Britain's Ben Kingsley Plays a Prophet with Honor

updated 03/28/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/28/1983 01:00AM

The summons came for actor Ben Kingsley during his opening-day performance of Nicholas Nickleby in London. Would he call director Richard Attenborough at the intermission? Attenborough told the actor, who was virtually unknown outside the British theater, that he was being considered for the role of Gandhi in a long-projected epic about the father of modern India. The next day Kingsley visited Attenborough's home, and the two men studied photos and listened to recordings of the Mahatma's voice. Although such stars as Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Richard Burton had been discussed for the role, Attenborough was determined to cast an unknown. In screen tests over the next two months, Kingsley did fine as the young Gandhi, but it remained to be seen: Could he project the old man's legendary silhouette? As Kingsley sat made up as the elderly Mahatma in a studio dressing room waiting to do a screen test, Attenborough came in and stared at him in silence. "He just looked at me for what seemed like an age," Kingsley recalls, "and then said, 'Ben, I want you to do it.' We embraced, and I said, 'I won't let you down.' We embraced again, and then he said, 'I suppose you'd better go down and do the test now, darling.' And that was it."

Kingsley, who left Nickleby soon after, did not let Attenborough down. His magisterial performance in Gandhi—in which his character ages 54 years during the nearly three-and-a-half-hour saga—has already earned him an Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe and the New York Film Critics Award as the year's best actor. Demonstrating his range, Kingsley, 39, also stars in the highly praised film of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, in which he plays a character light-years from the Indian saint—an English publisher whose wife is having an affair with his best friend (Jeremy Irons). This spring he will appear on the London stage in a one-man show as the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean. While becoming ever more versatile, Kingsley realizes that the day is gone when he can slip into a role partly on the strength of being an unknown. He will always be remembered as Gandhi. "I've blown it now," he says with a laugh. "You can't have it both ways."

Ironically, Kingsley achieved the greatest success of his career so far by resurrecting a side of himself that he had hidden professionally. His father was Indian, and Ben was born Krishna Bhanji. He changed his name when he became a professional actor at 20. "I'd always thought of myself as English, and it's just simpler in the theater for people not to have any preconception of you," he explains. Until he played Gandhi, Kingsley had never visited India and knew little about Indian history.

To help transform himself into Gandhi, Kingsley pored over photographs, absorbed five hours of newsreels in one sitting, and listened to a 20-minute tape of a 1947 Gandhi speech more than 100 times. He dieted off 21 pounds, from 147 to 126 on his 5'8" frame. The greatest challenge, though, was mastering the spinning wheel, which Gandhi worked at almost daily. "I almost didn't, and that would have been a personal tragedy for me because this is the essential metaphor about the character—the simple labor, the concentration, the meditation," Kingsley says. "They offered me an automatic spinning wheel with a motor, but I refused. It took two months of working every day before I could confidently spin and play a scene at the same time. What was hardest was to empty my mind of everything but the sustaining of that thread from the raw cotton in my hand."

Another task was uncovering his forgotten heritage. Ben's father had been born in Zanzibar, the son of a prosperous spice trader whose family traced its roots back to Gujarat, the Indian state in which Gandhi was born. Sent to England to study medicine, Kings-ley's father married an English fashion model and actress, and they raised their two sons in Manchester.

Ben, the younger, was by his own description "a compulsive impersonator—I'd be at it as soon as the guests left the room." Despite his theatrical flair, he studied science, intending to become a doctor like his father. Graduating from high school at 18, he scored too low on his exams to qualify for medical school. It was while studying to retake the tests that he changed his mind. Supporting himself as a lab technician, he joined an amateur dramatic society, graduated to a small professional troupe, and then in 1967 entered the Royal Shakespeare Company. He doesn't regret his years of science training, though. "It left me with a rational approach to a craft which often becomes too emotional."

When he was 22, Kingsley married an actress, and they had two children before their divorce six years later. In 1978 he wed Alison Sutcliffe, 31, a stage director. Their first child, Edmund, born last July, was named after Edmund Kean to mark his parents' collaboration—Alison is directing Ben's show. The family lives in an antique-filled three-bedroom house near Stratford-upon-Avon, where Kingsley relaxes by gardening, stripping down old furniture and restoring locks and window catches. "I break things; he mends them," says Alison. They share diaper-changing and feeding duties, as well as the cooking; Chinese and Indian dishes are Ben's specialties.

Kingsley and Sutcliffe enjoy working together. "She is one of the finest emerging directors in Britain," he says. "We have a shared vocabulary and passion and have never made a division between work and nonwork." Kingsley has no firm plans after Kean, although he suggests he might like to try comedy or science fiction. His dramatic monologues as Kean have also sharpened his appetite for more meaty Shakespearean roles—Othello, Macbeth or Shylock. After so much time invested in Gandhi, he'd like to wait a bit before tackling another major historical portrayal. Director Attenborough agrees that Kingsley has a predicament: "How to top a role that gives you every conceivable plum that an actor could ever wish to pluck?" But Attenborough is now planning another epic, on the life of the American revolutionary Thomas Paine. "Paine was a swashbuckling extravert, the exact opposite of Gandhi, and the film would cover 40 years of his life," the director exclaims. It's a job for an actor who can do the impossible—"just right," reasons Attenborough, "for Kingsley."

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