An exclusive interview with Ben Kingsley, focused entirely on his playing The Mandarin in Shane Black’s Marvel movie Iron Man 3. This was conducted for Empire a few months prior to the release of the film, when nobody had seen it yet. So Sir Ben was keeping a lot secret, but I think the interview still reads reasonably well, in spite of what we didn’t know at the time…
The Mandarin in the comics is kind of classic ‘yellow peril’ – how’s he been updated?
I think that the thrust of this film, from what I gather from the script and conversations with Robert and Kevin [Feige] and Shane, is that it’s about masks. Everyone in the film, to a certain degree, wears a mask. Some benign, others evil, but they’re masks. I think what Kevin and the chaps were exploring was, what if the mask comes off? What do we find behind the iron suit? I think that’s what Stark is also asking himself. What is at the heart of all this? As opposed to blanket yellow peril, I think we’re looking at the mask and what’s behind it, which for a modern audience I think is quite good. Rather than any kind of brute force, the evil is more manipulative, manipulating forms of communication: on the Internet, the ether, cell phones and that sort of thing, which of course is our next massive threat. Our next attack will be a cyber attack. It won’t be machine guns or tanks or even missiles. Someone will just… Did you ever see a film I did called Sneakers? Wasn’t that ahead of its time? It’s extraordinary! So I think The Mandarin is more in that arena than he was fifty years ago.
What about ethnically?
I think that the ethnicity is there to baffle the forces of good. He’s a pastiche of anti-American iconography, ‘Oriental’, exotic dress… His throne room is an extraordinary collage of military memorabilia and posters and detritus. It’s there to confuse – you don’t know what’s coming next. You think you do but you don’t, and that all adds to this air of Tony being baffled by him. His costume is that sort of collage too: the military boots, the rings on the fingers…
Presumably the Ten Rings aren’t ‘magic’ as they are in the comics?
Well, they are there as potential threats, but they’re also part of the mask, part of an adornment that is definitely malevolent. They do have their power, but it’s translated differently.
He’s also a great martial artist in the comics. Did you have to do any fighting?
Errr… I did, yes, there is some fighting, yes…
Guy Pearce is your public face, your media manager in a way – is that correct?
Yes, well, again… It’s like that wonderful film The Wizard of Oz [laughs]. My favourite line is, ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.’ You know, when Toto lifts the curtain, and there again, the mask is massive, but someone is manipulating it. Guy is on the edge of that sphere of influence, if you like. That was very much a phrase that I enjoyed on set. Everyone, of course, it being such a great lingua franca of cinema, ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’ was something we heard a lot while filming. It’s in that great Oz-like tradition of immense power, until you take the mask away. Then what have you got?
So are you front-and-centre in the film, or behind the curtain?
I haven’t seen the finished edit, but I went over to do some extra scenes for them, they added some things, and it looks pretty full-on to me. Very in-your-face.
We’ve seen a moment where Guy instructs people not to make eye contact with you – was that based on anyone you’ve observed? A fevered Hollywood ego?
No, just my own! [laughs] That’s not true; I just made that up! However… There is a way of… This is sort of the reverse of what you just said, a bit of advice. If you find yourself with someone who’s draining your energy, in a one-on-one situation, as you so often find yourself, don’t make eye contact with them, or as little as possible. And under the table, or discreetly, clasp your hands together, not rigidly, but completely relaxed, so you’ve formed a protective circle, and don’t make eye contact, and then you’ll be fine. That’s how to deal with evil!
Er, thanks… How did you find the Mandarin’s voice?
I really love physically inhabiting my character. There’s some very helpful stage-description, when Tony describes my voice, and also there’s a little bit in the script, so I took what Tony Stark thinks he hears, and what’s in the script, and I arrived at something bordering on the evangelical: evil having its own distorted morality and sense of righteousness.
Is there some Bin Laden in there?
Every image The Mandarin can use to really disconcert whom he perceives to be the enemy, will be used, definitely.
Is it quite a personal agenda between The Mandarin and Tony Stark?
Oh yes. Because The Mandarin is responsible for gravely injuring one of Tony’s colleagues, Tony is embarking on HIS righteous quest, which is revenge. So you have two versions of righteousness, which is always exciting!
It’s quite an established team – did you feel like the new boy?
Gwyneth was extraordinarily welcoming when I first arrived, although alas I didn’t have any scenes with her. Robert Downey Jr. and I have a common love for Richard Attenborough, and we have an enormous respect and, I believe, a genuine affection for one another. Jon I got on with famously. I didn’t have any scenes with Rebecca, but I was around when she was around, and we both felt that the level of welcome was tremendous. I think it comes from confidence. Whenever you are greeted at the door by a confident person, the welcome is different from someone who has their own problematic agenda and they’re not very secure in themselves. They don’t know how to welcome, whereas a person who’s really secure says, ‘Come in!’ And that’s what they said. Kevin and Shane Black gave me a terrific welcome.
How did you find Shane?
He’s very liked by the group, and by the cast. I really liked the way he and I worked together. It was very exciting and he was able to push my parameters in a very affectionate and challenging and delightful way. Of course, The Mandarin is somewhat solitary in the film, which is what makes him so effective. Therefore in many of my scenes I do not have another actor off which to bounce. In some of my scenes I’m completely by myself, and Shane was the wall that I could hit and bounce off, and he was marvellous: very helpful and stimulating. He helped me push the boundaries of the role so that I am allowed to go a bit bonkers. Then he says, ’Cut!’ and I shrink back to my original self!
Did he tell you what made him choose you for the role?
He did! He wrote me the most charming letter, saying that not only had he seen Sexy Beast, but he was present at a masterclass I gave, and a Q&A after the screening, and he said I was most generous with my information, that it was very enlightening, and he was delighted to be in that room. And you know, a few years later he says, ‘Yeah! I want him!’ That’s the lovely thing about our business. Like Kevin Feige. I met him ten years ago – can you believe it? I met him ten years ago, and finally he comes to Oxford and sits in my house and says, ‘I have a plan…’ It’s lovely.
What do you think Shane wants to achieve with this film?
If we can go back to my original point, I think what Shane is really interested in is what’s behind the mask. With everyone in the film, to differing degrees, the question is what happens when you take the mask off? Is he his ten rings? Is he his iron suit? Or is he… Is he wearing the rings or are the rings wearing him? Is he wearing the suit, or is the suit occupying his whole psyche?
It also seems like it might be a more sophisticated political world than we’ve seen in the Marvel films so far.
I think potentially… As I say, I’m dying to see the edit, but from what I can gather from the scenes I did for them, he seems to be moving, sharpening the focus on the areas you just mentioned. I think there will be elements that a modern, contemporary audience will find mythological but recognisable.
Did you read comics as a boy?
I liked The Eagle. My favourite was Dan Dare!