Ben Kingsley on the Insult That Made Him a Good Actor

Sir Ben Kingsley. Robert Todd Williamson / Contour-Getty Images

My philosophy in life is that everything happens for a reason. There are very few things I’d categorize as a mistake. I just have one story. There was a world-famous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was a massive event that went from Stratford-upon-Avon to London to Broadway. This was in 1970, when I was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was working with the world’s greatest theater director, Peter Brook. We were rehearsing the section called “the lovers’ quarrel.”

I was playing Demetrius. Frances de la Tour was playing Helena. Peter said, “OK, let’s run the scene.” We did, and I thought I’d impressed him with some funny, charming, witty acting. I saw Peter Brook, the great director, advancing slowly across the rehearsal room with a twinkle in his eye. I thought mistakenly that he was about to say, “My dears, that was absolutely wonderful!” I stood up mistakenly waiting for the praise to fill my actor’s begging bowl. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and said, “Dear Ben, that was absolutely suburban.” There was a long pause after the word “suburban.” And he said, “If we want to watch suburban, we’ll stick our heads over our neighbor’s fence.”

He then put us back together by bringing us to the text, and saying, look at the words you just skimmed over. Give them their weight. Give them their value. He infused us with a sense of urgency, what was profoundly lacking in our mistaken reenactment of the scene. He turned it from something sugary into something challenging, dangerous, exciting, and sexy. When we did the play in New York, this one scene got rounds of applause several times.

I’m not being pompous, but I know that my work and my career turned a corner when he said the word “suburban.” It shocked me. Perversely, I thank God we were so bad. Without me having to transcend the word “suburban,” I don’t think I would have been able to play the amazing characters I have onscreen. The lesson I learned is that every aspect of the character has to be bigger than me. For example, let’s say I’m playing anger. My anger has limits; my character’s anger has to go beyond my limits.

You have to stretch yourself beyond the everyday, beyond the suburban, and offer audiences something heroic and magnificent. It’s not enough to be cute.