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By Maya Kroth | March 10, 2005

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Ben Kingsley is a middle-aged Jewish matron from Long Island.

“I love your woyk,” he says.

He’s telling the story of a recent fan encounter, but if you close your eyes, you could swear the heavily accented woman Kingsley’s imitating is sitting there onstage at the California Theater – his impression is that flawless. Though he’s an impeccably dressed, incredibly eloquent, bald British knight, Ben Kingsley so fully embodies the character of his New York Jewish fan that he virtually disappears into her. This chameleonic quality is precisely why the Oscar winner was invited to receive yet another award honoring his four-decade career. This time it was Cinequest’s Maverick Spirit Award, which has recently gone to people like Sir Ian McKellen, Spike Lee, Kevin Spacey, Lili Taylor and James Woods.

In the clip reel that ran before the Oscar winner’s hour-long interview, Kingsley would’ve been nearly unrecognizable from one film to the next were it not for the bulging vein in his scalp, those enormous earlobes and his beady, bottomless dark eyes. From a stoic philosopher to a tough-talking New York mobster (“Bugsy”), a Polish Jew (“Schindler’s List”) to an explosively violent Aussie (Sexy Beast), Kingsley was flawless, stirring and mesmerizing … but perhaps most of all, he was transparent. He was not Ben Kingsley; he was alternately Mahatma Gandhi, Meyer Lansky, Itzhak Stern and Don Logan.

“I’m everything to everybody,” Kingsley said in an earlier press conference, when asked why the part English, part Indian, part Russian Jew changed his name from Krishna Bhanji. No doubt that everyman quality has helped him convincingly pull off the vastly different roles he’s played since starting in the business in the early ‘60s.

To the crowd of about 1,000 Cinequest attendees Saturday, he was a rare treat for the film loving public of Northern California.

Stylishly dressed in jeans, a knee-length blue blazer and brown leather shoes, Kingsley was immediately charming, relaxed, and refreshingly unpretentious. When a woman in the balcony called out that she and her brother Richard grew up in Kingsley’s hometown in England, without missing a beat he responded, “Richard Lewis … he’s in a photograph with me, a lovely, freckled, sandy-haired boy.”

Pretty impressive memory for a guy that just turned 61.

Further proof that his recall power is just as sharp today as it was when he was memorizing lines for “Hamlet” back in the ‘70s, Kingsley told reporters at the press conference that, despite rumors to the contrary, “not one word (of “Sexy Beast”) was improvised. I prepared for that role by absolutely sticking ruthlessly to the written word on the page. I know there were 13 no’s in one scene followed by a block of eight no’s. I can still remember how many no’s Don Logan said.”

Not much about that complicated character is forgettable to anyone that saw “Sexy Beast”, especially not one unlucky film student that had an unexpected run-in with Kingsley after a screening of the film at the Director’s Guild. As Kingsley told the story at his event, he was waiting to enter the theater through a side door for a post-screening Q&A when the student decided not to stick around and exited through the same door to find Kingsley standing on the other side. Startled, the guy recoiled, as if expecting Don Logan to clock him. And just because he “couldn’t resist,” Kingsley put on his best Aussie accent and snarled, “What you f*****g looking at?”

That story got the biggest laughs and was one of many Kingsley told that afternoon. At one point, he even broke into the voice of Fagin (his role in Roman Polanski’s upcoming “Oliver Twist”!) and asked moderator Laura Phelps to conduct the interview in character. And in a surprising revelation, when asked which film he’s proudest of, the man whose resume includes a career-making role at one of history’s most revered leaders answered without hesitation: The House of Sand and Fog.

In reference to the clip from “Sand and Fog”, in which Kingsley’s character’s son has just died, Kingsley said, “I don’t have to (act like I) have legs that are about to snap when I run, because my legs were actually about to snap. There was, in my system, shock and grief; it left my system at the end of the acting day, but I had to walk away from the screen just now.” Indeed, he said his hands were still shaking after watching the clip reel. After giving so much to the camera and his craft, he said, “I wonder how much emotional energy I have left for my life.”

“Acting is dangerous,” Kingsley continued near the close of the afternoon. “There is a law of elasticity: if something stretches, like an elastic band, beyond its point of elasticity, it no longer snaps back to its original shape. Actors are always dicing with death, because they get very, very close to the snapping point of elasticity, and you have to allow yourself to snap back to your original shape.”

Pouring every ounce of himself into each role, Kingsley is clearly deeply devoted to his craft and reverent toward his profession. Though I didn’t necessarily consider myself a fan before this afternoon, now I gotta to admit it: BK, I love your woyk.

Maya Kroth is music editor for and a frequent contributor to SF Weekly. She still can’t watch “Sexy Beast” without adult supervision.

See Maya’s earlier reports from Cinequest 2005>>>

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