This article contains spoilers for Iron Man 3.
Ben Kingsley is a man of the theater and, in turn, a man of the written word. He tells Hollywood.com that every movie he’s ever done has been because of the script. That includes this weekend’s Iron Man 3, written and directed by Hollywood legend, Shane Black.
“The dialogue all the way through, the arc, is all on the page,” Kingsley says. “I get everything from the page. Drew Pearce collaborated with Shane and brought that English dry humor to the writing. Honestly, because I spent so many years in the theater, 15 years, I grew to love the written word. I grew to love what’s on the page.”
When it came to playing Marvel’s ultimate terrorist, The Mandarin, Kingsley found every bit of personality, every nuanced gesture, every haunting word in writer/director Black’s script. Black knows a thing or two about writing action movies: he’s the scribe behind Lethal Weapon, Last Action Hero, and the hyper-stylized Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. So Kingsley felt no need — and Black and Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige gave him no pressure — to immerse himself in 50 years of comic book lore.
“They sent me a lovely box of illustrations and graphics. But their approach was so original and contemporary, that that was a wonderful jumping off point. The iconography is very different now. It’s very impactful,” Kingsley says.
The Mandarins is a rare achievement in blockbuster cinema, a layered character that is slowly deconstructed over the course of the film. The top layer is the amplified amalgamation of every terrorist ringleader world audiences have ever seen. Below that is a bumbling idiot: the fame-hungry, actor-wannabe Trevor.
Kingsley was particularly taken by Black’s interpretation of The Mandarin’s diabolical side. Although the persona is instantly recognizable, the actor keenly notes that rarely do we see terrorist types make bombastic threats. “The writing was beautiful to study and bring to life because there never is a mad rant,” he says. “There always is a steady, measured… it’s like torture. The drip. Chinese water torture.”
For a good chunk of the film, The Mandarin is presented through scratchy, lo-fi aesthetic often associated with terrorist broadcasts. He hits on every front: TV takeover broadcasts, YouTube videos, and even graphic propaganda spread across the country. They all depicted Kingsley’s over-the-top look, echoed by a voice he describes as “Presidential.” For Kingsley, it was all about embodying The Mandarin’s righteousness. “He has to convey to the TV audience the absolute belief in his vision of destiny, the future, culture, civilization, where it should go,” says the actor. “He has quite a grip on Western culture, history, iconography, and with almost a homegrown, patriarchal. He’s able to manipulate his knowledge. Turn it on its head. Vilify it. Mock it. Destroy it in front of the eyes of his TV audience during those horrendous political broadcasts that interrupt the airwaves.”
When the first trailers for Iron Man 3 arrived, Kingsley’s unrecognizable accent for The Mandarin was one of the biggest talking points. He explains that was all born a piece of Black’s dialogue. At one point, Tony Stark describes The Mandarin as sounding like “a preacher.”
“From the script also, The Mandarin refers to his lessons and refers to himself as a teacher. If you’re a teacher delivering lessons to the audience, it narrows down the target for the voice. It has to have the authority, the patriarchal tone to it. Almost patronizing and deliberate,” Kingsley says.
To interpret Black’s language, Kingsley turned to documentary footage. “I can watch speeches made in the 1930s and that sense of righteousness and destiny is there in the speech,” he says like a kid in a candy store. “They’re beautifully written, if that’s not too bizarre a phrase to use. They’re written to impact the audience with repetitive speech, certain rhythms, certain cadences, staying inside a word and elongating it.” Watching how influential figures operate while on stage, Kingsley says he “was able to graft them on to what The Mandarin is up to in front of the camera.”
Then came the other side of Mandarin’s duel personalities. Kingsley is no stranger to comedy, having gone toe-to-toe with Sacha Baron Cohen’s General Aladeen in 2012’s The Dictator. In Iron Man 3, he creates his feeblest character yet, a struggling thespian who can kick back a PBR regardless of the hour. Kingsley says Trevor, much like “The Mandarin,” is another tapestry of memories collected by the actor over his 40-year career in show business.
“It’s like building a mosaic,” Kingsley says. “You take little pieces of your experiences, your memory, and your past. Your acquaintances and those with whom you have worked. Maybe there are 4,000 pieces to that mosaic. I couldn’t count them. There are a lot of pieces that go into my work and it’s never a copy of one person.”
But really, he must have met at least one real-life Trevor in his time as an actor. Right? “Hundreds of them!”
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches