Sir Ben Kingsley lends his extraordinary voice to the diabolical Archibald Snatcher in LAIKA’s breathtakingly beautiful 3D stop-motion animated adventure, The Boxtrolls, loosely based on Alan Snow’s best-selling children’s book Here Be Monsters! The mischievous, trash-collecting creatures known as Boxtrolls live beneath the cobblestoned streets of Cheesebridge where they struggle to elude the evil Snatcher who claims they have stolen an orphan (Isaac Hempstead Wright). Snatcher is determined to exterminate them in exchange for admittance into the town’s elite White Hats. Opening September 26th, the film also stars Elle Fanning, Nick Frost and Tracy Morgan.
At our roundtable interview, Kingsley revealed what convinced him to bring to life an animated villain, why he found Snatcher a great character to play, how the script rang true as a refreshing family film, his unique approach to voicing his character, how he found the recording experience very freeing, why he appreciated a narrative that revealed the darker side of life, his satisfaction at seeing what the animators did with his character, the parallels between Snatcher and tragic Shakespearean characters like Richard III and Iago, and his enthusiasm for his upcoming films Learning to Drive and Robot Overlords. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
KINGSLEY: I haven’t done much of this before. I was sent the most beautiful script which rang true. It rang true from the honest starting point for a family film, which I think is a very bold, very mature move. Orphans. They go through a struggle. They fight some very dark forces, and they achieve their own light, their own friendship, and their own future. To present this as a family film is very refreshing. I’m sorry to say that I think family films often wipe off the top two generations of the family and say, “Anyone taller than this table won’t like this movie.” That is stupid because it’s not a family film. But this is. It will have resonance for all the members of the family who see it.
I say it’s rooted in truth because I can tell a good script from a bad. My former years as an actor were with tremendously good writers, one in particular. Therefore, the way that this rang true, the way the patterns of human behavior in terms of loneliness, of longing, of care, of nurturing, of loss, of greed, of power, of indifference, they’re all there on the canvas. They’re all beautifully etched. So, it was not a great leap for me to say absolutely yes to the script.
Can you talk a little about your unusual approach to voicing Snatcher and how you found the recording experience?
KINGSLEY: I saw the drawing of the chap and saw that he was physically very different from me. Therefore, my voice would have to come from a different place. I’d have to find a voice that resonated from a very different place and would include all those frailties, those inadequacies, those longings, those addictions, delusions, narcissism and vanity. The guy is a mess held together by an absolute determination to be admitted into a club that does not want him. Because it’s so perfectly written, any actor would recognize that’s the worst thing to do to that guy. The worst thing you can do to that guy is to say, “You can’t come in,” because sooner or later, he’ll smash the door down. And he does. He demonizes a whole tribe of people, who actually have nurtured and looked after an orphan beautifully, who are creative, inventive, loving, and bonded, and they create their own civilization by what upper ground throws away. They never steal. They actually just use what is discarded, and they make their world out of it.
Given that the character is so beautifully presented to me as a portrait artist, my portrayal involved finding a voice that was completely relaxed, not my own. I invited the recording studio to build a kind of airplane seat. It took them five minutes. They had everything in the studio. They had everything there – a reclining chair, something to put my feet on. They were great. Move the microphone, move the script panel, and I did the whole thing reclining, lying down. It also helped me not to make physical gestures. When we speak, we tend to augment our language with our mannerisms. If I did that, it would perhaps lessen or shrink what I was giving the animators. If I had to push something with my physical gesture, it means my voice isn’t doing enough. So, I was completely still, which I found very, very freeing as you say. I didn’t impose many limits on myself other than, of course, the character’s journey and his narrative function in the piece.
KINGSLEY: Tony was mostly in the studio with me in England, not in America, and he helped me a great deal by letting me know that certain vocal mannerisms that I acquired as the character were great gifts to the animator. He said, “The animators will love them. When you do that, they can do all sorts of extraordinary things with them.” So I played with elongating my vowel sounds. I played putting the letter “H” where it shouldn’t be in a word to try and sound posh. All those little mannerisms he encouraged me to make them part of my bit of the portrait. Then, the rest of my portrait, which is unprecedented for me, is to say to the other department, “Do my body language.” I’ve never done that before. It’s always been me. But I delegated the whole lot, because I had to, to the animators, to the guys who work with these people.
What were your impressions once you saw what the animators did with your work?
KINGSLEY: They put something together that they sent me, a speech that Snatcher gives to his goons, to his stooges, about ambition, about how some creatures are of limited ambition and would be locked in their own small ambitions and world, and others are capable of great ambition. It’s politically a horrible speech when you examine it. It’s pretty nasty. I enjoyed very free rein, lying down in the studio, letting this voice come out. I saw this clip. He’s walking down a flight of stairs. They accompanied one of my words with an amazingly narcissistic gesture of brushing back these awful threads of hair that he has hanging down. I thought, “Now I’ve nothing to worry about. It’s absolutely everything I’m trying to do. He’s there in that puppet.” It was an extraordinary exercise really.
You might be the first cross-dressing animated character.
KINGSLEY: (Laughs) Please kill the rumors that I wore a wig and corsets in that booth.
You talked about the truth of the film which hit a chord with me when I saw it.
I thought it was interesting the adults had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, but that can often be the viewpoint of someone who’s five or six or seven years old.
KINGSLEY: Whether it’s the viewpoint or not, the fact is that if you’re going to offer a story, a narrative to the audience about orphans struggling, you have to have a tidal wave against which they have to struggle. It can be indifference. It can be abandonment. It can be incarceration. It can be domineering cruelty. But, because they are wonderful, kind adults, let me reassure you, in the narrative, our heroine and hero have to struggle through the darker side of life. I congratulate LAIKA on having the courage to say, “Look, boys and girls, it’s not about cherries.” It’s really courageous, because I don’t think anything is learned by a movie — this must remain strictly at this table (laughter) – I’m not so sure about feel good movies. I’m not so sure.
KINGSLEY: Yes. It is.
Do you see elements of Richard III in this film?
KINGSLEY: Totally. But, you see, the wonderful thing about Richard III is that his first soliloquy is in front of the audience, and he explains exactly how he’s feeling, and he explains how he’s going to behave. He tells them, “Look, I’m mangled and wounded, and I’m going to get the crown.” And Snatcher is in a sense. He cannot take rejection. There’s a reason for that. I don’t know what the reason is. But there is a reason for his absolute inability to be rejected. It turns him into a maniac. It turns him into a fury. I saw a splendid production of Richard III ages ago. I’ve not played the man myself. I could see what he was doing, but I couldn’t see why. I wasn’t allowed to join into why. And really, I think the why in Richard is it hurts to be me. There is always something about the villains that I’m able to play, quote unquote, that isn’t villainous. It’s just very vulnerable and wounded. So, I used that with Archibald Snatcher. Yes, Richard III, and Iago is another great analogy, because Iago begins the play by saying, “I’ve just been passed over for promotion.” And the world will suffer. And it does. At the end of Othello, Iago is responsible for about seven deaths.
It’s a very class conscious movie.
KINGSLEY: It is. Yes.
The hero and the villain are both trying to transform. The hero wants to know who he is and reclaim his family, whereas the villain wants to move up the ladder even though it’s shown very clearly that there’s nothing of substance at the top.
KINGSLEY: And he’s allergic to it.
At the end, it’s not like other kids movies where Snatcher is brought down by the destruction of this machine. He does himself in, in a much quieter scene, where he has a choice to turn away, but he doesn’t. Did you find a tragic element to it?
KINGSLEY: Oh totally. Yes. I totally embrace the tragic element of his destiny. His arc is doomed because of the way he’s been constructed, the way he has arrived, the way the gods have made him. The gods have fashioned him that way. And yet, in the script, and hopefully in my portrait, and hopefully in the bigger context of the movie, there is that thread of tragedy, absurdity, danger, redemption, reunification, all the threads. I definitely warmed to the wound which eventually will consume him. Cheese is a great metaphor for success or power. Power will absolutely corrupt Snatcher. Absolutely. And he has the choice. He thinks by being empowered he’ll even conquer his addiction. “It happens to other people. It won’t happen to me.” Bang!
KINGSLEY: Where do I begin? (laughs) Some of them are total lies, but I think it’s about 11 actually. Learning to Drive I’m particularly fond of. And Robot Overlords, I’m looking forward to that one. That’s going to the London Film Festival. But Learning to Drive I think is coming to Toronto, and I’m very excited to see not how it’s received but how it touches people, how it affects them.
Coming from different cultures and having a diverse family background and grown children who have their own families now, what do your family gatherings and holidays look like?
KINGLEY: Well it’s very hard for an actor to answer that because my pattern of life is so random that there are no such things as holidays per se with a capital “H” because I can be working anywhere in the world. My children appreciate this. As long as we keep in touch by email and telephone, everything is fine. No one ever says, “But it’s family.” No one ever says that, because for me, that’s nonsense. Family is family over the internet, over Skype, over the telephone. Love is love. You don’t have to actually go through some ritual to prove that you love somebody. They all accept Dad’s very busy and God bless him. I’ve looked after them well. They’ve all got homes thanks to good old Dad. They’re happy. They’re safe. It’s fine.