Ben Kingsley wants to be a stud. Dangling a Marlboro Light from his right hand, the 49-year-old British thespian slouches into a voluptuous beige couch. ”I would like to do that,” he says of playing a romantic lead. ”It would be cleansing, and good and wholesome and nice and normal,” he chuckles softly, ”instead of carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders.”
Kingsley has known more than his share of gravity. The Royal Shakespeare Company veteran made his Hollywood debut as a saint — in 1982’s Gandhi — and the afterimage of his passionately rendered Indian leader has never quite dissolved. Despite a career that has found him a cuckolded husband in Betrayal (1983), composer Dimitri Shostakovich in Testimony (1987), a Nazi-hunter in Murderers Among Us: The Simon Weisenthal Story (1989), and gangster Meyer Lansky in Bugsy (1991), an anchoring quietude drapes around each of his characters. His latest turn, as chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini in Searching for Bobby Fischer, combines that wise calm with almost destructive determination.
”I’m not so sure that Mr. Pandolfini at the beginning of the film has an inner calm,” Kingsley objects. ”I think he has an inner emptiness.” He muses on that analysis briefly, tapping his cigarette against the ceramic ashtray, before coming up with a more satisfying one. ”I like stillness as an actor.”
Kingsley’s mellowness gives him the intense dignity required by certain roles — most recently his part in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Holocaust epic, Schindler’s List. Kingsley plays Itzhak Stern, who selects the Jews sheltered in the German industrialist’s factory during World War II. ”Spielberg calls Stern ‘the conscience of the film,”’ says Kingsley. ”That’s why he wanted me.”
Even though Schindler’s List wrapped in May, Kingsley hasn’t completely shed the ”grief and rage” that re-creating the Holocaust in Eastern Europe burned into him. ”Some of the hardest parts were in the morning, when I would go into my trailer, and see my overcoat hanging in the corner — tattered and worn and stained — with the yellow star sewn onto the left-hand pocket, and the number underneath it.” His head turns for emphasis. ”And it was agony, it was agony, you know, putting it on in Poland, terrible, it was like putting on the stripes for the concentration camps. It’s putting on a degraded skin.”
Many actors live for such a role, or at least say they do. But the high-profile glory exacts a price: ”Bruce Pandolfini was a lonely role, and Itzhak Stern was a lonely role. Now I just want to get out in the flow, you know, go to the party.” After Kingsley’s bouts with sainthood, he has earned it.