Ben Kingsley: Why you don’t see much of him anymore
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
When you win an Oscar for your first major movie, your career is off to a pretty good start. It helps when that movie is Gandhi and you completely embody the legendary philosopher and politician. That film put Ben Kingsley on the map in Hollywood and launched a prolific career. Not bad for the man who was once told he’d only ever play servants.
The legendary actor was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji to an Indian father and British mother, but he changed his name to Ben Kingsley in the ’70s. “My stage name comes from family nicknames,” he told Us Weekly. “Ben was my dad’s nickname. Kingsley is from my grandfather’s nickname, King Clove.” The knighted superstar has worked steadily for decades and added Oscar nominations for Bugsy, Sexy Beast and House of Sand and Fog to his impressive resume. “I think I might have put it out there into the universe that I had a real appetite for a lot of work, of different kinds,” he once told The Hollywood Reporter. Clearly, the universe was listening.
He still works a lot, so why does it feel like we don’t see much of Ben Kingsley anymore? Fear not, we’ll tell you what Sir Ben has been up to and where you can find him. Hint: He’s “acting” less and “being” more.
Ben Kingsley’s philanthropy knows no borders
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Ben Kingsley’s charity work could keep him busy on its own, yet he’s been marrying his two passions for years. Schindler’s List; Anne Frank: The Whole Story; and Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story all helped raise awareness about the Holocaust — and for that, the Holocaust Memorial Museum honored the actor in 2014. While promoting War Machine, Kingsley discussed his work with Save the Children. “I was able to visit Afghanistan in 2005 or 2006 when the Taliban were pushed back sufficiently to allow school girls to return to school un-harassed and unpunished,” he told CBS News. Kingsley even reprised his Sexy Beast character, Don Logan, for a Live Aid promo. “If I can give, me, Don, money, my money, give my money, little bit of money, take it out of my pocket, defluff it, hand it over to some do-good poncy pop people, weirdos with hairdos, then anybody can,” Logan rants in the clip. “Do it. Give. Give it up. Hand it over.”
When he’s not acting, you may also find Kingsley attending Elton John’s Aids Foundation Oscar gala or supporting Roots of Peace, a group that removes land mines from past war zones. In 2005, Kingsley teamed up with The Skoll Foundation to release an Arabic language edition of Gandhi to promote the iconic leader’s philosophy of peaceful resistance to audiences in Palestine.
That’s Sir Ben Kingsley to you
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth II knighted Sir Ben Kinglsey in 2002. While modern day knights may not be enlisted to defend the crown from invaders or slay dragons, Kingsley does take his title seriously. He told the Mirror he considered knighthood a triumph over the “steady stream of racism” he suffered in the past and over his own mother’s disapproval. “The wonderful woman who is the Queen and who is almost like a mum had said, ‘We accept you and love what you do,'” Kingsley explained. “But my mother refused to acknowledge it had taken place. She was embarrassed and bitter and jealous.” Kingsley enjoys being part of this exclusive club. “I do have wonderful companions amongst the same society of knights — and they are philanthropic, generous, intelligent, outward looking, dignified, chivalrous people,” he told the Mirror. “To keep that kind of company is quite wonderful.”
But does the actor take his title too seriously? According to The Guardian, the poster for Lucky Number Slevin credited him as Sir Ben Kingsley, which allegedly annoyed other British filmmakers and actors such as Lord David Puttnam and Sir Roger Moore. Kingsley claims he had nothing to do with that promo. “The reaction to the poster from other people in our profession was totally justified, but it was a reaction to someone else’s faux pas,” he said, via The Telegraph. Unfortunately, bad press about the guy who sometimes signs emails as SBK has continued to dog Sir Ben.
Ben Kingsley is heard but not seen
Ian Gavan/Getty Images/YouTube
When you have a voice like Ben Kinglsey, you don’t always need to be on camera to make your mark. A lot of animated and live-action films have utilized that Oscar-winning voice — a task he takes just as seriously as his on-screen endeavors.
Kinglsey recorded his part as exterminator Archibold Snatcher in The Boxtrolls while lying on a studio floor. “I wanted his voice to come from his belly, not from where my voice normally comes from,” he told NBC San Diego. “It was a very relaxed recording session, and I did nod off occasionally.”
The voice of black panther Bagheera in The Jungle Book connected Kingsley to his Indian heritage. “Knowing that [author Rudyard] Kipling was born in India, I based my Bagheera on the kind of British officer who would be stationed in India, at the time of the Empire, who would have a lot of people under his command,” he told Collider. “He probably loves his men under his command, but he’s a tough love coach. That military side of him, I really warmed to.“
Kinglsey also lent his voice to Drago the dragon in Dragonheart 3: The Sorcerer’s Curse. “I can see the silhouette of the dragon on the screen and I can distort and stretch, play with my voice if I need to, to fill those gaps, to make that leap between myself and a dragon,” Kinglsey explained.
You may not recognize him on-screen
You may have seen more Ben Kingsley movies than you realize because the guy is a chameleon. He sports a full beard and a turban to play a Sikh in Learning to Drive, and a beard and a bun as The Mandarin in Iron Man Three. In Ender’s Game, Kingsley plays Mazer Rackham, an admiral training children to battle an alien enemy. The tats took more than an hour to apply, but when finished, displayed “a lineage, a story, a past … I was conscious of their special power, their significance,” Kingsley told Salon. He spent his time in the makeup chair in silence. “I never talk, sip tea or eat my breakfast,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “I close my eyes and half meditate and half run my dialogue for the coming workday.“
Kingsley has a deep appreciation for the powerful connection among all the parts of the preparatory process. “When I have totally immersed myself in the mechanical, logical preparation of a part, if I and my craft are totally bonded and fully exploited, something else in me is awakened and begins to inform my work,” he told The New York Times in 1982. “There is some essence in me that adheres itself to the work. I can’t tell you what it is — I can’t tell you what the heart of my mystery is — because I don’t know; all I know is that it is the product of extremely hard work.”
Ben Kingsley traded Hollywood for Bollywood
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Another reason you may feel like you haven’t seen much of Ben Kingsley lately: He took a break from Hollywood to dabble in Bollywood, appearing in 2010’s Teen Patti. Kingsley plays a mathematician involved in testing out a new theory of probability in Mumbai’s underground gambling world. For Kingsley, the role was a homecoming of sorts. “It was an opportunity to work with an Indian crew again after Gandhi,” he told the Indo-Asian News Service (via the Hindustan Times). “…It’s interesting to mix cultures in a film to see how different people from different backgrounds can be so very synchronized and work together.”
Unfortunately, the film was not a hit in the highly competitive Bollywood market, which produces thousands of films per year, but Kingsley seemed unfazed by the flop. “No regrets whatsoever,” he told the Hindustan Times. “Everything is a great learning curve in life. It was fun and I love to diversify as an actor. If the script is good, the director is good and the people are good, I’ll be on board.” You can check out Teen Patti on Netflix, but you might not want to waste your time tracking down this next foreign film: Sir Ben plays a terrorist in the Sri Lankan movie A Common Man, which the AV Club described as “amateur hour all the way.” Ouch.
Speaking of painful projects…
He starred in a ‘low-rent action movie’ and other flops
Just because Ben Kingsley works a lot, doesn’t mean all of his films are worth watching. Many of his more recent projects have appeared on streaming services or gone straight to DVD or VOD. These days, skipping theaters isn’t necessarily anything to be ashamed of — Kingsley plays former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in War Machine, which was a high-profile Brad Pitt vehicle for Netflix. But other films were iffier choices that did little to boost Sir Ben’s profile.
Let’s start with Security. Birth.Movies.Death described it as “Die Hard in a mall,” and the critic meant that in a good way … sort of. “Security is comfort food for action fans … empty calorie entertainment that’s never going to challenge you intellectually, but is a breezy ball to watch with a beer on a lazy Saturday night.” Collide also falls into that category, but it’s largely been forgotten, which may be for the best. Indiewire called it “the kind of low-rent action movie that only exists because everybody involved knew that nobody in the Western world would ever see it.” Kingsley co-starred with Sir Anthony Hopkins in that one, which was originally intended for theaters — until its distributor went bankrupt.
Some of his big movies bombed
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
You can’t win ’em all, and Ben Kingsley has seen his fair share of big bombs over the course of his lengthy career. Poorly received projects certainly haven’t helped Sir Ben’s profile, but at least he’s having some fun along the way. Case in point: Kingsley really sunk his teeth into the forgettable BloodRayne. “To be honest, I have always wanted to play a vampire, with the teeth and the long black cape,” he told Time magazine. “Let’s say that my motives were somewhat immature for doing it.”
Starring opposite Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton (pictured) in 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was another project that failed to live up to its blockbuster potential, but hey, it was based on a video game, for God’s sake! Ender’s Game; Exodus: Gods and Kings; and self/less also likely damaged his visibility, but though you may not remember that string of flops, Kingsley did attract some critical acclaim even in the midst of negative reviews. LA Weekly‘s scathing review of self/less still heaped adulation upon Sir Ben: “Kingsley is such a good actor that he practically sabotages the film. Before exiting 15 minutes in, he infuses Damian with gravitas, empathy, intelligence, mercilessness and ambition.” That’s awesome, but unless you saw those 15 minutes, you may be feeling like you don’t see Ben Kingsley at all anymore.
Ben Kingsley lives outside of Hollywood
Wpa Pool/Getty Images
Ben Kinglsey lives in Oxfordshire, England, so you’re not likely to see paparazzi shots of this guy with his wife and kids papering the tabloids. In 2003, the actor did give Architectural Digest a tour of his 19th century countryside home, noting its Matisse color palette. “In the morning, when the walls of the kitchen glow yellow, it’s like coming into a pot of glowing honey. And the terracotta hallway in the afternoon is breathtaking — pure liquid light.” Sir Ben also likes to go for long walks, watch documentaries, and spend time with the help. “We have a gardener who lives in a cottage on the property, and I’ve been gardening. With him, or sometimes on my own,” he told the Daily Mail. Seriously, why would Kingsley ever want to sit in L.A. traffic when he could be sitting by one of his several fireplaces?
And speaking of publicity, he’s certainly wary of the press. As Kingsley told NPR’s Radio Times in 2016, he refuses to discuss some topics because “people can read your article and take anything out of it and twist it. We live in very, very particular times.” Perhaps the reason you don’t hear much from this actor anymore is because he doesn’t want you to. “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,” he said.
He jumped from the big screen to the small screen
Phillip Faraone/Getty Images
It’s become plenty prestigious for A-list actors and Academy Award-winners to star in television series. FX’s American Horror Story includes Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, and Angela Bassett. Julia Roberts headlined Homecoming for Amazon Video. Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman are among the A-list leads of HBO’s Big Little Lies, and Michael Douglas won the Golden Globe for The Kominsky Method on Netflix. Ben Kingsley is among this crowd of Oscar darlings, but his work has been arguably less visible.
Kingsley plays a shady pastor on Perpetual Grace, LTD, which debuted in 2019 and airs on the less high-profile Epix premium channel. The series has garnered some glowing reviews. A critic for The Hollywood Reporter watched just two episodes before declaring Kinglsey the “odds-on favorite to win the Emmy for best actor in 2020.” That’s high praise, but it doesn’t mean the masses are tuning in or even know this show exists. Though Epix has reportedly made some moves to expand its visibility, time will tell if the broader public will pony up for access to Kingsley’s content.
Ben Kingsley wants to do less ‘acting’ and more ‘being’
Charly Triballeau/Getty Images
Sir Ben Kingsley celebrated his 75th birthday in 2018, so he’s certainly earned the right to work on his own terms, and that may mean you don’t see him as much anymore. He did confirm that he was stepping away from the stage. “Let me put it this way — theatre is like getting out an easel, a canvas and a brush, and painting a landscape,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “Film is like getting those tools of the trade together, and painting a portrait. And I am now into portraits. It’s the same brush, the same canvas, the same easel, but the results are very different.”
Time has also impacted his film work, and that may be for the better. Speaking to an audience of New York Film Academy students in May 2019, Kingsley reflected on his lengthy and distinguished career. “When one was younger, one did an awful lot of acting and, as one matures in the craft, paradoxically, you do less and less and less and less acting … and, hopefully, you embark on a process of being,” he said. Whatever you want to call it, we certainly hope we’ll be seeing more of Ben Kingsley for years to come.