As Ben Kingsley talks about his new movie Operation Finale, he's trying to digest the news, just relayed by his agent, that he may soon have a chance to play Groucho Marx.
Nothing definite and he can't say much (there is a movie in development by Rob Zombie, of all people), but what he can say is that he'd like to do more comedy, and playing a comedian would be a good place to start.
The Oscar winner is known for his serious roles (he took home his statuette for Gandhi), Operation Finale (opening here Wednesday) being an example. He plays Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann in a movie based on Eichmann's capture in Argentina by Israeli agents.
Eichmann to Groucho?
It's a transition worthy of a punchline that only Marx himself could conjure.
But it's the kind of challenge actors crave, and it's especially appealing to Sir Ben. Playing the twitchy, restless slapstick legend would give Kingsley a chance to move around a bit. I mention to Kingsley that he's one of cinema's most motionless performers, comfortable in stillness the way most actors are not.
"It's a vital part of my currency as an actor. I liken it to grace notes in music. In the course of a performance, it may be in that moment of stillness that the viewer gets a view into whatever process is going on inside the character," he said. "I think those spaces in movies are precious. They invite the audience to come in and rest in the space created by it, to appreciate the story being told."
On screen, Kingsley is a "less is more" kind of guy, and he said so to Finale director Chris Weitz.
"I told him, very modestly, that if he wanted two takes, I will probably give him less on the second, and that if he wanted five takes I might give him even less on the fifth, and so forth," Kingsley said.
Not less effort, but less wasted motion.
"When I feel very insecure in a role," he said, "it's usually when my stillness tends to elude me."
I asked him if stillness becomes even more important in close-up, the aspect of cinema that makes film so different from theater, where Kingsley got his start. He said the great dramatists had a way of addressing the difference.
"The first crucial years of my journey as an actor occurred on stage, sometimes with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I was able to eventually play Hamlet, amongst other challenging roles. And of course the plays included the device of the soliloquy, and I think that was Shakespeare's version of the close-up. 'To be or not to be.' Those moments when the character revealed himself to the audience, opened up his mind to the audience. Certainly, working with Richard Attenborough on Gandhi, I don't think I could have come anywhere close to those moments of stillness without having explored them on stage doing Shakespeare," he said.
"He is determined to manipulate Malkin for his own ends, even if it gives him just a moment of satisfaction."
Kingsley also starred in Schindler's List, and he played Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in Murderers Among Us. After all of that, he's entitled to a turn at comedy. Though to hear Kingsley describe it, comedy is no picnic for an actor.
"It's like the Edmund Kean observation — dying is easy and comedy is hard. It's very technical. It's not the slow burn of drama. It's a quick, rapid fire. The repartee can be highly technical. And I think there is something else at work. Great comic actors have great timing, and I think they also have a hidden rapport with the audience, and that may be part of comedy, too."
Kingsley has been funny, of course, perhaps most memorably — and unexpectedly — playing the "villain" in the Marvel movie Iron Man 3. His character, the Mandarin, was a failed actor named Trevor playing a part.
I asked whether being around actors for several decades helped Kingsley understand and play the vainglorious Trevor.
"There are several little sketches of people I've worked with," he said. "And a few of myself."
All's well that ends well.
Kingsley sneaked into a theater to see Iron Man 3 with his wife and was pleased with the results.