The celebrity press tour interview is such a silly, predictable dance that people like me cheer whenever something even slightly unexpected happens. In that way, Zoe Williams’ new Ben Kingsley profile in the Guardian is magnificent. The basic disconnect between them seems to have been that Williams arrived well-researched and prepared to have a real discussion, while Kingsley was also prepared – to provide the same canned answers to predictable interview questions that he’s given umpteen times before. Well-read interviewers tend to notice things like that.
It did not go well.
The piece opens with Kingsley discussing the film he’s there to promote, Robot Overlords. If you’ve never seen a press tour interview, what happens is, a journalist opens with a softball question about a movie they know they’re required to ask about, hoping they can get through it quickly enough that they have time to ask the questions they really wanted to ask. Then the actor/director/writer goes on and on about their new film, to the point that you can actually hear the sound of people’s eyes glazing over. Williams suffers Kingsley’s extended description of the film, before calling it “perfectly enjoyable, until somebody starts to over-explain it to you.”
And that’s when the canned responses begin.
Kingsley was drawn to his craft as a child, when he was taken to the Salford picture house to see an Italian film called Never Take No For an Answer. “I first found myself, my alter ego, on screen, when I was very, very young … an orphan, five years old.” The strange thing is not that he has told this story in every interview I have ever read with him, as well as broadcast interviews but that he uses exactly the same words. It is as if his personality is a part for which he’s learned the script.
Ouch. Man, no one does subtle dissing like the English.
The etiquette of this situation baffles me – is it ruder to cut in and say, “Yes, I’ve read this story before”? Or to pretend you haven’t read it, which would mean that you’ve arrived at the interview having never read anything about the man in your entire life?
She goes on to bust him on three or four more canned responses before working up the courage to ask about Kingsley allegedly planning to star in The Secret Evidence, which The Daily Mail had that morning described as “a Jihadi John apologist film.”
Again, it did not go well.
“Sorry, what are you talking about?” he says. Imagine he was king, and had arrived at an orphanage in a Rolls-Royce to adopt all the orphans and take them back to his palace, and I was a parking attendant who had stuck a ticket on his car: that gets you about halfway to the derision and disgust in his voice. I explain the story again: “What did you say I’ve signed? I’ve not signed anything to do with this.” OK, fine, great! “Ah, sorry,” he continues, his revulsion turns to weariness at the petty-mindedness of the human condition. “Can we just stop it right there. I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is where there has been an unfortunate invasion on your attempts to be a decent journalist. Because you will get your interlocutor to shutting down immediately.” “Seriously, it’s fine,” I say, thinking, if you’re not in a film called The Secret Evidence, why don’t you just say so? Why is it so indecent of me to ask? “Nothing I say can go viral,” he intones, as if you can control the internet by force of will.
I truly wish more interviewers would spice things up with Rolls-Royce imagery, that really painted a picture. I also enjoy that Ben Kingsley’s strategy to avoid a story going viral is to create an incredibly awkward situation. Where did he get his media training, opposite land??
The piece concludes, “[Kingsley’s] performances may be in Bismark’s pantheon (laws, sausages); if you love them, it’s best not to hear how they were made.”
There’s nothing I’d like more than to trade every Ryan Seacrest, Billy Bush, and wannabe for a series of dry Brits who don’t have time for your bullsh*t.