- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

“House of Sand and Fog” may prove emotionally hard on audiences, but it would be rather scandalous to overlook Sir Ben Kingsley’s performance in the principal role when choosing the Academy Award nominees for best actor of 2003.

Knighted two years ago by Queen Elizabeth II, the distinguished character actor was the 1982 Oscar winner for his portrayal of the title character in Richard Attenborough’s biographical epic “Gandhi.”

In “Sand and Fog,” he portrays a proud, aristocratic, aggrieved Iranian exile: Col. Massoud Amir Behrani, a former air force officer who resigned himself to decades of professional struggle in the United States after being forced to flee with other loyalists when the shah was deposed. Just when it appears that a desirable property deal might enhance his prospects, the colonel discovers that he has purchased a house that the former owner, an unstable young woman played by Jennifer Connelly, is loathe to vacate.

The role of Behrani began seeking him out well in advance of the film production, the first feature of a Russian emigre named Vadim Perelman, graduating from a successful career in commercials and music videos. The movie derives from a novel of the same title by Andre Dubus III. The author’s wife had sent a pre-publication copy to Mr. Kingsley in 1999 “with a very charming cover letter,” the actor says in a recent phone conversation. “She wanted me to know that her husband had an image or silhouette similar to my own in mind.”

Mr. Kingsley, who turns 60 tomorrow, admired the book and then the screenplay, co-written by Mr. Perelman and Shawn Lawrence Otto. It wasn’t exactly a secret that he was the first, and perhaps only, choice to play Behrani. The director has acknowledged, “I did not have to direct him; he simply embodied the role.”

The actor confirms an affinity with the material that echoed from first acquaintance with the novel to first acquaintance with Mr. Perelman. “Behrani was speaking to something inside me,” Mr. Kingsley attests.” “I’ve always felt a connection with military men, with warriors. … Through my Shakespearean years in the theater, I always responded to the poetic side of his martial characters. Something between this modern character and myself connected as soon as I knew he had been a colonel and then again when I put on his uniform. I did no extraneous research at all.”

Favorably impressed by the adaptation, Mr. Kingsley met Mr. Perelman poolside at the Chateau Marmont Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. He thought the script itself had Shakespearean virtues. “It was perfectly balanced,” he explains. “You can never detect it praising or condemning the behavior of one character more than another. Having done a lot of Shakespeare, I think I have a good eye for such balanced texts. Those are the stories that can hold an audience.”

Born Krisha Banji in Yorkshire, Mr. Kingsley is the son of a British actress-model and a doctor whose Indian parents had emigrated to England from South Africa. There was nothing coercive about that decision, according to the actor.

“Quite unlike the Behranis, who would have been doomed in Iran after the fall of the shah, migration was relatively comfortable for my grandparents,” he says. “My acquaintance with the dilemma of whole families fleeing for their lives had been confined to certain movies: ‘Schindler’s List’ of course, and more recently the TV movie ‘Anne Frank: The Whole Story,’ in which I played Anne’s father, Otto.

“There is a strong connection between Behrani and Otto in their sense of loss. What I always try to do is reduce every part to a little diamond of mythological truth. In this case, there’s a warrior who has lost his king and his kingdom. Then, finally, he loses a prince, in the person of his adored son. It’s almost as if it could have happened 3,000 years ago.”


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