Ben Kingsley on ‘War Machine’, Working with Tilda Swinton, and ‘Watership Down’
From writer/director David Michôd and inspired by the book The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, the Netflix original film War Machine follows fictional four-star General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) as he commands coalition forces in Afghanistan, only to be taken down by his own hubris and a journalist’s no-holds-barred exposé. The subversive, satirical film is equal parts comedy and human tragedy, and it illustrates the division between leaders and the ordinary people whose lives they impact.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Academy Award-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley (who plays Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan from 2004 to 2014) talked about how he got involved with War Machine, the film’s tricky tone, how joyful it was to work with Brad Pitt, his desire to share the same screen as Tilda Swinton, what he looks for in a project, voicing a character for the Netflix/BBC mini-series Watership Down, doing a horror film, and exploring some things he hasn’t previously gotten the opportunity to, through his production company, Lavender Pictures.
Collider: How did this come your way? Did you just get a script and read it and find it intriguing, or did you meet with director David Michôd and have a conversation with him about it first?
BEN KINGSLEY: It was by invitation. Normally, when my own company, Lavender Pictures, is producing and developing something itself, there’s no surprise involved there. But when my agent said that he had read this and found the scenes between the General and myself to be delightful, I was very happy to read it. And given that it’s Brad [Pitt], it’s Brad’s company, it’s Netflix, it’s the wonderful David Michôd, and it was the opportunity to, at least, be in the same movie as the wonderful Tilda Swinton. Alas, we have yet to share the same lens, but it was wonderful to be with her. Great company to keep! It was a quick decision on my part, having read the script.
Is getting on screen with Tilda Swinton a goal for you?
KINGSLEY: You may quote me in as wide a broadcast as possible on that. She knows, anyway, because we occasionally email each other, waving and saying, “When are we going to do something together?” And alas, we haven’t yet, but that would be wonderful. Having met Brad on several occasions, socially, and being in the delightful position of congratulating him on so many beautiful performances, it was smashing to work with him, knowing that his company, Plan B, had a large degree of control over that venture. Netflix is the ideal outlet for satire. Satire cannot be consumed, understood and responded to by everyone. Satire is quite a specific blend and brand of bitter humor, and in the hands of Brad and David, the director, it was a good venture to join.
Did you have to gauge this rather tricky tone as you were playing each scene, or did it feel very natural while you were there and interacting with Brad Pitt?
KINGSLEY: On set, I had occasion to meet Brad, very briefly, outside his trailer. We embraced and wished each other well, and were delighted to see one another. And then, a few minutes later, we were in this extraordinary scene together. His character’s rhythm, in his phrasing and his body language, I found so perfect for the scene. It’s like playing tennis. You have to gauge the rhythm, either of your fellow player, if it’s doubles, or your opponent. I would never consider any actor with whom I have the pleasure of working an opponent. I’m not a proponent of having to win the scene. That’s awful. I hate that! I’m much more of the old Spencer Tracy school, not that I’ve ever met him, but he used to say, “Make the other guy look good.” So, Brad and I, I think, were rather delighted by each other’s performance, and not in an indulgent way because we had David, who is the conductor of the rhythm of the piece. Any kind of satire, and drama of any kind, is so dependent upon the rhythm with which it meets the audience. The rhythm of this film, and therefore the rhythm of the filming, was very well judged, indeed. With very little preparation, other than a wonderful costume fitting and chat with the designer, we jumped in and found that we were very compatible, as players.
Even though this is serious subject matter, did it also feel like there was a sense of play?
KINGSLEY: I have to say that having visited Afghanistan in 2005, I do know that they are a people blessed with an incredible sense of humor. It’s pretty dry and wry. I’ve also, of course, had the pleasure of watching President Karzai on YouTube, on many occasions, and seen that there’s always the most wonderful twinkle behind his eyes. He is assessing everybody through a lens that is tinted with laughing at the rest of the world, in a very wise, learned and well-informed way. I always had that to fall back on. And I think Brad’s character allowed my character to be immensely curious. As actors, we were leaning into each other, rather than leaning away from each other, and there is joy in that.
At this point in your career, what do you look for in a project?
KINGSLEY: My wife and I have now founded Lavender Pictures. If one has one’s own company, there are very few surprises, but there’s still the actual thrill of trying to get these projects off the ground. We’re meeting with some measure of success. Always, now and at any stage of my career, I’m open to ambush, but there have been the most extraordinary set of coincidences, which continues through my journey, and I find it thrilling. Often, out of left field and quite randomly, comes a project and I think, “My god, there you are!” It’s quite beautiful, really.
Are you open to anything, if it speaks to you?
KINGSLEY: I’m open to any project, but my joyful projects are those through which I can say something and through which I can speak to the an audience of people in the world, and I can be that vehicle through which something can be said, I find that entirely thrilling and joyful.
You also did another Netflix project, voicing a character for the Watership Down mini-series that’s a co-production with BBC. What made you want to be a part of that?
KINGSLEY: It was an invitation. I was acquainted with the producers and they sent me a script. I enjoyed working with Noam [Murro], the director, and was able to bring life to one of those wonderful characters.
Had you been familiar with the children’s classic story?
KINGSLEY: No. I know of a valiant and probably beautiful attempt to film it some years ago, but I had never read the story until I came across the adaptation in script form, which is so close to the original story. The narrative just appealed to me, as did the narrative of The Jungle Book. If one is going to offer children stories than underneath the story must be something that will inform, stimulate and guide. Whenever that opportunity comes along, I love to be on board. I think anything that resonates with history, as does The Jungle Book and Watership Down, if you look at them broadly, reflects patterns of behavior, power struggles, deprivation, migration, survival, joy, love, betrayal, and all of these things. It’s tragic that children are encouraged to ignore history. We ignore history and any literature that is historically based in history. Even though both of those films involved animals, of course they reflect human behavior.
War Machine is a Netflix movie and Watership Down is a Netflix co-production. Are you someone who personally takes advantage of streaming services? Do you ever watch anything on Netflix, yourself?
KINGSLEY: I watch very little. I tend to read more. My recreation is different from watching. I’m not a very good audience member. However, our company would be absolutely delighted to join forces with Netflix on some of our projects.
What’s next for you? Are you currently shooting anything, or are you starting something soon?
KINGSLEY: I’m starting something soon. I’ll be going to South Africa to film something, and then I’ll be doing a horror film. The films that are lining up now are so extraordinary, but I cannot announce them to you yet. If they come up, I shall be thrilled, and full of joy and fear.
What made you want to do a horror film?
KINGSLEY: I liked the read of the character. It’s so bizarre. I think it could be a great adventure for me. Why not broaden my horizons.
Having played such a wide variety of roles now, is there anything that you’d still love the opportunity to do, that you haven’t gotten to do yet?
KINGSLEY: Well, that’s what we’re planning [with the production company]. I’m going to be sent a script next week, that I’ve commissioned and instigated. The producers are sending it to me and the character that I’ve urged them to explore is coming back my way, and I’m thrilled.
War Machine is available to stream at Netflix.