Friendly reunions typically involve chatter and reminiscing. But when actors Sir Ben Kingsley
and Patricia Clarkson
reunited with director Isabel Coixet (with whom they shot 2008's Elegy
) on the set of Learning to Drive
, the old friends barely spoke.
Before you say that that's no way to treat a friend, Kingsley and Clarkson explained to SF Weekly
that it was just a matter of business before pleasure and that the distance they created offscreen actually created incredible intimacy onscreen. They also discussed the challenges of bringing the story of a middle-aged Sikh driving instructor, who teaches a Manhattan book critic to drive to the screen, being typecast and what they hope audience members take from the romantic comedy, which opens Friday.
Learning to Drive was an on-set reunion between you two and director Isabel Coixet. What made you want to work together again after 2008's Elegy?
Sir Ben Kingsley:
With Isabel, I was very happy personally when I filmed Elegy.
Therefore, that happiness, that contentment, allowed me to create a portrait of a man terrified of intimacy. I found I could be very vulnerable in front of Isabel's camera. She was so loving and caring and provocative in the right way. She operates the camera herself, so she'd sometimes appear from behind the camera, crying, saying, "Cut," and just walk away. It's a great gift. She was so grateful that I allowed myself to be so vulnerable, so I knew that if I wished to play a wounded warrior, as Darwan Singh Tur, a warrior who has lost his homeland, lost his brother, had his family tortured and then had to leave home, it's so tough that one of the threads running through that portrait has to be vulnerability. It's very exciting to know that if you really open yourself up to her camera, Isabel will really capture your offering, and it's on the screen. So it really gives an actor a secure place from where to take risks.
First of all, they're fabulous people and they happen to be extraordinarily talented. Who doesn't want to be with someone who's crazy talented and really a great person? We got on very well during Elegy
. I met Sir Ben for the first time during that film. I played his lover, so I got to know him very well. I love the way Isabel Coixet works. I love her style of shooting. I love the intimacy she brings to every film, to every part of the movie, and how every take feels true and right. So it feels exciting to me, because Isabel is challenging, yet incredibly present and gracious and just a love, and so is Sir Ben. He's a workhorse, a consummate actor and he shows up ready to go. I knew it was the happiest day of my life getting this movie made. It was a long journey, but to start the shooting and see Isabel behind the camera and Sir Ben next to me in his turban, I'll never forget that day as long as I live. It was a remarkable day in my life and my career.
Patricia, the movie took nine years to make? That's a long time.
Just because of circumstances. Look, it's two middle-aged people in a car in Manhattan. You can't fake it. We can't drive around Toronto. We have to shoot in one of the most expensive cities in the world. You can't take away the driving car scenes. That's the movie, so it was a difficult journey. What was great was that I arrived in a much better place to play Wendy nine years later than I would have been had I played her at 45. I needed nine more years of life, but I didn't know it. After all the doors slamming in my face, that one beautiful, amazing door opened. But I had a lot of life in that time and it was all fodder for playing Wendy. So it was great.
Please describe your acting process for Learning to Drive.
Patricia and I in Learning to Drive
remained very much in our own bubbles. I remained very much in Darwan Singh Tur's still bubble, very still and centered, and she remained in her crazy, neurotic, blurry-lined, wiggly-lined bubble and we sustained that throughout the shoot. We hardly spoke during takes. Patricia and I didn't feel the need to blur the lines of our respective bubbles. Because we sustained that throughout the entire shoot, when it came time to meet and have coffee, that scene pays off because we kept faithful to our characters. Apparently the film is gloriously funny, and I've seen it with an audience now twice, and they explode with laughter. And the sadness and the pathos, how we stay faithful to our respective characters and allowed them to interact without blurring the lines. It was a wonderful discipline to share with Patricia, and we trust each other. Therefore she and I would never take it amiss that we didn't talk to each other all day, apart from our lines. We'd never say, 'Are you alright?' Because we knew we were just doing our jobs.
Sir Ben and I are friends, and we needed to make sure that we didn't merge at inappropriate times in the film and ruin the beauty of it. We adore one another from top to bottom, where I'm lucky enough to call him my friend. So I always knew the friendship was there, but we had to remain in our separate worlds. It was important for the film.
Sir Ben, you were hilarious in the film, which was a nice change of pace. Patricia, you're often regarded as a character actor, so it was great to see you in a leading role again.
[Kicks leg up] Does a character actor have legs like this? Come on. I am both. It's the life I wanted. Here's the thing. I do do characters and I love it. But I, from the time I was a young actress at Yale, I always wanted to play characters and be a leading lady, and I finally reached this place. Be careful what you wish for. I've arrived at this place, and it's maybe the best place you can be in this business, that people believe you can transform and people believe that you're sexy enough and are hot enough to be a leading lady and carry a film. So all of these labels I think used to bother me, but don't anymore. I am actually getting to do it all in this business, and it's the exact place I wanted to be. First and foremost, I love characters, and whether they're attractive or lovely or sexy beautiful, yahoo. If they're fraught, and I have to look plain or frumpy, I don't care. If it's a great character, I want to fill that part to the best of my ability.
You're also often typecast as the wife or mother character, yet you aren't either in reality.
Early on, I was pigeonholed as the suburban mom, yet I'm the most free-spirited person I know. I'm a 55-year-old woman who's never married and never had kids. I live a free-spirited life, baby, and yet I was suddenly being pigeonholed. But i'm a very emotional person, a very mercurial person and that I have been all my life. Those emotions have helped me in this business.
Sir Ben, you've played almost every single nationality. When you play an Indian-born character, however, is it more meaningful to you?
I's just about the character. On my mother's side, there's Russian Jewish. Thankfully I've been welcomed as a witness of the Holocaust by so many people now, because I've been privileged to play Simon Wiesenthal, Otto Frank and Isaac Stern, but I see them as extraordinary men caught in the vortex of terrifying historical events and how they live and breathe and survive and tell the stories of those events. So I don't think there's a specific cultural allegiance; it's just that I have a compulsion to tell stories and make them as human and as relevant as possible.
In playing Darwan Singh Tur, you're making history, since this is the first time that a Sikh character has been the primary protagonist of a major American motion picture and the first time that a Sikh role is being played by a major actor. Is all this meaningful to you?
I think this is kind of reflective. I'm looking back at the acting process. But for me, my acting process doesn't involve being emblematic in any way. My acting process involved individuating that wonderful man. I'm a portrait artist, but I have my voice, my body, my imagination and I don't have any paints. But I have to create that portrait, and I'm so focused just like that painter on that process. So an enormous help to compel me to be focused is my memory of my wonderful bodyguard on Gandhi
who was a Sikh. I worked with him in his presence and under his protection 24/7 pretty well for five months in his car and on set, watching me, all the time protecting me. I realized years later when I opened my eyes in the makeup room, because I keep them closed during make up, I realized on the first day that there he is, my old friend, Mr. Gumar.
So rather than investigate or be aware of the monumental statements that you just made, I thought of Mr. Gumar, my driver, and I made it limited and confined it to him. Only upon reflection I realize that, 'Wow, this hasn't happened before.'
What would you like viewers to take from Learning to Drive?
I have very modest ambitions for them. I hope and feel that audiences will have thoughts that they would not have had, had they not seen the film. That's the best I could hope for.