Sir Ben Kingsley is one of the world’s most distinguished actors, best known for such films as “Schindler’s List,” “House of Sand and Fog,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” and “Gandhi,” for which he won a Best Actor Oscar. Yet even though Sir Ben has been working in Hollywood for nearly twenty-five years, his resume is still missing an out-and-out blockbuster promising the kind of high adventure and eye-popping special effects the genre demands. He finally enters the realm with “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” the latest film from Jerry Bruckheimer, the mega-producer behind both installments of “National Treasure” and all three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. “Sands of Time” is set in fictional 6th century Persia and stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Dastan, a young prince who has to turn his back on his previously carefree life to prevent assorted villains from stealing the Dagger of Time, an ancient artifact that can reverse time and allows its possessor to rule the world. Sir Ben plays the mysterious Prince Nizam, Dastan’s adoptive uncle, who may or may not have his nephew’s best interests at heart. Shooting on the film, which also stars Gemma Arterton and Alfred Molina, and is directed by Mike Newell (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and “Donnie Brasco”), lasted over five months on locations in Morocco and at London’s Pinewood Studios and was on a grand scale even by the generous standards of Jerry Bruckheimer. Two thousand crew members; 400 extras; 7,000 hand-made costumes; and dozens of palm trees and tons of sand flown to London to replicate the Moroccan exteriors: the numbers are truly as dizzying. We spoke to Sir Ben at Pinewood Studios while he was on a break between scenes shot on a very convincing-looking sand dune.
Q: You didn’t have any reservations about charging around the desert on a horse and learning sword fighting?
A: Not at all! It sounded wonderful. I think the idea that I’m “a serious actor” is a bit of an albatross around my neck. I hope I’m an entertainer rather than a serious actor. So the scale of the film was very appealing to me, and so was the adventure genre and the great cast. [Director] Mike Newell offered me the role of Nizam a long time before I read the script, but once I did read the script, I thought it was beautifully crafted. Of course, the script was plot-driven, but knowing Mike and knowing his work it was clear he would also balance the action with character, with examining some complex motives and psychology, and that’s how it’s turned out. For example, I think it’s interesting that the protagonists in the film aren’t simply divided into the good guys and the villains. I did a scene today where we suddenly realise that this character who has so far been completely charming and polite and benign has a capacity for completely casual violence. In a minute he can pull his sword out, slit someone’s throat, and put his sword back and carry on talking.
Q: From what I’ve seen so far your character seems particularly hard to read...
A: I’m pleased about that! I’d say my job is to be as inscrutable as possible until people begin to get the gist of what he’s doing, which is quite a long way into the film. Nizam has a special relationship with Jake’s character, Dastan – I’m the one who rescued him from the streets when he was a boy – and he and his brothers have no choice but to trust me.
Q: You’ve played plenty of real-life characters on screen, in films such as “Gandhi” or “Schindler’s List,” and preparing for those roles must have involved a lot of research. How do you prepare to play an entirely fictional prince in 6th century Persia?
A: You think about his emotions, about what’s going on in his soul. Nizam is ruled by envy and regret – regret that it was his brother who became king and not him. He’s always thinking, “It should have been me!” and those emotions are familiar to us whether we are in ancient Persia, contemporary politics or a play by Shakespeare.
Q: You do make it sound very Shakespearean…
A: [Laughs] Anything I do ends up being Shakespearean! I think I try and bend things that way.
Q: How much do all these amazing sets and costumes help you get in character?
A: Oh, they help enormously. The costumes are made of these extraordinary fabrics and you feel different when you put them on. And everywhere you look on set you see these magnificently detailed surfaces that must have employed thousands of crafts people. Everywhere the eye goes the energy bounces back. Nothing is approximate. It’s all very finely detailed. And every day on set is astonishing. I just watched Jake [Gyllenhaal] ride past me on a horse, very fast and very fearlessly, brandishing his sword, shouting ferociously. There’s such a grandeur to the film.
Q: Speaking of Morocco, you shot there for a couple of months and apparently survived flash floods, sandstorms and temperatures as high as 51°C. Did that add to the experience or did you ever wish you could have just done the whole thing back at Pinewood?
A: Thank goodness we didn’t! I think that for us as a group of actors, to travel together is invaluable, and for us as a unit to pit ourselves against the desert is invaluable. Then to employ local craftsmen and have these beautiful people as extras, it really adds to the texture of the film. This is my sixth film there and I happen to love Morocco. There’s nothing gruelling about it at all and the extras and I know each other from one film to the next!(c) Jo Allen (Track 1 Script Services)