Academy Award winning actor Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi”) plays a Sikh driver who develops an unlikely friendship with an Upper West Side Manhattanite in the coming-of-middle-age dramedy “Learning to Drive.”
The legendary actor recently spoke about playing a Sikh, reuniting with his “Elegy” co-star Patricia Clarkson and director Isabel Coixet, to make the independent drama about friendship and taking chances.
Q: This is the first time you’ve played a Sikh on screen. How did you get into the character of Darwan?
Kingsley: The wonderful thing from my perspective, and I hope I speak with some accuracy, is that if you know one Sikh man you know all of them, their consistency in behavior and their approach to life and their courtesy and kindness to others. When Darwan says, “This is the Sikh way,” it is. It is not sentimental and it is not something he made up. It actually is the way they do things. And from my perspective as a portrait artist because I have to create a portrait with my characters to present to the screen I see a warrior race of men and women.
Q: Your father is from India, right?
Kingsley: My father’s side is Indian, but from a long time ago. My father was born in Zanzibar in East Africa. There’s a very large Ishmaeli community and he was Ishmaeli. My mother was part English and part Russian Jewish.
Q: Was there someone you knew that influenced your characterization of Darwan in this?
Kingsley: I’ve met quite a number of people in my career, but I do have an extraordinary memory. And even though they may drift into the periphery of my memory, I can bring them right back when I need them. When I was filming “Gandhi,” every day I was greeted by my Sikh bodyguard-driver, and every day I drove to the set looking at the back of his head, his turban, how he gently moved from side to side whenever I asked him a question, and I thought about how he would have really ferociously defended me had anything happened.
One of the indelible images I have of him was him looking at me in his rearview mirror when I was sitting in the back of his Ambassador car. He was driving me away from the largest crowd you’ve ever seen on the screen in the cinema. It was a traumatic day for me because I was on the funeral wagon, hardly breathing, for nine hours. So, afterwards, I fell into the back seat. He got into the driver’s seat, started his car. We had to move through 40,000 people to get back onto the main road to go home. He looked in the mirror and he said, “Well done, sir.” That’s all he said. I treasure this moment, so in this film I’m playing him. I’ve used him and he’d be very proud if he heard that. I used his stillness, his strength, his kindness and he his economy with words. The Sikhs are very unsentimental people but very emotionally developed.
Q: You typically play kings, leaders, military officials. This is sort of different working class character for you.
Kingsley: Well, there’s also Don Logan in “Sexy Beast.” (He laughs.) I was invited to the House of Lords one time and they’re already really tough policeman outside guarding the building. And one of them said to me, “Excuse me sir, you played the underclass perfect.”
Q: What trait did you most admire about playing Darwan?
Kingsley: His decency, in a very unsentimental and practical way. He has strength, and I love that about him. I remember working with the great Peter Brooke on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and in a long conversation I had with him, he said, “An actor should always find a quality in the person he’s presenting that is greater than the quality in you,” because then you’ll always have something to stretch to or reach to. Darwan’s stillness and strength and dignity in the face of terrible adversity I think are phenomenal.
After his brother has been shot his family tortured he comes over to the U.S. to start a new life but still receives some sort of abuse and misunderstanding. Everything he wanted to get away from. And when Wendy asks him how he copes, he says he prays, and he really means it. He really believes that that temple and that prayer and that ritual sustain him. Although he is well integrated into his new world, he still needs that faith to help him through each day.
We were allowed to film at a Sikh temple, and as you know there recently were six people shot in their temple. But they were very welcoming. The leader had a turban and matching tie, beautifully color coordinated, Sikhs are such an elegant people. The temple leader made sure we were allowed to film there. So all those scenes were filmed in a Sikh temple. It was an island of peace, tranquility, order, affection, dignity and nurture in the middle of Queens, New York, which can be a little bit crazy.
Q: Your character and Patricia’s character develop a close friendship, which doesn’t turn physically romantic. What did you think of that?
Kingsley: The genius of Sarah Kernochan’s screenplay was let’s not set them in a park on the bench where there’s oceans of space from which to escape from one another. Let’s set it in a tiny car. They’re right next to each other. And whenever he needed to shut off from her, he’d cross his arms to keep himself contained. It’s a beautiful device in the film. All the signals are there. There’s intimacy. You think you know how this film is going to end but you don’t. It ends, I believe, not in being trapped in a car or in a relationship, but they take from each other their best intentions, which is his appreciation of a liberated woman, and her appreciation of a warrior man. The sexual politics of the film is more important than sex itself. In fact, the actual sex in this film (not between these characters) ends in fatigue and disappointment. You want romance? Here. Not much fun.
There’s a great phrase from the great poet Rilke who said, “Two people who meet, greet, and salute one another,” and I think that’s what happens in the film. It’s a beautiful phrase.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment from the film?
Kingsley: Thanks to our beautiful director (Isabel Coixet), there was one sustained unbroken beautiful moment. From day one, when dear Isabel saw me and Patricia sitting in the car, she started to cry. She said, “There they are.”
Q: Did you create a backstory for your character?
Kingsley: I’d like to think he was a really good professor in his country because it’s in his DNA to teach, and it’s unstoppable in him. So that is beautifully translated into a driving instructor. You can see at the beginning of the film he’s instructing on a much higher level, so that there’s this beautiful migration of professorship in India to professorship behind the wheel in the U.S.
Q: There’s a moment where the audience thinks their friendship may turn romantic. What do you make of the way that is handled?
Kingsley: Wendy (Patricia’s character) is the guiding intelligence in the relationship then. It’s her turn to say, “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” and he accepts it. He takes that energy from her and gives it to his wife. So the energy is not lost; it’s passed on and has a pulse.
Q: Your wife, Daniela Lavender, has a role in this as a friend of your wife. What was it like having her work with you on this film?
Kingsley: She’s actually Brazilian but she learned Punjabi. She’s a very good actor. I’m so proud of that performance. I asked our director Isabel if she knew Dani, and that she’d perfect for Mata. So Dani and I went for lunch with some Sikhs. All five men, and they were help helping Dani pronounce the word “pearl.” There were five different versions.
Q: This is your second film with Isabel Coixet. How do you like working with a female director?
Kingsley: I do believe female directors, as well as our female writer, can bring out male vulnerability that some men can’t because they can’t face it. Martin Scorsese puts male vulnerability on screen perfectly, and Isabel does as well.