Sir Ben Kingsley is one of the most versatile of actors. His range is simply astonishing.
The British actor garnered one of his handful of Oscar nominations for playing an off-his-rocker gangster in 2000’s “Sexy Beast.” He earned another nod for his role as an Iranian patriarch in 2003’s “House of Sand and Fog.”
He has portrayed real-life figures Dmitri Shostakovich, Simon Wiesenthal and the Jewish accountant of the title character in “Schindler’s List.”
Just this year, he has played a Russian detective (“Transsiberian”), a doped-out shrink (“The Wackness”), a hit man’s boss (“War, Inc.”) and a cross-eyed guru’s guru (“The Love Guru”).
With the opening this week of “Elegy,” based on Philip Roth’s novel of sexual possessiveness, “The Dying Animal,” add cultural critic to that list. Mr. Kingsley plays a professor whose obsessive affair with a student, played by Penelope Cruz, puts paid to his womanizing ways.
Mr. Kingsley, speaking by telephone, says none of those roles would have transpired if he hadn’t won an Oscar for the one that made him famous — the title role in 1982’s “Gandhi.”
“That was the golden gate, really, that allowed me into the business that I love,” he says. “If it hadn’t been me, we wouldn’t be talking right now, guaranteed.”
It’s hard to believe Mr. Kingsley’s prodigious talent wouldn’t have made him famous, regardless of one decision academy members made 25 years ago. What has made him more than famous — what has made him respected — are the decisions he has made since then. The young rising actress Olivia Thirlby, one of his co-stars in “The Wackness,” says she looks up to him because it seems there’s nothing he’s afraid to try. He’s an Oscar-winning actor knighted by the queen, but regularly takes on interesting roles in smaller films.
“I’m some sort of a trapeze artist,” Mr. Kingsley says. “From a risk of flying through the air from one trapeze in thin air through the void and grabbing another trapeze and hearing the audience gasp and me gasp, too, is very much how I visualize what I do for a living.
“I’m also a committed storyteller, but I can’t tell stories without taking risks. I don’t deserve the audience’s attention unless I take risks, just like the trapeze artist doesn’t deserve the audience’s attention unless he or she takes risks.”
Mr. Kingsley has mastered all manner of accents in his long career, but he chose to use his own in “Elegy.” Mr. Roth’s creation is American, but Mr. Kingsley’s is a British expat.
“I found it really energizing and exciting that our lives are very different,” he says of his character. “What made it more challenging for me was to allow the portrait to come as dangerously close to me physically as possible, my face, my voice, my clothes.”
He says the tactic let him “be more vulnerable.”
“I would explore that very delicate transition from resistance to intimacy to surrender to intimacy in a way that’s delicate and truthful. My voice didn’t change when talking to the director between takes and Penelope between takes,” he says. “Sometimes using an accent is liberating, but not in this case.”
Some might wonder whether there are other, nonphysical parallels between the actor and his character. The professor constantly worries about losing his young, beautiful lover, a Cuban immigrant, to a younger, better-looking man. Mr. Kingsley himself is 64 and got married last year to a Brazilian actress in her early 30s.
“That whole journey between the two of us,” he says of his and Miss Cruz’s characters, “is to acknowledge and accept the fact that, with great fortune and God’s guiding, they have found their equal partners and there is a commitment there. That made it possible for me to do this and dedicate my performance to my wife wholeheartedly. Behind my choice to be in the film is because I’m now there.”
It’s a rather personal revelation, and he ends it with a laugh, “You’ve got more out of me than anyone else has.”