Ben Kingsley talks Fifty Dead Men Walking

Having struggled to live up to his Oscar win for Ghandi, Sir Ben Kingsley has finally hit his stride in new IRA drama Fifty Dead Men Walking.

There can’t be many former Coronation Street actors who go on to win an Oscar, and manage to portray everything from Porfiry to Sweeney Todd, from Indian mystic to East End psycho, from Moses to Guru Tugginmypudha.

Having learnt his craft with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Ben Kingsley found fame and fortune – and that Oscar – at the tender age of 39, when he played Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s epic 1982 biopic. Like so many Oscar winners though, Kingsley struggled to move on from his most famous roles for the next decade, until, with 1993’s Schindler’s List – playing right hand man to Liam Neeson’s eponymous Holocaust hero – the Scarborough-born actor finally found his stride.

Hits such as Death And The Maiden (1994), Sexy Beast (2000) and House Of Sand And Fog (’03) have all led to Kingsley’s recent golden run, with such fine offerings as You Kill Me (’07), The Wackness and Elegy (both ’08).

Set in Belfast in the late 1980s, Fifty Dead Men Walking is based on IRA informant Martin McGartland’s best-selling book, and the film sees Kingsley playing Fergus, a British Special Branch intelligence officer who recruits the 20-year old street hustler McGartland (a stunningly good Jim Sturgess) to work as his inside man in the IRA. It’s no masterpiece, but Canadian writer/director Kari Skogland manages to avoid many of the pitfalls that hamper so many features set amidst The Troubles.

When I caught up with Kingsley, he was plainly proud of the film…

PAUL BYRNE: Before we talking about Fifty Dead Men Walking, got to say, you seem to be having the time of your life lately, with films such as The Wackness, Elegy and You Kill Me seeing you have fun with guns and fine looking young women…

BEN KINGSLEY: It’s lovely, it really is. I think the whole film industry so deeply excites me, and since I decided to try my hand at producing, the acting world has also flooded in. Maybe it’s because some people have finally realised that I’m really serious about cinema. A lot of people think that my first love is theatre, and it’s actually not true – my first love is cinema.

Like Dustin Hoffman, you strike me as a man who no longer feels the need to prove himself…

I wish that were true, Paul, but I always fear that I’ve got to prove myself. There’s always that demon inside me. I always think, when I finish a film, ‘Oh, God, I’ll never work again’. Until I get the next job. I’m not quite as far down the happy road as Dustin is, whom I admire greatly, incidentally.

In regard to Fifty Dead Men Walking, films about heroes and villains in war-torn parts of the world are always difficult to get right ,because the filmmaker can bring his or her own politics, and so can each audience member. Were there any concerns on your part over the politics of the Northern Ireland conflict here?

Well, you know, my key into the film was one completely outside of the political arena. Although the politics is a devastatingly powerful context in which to set this particular dilemma, I looked at it this way; I’m playing a father who’s lost his son, and Jim is playing a son who can’t find his father. In other words, Jim’s character, I think, gravitates towards some kind of patriarchal approval, and I am sort of bereft of my family – particularly in my son – and when you see where Fergus lives, he basically lives with an aquarium and some teacups; the home is characterless and bare. So, for me, it was an examination of isolation and loneliness, and how you can bond under the most horrendous circumstances.

Did Kari bring that to the character, or did you?

Well, I think Kari and I met each other halfway over everything. One of the many lovely things that Kori brought to the film was the presence of women and children throughout the film. Although perhaps you could say, in general terms, these conflicts are usually male driven, Kari insisted on involving a whole community – by showing a birth in the film, babies in the film, women in the film. You can’t get through more than a few minutes of the film without seeing the presence of women on those streets, or in their homes, or involved as mothers, or wives, or sisters, or lovers, and I think Kari brought a wonderful gender balance to the film. As well as a political balance, which I believe is there, there’s a gender balance too. She’s very skillful, so, I was able to fit into her compassionate view of that terrible situation.