Sir Ben Kingsley Interview: Iron Man 3’s Mandarin Role Was ‘Very Empowering’

Spoiler-free chat with the legend behind Marvel’s latest villain.

A living, breathing oasis of calm during a morning of hectic junket interviews, the acting legend that is Sir Ben Kingsley is suprisingly unintimidating in the flesh.

The man behind unforgettable roles in Gandhi, Schindler’s List, House of Sand and Fog, Sexy Beast and Hugo is thoughtful and courteous, even if he goes off on a few deep tangents while talking about his latest role as a Marvel villain. Kingsley is the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, Tony Stark’s latest foe, and is a very modern terrorist. Read our interview with director Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pearce here, and co-star Rebecca Hall here.

We were requested not to ask any questions that involved spoilers, and once you’ve seen Iron Man 3, you’ll understand why. The treatment of the Mandarin is potentially incendiary to comic book fans, so my first question in the round table interview had to approach that.

Without spoilers, did you and Shane Black ever have a discussion about the potential reaction to the Mandarin from comic fans?
They’re a very confident group - Iron Man 1, Iron Man 2, The Avengers, they have a very recognisable style, so that when the audience move into the cinema, within 30 seconds, they think, ‘Aah, I’m here, in Marvel Land and I know it’s going to be ironic, witty, surprising.’ I think they certainly talked to Kevin [Feige] before I even read the script. There was something very embracing and confident about the way he was addressing the journey of this character. Then on the set with Shane and Drew, they are so confident of their style, they will give an actor a role, and let go. So there’s very little debate about the effect of the character, and all concentrating is done in the magical moment between action and the cut, which is very confident. For me, it allows the actor to take risks, because you know your framework, your playing field, is strong. They’re not going to let you fall off the high wire. That was very empowering and exciting for me.

[The rest of the round table interview questions below.]

Were you inspired by the likes of Osama bin Laden?
What I had constantly to find, from any scraps of information in contemporary culture and looking back in the past, I’m fascinated by history, and what I gathered is this sense of righteousness, belief and security in their way being the way forward for society. To impart lessons and truths were all parts of the make-up of the Mandarin. It’s that sense of right that I found most intriguing.

The Mandarin needs to be seen - does an actor experience vanity at the beginning of his career, or as he gets older?
I think vanity is the enemy of the creative process. Whenever I listen to European classical music, I hear vanity in some composers and it doesn’t attract me at all. Then I hear the human struggle, human dance in other composers and writers, and feel they are so embracing the compassionate and empathetic. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts an actor can possess - whether or not I do is debatable - is empathy. I think vanity and empathy will fight one another. I always hope empathy will win. As far as I can recall, my acting process hasn’t changed since I first set foot on the stage. That it is the telling of the story, to touch somebody else, that is far, far more important than getting a round of applause at the end. It doesn’t really matter to me. I’m a storyteller.

What happened on Spider-Man 3, when you were originally going to play the Vulture?
Don’t know! I’m very comfortable with the philosophy that everything happens for a reason. Also, I can leave things as an experience, put them in their place, and walk away very quickly. I have that facility. It’s part of my work as an actor - when the director says cut, that’s the end of a moment. I can completely let go of the take, go right down to zero, and be ready for the next take. I don’t hold on to the previous take. So whatever the philosophy ‘letting go’ means, I think I’m quite good at it. Eventually, the lessons of life once you have let go is, you know what? The reason is because that’s going to occur. I’ve never dwelt on it, you see. It may be that Kevin [Feige] and I got to see each other on that occasion, and it may be that Kevin thought ‘Ah!’ Albert Camus, one of my favourite writers, said ‘Either you are an artist, or you are a historian’. Can’t be both. I’m not writing my own history, I’m creating portraits.

Hollywood’s coming back to terrorism in a big way - what does that say about the USA? Are they getting over the trauma of 9/11?
I’ve no idea. I read scripts as they come to me, and if I find the script reflects the human dance and is genuine, I can breathe life into it. It’s the quality that interests me. In all the Marvel films there’s an element of self-doubt that runs through it, which is the opposite of vanity, which is very attractive, and very human. That’s all I can say on that point.

Did they give you any material to research?
They gave me material they thought was pertinent to my job, and Louise [Frogley]’s brilliant costume and the make-up I used. I love parameters. I think the worst thing to be told is ‘do what you like’. I love limits, and they gave me really good strict limits within which to work. It’s all very actable. I didn’t need to have any other input.

Why is Hollywood so happy to have a British actor playing the villain?
They turn up on time, are polite, and know their lines!

Iron Man 3 is in cinemas 25th April. Read our review HERE.