Ben Kingsley talks about ''Oliver Twist
Every adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist needs a Fagin. The pickpocket gang leader has been played by Lon Chaney, Alec Guinness, even Dom DeLuise (in Disney’s talking-dog ‘toon retelling, Oliver & Company). For his unsentimental take on the character, director Roman Polanski tapped 61-year-old Ben Kingsley — or Sir Ben, as the actor has enjoyed being called since getting knighted in 2002. We caught up with the Oscar winner (for 1982’s Gandhi) to talk about the role.
You’ve gotten great reviews for Twist. I never read them, so I’m just gonna say, Oh, good.
What were Polanski’s initial ideas? He basically wants to play everyone — Oliver, Fagin, Nancy. So I had this pyrotechnical display in his apartment [in Paris] of Roman doing all the parts. I sat there totally amused, then went away and did my own cooking. From the first screen test, he loved my Fagin.
You stayed in character on set. Why? Because of the little boys [who play Fagin’s gang]. I thought, It’s better for them. And therefore, Fagin developed a relationship with Roman. Fagin never quite worked out what Roman did. Fagin used to say to him every morning, ”Hello. Who are you?” During one conversation, Roman looked at me and said, ”I can’t believe it’s you in there.”
You get a great mad scene at the end, which is in the book but rarely in adaptations. A lot of journalists say, ”But that’s not in the book!” That’s because they probably haven’t read the book.
You make Fagin very sympathetic. Is he ultimately a villain? He’s a flawed, manipulative parent. All I can say as an actor is, I can’t judge him. That has to be my starting point. Not a villain.