In “Learning to Drive,” Academy Award-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi”) plays Darwan, a humble Sikh cabdriver in New York City who takes a recently single N.Y. woman (Patricia Clarkson) under his wing and attempts to teach her how to drive. During a short interview about the film, Kingsley, 71, spoke to me about what drew him to the role of Darwan and described how it feels to teach someone something in real life.
What was it about your character Darwan that intrigued you to be a part of this film?
You know, the wonderful thing about playing my character Darwan is that I think he is a descendant from an ancient mythological figure called the ferryman. You get on the ferry on one bank of the river and he ferries you across to the other bank. When you disembark from his boat you feel like your molecules have been rearranged. You’ve learned something. You’re not quite sure what it is, but something has happened to you on that modest journey. I think Darwan, in a sense, is one of life’s ferrymen.
That’s a great way to describe him. What else do you think makes him unique character?
He’s incapable of being in someone else’s company without telling, giving or imparting some knowledge or some help. He’s a university professor who is exiled and can’t go back to India because of the violence against his family. I think in his DNA, he is a genuine teacher. He’s not a teacher hungry for power over his pupils. He’s much more democratic. He treats everyone as an equal. He’s very generous and very kind and a good and decent man.
It sounds like you really respect the character.
He was a wonderful character to play because he would probably be the kind of guy that describes himself as ordinary although he is extraordinary. He is a very gifted man. It’s impossible, I think, to spend time with guys like this and not feel like you’ve learned something. I have spent time with men like this, of course, on the film set – great directors, fellow actors. It’s changed something in me for good – forever. I think Darwan is one of those men.
What about the film itself? Was there anything specific that made it an attractive project to work on?
What was so attractive about the film is that it has its shadows and its light. It can be immensely funny as well as be immensely moving.
Darwan created a life for himself in the U.S. much different from the one he knew in India. How do you think he is able to do this and still keep his strength?
I think it is his decency. His brother was killed and his family was tortured in India. Exile is not a state I’m acquainted with, but I would imagine it is extremely difficult to start a new life on the premise of terrible loss.
And that loss is paralleled with the loss felt by Patricia Clarkson’s character Wendy right from the start, correct?
Yes, she also begins the film in a state of loss because her husband has just walked out on her.
Have you ever been a ferryman for someone? When is the last time you tried to teach something to someone? How well did it go?
I’ve had the opportunity to teach English literature to university students in America and in Europe. I’ve had wonderful opportunities to hold master classes in acting. It was very flattering. To work for two hours with these young students and not interrupt the process of delicate growth was very exciting. These students took very brave steps in front of maybe 150 of their colleagues. They did a difficult scene for maybe the first or second time in their life. I always asked them to rehearse something quite challenging. In the process of working with the students, I rediscovered a great deal about the wonderful process of acting and storytelling.