, certainly as a schoolboy and certainly as an adolescent. And then eventually it was clear to me that I could, in fact, turn what one could call an itch, a wound, an urge to be seen and heard into a craft. But without the urge to connect, one isn’t really an artist. You have to have. And it’s very, very easy for me to say this one has to be blessed with a sense of urgency and sometimes a sense of urgency can come out of loss, a sense of urgency can come out of indignation, a sense of urgency can come out of some clumsy act in one’s childhood. However buried that sense of urgency may become over your career, over your life. It is that sense of urgency that drives you rather like the oyster who cannot build a pearl unless there is a grain of sand that’s irritating it so my grain of sand was to be seen and heard. The oyster, the pearl, I mean, is sitting here now. So unless you do feel that compulsion, that urgency. I don’t think you’ll find your self propelled very far. But if you do feel that, then you’ll have a wonderful career. Of course you’ll have disappointments, but you’ll have triumphs. The main thing is that you’ll be seen and heard.

Aerial: I think it’s really cool how he put it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it that way before. Grain of sand, a pearl of being irritated to perfection. Basically, I thought that was very beautiful.

Eric: It’s like when you’re an artist like him, it’s like an itch you’ve got to scratch. And when you’re a kid, you don’t have the wherewithal, you don’t have the skills yet or the channel to do it. And then he found it

Aerial: And you don’t even think of it that way. You just think, oh, I want to play. Oh, this is fun.

Eric: Math is boring. Science is boring. But imitating my math teacher is not boring. And for him then to become an actor of his magnitude with his body of work. So much of it was about playing so many different roles so quickly, one after the other. And that’s what put him on the road to doing a hundred and forty plus of these parts since then.

Aerial: And let’s have him do a hundred and forty more.

Eric: At least.

Ben: Fortunately, I entered this beautiful craft. When England was populated with repertory companies, the finest of them was, and thank heaven it still is the Royal Shakespeare Company. And when you’re a member of that company and I was on and off for about, well, gosh, 15 years, let me give you one particular week out of season at the RSC. We call it Bertolt Brecht Baal. Iachimo in Cymbeline. Brutus, in Julius Caesar. Those three rolls. One played twice a week, two nights a week, so every six day week we worked. We did three different plays, so we alternated them. They are radically different, the characters. And eventually, very soon, in fact, as a matter of survival, you learned you had to get off that horse and get on another one. And, you know, the horses are very different. It simply is practice. But unless you have that that muscle practiced in you that can switch from one role to another, it’s going to be very difficult after a nine month grind, as you say, in one character. However, I think it’s even more specific than that. I have learned through my work on stage and through my work in the great rehearsal room with giants like Peter Brook, Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Bosco Buddy, these amazing people, John Barton. I learned that after each take on the film set, I let go. So it’s not even after nine months. I’m constantly letting go so that I can take the arrow out of my quiver. I can load it into my bow and I can literally let go. And in the meantime, I’m refreshing myself. I’m thinking nothing. I’m thinking blank. But there are molecules lining up inside of me that are preparing for the next take. But I have learned honestly to let go. I do not stay in character between takes and I do not stay in character when I go home. Therefore, even after a long shoot, I let go quite quickly. Physically, sometimes you don’t realize how exhausted you are at the end of a marathon. So physically it takes time. But then again, if I had to go from film to film as I do sometimes I have an airplane flight between films. Sometimes the adrenaline of the next challenge actually kicks in and your body responds. It is remarkable what the human body can do when those demands are made on it. But I think the answer to your question is I learnt very early on how to let go and how to just completely wipe the slate and start afresh on the word action. The loading of the bow can take a very, very long time, although that’s a wonderfully swift gesture and it’s emblematic of what we do for a living. The loading of the bow can take months. It is studying the script. It is finding that connection, not necessarily empathy, but that connection or that urgency to inhabit that person and tell that story. And I suppose the first step towards the loading of the bow is, am I compelled to be this character or not? It’s a very, very tough business. None of us want to be unemployed. We are given a role and we accept it sometimes out of starvation, not out of motivation. But if you are fortunate enough to be offered a role with which you can connect in as much as you can pour your energy into it, then I think the loading of the bow. Can be a very laborious process. But then the arrow flying through the air makes everything worth it, especially if it hits the target or gets very close. So I would say the loading of the bow is the appreciation of the other actors with you. How you learn to work as a group. Perhaps you can think of it this way. I remember. Oh, dear. It was so sad. I was working with somebody and the actor said to the director, What do I do while he’s talking? And what should be happening and indeed, for the most part is, is that you are listening and poised to react as your character and you’re listening to how the other words and actions coming towards you can impact and mold and shape your response. That also is part of loading the arrow is listening, listening to the other. My dear chap, I’ve worked with some actors. And I think you know what? If I tiptoed quietly backwards out of this scene, you’d carry on without me. You just carry on. This is not a duet, but it must be a duet or a trio or a great ensemble. It must be. So listening to the other is very much part of loading your bow.

Aerial: I love hearing someone who is so successful. Talk about listening to other people.

Eric: Right. You would imagine Sir Ben Kingsley would be so kind of zoned in, so focused, so intense, like he’s kind of in the space. But that is the space. Space is everyone around you and not being a solo archer, right.

Aerial: And knowing and paying attention to the other people on stage with you really helps inform you of your next move.

Eric: And part of that, too, for me is like if ever there was an actor you might think was method.

Aerial: Right.

Eric: You would potentially make the assumption that Sir Ben Kingsley was that guy. He’s always so tuned in.

Aerial: So good.

Eric [00:12:07] But in fact, he said quite the opposite. This is something he cautions about, is the archer who is only worried about themselves.

Aerial: Right, where you can quietly tip toe backwards and the other person might not be paying attention.

Eric: Right. The danger of method. It’s like I’m so worried about my arrows and that one bullseye that I might be noticing all the other archers around me. There is the potential of being too invested in your performance at the expense of the whole part of his metaphor of archery is you’ve got to know when to put the arrow in and when to let the arrow go and when to move on to the next arrow so that you’re not stuck in that. And you’re also making sure you are connected with the other people in this show, in this play, because otherwise you’re just out there alone.

Ben: There is a danger that one can disappear so much into one’s own solipsistic bubble that it ceases to be collaborative and it must be collaborative. If you’re not reaching your fellow actor, you sure as hell aren’t reaching the audience. If it’s not going that far, it’s not going to travel. Look let me be honest. I don’t know what method acting is. I don’t quite know what it is because I came into the business without any training whatsoever, and I have created my own system of approaching a character, my own metaphors, my own terms of reference. Look, everyone has a different way of approaching a task. But I did say earlier that I consider myself a portrait artist. So let me give you a classic example. Having just played Adolf Eichmann.

Clips: My name is Adolf Eichmann.The architect. Of the final solution.

Ben: My canvas was blank. I started to create his portrait with my brush and my paints and I put my brush down. I washed the paint off my hands and I went home. And the next morning I picked up the brush. I was never him, not for one tiny second. I have to say only because I know my craft well enough to say this amongst company that I totally respect, my performance was good.

Clips: My job was simple. Save the country. I love being destroyed.

Ben: But I was never him and I would say in peril of your sanity and your sleep, do not approach Adolf Eichmann as a method exercise. If you do not have to be a Nazi to paint the portrait of a Nazi.

Aerial: As an actor, you’re always told, don’t judge your characters. Now you could be that character, but sometimes your you know, obviously it’s a good thing that you’re working, but sometimes your character is an awful real life human that you have to find a justification on how not to judge them so much so where you don’t do any disservice to the art. You know, in order to become this horrible, horrible character, he chose to focus on all the victims and survivors and really honor them. And I mean, he had a point about he was a real man.

Eric: They all were.

Aerial: They all were real.

Eric: Every last one of them.

Aerial: They kissed their puppies; their kids. And he was able to put all of that together because he wanted to honor the survivors. I’m getting emotional right now.

Eric: And then how he also part of that journey as a performer is also being able to let it go.

Aerial: Right.

Eric: Like if you’re playing some of these and he’s played some some real SOBs over the course of his career. You take that home with you. It doesn’t help the art. It only messes up your life. And I think that comes with a maturity as a performer. You know, he’s been obviously at this for many decades now, but the ability to, like, not push harder than you need to to instead of acting or trying just sort of inhabiting that space.

Aerial: Right. Finding that balance of being able to give enough, but also to be able to let go.

Ben: There is a very famous Japanese painter called Haiku, and he said that when I was a younger artist, I painted the mountain and the lake and the fishermen and the birds. Many, many strokes. But when I’m 100. I shall paint the fishermen, the mountain, the birds and the clouds with one stroke of my brush and put it down. And I think as one is blessed to progress through a craft. And it’s not an easy word to translate. Accuracy Economy. Sharpness of target. Become the key things, what are the key elements in this scene? What are the key elements in this man’s voice? Where is the most important word in this sentence? Simple as that. But of course, these wonderful challenges, as you so rightly put it, only emerge. After you realized that when one was younger, one did an awful lot of acting. And as one matures into the craft, paradoxically, you do less and less and less acting and you hopefully, especially for the camera, embark on a process of being. The camera, the lens. To my mind, is allergic to acting. It flies off the lens like fried egg off Teflon. Remember that phrase. However, if you can present the camera with behavior, the behavior of your character, then there is a very good chance that the story you’re trying to tell will communicate to your audience and you’ve unblocked it by over translating him or her into your acting. But it really does take a lot of practice, and the challenge is to do less and less and less.

Eric: It’s funny you wouldn’t necessarily think doing less and less is a sign of improving as an artist. But in fact, it’s like when you are first acting or directing or writing, doing any of this, the tendency is almost to try too hard. I know when I directed plays and I was a lot younger and like I’d come to rehearsal with like everything spelled out. Beat it out. Like you go there across left at that. And then after a while I realized, well, these actors know what they’re doing too I gotta sort of trust the process a little bit. Knowing that I had a goal.

Aerial: Right.

Eric: But realizing we’re all kind of going together.

Aerial: Right. And every director, every actor, everyone in this business has their own way of going about doing things and finding that Zen that trust is ultimately when, you know, you have a good partnership.

Eric: And when someone doesn’t have that that same attitude, how it can be incredibly difficult even for even for a Ben Kingsley.

Ben: Another challenge, of course, is with whom you work. And are they listening to you or not? Are you being seen and heard by this director or is this director slapping an image onto you that they are insisting they see? I’m really fortunate sometimes in working. With a director who appreciates my preparation. And also appreciates that. I’m allowing my character to behave. Rather than cluttering him with my acting. Therefore, Chris Conrad, our wonderful director, printed the first take every time. Possibly the second. Because he filmed the behavior of Pa, take one print it. I was astonished. Print it. Move on. Print it. Move on. Print it. Move on. Another director I worked with and here one has to learn as students how to communicate and how to drop the arrogance and listen to the other. I was working with a director. We were discussing takes. And to be honest, I am take one or take two. Honestly, I I said quite casually, not arrogantly to this director who fortunately will be nameless today. I think I’m take one or two. Seven. That’s what he said. Unbelievably rude. Clearly, clearly not watching or listening to what I was doing. Seven. He thought that he’d appropriated a pattern of my behavior. Tucked it into his little bag and thought, Kingsley 7. So what about six? What about 5? Not watching? Does he want to prove a point? Seven? Then he went on to say. Now you did something on take 2 I really liked this too, this is we’re about take five. Now, if I were a total narcissist, I might remember how clever I was on take 2. But as I’ve just at great pains explained to you, I haven’t got a clue what I did on take 2. I have let go. I’m drawing out another arrow for the director, putting it in my bow. You did something really good on take two. Well, print it, then put it in the movie.

Aerial: So if I ever have the amazing opportunity to cast Sir Ben Kingsley and anything I do, I will never ask him for a seventh take.

Eric: And you all heard it. All right. We’re going to hold you to that.

Aerial: I mean, if I’m doing my job, he’s gonna be doing his. And I should trust that. And I know he’s gonna give it to me first time, maybe second time, but definitely not seven.

Eric: Yeah I don’t know how he would have worked with Stanley Kubrick, but that would have been an amazing film to see.

Aerial: Right.

Eric: Stanley Kubrick famously would go 60, 70, 80 takes. But I think more times than not, when you have an actor of this caliber. If you’re asking for that seventh take means maybe you didn’t do the homework you needed to do and you better do your homework when you have an actor like him because he’s gonna come ready to rock. He’s not intimidated by any challenge. That means you as a director can’t be either. You have to be ready because he knows what he needs to do.

Ben: I have to be honest, I don’t find acting challenging. I find other people challenging. Like Mr. Take Seven. But if I am left alone metaphorically with my brushes and my canvas, I can paint a wonderful portrait and be tremendously happy and hopefully communicate that portrait accurately. I do like to talk as a portrait painter. When I was in the theater, I was very much a landscape artist because as a theater actor, you have to bring onto the stage the hills, the mountains, the Royal Court, the army. You know Shakespeare’s great soliloquies populate the stage with thousands of people and there is a painted back cloth. You have to bring the whole world, the whole landscape of the story onto the stage with you. Whereas in film, thanks to the extraordinary capacity for the camera to capture nature, one can be a portrait artist all you have to do is behave as the person you are portraying. I think my starting point. Has to be related to my work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I’m afraid Shakespeare was my first writer. He’s a very tough act to follow. And when you realize how empowering it is to decipher. A marvelous line of Shakespeare’s. And communicate it over 400 years to an audience who gasp. In astonishment at that mighty line. It’s thrilling. It’s thrilling because the line, the writing is engineered and architectured to really penetrate the audience. And look how long it’s lasted. It’s extraordinary. And in a strange way, I grew to love Shakespeare as if he was my friend. It’s very strange. There’s a wonderful book by Howard Bloom called. The invention of the human being, and he credits Shakespeare with being one of the first people ever to dramatically. Describe and dramatize pure patterns of human behavior. A long time before Freud, a long time before Jung. Pure patterns of human behavior that can withstand to this day all the modern pressures of psychology and psycho analysis. They’re absolutely pure. Patterns of behavior. Iago, Othello, Desdemona. Rosalind Jaques so that feeling the magnificent gift he gave to his actors. And he was an actor. He wrote with actors. Of giving them these beautiful lines, these beautiful ideas, this wonderful, multilayered language. He therefore empowered me and it stayed in my DNA and I have a hunger for that kind of language that expresses patterns of human behavior purely. So it’s very hard. It’s very hard. Page one. Page two nope. Nope. Never going to get there. Never going to get there. That is a copy of a copy of a copy that is very lazy writing. It may well be made, may well be watched. It won’t move anybody an inch or an ounce. It’s just a copy. But when I read something original. I know the tricks, I’m with him. I recognize him on the first page and stay with him until the curtain drops. Writing is my starting point and I build a character from how the author has so brilliantly constructed the way he speaks. He thinks. What is the most important word in his line? What is the most important word in all these sentences? If it’s good writing, you’ll find it. Is it anger? Is it love? Is it loss? Is it envy? What’s driving him? Ah there it is. It’s in The writing it’s in the writing, all the clues are there. If it’s weak writing literally, you don’t have a clue. Not given you one, he or she is not writing for his or her actors saying this will make a few bucks.

Eric: Yeah. Shakespeare’s Shakespeare. But I mean, did he ever write a movie featuring a tornado and a shark? No.

Aerial: Anyway, Shakespeare is amazing. And.

Eric: Yes he is amazing. I admit it too.

Aerial: It’s great to to hear an artist at his caliber. Talk about how he respects the text so much.

Eric: And what’s great to hear, especially as a writer. It’s like sometimes actors feel like it’s their job to make the text better. You know.

Aerial: Let me just rewrite this.

Eric: Yeah. No, I don’t think it needs to be those words. But here’s an actor who could do that and I’d be perfectly okay with it. But he has such appreciation when text is good.

Aerial: He respects the text.

Eric: Right. It’s like it gives him his starting point as a performer. He has such a love of text and the possibility of language, even though he was not actually formally trained or educated, though he does have a lot of honorary degrees, including a very well-deserved one from this very school.

Ben: I have an M.A.. From this establishment. But I never went to school. I never I went I never went to drama school and never went to film school I never went to university. I have an honorary M.A. From here an honorary M.A. from Stanford. A D. Lit. From Sussex and a D. Lit. From Hull. All of that. For which I’m eternally grateful. Comes from my experience of life. The grain of sand that I talked of earlier. Around which we labor to build our pearl to smooth things out and to glitter. So if I cannot recognize a decent pattern of human behavior in the writing, I’m afraid I can’t do it and I can never truly bring life to it. But once I have found that pattern of human behavior, the rhythm and timbre. Of, in my case, the man. And why he. Is what he is. The dialog starts to go in, and so perhaps I don’t learn, I study I study like an archaeologist brushing away layers and layers and layers of dust and dirt until I find the bones. And when I find the bones, then I can assemble the man. But you’re not gonna find any bones if the writing’s weak. So the writer and the actor have to meet halfway. Sometimes as an expedient. But then again, it is in addition to or it complements what I’ve just said. I will record the script and listen to it as I fall asleep to familiarize myself with the music of the writing and of the character. Always try and work on good material. I know it’s hard, but you must say no to bad material. The material that is, let us say, tone deaf. And you must work on material in which you personally can recognize a genuine pattern of human behavior. Ah I know him. Or if I don’t know him, I want to know him. And then the dialog will go in so sufficiently and so confidently that when you are totally surprised by the fact that yipes there’s another actor in this scene I’d forgotten about that I thought it was all about me. The other actor in the scene will throw lines at you, and you will respond from that perfect pattern of human behavior that you yourself have worked out. You can keep it secret sometimes. Don’t tell the director. Just say I have a pattern of human behavior. I know this guy’s pattern because you might tell the director and he might say seven. He’ll rob you, you know. Or she. So it’s a private process. But my starting point is let’s hope you are blessed with good material. So if you do have a musical ear will help you enormously. Sexy Beast was written beautifully so well that it reads like a Jacobin tragedy could have been written in the seventeen hundreds.

Clips: You’re the problem, you’re the f**king problem. You f**king Doctor White honking jam rag arcane spunk bubble. I’m telling you Aitch you keep looking at me. I’m gonna put you enough in the f**king ground, I promise you.

Ben: And the patterns of human behavior, the characterizations are so specific and so individuated that I could discern from the page and then from inhabiting Don on set for maybe one or two days, I realized regretfully. But also it gave me power to communicate him. He was a dreadfully abused child and he would spend the rest of his life abusing others because he was unhealed. And as soon as I recognized that and it became embedded in my performance and his pattern of human behavior, he poured out of me.

Eric: When I find the bones, I can assemble the man. Man he is really killing it with those metaphors. And for a writer, I think it’s all the more important that you put enough in there that you give the actors something to expand upon. But if it’s not there at all.

Aerial: The actors will have to make it up. And that might not be what you intended.

Eric: Yeah, there’ll be no bones.

Aerial: No bones. I mean, it’s nice to be able to see the difference it makes when the writer really puts the work to really lay down the groundwork for the actor.

Eric: Right it’s that happy marriage where writer meets actor.

Aerial: Oh I like that.

Eric: And thus character.

Ben: My starting point with the craft of acting is transformation. Transformation gives off a certain kind of energy that the audience recognize and thrilled to, I promise you. Transformation I sometimes attempt to describe it quite simplistically. The audience at the circus and they’re watching a trapeze artist. And she’s swinging on one trapeze and there’s another one impossibly far away from her and she will swing triple somersault in the air and grasp the handle of the other trapeze. And then the audience start breathing again. Her holding onto one trapeze is her. Her transformation is the spinning in the air that is utterly thrilling to the audience who say to themselves, I didn’t realize a human being could do this. I’m a human being. She’s a human being. We can we can do it even a part of me, my DNA, my molecules can do it. So, my dear, I would say retain your original self and thrill people by how much you can transform that original self. And then when you want to go right back to it. So you will always be you. But you will find extraordinary means of telling stories where you transform to tell the story. You transform to communicate the truth when it’s appropriate. If you find and this is quite difficult for an actor that the only way you can communicate a certain set of truths is not by wearing a mask. Because we all know the old saying, give a man a mask and he’ll tell the truth. But not wearing a mask makes you very, very vulnerable. And sometimes I know that the actor has chosen that craft to wear a mask and therefore not be seen and heard as his or her original self. But the starting point of the craft, I think in all modesty, should be the original self. So it is the spinning in the air. You have that trapeze. That’s you. You have the other trapeze. That’s your character. But the transformation into it is what will thrill audiences and what will get their attention. The energy, the urgency, the accuracy, the risk of you letting go of that with nothing. Actors have nothing. What do they have? Nothing. And then onto the other side. Wonderful. So however you wish to translate that, I hope you can. But the original self do not stretch yourself beyond your point of elasticity it’s the law of physics. If you stretch something beyond its point of elasticity and let it go, it will not shrink back to its original self. And you must. It’s very frightening sometimes when actors feel that they must transform so much and never between takes let go and always take the character home. They are distorted and it can be very dangerous. You must be able to always shrink back to your original self and then leap from that into your story.

Eric: Years back when I was but a wee lad in college, I did act some and when I would try to do a role, I felt like I had to change everything. I had to change my voice, change how I walk. It took a while for me to realize instead of coming at this from an angle of how is this character different for me? How is this character similar to me? You know, you don’t have to change everything about you to make character work.

Aerial: It helps when you have directors. You trust you enough to allow you to be real, and allow you to find that character as an actor going in, you know, you’ve auditioned, you’ve done your homework then you go to set and you feel like you have to prove yourself every single time that wastes a lot of energy. And as an actor, it’s nice to be trusted. And then you can truly find your character easier because now you’re confident. And I think that’s what Sir Ben Kingsley does so well.

Ben: The greatest experience I’ve had with directors and certainly the material you saw this afternoon is a prime example of this, is that once the directors cast you in the role confidently, you have that feeling. Absolute appreciation of the fact. That you have been given that role to portray to the best of your ability that you never for a second in the best cases feel that this person is auditioning you every day. Because once you feel that you’re being auditioned. The whole of your performance alters, it is no longer behavior. It is watch these tricks and there is a terrible difference in a huge difference, so the director, who has the capacity and the bravery to come to the film set and think to his or herself. What is going to happen today? What is my camera going to capture today? The camera has to capture behavior. And the wonderful thing about all the great films that we love and the great scenes that we love. Thinking of the trapeze artist in midair is also when the actors in the scene are discovering one another while the camera is turning. And for a director to give the actors that space. In which to discover one another through the character of their behaviors is a very, very good director indeed. So the most paramount. Aside from rigorous preparation and masterly casting, I would say the ability to have an open heart and an open mind. Knowing your story so well. And then allowing the camera to film behavior, behavior from confident actors who are in an absolute state of grace between action and cut. Because you put them in a perfect place. And I have given examples of control freaks who think that they know to the number. What take to print even before you’ve walked onto the set. It’s terrible. They’re not listening. So listening, listening, listening and alertness and also, as I say, preparation, casting and listening to that artistic Geiger counter in oneself and not be cluttered by people who say, oh, those actors, they really rub each other in the wrong way. I think they’d be great if we put them together. But it’s all about trust. It isn’t about an irritant. It’s about trust. And that willingness to learn and listen to the other actor in a space given to you by that director. So preparation is important and the ability to listen so clearly in an uncluttered way. Martin Scorsese is a master at this as well as dear Steve Conrad, with whom I’ve just worked. Martin watches the action from a black tent on a monitor with his assistant and one or two other of his lieutenants and generals and he’ll say cut after a take. He’d be led out of his tent because you come out of the tent into a dark film set. You’re blind as a bat. And the cables all over the floor. So his assistant leads him across the floor it’s quite dramatic, leads him across the floor. And then your face to face of the maestro. And the maestro says. Should we do another one. That’s all he says. That’s all he says. And of course, you are delighted to do another one for him because, you know, he’s watching. And putting on the screen. Every single thing that you’re offering to him on the floor of the set on that day. He will always capture the most important word in the line, if you know what I mean. He’ll get it. He’ll put the camera in the right place.

Aerial: I really enjoy listening to him talk about being on set and working with a great director. You know one who doesn’t make you feel like you’re auditioning every day. He’s worked with some of our greatest directors, you know, from Spellberg to Scorsese. And you can really see him come alive when you have the right collaboration or a really great dance partner. If you want to do another metaphor.

Eric: But also to use one of his metaphors. This idea of painting with one stroke of the brush, you know that he’s gotten to a point as a performer. He can do that. He doesn’t need a lot of strokes to get it. When you’re working on a lower budget film, an independent film, which he has done many times, you don’t have the luxury of multiple takes. You don’t have the luxury of a lot of money to throw at the screen. So you got to make every stroke count. You’ve got to be really precise with your storytelling. You want it to look like that was a choice. Yeah. No, no. We only needed the one take.

Ben: To be taking your first steps when the purse is almost empty is a very privileged position because it’s going to force you to be absolutely essential. When you discover through your limited resources what the most important word in your story is, what the most important gesture is. What’s the essential message? If you’ve got a few dollars, you have to be accurate. And then if you learn how to do this with great accuracy. You’ll never fall into the trap of throwing money at it. Because that won’t work. It will not work. The only thing that will work is your commitment to that essential gesture of the character and the essential word at the heart of the story. Often when I’m working on a complex character and they usually are quite complex. I try and reduce the mandate into one tiny sentence that I can hold in my pocket. And hold on to that mandate and it becomes irrespective of the budget and the size of the film or one’s responsibilities financially. I remember when I had the great privilege of playing Otto Frank Anne Frank’s father.

Clips: Good people and bad people have one thing in common they both make mistakes. Only good people can admit their mistakes and learn from them.

Ben: I had this perfect image in my head that I reduced it to one sentence. That Anne is at school. School is over. She’s in the yard with her friends chatting. Her father arrives at the school gates. She looks at her dad. Then she turns back to her friends. And she says her friends see that man over there? That’s my dad. That gesture. That’s my dad pushed me through the film. He was not there for her. He couldn’t be. He was separated from her by Adolf Eichmann. But early on in that film, I knew that the diamond in the center of that very, very big budget mini series was. That’s my dad. Hang on to that, little diamond.

Aerial: And with that we have gone from pearls to diamonds, an important element to starting out in this business is to connect with yourself and make sure you are taking care of your most important asset.

Eric: Your car?

Aerial: No, you.

Ben: I think that gaining strength through disappointment, which will inevitably come because of what we do, is perhaps the best we can do. Gain strength from the disappointment to learn physically and mentally how we cope with it. And certainly on the film set I’m a hermit, quite anti-social, partly because I love my own company, partly because I know that I need to conserve my energies and my strengths for the task in hand. The task in hand is Dame Maggie Smith. She’s a wonderful, wonderful performer in Downton Abbey, as you will probably know, she said to a colleague of mine. You can’t be a star in the dressing room, dear. I mean, just before I came on with dear Chris and had this conversation, I was pacing up and down by myself, all by myself in the room. I could have been entirely alone. I wanted to be find space where you must and can be your original self. There are many, many distractions that always connect with. Your original self. Because I think the quest for the original, uninterrupted, untarnished, undistorted self is our greatest quest. And if we can find that it’s a wellspring of energy and joy and is wonderful to be with the original self. So take time for yourself. Try not to compromise. Be very careful of the company you keep. Because there are amongst us, those of us through either bitterness, disappointment, laziness, will rob you of your energy and you leave the evening feeling. Why do I feel so soiled? Why do I feel so compromised? We had fun. We had drinks. We laughed a lot. Why do I feel so weary? So be very careful of the company you keep and how much you spread yourself. We are creative people. We’re blessed to lead creative lives. And it’s alarming how much that cloying of other people’s appetites can debilitate you. So aside from whatever wonderful classes you do, I have my own physical regime I eat. Well, aside from all that, take care of the original self. Cause basically, that’s all you have.

Eric: That’s a good note to end on, you know guys. Take care of yourself. You can’t do your best work or even good work if you’re not taking care of you. And Sir Ben Kingsley at 75 looks like he’s got another hundred forty performances in him, which I’m fine with.

Aerial: Me too, and I hope he does. You know considering he did not get a formal acting education. He is so fabulous and he’s wonderful to listen to. He’s got great advice. He’s a great teacher and our students really benefited from listening to him.

Eric: And hopefully you guys did, too. I feel like listening to him talk about his craft is like a bit of a master’s education just by listening to him speak.

Aerial: We want to think, Sir Ben Kingsley, for his talent, his art, and for speaking with our students. You can watch his new show, Perpetual Grace on Epix.

Eric: And thanks to all of you for listening. She is Aerial Segard and she is leaving us going to Japan. I will have to say that anytime Aeriel was in this booth, it was an episode that was so much fun to record. And really, hopefully for you guys showed the excitement. We both feel in talking about this, but mostly it was just nice having a friend in the room. So, Aeriel, thank you so much for doing this. And I don’t know we’ll have to fly you back from Japan for every episode. We can’t afford that, right?

Aerial: Okay yeah we can afford that ticket.

Eric: We’re starting Kickstarter right now for that to happen. So thank you. One last time to the fabulous Aerial Segard round of applause.

Eric: We will be missing her very much.

Aerial: Thank you so much and I’m gonna miss this. It’s been a pleasure and an honor to be able to be a part of this.

Eric: She’s Aerial Segard.

Aerial: And that’s Eric Conner.

Eric: And this episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Chris Devane. Chris, thank you again for bringing in Sir Ben Kingsley to our school to watch a full interview or to see our other Q&As check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy.

Aerial: This episode was written by Eric Conner edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and Eric Conner.

Eric: Executive produced by Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler a special things to our Events Department Sajja Johnson. And the staff and crew who made this possible, including Drew Hughes for always finding the perfect place to take a picture.

Aerial: To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.

Eric: We won’t see you next time.

Aerial: I won’t see you next time.

Eric: But I’ll see you next time.

Aerial: Have fun.

Eric: Bye Aerial.

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