THUNDERBIRDS - Q&A with BEN KINGSLEY
What attracted you to the role?
All my kids used to watch the original THUNDERBIRDS puppet series on TV, and I was coming out of an extraordinary film called HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, and it's a good healthy thing for the actor to leave the role behind, and I was involved in press junkets for HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG running up to the Academy Awards for which I was fortunately nominated, but that meant even more interviews. That was a very distressing role, and my character did end his life by committing suicide with most of his family dead around him - I found it an extraordinary journey. So what I'm saying is, the THUNDERBIRDS script came right in the middle of press junkets for HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, and those were like having the same area of my psyche or pain or whatever, the wound opened all the time. That should have really closed, but I couldn't say goodbye - because it was a popular film. So I didn't quite know what to do next after that whole event and it was quite draining but then the problem was solved by not taking a vacation and not doing any acting at all but paradoxically by acting more, but using a completely different set of acting muscles in order to give the ones that had been exhausted a rest. So although my kids insisted I did The Hood there was also something in me that was saying you've really got to do something different, maybe a family film where you play a pantomime villain, maybe something not lighter but at the complete other end of the scale. And it came along the context was right and my kids were right and I had a wonderful time.
I believe that your son visited the set?
He came on the set, he met everyone on the set. So having a then 15 year-old visit the set was terrific because he's doing his GCSE's, he's right in the throes of being an adolescent of being tested, having to emerge sooner or later into the adult world equipped to cope with that world and there is a modest, entertaining gloriously presented parallel in THUNDERBIRDS because that's what's Brady is doing. The film is really examining adolescence, but it's examining adolescence through a very creative joyful happy context of Thunderbirds and machines and special effects and villains and Parker and the pink car, but right in the heart of it truly is a boy trying to struggle with his adolescence and prove that he's a hero like his dad. A boy trying to be part of the Tracy family, a boy trying to come to terms with a dead mother and world famous father - it's not a very good start in life! Very difficult but at the heart of our fun, because it was a joyful film to make, but at the heart of that fun if we each had a golden thread running through the film that was private to each actor, then Alan's was probably 'it's very hard being me, it's very hard being a Tracy and a kid at the same time'. And my secret thread was The Hood's need for revenge. Now if I have that strong thread running through my part it means then that I can really enjoy myself I can be a pantomime villain, I can pop out of the floor in a cloud of smoke and a red dress. I can! Because I can really enjoy myself if I hang on to that secret pact between me and the character - revenge at all costs - then he can be obsessive and narcissistic and grandiose and preening and forgetful and The Hood doesn't understand women - that's for sure - he doesn't get it!
Were you relieved that you didn't have the puppet eyebrows?
I offered, I offered up my eyebrows - greater love hath no actor - and I said do with them what you will. But they said 'no, yours are fine, Sir Ben, thank you!' and I also offered to put some wonderful glowing jewel on my forehead through which my magic power would come and they said no we'd rather do it through your eyes and digitalise and CGI your eyes afterwards. But we did darken the eyebrows but we didn't add any hair in there!
Did you hold back on making The Hood too scary for the kiddies?
Well I used the words pantomime villain advisably because if any of you have been to a pantomime or have taken kids to a pantomime there's nothing worse than bad pantomime where the adults are being told dirty jokes and the kids are being patronised and the actors are bored out of their minds saying do we really have to do this matinee, we'd rather be down the pub. But a good pantomime is a lovely life-enhancing event and there the pantomime villain treads a very fine line. Kids love to be scared they love to shriek and huddle into their seats in a theatre or a cinema - it's thrilling it gives that slam of adrenaline. And I've noticed the good pantomime villains always tread that fine line between 'I'm going to scare the be-jesus out of you, but I'm just kidding' and that's a tightrope that's a joy to walk. Jonathan Frakes allowed us all to have a consistency of style which is operatic in the same way that an opera singer can be full of emotion you know that you're slightly removed from the emotion because of the music. It's presented to you but it's not naturalistic so if we look at the Thunderbird vehicles look at the costumes look at the visual effects and the SFX look at the set it really is like performing opera as actors, where the orchestra is rather loud which means that the actors have to be operatic and have to notch their acting two, three, four levels above what they would normally do to be seen and heard on the screen because the stars are those flying machines, we're just the extras in this film - rather talented extras. So therefore we have to bring our performance up to that level so it's not 100% naturalistic it's a bit stylised, it is pantomimic but I'd err on the side of good pantomime which is a lovely event rather than bad pantomime which is boring and insulting.
Does the huge Hollywood mechanism hinder you doing very different roles?
I don't know whether I'm lucky, I don't know whether it's because I had 15 years in classical theatre with the RSC, National Theatre, the Royal Court and then excellent films for the BBC, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh and David Jones that I seem to have a developed peripheral vision so that I don't get too locked on to what you're describing. It is dangerous, so that somehow I have an ear and an appetite for work that would still somehow connect with the theatre and the great writers I was able to work with and for and material in the theatre. So I think I've always been able to go from large budget films to smaller budget more experimental films because I think I have a genuine appetite to do that. If I didn't have a genuine appetite to do that I don't think it would work. I think if I felt 'oh I must strategically now look for something' that's not spontaneous, it's what your manager's telling you to do. But if I have inside a real appetite and quest for interesting work as well as work that pays the mortgage then hopefully that will always come. If my motives get sullied then I think I'm in big trouble.
What's the coolest stunt you got to do in THUNDERBIRDS?
According to my 7 year-old step-daughter it was flying. She keeps on saying "how did you fly?" So I think that's the coolest stunt - so you just have to do a semi-circle and then they CGI the whole flight upwards, but then I'm on a wire up over those revolving jaws of hell and the stunt men said I had stayed up in that harness as long or longer than many other actors that they had seen. So it was really exciting being up there and doing that scene with Brady and being able to say those lines not in the quiet of one's drawing room as some revenge lines are said in Chekhov plays but to utter those lines of revenge dangling from a wire over the jaws of hell and laughing at the same time - it's great stuff!
Do you have any plans for stage work and would you play a theatre pantomime villain?
I don't have any immediate plans for stage work. I think that in the right context - let's say that there was a pantomime staged for a limited run to raise enormous sums of money for children born with Aids in Africa or another astonishing cause - then I think you could get myself and Angellica Houston and Ian McKellen and all these wonderful people on stage and maybe they would commit to a limited but long run. That's the sort of thing if it was that kind of great event I would really love to do it.
You have played the good man and the villain - which is more fun?
There's something that came to mind.... This is why I love press conferences, because the actor is forced to think and we don't often get an opportunity to really justify what we do for a living and explain what we do for a living. We're too busy acting and knowing all the secret tricks and the shorthand, but we never have the chance to open up and examine what it is. During press junkets for SEXY BEAST people were quite alarmed by my violence in that film and they were asking me where it came from - villainy, in the sense that Lago is one of the greatest villains in poetic drama. And I think that we have to accept that there is a saint and a demon in every single one of us, and depending on how circumstances change and evolve whether we're at peace or at war whether we're starving or whether we're well fed whether we are diseased ridden or whether we enjoy great health. It's entirely dependent upon those imponderable factors, whether we are the saint we would like to be or the demon we are terrified of being. I'm sure looking at European 20th century history for example that there are devils and angels in every single one of us and I think to say that's not true is actually not being very adult about life and not being very realistic. So if as an actor I can say this is me this is a portrait by me of this man and this is also a portrait by me of this man and they're both two valid aspects of the human condition. And maybe the actor's unique in this in that people are of course allowed to say 'how can the guy who did that, do that?' But at the same time we can say 'how can one of the most civilised European countries in the world do that between 1933 and 1944?'. It's almost the same question - when you go from the individual to the collective when you go from individuals to society. So I think it's quite healthy for actors to say I can scream and roar, this is why Shakespeare's plays are so wonderful. Shakespeare's plays really looked at violence in all its aspects and also looked at tenderness and love and loyalty. All these key words in our vocabulary were being examined by him and they are still being examined by us in the film business and they've got to be examined.
Would you consider tackling Shakespeare's Macbeth?
I have - I played the third murderer! But I would absolutely. I would be very intrigued by that relationship between him and her because it's around now - there are couples like that - they run studios!
Do you like working with the same directors and do first time directors find you intimidating?
I know there are some directors who allow themselves to say 'I'm very good with actors'. So I'm going to allow myself to say 'I'm very good with directors'! In that I seem to understand the nature of the beast, I seem to understand how they express themselves why they express themselves in a certain way and I always find it very exciting when I'm able to form a particular bond with a director through the work and through the character. I'm about to work for the second time with Roman Polanski. I did DEATH AND THE MAIDEN with Roman Polanski. In DEATH AND THE MAIDEN I'm accused of being a torturer and torturing Sigourney Weaver's character and as an act of revenge she kidnaps me. In the film we're not entirely sure if she's got the right man or the wrong man or whether she's falsely punishing someone who's innocent. And Roman privately asked me whether or not I felt my character was guilty. He said 'did he or did he not do it?' I said 'you know what Roman, he didn't do it'. He said 'Great! Don't tell the others!' But as long as I knew what his camera was looking for it was very releasing because I knew that Roman would find it. With the great Steven Spielberg I asked him 'Steven what do you want Ishak Stern to do in SCHINDLER'S LIST for you. What is his function in the film?' I asked because I had a word in the back of my head and he had a word as well and my word was witness and his word was conscience and the two words just connected beautifully. So I then knew wherever he was putting his camera and whatever I was doing that's what he wanted and that's what he was going to film. And if you know what the director wants then you know how he's going to film you. So if I can connect with Jonathan Frakes for example in THUNDERBIRDS - and why not it's a wonderful film and we're making a film for children why should we make a lesser film for children than we do for adults. It's very important we make a decent film and a beautiful film that can include one child mocking another child for stammering - a cruel and real moment in the film - it's beautiful. And if I know that Jonathan knows that my character is driven by obsessive revenge and that we can have a wonderful time because I know that that is what he's going to film. Jonathan Glazer on SEXY BEAST said that my character in that film was 'a dog with a buried intelligence'. And once we'd decided that then I knew that he knew that I knew that he knew and we were in a conspiracy that he was going to film that. Therefore I was free to act cause I know he was going to catch that with his camera.
Do you hope that people will be surprised about your roles and particularly to see you as The Hood?
I hope so because what I think one of the things that pushes actors into the ridiculous absurd thing they do for a living is that element of surprise. I think that's one way we feel we can communicate, because I think perhaps actors are very bad at communicating so they have to communicate in a particular way through a rather narrow channel called performance. And if you're surprising people it's a way of arresting their attention in a very pleasant and non-destructive way. Magicians do it all of time in order to keep their audience's attention and with Peter Brook, the great theatre director, it's the backbone of his work - continual, astonishing surprise. So I really hope that I'm able to surprise audiences with choices and I'm also able to surprise myself. I was very surprised to find myself as The Hood, delighted because although I didn't know it - my peripheral vision was saying this is really what you should be doing next - pantomime. You know part of you is exhausted, come out of those dark years. I had done three films in concentration camps - three - so I could come out of those dark years. Most of my characters die at the end of my films...they're either shot or they commit suicide or they die. And I was saying to my darling wife 'You know I'd really like to live at the end of my movies, never mind get the girl, just live!'
Will The Hood return?
I believe that at the end, unless they've edited it out, he says..."see you soon"
Were you a fan of the TV series?
My kids were and you know how it is with kids when they're finishing their meal. It's about 5pm and there are two little sausages and some beans on the plate and you're starving and you say do you want that and you always eat what's on their plate. So you do get drawn into their lives, you watch their TV programmes with them. I now know MY LITTLE PONY backwards and I know THE WIZARD OF OZ inside out. I know many of those films now so well and of course then I watched SESAME STREET, which I loved watching with my kids. And THUNDERBIRDS, yes I was very aware of it. Then there was a gap and then suddenly this script emerged with a lot of also emerging interest in the innocence of that series.
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