Sir Ben Kingsley sits on a sofa, smiling beatifically, hands pressed together like a little Buddha. I have been a fan of his ever since his epic portrait of Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s film of the same name (Saturday Movie Mix). Among younger people, he might be best known as the sociopath Don Logan in the film Sexy Beast – a man so twisted with rage that he terrified Ray Winstone’s tough ex-con.
The roles couldn’t be more different. Sir Ben plays saint and psychopath equally convincingly. Now he’s back beneath the halo in Isabel Coixet’s lovely film Learning to Drive (already in cinemas). As Sikh cabbie/driving instructor Darwan, he rescues Patricia Clarkson’s high-flying literary critic Wendy from the despair of divorce with tender acts of kindness. Darwan is a refugee in contemporary New York where racial tensions run high and brown people are often regarded as terrorist threats. Even though Darwan is Sikh, he is abused, in ignorance, as a Muslim.
Kingsley’s own identity is complex and colourful. A Quaker, he was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire and grew up in Manchester as Krishna Bhanji. His father, a doctor, came from Kenya and was a Muslim of Gujarati Indian descent. His mother was an English model and actress, and part Jewish (his maternal grandmother was made pregnant by a Russian Jewish immigrant who abandoned her and, according to Kingsley, she became a vile anti-Semite). By the age of 54, his father had drunk and smoked himself to death; his mother died aged 96 in 2010.
As a young boy he was known to his friends as Krish. Krishna Bhanji was such a strange name, he says, a fiction in itself. “The first name is Hindu and the second name is Muslim. Such a name would never exist in the whole of the Indian sub-continent; it’s a nonsense name. It’s more invented than the name I chose.”
Does he still think of himself as Krishna? “I don’t think I think of myself. When I was on stage, I thought of myself as a landscape painter. Now that I’m blessed with a film career, I see myself as a portrait artist, and for many, many years I have signed my portraits Ben Kingsley. That’s who I am.”
After changing his name, he never looked back. “As soon as I changed my name, I got the jobs. I had one audition as Krishna Bhanji and they said, ‘Beautiful audition but we don’t quite know how to place you in our forthcoming season.’ I changed my name, crossed the road, and they said when can you start?”
Was that just racism? “I suppose it says more about the 1960s than anything else. But the irony is of course I changed my clunky invented Asian name to a more pronounceable, and acceptable, universal name in order to play Mahatma Gandhi. There’s your irony.”
Learning to Drive is partly about the treatment of refugees, I start to say…
“Uhum, uhum,” he replies, but he is shaking his head. “It’s about two people who meet by accident and heal one another. That’s what it’s really about. I don’t honestly think it’s about immigration or refugees. I think it’s about the ferryman. You learn something from the ferryman that you would not have learnt had you not crossed the river with that particular person guiding the boat. That is the beauty of the story; it is about coincidence and healing.”
“I agree,” I start to say, “but…”
“Not but,” Sir Ben says. “And! Not but, because you’re agreeing with me.” He smiles.
“Thank you for correcting me, Sir Ben,” I say. “And I also think it is about how we treat asylum seekers so it is very topical.”
Does he think we treat asylum seekers with sufficient humanity?
“I tend to see Europe as very much still resonating from Hitler and Stalin so that the miracle of the Kindertransport and the work that people did to make that happen, for me, has a beauty and a grace and an earnestness about it that we should be proud of for ever.”
Do we live up to that legacy today?
Suddenly, and quietly, Sir Ben explodes. “I will not make any comment to do with our political attitude to refugees today. All I’m saying is, that is our touchstone.”
Why does he not want to comment? “Because anything I say can be misquoted and used against you and me. It’s not fair.”
I promise him that the last thing I want to do is misquote him.
“No,” he says conspiratorially, “what I’m saying is that people can read your article and take anything out of it and twist it. We live in very, very particular times. It’s nothing to do with the trust in this room. That’s the tragedy. So I’m afraid the current climate makes it very difficult for any interlocutor to say anything considered and thoughtful and earnest, because it gets strangled in minutes.”
I’m so astonished by his response that I forget myself and my manners. “I promise you I’m not going to strangle your most earnest and considered thoughts. Trust me, babes.” He gives me a menacing look. I can’t believe I’ve called a knight of the realm “babes”. I try to recover and say: “I will not allow anyone to strangle our conversation.”
“It’s not a matter of distrusting you. Look, I think it would be wonderful if I could just rest on what I have said. That the Kindertransport is something we must be eternally proud of.”
And live up to?
“I didn’t say that.”
“I know,” I say. “I said that.”
“Good,” he says, in his best Don Logan.
We start to talk about family.
Sir Ben has been married four times and has four children from two of his marriages. His sons Edmund and Ferdinand are actors, and he is hugely proud of them. Is it hard for them to follow in Sir Ben’s footsteps?
“I can’t answer that. They seem to be very sublimely free of it. Sublimely free of it.”
Did his parents ever tell him they were proud of his achievements?
“I don’t think so.”
Did he ask?
“I think asking them would have been a terrible admission of their absence, so I never asked them because I didn’t want to hear the answer. You should never have to audition for your love.”
Did he feel rage about his family?
“Have you seen a film called Sexy Beast?”
“There you go. I play a member of my family.”
“I can’t pursue that any further. But it’s out there and getting it out there is wonderful.”
I later discover that he is actually talking about his maternal grandmother.
Rage has so often been a fuel in his work. I have read that, even when he was shaping the character of Gandhi, he drew from the thought of the young Mahatma having been pushed off a train, returning for his revenge.
“That’s right,” he says now. “Inside all of us is a balance of all kinds of forces. We do not know how we would react until history corners us. So there is inside us the monster and the saint, Mother Teresa and Myra Hindley.”
Sir Ben, aged 72, is not an easy interview. At times I feel as if I’m with Sexy Beast’s Don Logan, at others I could be starring in an episode of Extras with him playing a caricature of himself.
He once said that his knighthood made up for the lack of love and acknowledgment from his parents; the Queen embraced him and became a mother figure in his eyes. Yes, he says, there is some truth in that. “I feel one is entrusted with something. I feel it as a great gesture of trust.”
And is it important for you that others acknowledge your knighthood, that you are no longer just Krishna Bhanji, or even plain old Ben Kingsley, that you are Sir Ben — that you have achieved what you have achieved?
“No, no, no,” he insists. The acknowledgment that really matters is more precious. “When I was playing Hamlet in Stratford, I used to go for walks around the countryside. One day I noticed a young woman across a field. She was determined to meet me, and she said something that I hope answers your question. She said ‘I saw Hamlet last night [by now, he is talking in a wondrous whisper], how did you know about me?’ That is the most important thing in the world to me. That as an actor, I can put my hand on somebody else’s shoulder and say, ‘I know’. That’s all that really counts.” And the beatific smile returns.