Oscar winner Ben Kingsley has played world leaders and sociopathic villains. But in Learning to Drive, the 71-year-old actor portrays a humble New York cab driver from India named Darwan. Through happenstance, Darwan meets Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), a renowned book critic in the throes of a divorce. As seen in the trailer above, the license-less Wendy seeks Darwan out as a driving instructor.
Sir Ben spoke with Yahoo Movies about the film, in select theaters August 21, what makes a “great arc for an actor,” and the “remarkable” feeling of connecting with moviegoers.
On the surface, Learning to Drive is a story about romantic relationships — but at its heart, the film is about something less predictable.
It’s about two people who are brought together accidentally. But I often think when people are brought together by accident, it’s for a reason. They’re brought together and stay together, which is more important. They choose to stay together. He chooses to be her driving instructor and she chooses to continue to be a pupil. That’s a very important aspect of the film… It’s not as though they’re trapped together by circumstances, though it’s based on an accident — [Wendy] leaving something in the back of his cab, which he chivalrously returns because he’s a very decent man.
How important is it to tell real stories of real lives?
We were blessed with a good script to start with. Isabel [Coixet]’s direction is very perceptive, very empathetic, completely unsentimental, and at the same time caring for her characters in a very appropriate manner. She operates the camera, you know… She’s looking down the lens, seeing exactly what you will see sitting in the audience. This is a huge attribute for any director. I think Isabel, amongst other female directors with whom I’ve worked, is able to place male vulnerability on film in a very particular way because it’s seen from a female perspective. She uses male vulnerability in her films — in Elegy [2008, also starring Clarkson, and Penélope Cruz], which I did with her, and in Learning to Drive she uses male vulnerability as an asset and not as a fault. It’s a gift: The vulnerable male embraces vulnerability.
Darwan isn’t just generically Indian, he’s Sikh, and he’s been persecuted for his beliefs. How did you want to go about revealing this part of his story?
What I’m hoping to achieve in my portrayal is to show a decent man. I’m referred to by Wendy as “a good man.” That’s not a sentimental statement. It’s an earned statement. He was struggling in exile and many of his family were killed. It’s a great arc for an actor.
At one point in the film, Darwan gets called “Osama bin Laden” simply for wearing a turban. Was it difficult being subjected to that overt racism?
All I can do is empathize with my character and make that a crucial part of the story. The script demands that it’s there. Darwan says he deals with it quite a lot… he says “every day.” Later on in the film he says, “If I take off my turban and shave my beard, I won’t be me.” It must be that constant debate with the new immigrant of how much he or she relinquishes — whether it’s a terrible cost or whether it’s a price to pay. I enjoyed being able to portray that moment because I enjoyed its honesty.
With Iron Man 3, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Disney’s upcoming live-action version of The Jungle Book, you do your share of blockbuster-caliber films. For smaller-scale projects like this one, what to you seek in a role?
It’s the arc of the role; the journey; how you get from A to B or A to Z; whether or not that story is worth telling. [I ask myself,] “Why is the film is made in the first place?” If I can tick those boxes then it’s mostly satisfying [to me]. After The House of Sand and Fog, I was shopping in L.A. and a whole Iranian family approached me in quite a sincere and remarkable way. They said, “How did you know about our uncle?” I found that so beautiful that I was telling their story. … That was a really beautiful event. … All of them were saying the same thing: “How did you know about us?” With a lovely warm welcoming smile: You are one of our storytellers. It’s beautiful to be given the opportunity to portray a sliver, a slice, a fragment of the great human dance, and have it touch somebody.