Oscar-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley, 71, talks to James Lawrence about wine, movies and why he never, ever reads reviews.
This commitment to diversity also extends to his wine collection: everything from Malbec to rare vintages of Château Haut-Brion. He remains one of the most diverse, successful, and compelling forces in cinema today. Not to mention, as the actor proclaims, a dab hand in the kitchen.
Kingsley grew up in Pendlebury, near Manchester and attended Manchester Grammar school, before studying at the University of Salford. Today he is widely known, of course, for his role as Gandhi, which won him the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1983. However, the actor is keen to emphasize that the seeds of his career were sown far earlier.
"You may believe my career started in the 1980s, but in fact it properly began in the late 1960s," he explains. "I joined the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) as an understudy and was basically parachuted into the craft, without any formal drama-school training. I was working on four plays each week, which involved eight shows in total. It was a demanding and very rewarding experience."
And as fans of his work will testify, Kingsley is anything but a one-trick pony. Rather than seeking out one particular type of role – the villain, the victim, etc – he says that he was conditioned by the RSC, or "wired up", as Kingsley puts it, to explore all the possible facets of the human condition. Indeed, a brief look at the actor's career shows a man who has moved from the light to dark with admirable ease. He has played a Nazi hunter, a Jewish businessman, an Iranian immigrant, Sweeney Todd, a psychopathic London gangster and Doctor Watson.
But today, the Oscar-winning actor is relaxing at his home in rural Oxfordshire. His mood is positively jubilant, for Kingsley's Brazilian wife Daniela Lavender – an accomplished actress herself – is due home in several days. "One of my favorite things to do when we're together is to cook," enthuses Kingsley. "I adore cooking and hopefully, Daniela enjoys what I prepare." I enquire as to whether Kingsley comes from a family of passionate cooks and suddenly the mood turns rather more serious. "No, I consider myself a completely self-made individual," comes the reply. "I didn't have a particularly good relationship with my parents and it would be dishonest to claim that they instilled a love of food and drink in me."
His favourite dishes, incidentally, are slow roasted guinea fowl and rack of lamb, paired with vegetables from his extensive garden. As for the wine pairing, he asks for guidance. I suggest a good Burgundy, perhaps an old Chambertin for the guinea fowl and some choice Rioja for the lamb. The 1994 Viña Ardanza to be precise.
The conversation then turns to the origins of his passion for wine.
"I can't honestly say when my first sip was, or when I developed an interest in wine," he says. "The truth is that my reference point is the context, rather than say the brand or region. I have been given many lovely bottles from directors and fellow actors over the years, bottles which I treasure – wine is all about the occasion, not the grape variety!" But he does concede that when he visits his favorite churrascaria in Brazil with Daniela, the wine always has to be Malbec, context or no context.
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Kingsley then excitedly starts to pull out bottles from his diverse collection. A magnum of Highgrove Champagne was a gift from Prince Charles, for the actor's work in support of his charity, The Prince's Trust. Next to it is a bottle of Petite Arvine, from Gérard-Philippe Mabillard.
"It is quite common to receive bottles of wine at the end of a film production," he explains. "For example, this case of Domaine Ott Clos Mireille Rosé was a gift from Sir Anthony Hopkins, after we completed filming Autobahn." In a similar vein, the director of Sexy Beast, Jonathan's Glazer, bequeathed Kingsley a bottle of 1998 Bergerac sec.
He also owns some choice bottles of Bordeaux, including a magnum of 2006 Château Gruaud-Larose, a gift from Martin Scorsese after they filmed Hugo together. Next to the Saint-Julien second growth is a bottle of 1967 Château Haut-Brion, although he refuses to divulge where it came from.
But does this mean that he covets only the expensive and very rare in the world of wine. "Not at all," comes the quick-as-a-flash reply. "I'm open to anything." On a day-to-day basis Kingsley buys his wine from a local wine club, and is content to "sample anything at least once".
As the interview draws to a close, Kingsley once again affirms that his cellar isn't full of super-expensive brands. "A lot of people are struggling," he says. "I don't want your readers to imagine that my house is groaning with Champagne."
He then enthusiastically outlines his upcoming releases. These include Selfless and Learning to Drive, a film directed by Isabel Coixet. The latter film chronicles the budding relationship between a Sikh driving instructor – Kingsley – and a Manhattan-based writer, brought together by fate and mutual marriage woes. "I never want to retire," Kingsley admits. "I love my craft too much and I'm constantly refining it."
I quickly snatch one final question before we part company – does he take criticism of his work personally? "I haven't read a review since 1985, James," he says. "Some actors spend hours in their trailer searching for any possible reference to their work on the internet – it distracts them when they're on set."
But what about critical assessment of wines and Parker scores – does he pay that any heed? "Not at all," he replies. "I'll always make up my own mind."