The Mahatma he's notma. A not so gentle Ben Kingsley returns with a vengeance in the best-bet noir ''Sexy Beast''

By Scott Brown
June 22, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
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”I love you. Why don’t you love me? It’s not fair.” This is Ben Kingsley talking, and it’s heartbreaking. Right here, in the lobby of New York’s Regency Hotel, this listener is ready to get down on his knees and beg the actor’s forgiveness — if only he’ll avert that sad, soulful gaze, the one that freed India nearly 20 years ago.

But Kingsley isn’t addressing anyone in particular — it only feels that way, sitting at the focal point of those piercing brown eyes. No, he’s simply explaining — with passionate enthusiasm — what drives Don Logan, the barking-mad Sarf London thug he plays in ”Sexy Beast.” The sun-splashed gangster drama, which opened in limited release on June 13, has kindled brushfire-like buzz with its id-riddled tale of a cockney hood (”Nil by Mouth”’s Ray Winstone) riled out of retirement by Kingsley’s relentless Logan. What’s more, the 57-year-old Oscar winner’s rabid, expletive-laced performance is being hailed as a major boost for what many regarded as a career in remission: For every ”Schindler’s List” or ”Bugsy,” there’s a ”What Planet Are You From?”

In retrospect, the feral Logan seems a natural antidote to a lifetime of pensive roles. But while Kingsley knew he could handle raving mania — he had, after all, played a barbarous barber in the 1998 TV movie ”The Tale of Sweeney Todd” — others weren’t so sure. ”When a director is somewhat baffled, thinking of me for a role, he says, ‘Mmmm…interesting,”’ he laughs. ”Meaning: Nothing could be further from my mind than casting Ben Kingsley as a psychopathic villain.”

Still, according to Kingsley, one meeting with ”Sexy Beast” helmer Jonathan Glazer, a creator of Guinness commercials and Radiohead videos, was enough to seal the deal. That’s not to say the first-time feature director didn’t have reservations.

”Jonathan felt, and justifiably so, that my previous work depended largely on my ability to show the audience the intelligence of the character,” recalls Kingsley. ”He thought it might be difficult for me to play a rottweiler.”

”Two minutes into his audition, I had changed my mind,” recalls Glazer. ”Ben managed to make profanity sound like Shakespeare. He just attacked the role.”

But just because he’s playing a man who considers pistol-whipping the mildest form of diplomacy doesn’t mean Kingsley has given up his famous vulnerability. He sees ”Sexy Beast” as a sort of dysfunctional love story between two soldiers, an uneasy union with deep literary resonance. ”I don’t play the bad, I play the wound,” he explains. ”Like ‘Richard III.’ He comes on stage and says, ‘Why was I born like this? I’ll get somebody for this.”’ That’s probably not how Gandhi would put it. But as he’d surely tell you himself, Ben Kingsley is not Gandhi.

Born Krishna Bhanji in Yorkshire, England, Kingsley was raised a fully assimilated Briton by his Indian father and half-Jewish mother. Perhaps this variegated pedigree accounts for his many on-screen ethnic identities: Besides Indians and Jews, he’s played Italians, Russians, and, naturally, Englishmen. Cue-bald and putty-skinned, he’s all ambiguity, mutability, a compact ball of living clay.

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  • 88 minutes
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