From Gandhi to Iron Man 3, Sir Ben Kingsley is quite simply one of the greatest actors working today. The depth he brings to even the smallest roles is at once impressive, but also uncanny in his commitment. In his latest role as Archibald Snatcher in The Boxtrolls, Kingsley brings a sinister bravado to an oversized, overbearing exterminator looking for a way into the upper echelon of Cheesebridge society. We talked to Britain’s most chameleon-like export about all things Boxtrolls, his love of Laika, and dealing with having some coal in his filmography.
Nerdist: So what can you tell us about your character, and his problem with the Boxtrolls?
Ben Kingsley: Well, he doesn’t have a problem with them. He’s actually using them to fulfill his own ambition. He wants to join the elite club that run the town. He wants a position of power within that club. That club does not want him as a member. This is like acid in his system.
He has a burning ambition to be ‘up there,’ whatever that means, and he will never get up there unless he makes some great gesture that will make him acceptable to the town. His gesture is based on a total lie. He offers to rid the town of Boxtrolls because he claims – and he’s put this whole myth about, and it’s working – that the Boxtrolls will steal your children and kill them. It’s a brutal lie, because what we find in the film is that the Boxtrolls live underground, they gather things that we throw away, and make a life with them. Not only do they not hurt children, they have actually protected and guarded a baby that they found, for years.
So here you have an absurd, grotesque, power-crazy man who wishes to empower himself by telling his community that he will destroy what he’s calling the ‘enemy,’ but they’re not. I mean, it’s a great political trick, that somebody craving for power can say “Those guys are the enemy, but don’t worry – I’ll kill them before they kill you.” It’s classic.
N: That’s world history in a nut-shell.
BK: And that’s why I love Laika. They tend to put in their beautiful, entertaining, gorgeous films, absolute classic patterns of human behavior. And yeah, they’re couched in this beautiful context of a great animated feast, but in the middle of it you think “Hang on! There’s a truth there!” And that’s what makes their films, I think, so beautiful.
N: What film drew you to Laika?
BK: Coraline. Amazing. A work of art.
N: A beautiful movie. You do such a great job in live action of getting these great emotions. You seem to be able to manage certain muscles that I didn’t even know people had to convey things – whether it’s a squint of the left eye as a director, or a cocky smile when you’re playing a vampire killer. It’s fascinating. So while working with Laika, when they are working with such detailed, minuscule things, and they’re able to bring such an expressive range, and all you have to provide is a voice, how fun and rewarding is it to get to experience the art with everybody else?
BK: Well, it is so – it’s such a skillful art in putting these very disparate components together – a voice in a recording studio, and somebody making a puppet, and somebody making clothes for that puppet, and somebody making a set in which that puppet can move. All these, bringing together hugely disparate elements into one glorious work of art, and I recorded my Snatcher’s voice pretty well reclining – lying down – because I wanted my voice to be as relaxed as possible, in order to play with it very freely, so there was no limit to stretching a certain vowel sound, or doing something with a consonant.
And then to see how they have matched certain physical gestures of my puppet to my voice is quite remarkable. There’s one gesture when I’m walking down some stairs, and I’m just absolutely captivated by it, and full of admiration for the guy whose work with the puppet said “I know what the gesture is.” It’s a very narcissistic gesture that my puppet does, that exactly mirrors something in my voice. It’s really great.
N: One of my favorite things about the work you do is that you are such a student of character, and you always seem to really, truly find the character and do what is best for them. I feel like Laika does something similar, where it is a character-driven story. It seems like a perfect match that you two found each other.
BK: Yes. Well, I’m delighted we have. I enjoy working with them because they are artists. They truly are. It’s a wonderful collaboration of different art forms, all on the screen at the same time. I think, from what I’ve seen today – I haven’t seen the whole film – that the results are astonishing.
N: That trailer is a thing of beauty.
BK: It’s beautiful, isn’t it?
N: And then the Mech, the big creature. You see that and you’re thinking, ‘That’s stop motion? That’s amazing.”
BK: Oh, yes!
N: So this is a question that’s a little tangential, but it is something I wanted to ask you, and I’m asking it in complete respect – you have done some really amazing work, and sometimes it has ended up in movies that are lackluster… but you have been a really dynamic part of some movies that maybe didn’t find their audience, or maybe there was something going on, but it wasn’t you. When you’re on a set like that, and you find such a great character, when you look back at those movies now and judge them for what they were when you saw them, how do you feel about – do you judge your performance? Do you take it as a learning experience?
BK: I think that the heart of your question is that we actors can only be as good as the company we keep. And that I’m forced to follow my intuition more quickly and hopefully more accurately, and therefore, sometimes to the astonishment of my agent, I say “I’m not going to do that.” But nothing is lost or wasted. I create a portrait in certain contexts, and that’s what happened to that portrait, and there it is.
N: And when you know you’ve been pulled into something that isn’t worthwhile, like BloodRayne for instance?
BK: What movie?
BK: Oh, yes, yes, yes. I never saw the movie.
N: You’re lucky. [chuckling]
BK: [Laughs with the most knowing of twinkles in his eye]
The Boxtrolls is in theaters everywhere today. You can find out more about Laika and the world of The Boxtrolls in our interview with Isaac Hempstead Wright from the set of the film.