It took a film about huge archetypes to bring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly together on-screen. Yet each is the embodiment of fine acting that goes beyond type. He's the improbably versatile English actor who can portray beatitude and evil, upper-class Brit and German Jew, world leaders and family men. She's the vibrant beauty who brings freshness and hope to characters in despair. Ben Kingsley, perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning portrayal of the mahatma in Gandhi, has also earned legions of fans with his subsequent roles in, among many others, Bugsy (for which he earned a second Oscar nomination), Searching for Bobby Fischer, Schindler's List, Sexy Beast, Betrayal, Dave, Death and the Maiden, and The Triumph of Love. Jennifer Connelly made her film debut at age 11 in Once Upon a Time in America; she continued working in film during her high school years (Labyrinth, Some Girls), meanwhile earning entrance to Yale University. Then followed The Rocketeer, Mulholland Falls, Requiem for a Dream, and an Oscar win for A Beautiful Mind.
The two actors are paired together in House of Sand and Fog, opening later this month. The film, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III, is a dark study in good-hearted people who follow wrong paths. Kingsley plays a former Iranian army officer trying to live the American dream; Connelly plays a troubled woman who has been dispossessed of her newly inherited family house. The two spoke with BSW about how they overcame bad auditions and what they learned working on this film. It's why we love them as the real, the enduring, Jen and Ben. Er, Jen and Sir Ben.
Back Stage West: House of Sand and Fog is a dark, complex story. We can't help noticing how each of you uplifts and clarifies the material. Tell us how you first were attracted to the project.
Jennifer Connelly: When I read the really superbly adapted screenplay that [director] Vadim [Perelman] had done, Sir Ben was already attached to it. I was, for numerous reasons, really intrigued. I thought it was a really compelling story. I thought it was beautifully adapted. I loved the fact that at its core it had two protagonists who were not your typical American heroes, and it asked you to divide your allegiance. I have the utmost respect for Sir Ben and his work and thought it would be exciting to work with him. I sat down with Vadim and talked with him about his ideas--because there are 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, at least, as the poem goes. I sat down with him to see what lens it might be viewed through. Even though he's a first-time director, he really inspired confidence in all of us.
He has this sort of toughness to him when you first sit down with him that softens over time, and he has a certain passion. And he's an immigrant and shared some of his life stories with me. Just after spending time with him and getting an understanding of his taste and the people he respects and where he wanted to go, and he is sort of a survivor and fighter himself, so I thought he was going to throw himself into it with that passion. At the same time he's quite clever and is aware of what his shortcomings are and his lack of experience in places, and so he surrounded himself quite wisely with people who are consummate professionals and very accomplished. I think for, example, [DP] Roger Deakins [A Beautiful Mind] was an excellent choice.
Ben Kingsley: Andre's wife sent me the novel a long time ago, about a year and a half before even Jennifer and I read the screenplay. She sent it to me with a very charming letter saying that Andre had always, as a mental picture of [my character] Behrani, had me in the back of his mind. Andre decided [if his book were adapted to film] that he would like me as the physical role model--the essence of Behrani, scaffolding if you like--around which to build this building called Behrani. I read the novel; I found it intensely moving and massive. And then Vadim sent me the screenplay, and Vadim brings to it this Russian-ness--the Russian soul born of migration, the siege of Stalingrad, Napoleon burning Moscow down. This is an extraordinary Eastern European sensibility to bring to an already extraordinary novel. So through that second filter Vadim created a flawless screenplay.
Then Vadim asked me to play Behrani, which I could sort of see coming, but I didn't realize it would be that quick. What was alarming for me was that he didn't ask anyone else. I was sort of looking around, saying, "Surely you're going to select [among other actors], not choose [just one]. He said, "No, no, no. We're choosing." So I did have a very positive response to the screenplay, thank God. And then I met Vadim. I call him my T-45 Tank--he's a Russian tank, one of those that came across from the East and flattened Berlin in 1945. He's completely unstoppable. And committed. And I liked him very much on sight.
BSW: At some point in your careers, you must have gone on auditions.
Connelly: Oh, endlessly.
Kingsley: Fifteen years in the theatre. I came through the Royal Shakespeare Company, but I did audition to get in. I auditioned for RADA, that my son just left. I auditioned before I acquired my stage name, which is now my legal name. My birth name is Krishna Bhanji. It's quite a beautiful name, but it doesn't get you very far in show business. I auditioned for RADA as Krishna Bhanji. I sat in the antechamber with other aspiring thespians, waiting for my name to be called. This guy came with a clipboard and said, "Kristina Blange." Nobody moved. He said, "Kristina Blange." And that voice in me said, God, he means me. "I said, 'Actually it's my terrible handwriting. I am in fact Krishna Bhanji.'" It was a very bad start to the audition. I didn't succeed in getting into RADA, but the following week I auditioned for English Repertory Company and I got a job.
BSW: How did you survive that one week?
Kingsley: I had great support from friends in my hometown [Scarborough], because I was a member of an amateur dramatics society that thought of itself very highly; I looked at another audition piece; and I was asked to improvise for this next audition. I improvised, and through the improvisation they invited me to start.
BSW: Do you have any audition advice to offer?
Kingsley: I helped [my son Edmund] with his drama school auditions. I came up and he came up with the same idea almost at the same time. It's very, very unlikely--he was 19, bless him, at the time--that a 19-year-old would do a speech from Waiting for Godot. I'd just done Godot for Sir Peter Halls' Old Vic production with Alan Howard. I loved being Gogo, Estragon. And Alan was Vladimir. And my son had loved the play and found it an immediate, tangible, non-intellectual, visceral, glorious experience. He got it. So I said, "Why don't you do Vladimir? The speech about giving birth astride the grave." He did it slightly Irish, he did it vehemently, passionately, with an edge of anger, and you saw this 19-year-old coming out with this colossal wisdom. I suggested that it might make them, a.) see your range, b.) see your intellectual capabilities at grasping the text, and c.) it's going to surprise them because they think you're going to come on doing Mercutio. So that was my advice to him: Don't go for the obvious, and don't go for the expected. If you're a beautiful young woman don't go on and do Juliet; do Mother Courage. For auditioning. And then they'll go, "OK, there's the range, there's the intelligence, and there's the absolute passion to get beyond the physical frame and be a real actor." And bless [Edmund], he got in.
Connelly: I have auditioning stories from not only early days. I've auditioned for most of the movies that I've done. And I only haven't auditioned for movies very recently. I auditioned for A Beautiful Mind, I auditioned for Requiem for a Dream, Waking the Dead. I started working when I was 10. Not that I was really aspiring at that point to be an actor. It just happened by default. Friends of my family had asked me to be in some advertising. As a kid in school I found myself on endless commercial auditions. Once I was doing a Duncan Hines commercial audition, as an 11-year-old, at the height of my insecurity. They put all the kids who were up for it in this room and had us all lined up on the walls. I of course was called first, and they had a camera against a backdrop and a light in the center of it all. We had to sing the Duncan Hines jingle, which goes something like [she sings] "Crispy, chewy, crispy, chewy." And I started, and I was so humiliated, I devolved into laughter and sweat and crumpled on the floor and couldn't do it and had to leave.
I had a very different way of coming into being an actor. I came in through the back door. It wasn't intentional. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't come out of a drama school. I just started working and then trying to bit by bit learn from all the people I respected--and people I didn't respect too much--along the way. So the way I work is sort of a pastiche of things that I've picked up. One thing I learned at a particularly horrendous audition early on was that wanting to be in the moment and available and spontaneous does not mean not to be prepared. One can do enormous amounts of research and back study and put a lot of forethought into a scene--and that facilitates being spontaneous in a scene. I've made the mistake of thinking, Oh, I want to feel really free, and I want to be able to make choices on the spot, and the way to do that is to come in all loosey-goosey and see how it goes. And that can really backfire at an audition.
BSW: You said you learn from people you respected. What did you learn from Sir Ben while making this film?
Connelly: I've worked with lots of different kinds of actors. I find with actors who are less experienced that you have this feeling from them of, "This is my chance, this is my moment, I've been given this part, and I'm going to milk every single scene for everything that it's worth and make it about me and a showcase for myself and my abilities." One thing that I noticed about Sir Ben's performance and the way he works is--not to say that within a scene there isn't play and that he isn't available, because he is very available to his fellow actors--but I got a sense that there's a real understanding of the structure of the piece, and the fact that there needs to be an architecture to it. That lends a strength to his talents and enhances his talents. So I would find, almost, you couldn't quite see what was happening until I went to the theatre and saw [the film] and said, "Ah, that's what you were up to." It's remarkable. It's all the stronger because it's moderated, it's carefully constructed. Another thing I noticed about the way Sir Ben worked, which you also don't see in inexperienced actors, is, a lot of people come in feeling insecure about their abilities, and it's lovely to work with someone who doesn't feel the need to come in with a lot of fanfare and make a big stink about what he does. He just comes in and is professional and respectful of everyone, and polite, and kind, and lets his work speak for itself.
BSW: Sir Ben, do you feel you learned anything new, technically, working on this film?
Kingsley: We've chosen paths, Jennifer and I, that are learning curves until we die. It's an immensely privileged path to tread. Therefore it's entirely experiential. Every day there's learning and there's reciprocity. Every day. My performance fortunately is buttressed entirely, and is dependent upon entirely, Jonny Ahdout [who plays his son on-screen], Jennifer, Ron [Eldard], and Shohreh [Aghdashloo, who plays his wife], and everyone my character comes in contact with. I try very hard to react. I know exactly what Jennifer means when I see actors who insist that it's all about them. Sadly they're actually shutting off their oxygen, their life support system, they're shutting off the most beautiful part of what we do, which is receiving. You can go on the set and receive all day. I loved reacting to Jennifer's purity--that wounded angel she puts on the screen is archetypally pure. My Behrani is made of that performance. My performance is made of Ron's--the wounded knight, riding in the wrong direction. It's made of Jonny being the archetypal son; it breaks my heart every time I see him on the screen. And the unheard, dispossessed, constantly homesick, panic-stricken wife, who has a heart of gold and is kindness itself. If I learn my lines; if I really, really, really prepare; if I try to adhere to what Jennifer is describing as an appreciation of the symphonic structure of the film; if I know as a performer when the conductor says, "We're going to play Section D-7 today," I can go into D-7 because I know where D-7 is in the symphony; then if I'm prepared enough to know the notes but haven't the faintest idea how I'm going to play them, then Jennifer's performance tells me how to bring my preparation to life. It's all in the other person. And that's what I love about walking on to a film set. The gifts--"Here's a gift"--all day.
BSW: What are your processes for developing your characters? Do you work inside out?
Kingsley: I don't know. I think I work from intuition. I think I work from recognition, or curiosity. If I recognize the man, I've got to play him; or if I'm curious, then I've got to play him. I try to be a portrait artist. I tried to create a very detailed, loving, compassionate portrait of Behrani. That's my job. I don't know where the first splodge of paint goes on the canvas. I don't know whether I start from the left-hand corner or the middle, the eyebrow or the toe. But I start, with some piece of intuition. "He's a warrior." That's where I started with Behrani, actually--with the brushstroke, "warrior." He served a king.
Connelly: It's different from job to job, but generally I start with a lot of questions, trying to sort out who this woman is, who she thinks she is, who she wishes she was, what she's afraid of, what she's afraid people think of her and know about her, and all these sorts of things. I spend a lot of time doing that. I love that part of it. In this instance we had the novel. Since it's written in the alternating first person, the Kathy chapters serve as almost a diary that I could use. From there you can get quite specific external choices. I generally start with theoretical: What do I feel? And that's really personal. It's informed by where you are in your life at that time, how you see it, which is why it's always changing. The thing that's intangible is the lens through which you see it. That shifts at different times in your life. So generally I start with background, so that everything is grounded in specifics, so everything that's said resonates for me--the dialogue, I know the implications and how things echo out from there. Then you have to make some choices, and that's always the tricky point. Because all choice is loss, for me. You make one choice and you lose nine. And it's hard to see those go, as options. That said, having done as much background work as I possibly can, I try to make myself just as flexible as possible every day in every way--in my body, in my head, emotionally. I have all sorts of little devices I've come up with over the years.
BSW: Can you reveal one?
Connelly: Silly things. I didn't have voice training, per se, so I do my own voice exercises--singing songs and doing weird things with my mouth in the shower. I do yoga in the morning. I generally get up really early before work and have a lot of time to get my body moving so I'm physically flexible. And then just show up and throw myself into it, because that's the fun part. You never know what's going to happen. When it's at its best, if you're lucky enough to work with really talented actors, like Sir Ben says, it's about being there to catch it and give it back. That's really the gift. BSW