Ben Kingsley is not one to philosophize on the art of filmmaking. “The director says, “Action,’ ” he begins. “I’m a very good actor, so I pretend to be somebody else. Then he says, “Cut,’ and I say, “How was that?’ and he says, “Very convincing,’ and I say, “Good.’ It’s very, very simple.”
The actor, best known for his roles in Gandhi and Schindler’s List, is in town to promote the high-tech adventure Species. Picked-over fruit platters litter Kingsley’s suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, and the actor himself emerges while a television crew packs the last of its gear and departs. He’s clad in light-colored, loose-fitting slacks and a T-shirt, his close-shaven hair his most striking feature. Fortified by a cup of tea, he settles into a straight-backed chair to tout his latest project.
Species is a very ’90s film. That is, it includes the requisite ingredients of a contemporary sci-fi thriller: elaborate special effects, bioengineering gone horribly awry, and, of course, sex. In a top-secret experiment, 100 human ova are injected with DNA from outer space. The mutant egg matures quickly into a leggy blonde/reptilian annihilator who escapes from the lab and heads to Los Angeles intent on propagating her species. Kingsley plays Xa
Despite Fitch’s highly specialized field, Kingsley pooh- poohs the studious role preparation favored by many of his peers. “Well the thing is, it doesn’t matter,” he says bluntly. “As long as my character knows what he’s talking about, it doesn’t matter. My job, between “Action’ and “Cut,’ is to pretend to be somebody else. If I can do that successfully, by making him look extremely intelligent…then I’ve done my job.
“I have an active imagination,” Kingsley continues. “I don’t need to provoke or prod or stimulate my imagination by really sweating over something. I think of the initials S.E.T.I. [the acronym for Fitch’s employer, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence], and I’m off, I’m off! Off into this extraordinary world.
“All from up here,” he adds, pointing at his head.
Kingsley downplays the thematic implications of S.E.T.I.’s genetic engineering, preferring to characterize the film as an exploration of contemporary gender roles. “It not only deals with DNA, but it also deals with, in a very witty way and a very, very sensual way, the male/female relationships in this society,” he explains. “The film, whilst its genre is clearly science fiction, opens doors on everyday behavior in a very clever way. It’s a wonderful device to show what men and women are up to in this country, how they mate and how they date.”
Though Species‘ sexually predatory woman/lizard lends itself to misogynistic interpretation, Kingsley argues that the film’s voracious she-creature is a symbol of female empowerment. “So many women rightfully lament the destruction of the female gods from the pantheon, and so many women love this film because she’s back again—the creator/destroyer is back,” he observes. “[Species] could have been a Greek myth or an Indian myth about the goddess who comes down from the heavens, creates, and destroys.”
Women, alien or otherwise, haven’t loomed large in Kingsley’s oeuvre. “I’m hoping Species and other films that I’ve been offered since are much more to do with men amongst their fellow human beings,” the actor admits. “Maybe one day, who knows, I might even be a man who talks to women! I hardly talk to women in any…I hardly even speak to them. It’s ridiculous!”
It’s true that Kingsley seldom plays the romantic lead. Indeed, the actor’s career has been characterized by what he calls “a man with ideas” roles. “I’ve been mined and mined and mined and I’m now in grave danger of running out of the very minerals that they’re mining,” he says. “Most of my films that have reached an audience are to do with men and ideas. [Species] is no exception.”
Yet Fitch is less of an ideologue than the standard Kingsley character. “This film is a good exercise for me,” the actor notes. “The man with ideas has to join other human beings and share in their destiny. He cannot stay in his Napoleonic, narcissistic, godlike dream. That was good for me—to play a man of ideas who then is pulled into the real world.”
Kingsley’s success at portraying men of principle has been both a blessing and a curse. “Because Gandhi…had the stamp of approval, the seal of excellence from the industry, I think there’s been a tendency for me to show their massive ideas…their concepts,” he says of Hollywood. “But that’s a very broad spectrum,” he hastens to add, “because it could include Pascali’s Island and it could include Searching for Bobby Fischer.”
The actor hints that his next role will be more down-to- earth. “It’s lighter and it’s more loving, and it’s more to do with people, as opposed to grand ideas,” Kingsley says. “I think I’m a bit burned out on that one.”