If you think about Ben Kingsley’s most famous roles, they generally fit into two categories: reserved and dignified fellows or dastardly hot-heads. His character in Learning to Drive—a lonely Sikh cab driver in New York who teaches driver’s ed to an author (Patricia Clarkson) trying to rebuild her life after her husband leaves her for a younger woman—is securely in the former category. Playing Darwan, a “noble and decent” immigrant who’s awaiting the arrival of his new family-arranged bride (Homeland’s Sarita Choudhury), was another chameleon-like transformation for the actor most famous for his Academy Award-winning role as Gandhi. “When I go in to hair and makeup, I close my eyes and am extremely quiet and extremely still,” he says, referring to his character’s facial hair and turban. “And then, only when it’s done do I open my eyes and see who I am.”
Learning to Drive, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and opens in theaters on Aug. 21, is a reunion for Kingsley, Clarkson, and Spanish-born director Isabel Coixet after the trio collaborated to make Elegy in 2008. Kingsley considers Coixet one of the most talented directors he’s ever worked with—an impressive array of legends that includes Spielberg, Scorsese, and Polanski. “Of all the great directors I’ve worked with, Scorsese is the master of male vulnerability,” he says. “I think Isabel is his female equivalent. All the great ones, they’re right there, watching. She operates the camera, so what you see on the screen is what she has seen down the lens. I felt immensely empowered as an actor, because you never have to worry that she’s going to miss that moment where something special happens.”
Kingsley, whose career is now in its sixth decade, is working more than ever. He had six movies in theaters last year, including roles in Exodus: Gods and Kings and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. And he shows no signs of slowing down, with multiple projects expected this year—including Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt—and the voice of Bagheera in the upcoming remake of The Jungle Book. And there’s still the outside chance that Marvel could call him back. Last year, he speculated that his Mandarin in Iron Man 3 might not have been the fraud that the film initially seemed to indicate. “I’ve not been invited [back] but neither have I been barred,” he says. “I don’t know what’s on the horizon, but I really enjoyed working with them.”
His production company, Lavender Pictures, is also in the early stages of making a film about the Shah of Iran, the western-friendly Middle-Eastern leader whose demise coincided with the rise of the Ayatollah and an Islamist state. “I’m driven by the same thing as always—to tell great stories,” he says. “That’s never changed.”
Scroll down for the exclusive poster for Learning to Drive.