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Ben Kingsley plays Meyer Lansky

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Whenever producer Mark Johnson told people he had cast Ben Kingsley in a key role in Bugsy, he always received the same response: ”You got Gandhi to play Meyer Lansky?” While Kingsley has been active on stage and in film for over 20 years, he is still best remembered for his 1982 Oscar-winning performance as the man who led India to independence. What compelled Kingsley to play the legendary mob boss? ”You should ask them why they wanted me,” the actor says bluntly. ”I don’t get compulsions or fascinations about roles. I’m sort of a freelance actor.”

Kingsley, 47, was selected to play the part only 10 days before filming began, but he proved himself to be a quick study, reading what he could and listening to tapes of the real Lansky. ”He had one, maybe two sessions with a voice coach,” Johnson recalls, ”and at some point it clicked, and he said, ‘Okay, it’s fine, I’ve got it.”’ The actor’s take on Lansky is one grounded in Eastern Europe, and Lansky’s hardscrabble immigrant beginnings. ”He was a patriarch in the best Judaic tradition,” says Kingsley, himself the son of Indian immigrants. ”He was only a small step away from Henry Kissinger in terms of diplomatic panache and accuracy.”

While different in background from many of his fellow actors in Bugsy — Kingsley is known for his Royal Shakespeare Company portrayals of Othello and Hamlet, among others — he has nothing but praise for the collaboration. ”There’s no one I came across where I thought, ‘This is not going to work, the rapport is nonexistent, I’m gonna have to act my way around this part.’ Because I hate acting, and whenever I can avoid acting, I will. In all the best films, when you’re with the best cast and the best director, the acting is seamless, and that’s what we all aspire to.”

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