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Q&A: Sir Ben Kingsley on 'Iron Man 3' and Stage Acting

'Everything I do is in some way linked back to Shakespeare,' he says

Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin in 'Iron Man 3'
Zade Rosenthal
May 3, 2013 8:30 AM ET

In Iron Man 3, Sir Ben Kingsley plays the titular hero's archenemy, the Mandarin. A menace to civilization, he appears by taped message — looking a lot like another cave dweller with a stringy beard — striking fear into the hearts and minds of the global populace. Rolling Stone spoke with Kingsley about playing the villain, how Shakespeare informs everything he does, and why we should always fear the man behind the curtain.

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What intrigued you about this character?
If you're offered the part of a great villain, then the approach is not to play him villainously, but to play him with his own sense of righteousness, destiny and history. He has to believe that he is right. That's what I aim for, and the script and construction of the character gave me a lot to work with. It was a real acting exercise to not play the villain villainously, but to give him a sense of calm, a presidential presentation. I know he looks extraordinary, but the rhythm of his voice (and the way he delivers those horrible political speeches) were, for me, a great opportunity to present this character in a way that would be meaningful and intriguing to an audience, as opposed to the two dimensional bad guy who's basically a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of something we've seen before.

How did you conceive of the Mandarin's voice and accent?
I start by reading the whole script and studying everyone's part. I don't learn all the lines, but I pay attention to what other characters say about me and how the character describes himself. Robert Downey, Jr. says that my character sounds like a preacher. And my character also refers to himself as a teacher. I got most of my clues from the script, with others coming from the wonderful costumes, the brilliant rings and glorious makeup, the samurai hair, and the weird beard that comes from. . . somewhere. All of those Mandarin political broadcasts are designed to really upset, disconcert, and worry the audience. But I didn't need to dig around and bring something external. It's all in the script.

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As a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, you've played some of the most complicated characters Western literature has to offer. Did any of them influence the Mandarin?
Everything I do is in some way linked back to the Royal Shakespeare Company. With them I learned to really explore a script and bring layers to wonderfully written characters. Shakespeare put down on the page such wonderful patterns of human behavior. They still ring true today, which is why in every major city you visit, there will always be a Shakespeare play to see. I found similar patterns in Iron Man 3: you have a great action sequence followed immediately by a moment of absurdity, of vulnerability, of tenderness, of love, of comradeship. All these marvelous human elements are woven into the fabric of the screenplay in such a skillful way. That hunting, that appetite for the human dance, if you like, it's always with me in my work. Always.

The grainy footage, coupled with Mandarin's beard, immediately made me think of Osama bin Laden. How much were you thinking of him in preparing for this role?
I didn't think of him at all. But what I did think about was documentary footage. I'm fascinated by old newsreel. You can go right back to 1930s Europe and watch men delivering awful, horrible political speeches with such absurdity, such a sense of destiny. Those manipulative tricks have been around a long time.

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How familiar were you with the story of the Mandarin? Had you read the comic books?
When [producer] Kevin [Feige] spoke to me about the role, I was given some wonderful graphics of the original concept for the Mandarin from way back in 1962. And along with all the other Marvel movies, they've allowed these characters to evolve on the screen into something that has more of a modern resonance, more of a modern echo, which is why I think the films are so popular – they don't dumb down the audience. They shift and change in the light of the world we live in, and that's the key to their success.

In light of the Boston bombings and the ongoing violence in America, where does a character like the Mandarin fit into the modern world?
One of my favorite characters of all time is the guy in in The Wizard of Oz who says, 'Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!' That's a good life lesson for all of us.

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