BEVERLY HILLS – I absolutely love talking to Sir Ben Kingsley. He has a cadence, a swagger, a rhythm of speech that I find easy to tap into, understand, and bounce off of, like a surfer off waves. His passion for his craft is always on the surface. He delights in its specificity. And with “The Boxtrolls,” he has carved out another memorable piece of work in one of cinema's most laureled filmographies.
Nominated for four Oscars, having won the first time out for his iconic “Gandhi” performance, Kingsley continues to impress with his versatility. When Laika came calling, he discovered an opportunity to dive headlong into an extreme, manic, villainous character, Archibald Snatcher, and come away with the most memorable beats of the film. It's enough to make you wonder what other characters he might be able to manifest from those vocal chords, because he's certainly not lazily going through the celebrity voice motions here.
You can read about that and a whole lot more in our back and forth below.
“The Boxtrolls” opens Sept. 26.
HitFix: It's funny, when I went into the movie I honestly wasn't too studied on the voice cast or anything. So when I heard your character I was trying to peg the actor, and I got it wrong. I was thinking it was Bill Nighy!
Sir Ben Kingsley: Oh, right!
So that tells you how far away from your natural cadence you got.
Yes quite far. I did. I did.
It sounds like a fun character. He's so extreme.
He's like an animal in his pure form. He is completely socially inept. He lives in a state of total social panic. He doesn't know what voice to use with whom. He's eaten up with ambition. He's completely incapable of dealing with rejection of any kind. And he's a man who wants to join a club that doesn't want him as a member. [Laughs.] Of all the people in the world, of course it's him, you know? Classic, isn't it?
Right. He's such a manic person.
Manic. Eaten up. Obsessed.
How did that feel as a performer, to wiggle into that space? Does it come to a point where it just naturally starts to flow out of you?
It does. It came to a point very early on in the recording sessions because my response to the script was so strong it did enable me to kind of visualize a voice – if you can accept that – but not quite hear it. Because his physical shape is very different from mine. And there is somebody – I've not seen him for a while – in my circle of acquaintances and colleagues whose voice I borrowed as a starting point for Archibald Snatcher. This person is immensely kind and generous, a lovely man. It's just that his voice comes from a different place from my voice. So I decided to recline, to get horizontal in the recording studio to be as relaxed as possible. And then I was completely relaxed and did not allow any body language to augment what my voice was doing – only the voice. I said, “Only the voice. Don't move.” I'm even doing it now, look. I didn't even do that. Only the voice. And all those ingredients, the narcissism, the grandiose narcissism, the ambition, the preening, the vanity. It all started to come through the voice.
Is that hard, to focus on just the voice and eliminate any physical movement that it might register?
I find it very freeing actually.
Because when you see B-roll and stuff of people doing voices for animation, it always seems like something about doing the voice makes them act it out. I guess I would think that maybe that would make it easier.
Just for me, for this particular character, it released a lot of layers by being utterly still.
I guess that makes it come from even a deeper place.
That's interesting. As far as being directed on this, what did Tony and Graham do to kind of bring you to that place? I mean I'm sure there was a lot of talk about the character beforehand and how you were going to play it but what were they trying to get out of you in particular?
Anthony was in the studio with me quite a lot in the UK. And his input was an absolute lifeline because – here's an example: Snatcher has three acolytes, three stooges around him. But we never recorded in the same studio. Yet you see it on the screen. It honestly looks as though we did workshops together. We rehearsed together. We broke for lunch together. The rhythms of that quartet were perfect. Now whilst recording, Tony, of course – because I'm all by myself – he would say, “You're addressing that. You're talking to that. You're hearing that.” So I could pitch that hierarchy more skillfully and also out of context. Sometimes he'd say the animation's very vivid. So it could be a whisper but it's like a harsh whisper putting me in a context that I couldn't see or feel that he had it all in his head. So that was immensely valuable. Tone, volume, motivation. I was clear, but how to express that motivation, Anthony was hugely helpful in guiding me that way.
Also he interjected something really interesting early on. When I got really relaxed and into it – about five minutes in, he said – I started to elongate my vowels. Like when Snatcher says, “Aaaallllll the waaaaaayyy ooouuuuut heeeerrree.” I decided to do that and he said, “The animators love that! When you stretch your vowels.” He said, “You are giving them so much to work with.” It was then that I realized that, although I am not doing any body language, I'm saying, “I did the voice bit. You do the body bit.” Although they were thousands of miles away and wouldn't get recordings maybe for a day or two, I was able to give them something.
It makes sense. In that particular scene Snatcher is doing this kind of pirouette, so they can have some playfulness with the movement.
I'm glad you mentioned that particular moment in the movie because that's certainly, for me, a moment where it seems like you're really enjoying the cadence of the character as the performer. When you're performing voice work like this, do you ever find a spot where you can look objectively at what you're doing and maybe enjoy it in that way? Does that make sense?
Oh, it makes total sense. I think there are, because hopefully I'm a storyteller and as a storyteller I think that there should always be the element of “you are addressing something to somebody even though you can't see them.” You are passing on some story, some pattern of human behavior, something. So the objective, I think, is there to some extent, yeah. It comes and goes. Sometimes in a not straight character-driven narrative, live action movie, between “action” and “cut,” I can be in a zone where I've let go of everything. And they don't last very long. I mean I could measure them in seconds. But one has to let go of everything. And later on if I am able to see the film and that take is in the film, there is something in me that says, “I don't know how I did that. I have no idea where that came from.” Other times there is that control of technique, of breathing, of body language, like trying to make my performance as economic as possible so that I throw away everything that could be distracting to the audience from the main narrative function of the scene or drive with my character. So I'm trying to get stiller and stiller and stiller, so then to allow someone else to be in charge of my natural body movements, it's quite extraordinary.
Well that's very illuminating as to your previous point about it being a freeing experience.
A little story from early on in the shoot: they got together a clip of Snatcher walking down the stairs talking about ambition and how it's limited in some people and limitless in others. And there was a vowel sound I used and they accompanied it with such a narcissistic preening gesture. I thought, “OK, I've got it. I can let them go and my body – they absolutely got what I'm trying to do, which is great.”
Awesome. Just wanted to go off topic here a bit on a couple of other movies briefly, if it's alright. Jonathan Glazer. He's made, like, two movies since “Sexy Beast,” which was such a bold debut and of course a ripe opportunity for you at the time. Why do you think that is?
I honestly don't know. But he is extraordinary. He's absolutely – he's unique. And I think he – I mean he can sustain himself by making commercials easily and I'm sure that there are loads of commercials out there that are Jonathan's and we don't know they're Jonathan's. And then he nurtures his own projects. He's quite reluctant to involve himself in other people's projects. I emailed him recently and I hope we're going to catch up soon because I saw “Under the Skin,” which I found fabulous, fascinating, a useful film. I still haven't seen “Birth.” But he allows the actors to occupy such a free, released, vulnerable and at the same time confident space that he's a joy to work with. A joy.
So I imagine you want to work with him again?
And then another one that I just happened to catch recently, because I've been rewatching all of Roger Deakins' work, is “House of Sand and Fog.” It had been a while. I must have forgotten how much of an absolute downer that was.
It is a tragedy.
Yeah, absolutely. And filmed as such. I just wanted to get any comments you might have about working with Deakins.
I guess it's a key to great narrative filmmaking, the light and how much light or lack of light there is on a situation. Whether the light is scorching and merciless or whether there is some softening of light, some shadow. Roger is a narrative director of photography. He's not one of those grandiose – “I want the light to be 'beautiful.' 'Beautiful.'” No. He's not that. He wants to tell the story. What tells the story? If I put the lamp there, he's just sitting in a room. If I put the lamp there, he's the loneliest man in the world.
And with Roger, and Vadim [Perelman], bless him, I could be totally, totally still knowing – and with James Horner, his music – that that moment will come together, light, sound and my stillness, not doing anything at all: there's the loneliest man in the world, or the angriest man in the world, or some state. Roger can create a condition in which something is illuminated and we receive it in that frame.
That's interesting because it gets right back to what you said about the Laika guys working with the movement of your character and you could trust that fully.
Fantastic. Well congratulations on this. It's an amazing character.
Thank you so much. Great to see you again.
“The Boxtrolls” opens in theaters Friday, Sept. 26.
For more with Sir Ben Kingsley, check out the supplementary video interview embedded at the top of this post.