Sir Ben Kingsley would be the perfect con man, the operator with a thousand accents: Israeli, German, Indian, Welsh, Cockney, Chicagoan, Transylvanian vampire. He’s almost comically famous for disappearing into characters, and this summer alone, theaters have been lousy with the man: There he is, goofily spoofing his Gandhi in The Love Guru, menacing with a Russian accent in Transsiberian, drawling like a Texan tycoon in War Inc., and squawking like a true New Yawker in The Wackness (when he’s not smoking weed or sucking face with Mary-Kate Olsen).
“I can be chatting away like this,” he says, matter-of-factly, in a posh, British voice. “Then a director says action and I do a perfect Iranian accent. I can do that. But I didn’t want to this time.”
So, for Kingsley’s fifth and final trick of the season, he decided to “do away with disguises.” In Elegy, Isabel Coixet’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal (see David Edelstein’s review), he plays an Englishman in New York, the sex-crazed David Kepesh. A professor of English with a concentration in extracurricular perversions, Kepesh “writes the odd review” for The New Yorker, hosts a “little” radio show, and uses his cultural capital to seduce a different foxy undergrad every year—after posting grades, of course. In the film, he falls for a woman decades his junior, the uptight and unspoiled beauty Consuela (Penélope Cruz, in a part that barely existed in the novel).
“I wanted to say the words in his voice, which happened to be my voice,” says Kingsley. “I can disguise acting dilemmas by using a clever twist on my accent. An accent is a mask, it’s dressing up. No more masks. I wanted to be tested deeper.”
Kingsley didn’t just want to use his own voice; he says he wanted to play Kepesh as, well, himself. Coixet says that Roth suggested a wig for Kingsley, but the actor would barely change his shoes. “I practically wore my own clothes,” he says.
Still, he’s maddeningly and willfully vague about why he decided to play Kepesh, out of so many characters, so close to himself. “I’m struggling to find a rational reason for this,” he admits. “I don’t think there is one.”
Someone less close to the part might speculate that it was because Kepesh is so like Kingsley, at least in superficial ways. Both are relentlessly sophisticated men of great personal pride, prone to casually referring to Great Works. Kingsley’s also a 64-year-old with a history of dating younger women, who just wed his fourth wife, Brazilian actress Daniela Barbosa de Carneiro, who’s in her thirties.
Kingsley turns coy about all this: “I think the film examines how we find our equal partner—and an equal partner can have very little to do with race, religion, age, or culture. Equal doesn’t mean the same at all.”
It’s a risk, to be this near to your character. And, approaching AARP age, Sir Ben has also filmed his very first sex scenes, opposite both Cruz and Patricia Clarkson.
“The sex scenes create a different vocabulary for each relationship in the film,” Kingsley explains. The sex is visceral, but if Philip Roth had gotten his way, one scene—cut from the film but present in the novel—might have been notorious. “Roth said he wanted the blow job to be very graphic in the film,” says Coixet, describing a violent sex scene that ends with Consuela chomping her teeth. “He was probably trying to intimidate me. I said, Look, I’m from Barcelona—I have no problem with blow jobs—but people don’t want to see Penélope biting his penis! And Roth finally said, ‘Oh, okay.’ ”
When it came time to shoot, Coixet recalls that Kingsley was blithely confident, saying, “Let’s get naked” to everyone on set. But she remembers another scene that bothered him more. In a restaurant, Consuela demands that Kepesh commit to her. “Something was wrong,” Coixet says. “He’s supposed to be suffering, but he seemed in anguish. I said cut and asked, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘I’m remembering all of the women in my life in all of the restaurants where they’ve asked me, Have you imagined a future for me? And all of them are here. Judging me.’”