Interview: Sir Ben Kingsley on male vulnerability and the limitless vision of Georges Méliès

Actor Ben Kingsley first got his taste of collaboration with filmmaker Martin Scorsese in 2010 on the thriller “Shutter Island.” It was a long time coming, but for Kingsley, who says he always appreciated Scorsese’s work as a filmmaker, it was a unique characteristic of the director’s process that really spoke to the actor.

“I haven”t quite realized until working with him that he films male vulnerability in a very special and gifted way,” Kingsley says over tea at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. “He actually directs like a lover more than a tyrant, with tenderness rather than insistence. He”s a perfectionist, but he gets it through extraordinary virile tenderness as a man. And he can guide an actor through vulnerability superbly well.”

In “Shutter Island,” Kingsley starred as a psychiatrist desperately, it turns out, trying to guide a patient (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) out of the twisted, fragmented shards of his own mind. His vulnerability in that film was his unconditional love for his patient, but in “Hugo,” his latest collaboration with Scorsese, it comes from a different place of personal anguish.

“Here, my vulnerability was a destroyed life,” he says. “It’s a destroyed ambition, the aborted journey, the broken arc, all those things. And you feel, as a man, you can show Marty vulnerability and he”ll never exploit it in the wrong way or take advantage of it, because he is so secure in himself.”

In the film, Kingsley stars as a mysterious Paris train station shopkeeper with a connection to an unusual key that the film’s titular young protagonist discovers (which itself may provide some closure to Hugo’s relationship with his father). From that discovery onward, the two are at cross-purposes, Hugo desperate to uncover the past, Kingsley’s shopkeeper determined to forget it.

“I loved working with him very much,” Kingsley says of Asa Butterfield, the young actor who portrays Hugo in the film. “He has a wonderful stillness as an actor, that every gesture is essential. It”s the essential Hugo. There is nothing arbitrary and there are no filters. It comes straight from his heart, and his subversion of the truth is absolutely riveting and pure, so that in playing with him, in acting with him you have to respond on his level.”

Kingsley’s character turns out to be famed French filmmaker Georges Méliès (something hidden within the narrative but rather difficult to avoid in media matters and marketing). He plays Méliès as a broken man, formerly a wizard of the filmmaking form, left behind in a bitter post-World War I environment that didn’t have the patience for the dreams-on-celluloid he captured throughout his career.

“They made me smile,” Kingsley says of Méliès’s films, which he of course studied intensely while preparing for the role. “He is nearly always smiling in his films. He has wonderful energy. And then having seen that and seen his energy and his joy in being an actor, then reading a little bit, I realized that he wrote, directed, edited, designed, set design, costume design, everything, everything and was consumed with joy. That really was my starting point.”

From there, Kingsley says his performance was not only greatly buttressed, but greatly informed by the set design of the film. Frequent Scorsese collaborator Dante Ferretti headed up the production design of the film, which involved meticulously recreating settings like Méliès’s toy shop in the train station and the all-glass studio where he shot his films. Adding further to the illusion was Scorsese’s decision to cast the various elements of Méliès’s crew (which are featured in a key flashback sequence at the end of the film) with fixtures of “Hugo”‘s own crew. So Méliès’s costume designers were “Hugo”‘s costume designers, as with lighting technicians and on throughout the call sheet.

“Even when I looked behind me, he built a row of stables and factories outside of the studio,” Kingsley says of the immersive environment. “And then in the toyshop, everywhere I looked I saw things waiting to come to life, the little acrobat on his ladder, the little flying machines, the boats. Toys are very still until you play with them, inert, and that was a gut process of being surrounded by dead things.

“And the railway station was so huge that you could hardly see from one end to the other because they knocked two studios together. The café, the rotisserie, the luggage shop, the wine shop, the book shop — the kids told me that when they took a book out of the bookshop, they were all genuinely print books. It”s wonderful for us [as actors]. Every corner of that railway station was alive. There was always steam coming through the vents. The only thing that it lacked was the smell of French cigarettes, because we weren”t allowed to smoke on the set, but other than that it was a railway station. And from my shot I could see the world and all the people milling around and their indifference to Georges, which enhanced my feeling of exile, too. It was fantastically nourishing and sustaining in a stimulating sense.”

Circling back to Scorsese and his work ethic, Kingsley says he was most appreciative of the director’s security in his casting decisions, and therefore, his allowance for freedom. It’s a quality all actors want out of a director, but don’t always get.

“With some directors, when you”re working with them you get a sense that you”re being auditioned all the time,” Kingsley says. “By nature, we”re animals that respond and our response to that undercurrent of being tested or being auditioned is to start explaining our character between action and cut, which is disastrous. I’m sorry to put Marty into a context, but with lesser directors you always feel that you”re explaining that you really do understand the character.”

Finishing up, one can’t leave it with the man tasked to portray Georges Méliès without inquiring about what the trailblazer’s work has meant to him, particularly the famed “A Trip to the Moon.” A colorized version of the film, which features perhaps the most famous image in all of cinema (a rocket ship embedded in the eye of the moon), was discovered nearly 20 years and was painstakingly restored by Lobster Films and Technicolor. (The restoration was ultimately used in “Hugo.”) Kingsley, is lost in wonder over it.

“What is magic about it is that over 100 years later, we could look at it and still wonder how he did it,” he says. “And that”s an amazing achievement, a technical achievement of a man who knew no limits, because he was not surrounded by executives who told him, ‘You can”t do that.’ He was just on his own. Not only is [‘A Trip to the Moon’] a film about the unknown, about no limits, about reaching beyond the planet, but it”s filmed in a way that is utterly appropriate to it by a director, a leading man, who says, ‘Well, I don”t what the limits are.’ So it”s like the film mirrors the mentality of the man who created it, totally, in that there are no limits, and if I want a rocket to go to the moon and then be pushed off the moon and then land in the sea, that”s what I’ll do. Nobody said, ‘But you know it”s not logical, don”t you?’ Nobody said that to Georges.”

“Hugo” is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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