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Q&A – Fifty Dead Men Walking‘s Ben Kingsley Discusses the Protocol of Knighthood

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The title Fifty Dead Men Walking refers to the number of lives Martin McGartland is said to have saved by informing on the IRA — a real-life story, now fictionalized with Jim Sturgess as McGartland and Sir Ben Kingsley as the British intelligence agent (code name: Fergus) who handled him. Kingsley breaks down the dangerous game the two men play.

Q: Just to get it out of the way — what’s the protocol? Should we call you Ben or Sir Ben? Do you use it in daily life, or is it more like getting an honorary degree? 

A: It’s not honorary, it’s real. It’s a wonderful question of balance. American enthusiasm is very open and very contagious, and when British actors are about in the United States, you’ll get people coming up to you in restaurants or calling out from taxi cabs. English people are very different. They give off an aura of being completely unimpressed. And then they have this wonderful system whereby yearly they say, “We have seen you, we have heard you, and we’d like you to come to the palace.” To me, it makes sense.

A: He’s an ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances. I do know the part of the world he came from, the North of England, that’s the accent I used, surrounding the area of Manchester. The police easily recruited men there into the Special Branch, since that particular part of England was hit very hard by the mainland bombing campaign. But I wanted him to be somewhat envious of the MI5, which is why he’s so hard on them and so bitter. He actually wants to be one of them. It’s a class thing. MI5 tend to recruit from the upper classes, and he’s probably from a lower class family. So there’s resentment there, because he went to the wrong school. He thinks they’re all drinking sherry in their cocktail lounges in London, while he’s on the front line.

Q: Most of the time, it’s hard to read him.

A: He’s very skillful at recruiting people, so I had to make him unreadable, inscrutable, and so when there are cracks in the facade, and his natural flow of humanity seeps through, they’re perhaps highlighted more with this background of stillness. The challenge was as Jim [Sturgess]’s character comes from a very frenetic part of that society of Belfast, that I, as the puller of the strings, the puppeteer, making him jerk and dance about, bring a stillness to it. Actors can pick up each others rhythms; it can be very contagious to work with someone who is very physically hyperactive, who has tremendous energy. My challenge is don’t join in. Strangely enough, that being my actor’s challenge, it’s also the challenge of the character. Don’t join in.

Q: And yet he does join in…

A: And isn’t a better journey for the audience to see someone like that joining in, rather than someone who has been wagging their tail and salivating throughout the whole film?

Q: With your movie and The Baader Meinhof Complex, both out in the same week, each exploring the inner workings of the IRA and the RAF, respectively, what can we take from these history lessons to understand modern-day terrorism?

A: What we want to present is a really good thriller, and I think we have done so. And then you put it in context. I don’t think William Shakespeare wanted to explain to the audience the dynastic tribalism that existed in Verona, between two families. But their love story, between Romeo and Juliet, is tremendously heightened by that tribal element. And I think Jim and my character’s relationship is hugely jacked up by that context. But to set out to teach would be a disaster. We let the audience take what they will from it.

Q: Is that what’s at the heart of these films, tribalism?

A: I have appeared in so many films that the very heart of the dilemma is rooted in tribalism. To me, this is absolutely no exception. So whether it’s Schindler’s List or Ghandi, or some of the other films I’ve been privileged to do, it’s a central issue, this ludicrous tribalism that we’re caught in. And hopefully if we survive and look back, we’ll laugh at the era of tribalism.

Q: Will that be in our lifetimes? It seems to have existed for such a long time.

A: Yes, the dinosaurs existed for a long time, too. It means that it’s getting closer to its extinction. But it’s way beyond our lifetimes. We have to think in enormous sweeps, we can’t think of a generation or two.

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