Ben Kingsley and Jason Mantzoukas Discuss 'The Dictator'

Friday, 18 May 2012 09:35 Written by  Dana Gardner
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Ben Kingsley and Jason Mantzoukas Discuss 'The Dictator'

On the same day that Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as General Aladeen, led an elaborate, absurd, and hilarious press conference at the Waldorf Astoria for his new film, The Dictator, a slightly more serious press conference was conducted with the films supporting actors, Sir Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Schindler’s List) and Jason Mantzoukas (Baby Mama, The League). The Dictator, which is now playing everywhere, stars Sacha Baron Cohen as Supreme Leader, Chief Ophthalmologist, and excellent swimmer, General Aladeen, a misogynistic, anti-Semitic dictator of a fictional country in northern Africa called The People’s Republic of Wadiya. Sir Ben Kingsley plays Aladeen’s scheming uncle and Jason Mantzoukas plays Aladeen’s Chief Nuclear Scientist.

Along with other members of the press, I had a chance to sit down with Sir Ben Kingsley and Jason Mantzoukas to discuss The Dictator. The actors discussed the energy of New York City, what it was like working with Sacha Baron Cohen, trying not to break character, the phrase ‘just kidding,’ improvisation, Arab Spring, accents, and beards.

Sir Ben Kingsley has worked with Sacha Baron Cohen before in Martin Scorsese’s, Hugo, so I started the press conference off by asking Kingsley what it was like working with Cohen on this particular movie and that if he stayed in character when the cameras weren’t filming. Kingsley explained, “From what I could gather, and what I enjoyed, was an observed ritual: about two or three minutes before going into a take he would go into character. I found it admirable and fascinating. He is the opposite of the Dictator; he’s the polar opposite. The man he’s playing cares little for his country, less for his people, and holds most of the rest of the world in utter contempt. That’s the polar opposite of Sacha Baron Cohen who has a massive humanitarian heart. So for him to have the peripheral vision of judging the comedic rhythm of the whole film with our director, Larry Charles, and then to have to jump into a character that’s opposite of himself is admirable. Sometimes he would clap his way into character, sometimes he would sing, sometimes he would chant his way into the role. I found it really admirable and necessary because Sacha is playing the polar opposite of himself. That is always challenging and exhilarating but it does take a huge amount of effort and concentration.”

Jason Mantzoukas then added, “and doing it relentlessly day after day; that’s the thing.” One day it’s him in a scene with me, the next it’s him in a scene with Ben, then him in a scene with Anna Faris. The days were long; sometimes I would ask him how he’s not passing out right now. It seemed like a Herculean task.” Kingsley also noted, “and on four hours of sleep some nights. We would wrap and have an adult beverage or not and Sacha would then leave to go work with the writers for another three hours for the next day’s shooting. He would still be as fresh and open and as welcoming the next day.” Mantzoukas recalled a time when they had finished shooting after a 14 hour day, “I was so excited to go home, I’m going to eat a hamburger, and crash, and Sacha told me he was about to go do four hours of wig testing where they would just come in and test different beard wigs. I couldn’t believe it.”

The actors were then asked what it was like shooting in New York City. Mantzoukas thought it was wonderful to shoot in the city, “there was something electric about being in New York City, especially shooting a movie that uses so many of the city’s landmarks. The scene when we were shooting on the edge of the 59th Street Bridge was gorgeous and truly felt like big movie making.” Kingsley added, “The city fed our energy. New York has such a high energy, and it fed us as well. The city fed our energy twenty-four seven which was really stimulating. It’s a great place to film. I love filming here, particularly on this project.”

Kingsley was then asked why he wanted to play a character in The Dictator, especially since he doesn’t frequently appear in comedies. He stated, “we see photographs or news reel footage or clips of these guys, these dictators, and very often I’ve noticed that just behind him is a guy in dark glasses in a uniform or suit with a big expensive watch, looking very anxious, a little bit paranoid as to what the dictator is going to do or say next because his job and his future and all of his corrupt dealings depend on what that guy says. Rather than approach it as comedy, I approached him as one of those archetypal guys who is always there and he’s been there for centuries. He was probably there standing behind Julius Caesar: the ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ guy. It’s someone who’s very corrupt and sadly a real part of our political milieu at the moment. Trying to pin him down and that relationship is what attracted me to the role.”

Mantzoukas was asked how he arrived at the accent that he used in the film and about what personal traits he brought to the role. He explained, “the accent came from an accent I’ve done for a while now, as kind of a random ethnic man. As an actor working in Hollywood I get called on a lot to be anything light brown basically. That accent is a little bit Middle Eastern; I’m Greek so there’s a little bit of my grandfather in that accent. Then we worked with a great language coach, Howard Samuelsohn, who also worked with Sacha on his accent. We were going to be doing these very argumentative scenes so working with the same language coach to make it sound as though we were speaking the same type of language was important. A lot of the things I was doing initially had sounds that were not what Sacha’s sounds were like. So we worked with Howard Samuelsohn who was actually terrific; I found it really helpful in terms of locking down an accent that was specific to what we were doing but was not specific to any country. It was not like we were doing an Iranian accent or an Egyptian accent. It was pulling from all different places, which I thought was great. And regarding what personal traits I brought to the role, pretty much ‘giant beard’. That’s what I brought!” Kingsley was quick to add, “and his charm!”

The actors were asked if it was difficult to not break character and laugh since it was such a funny movie. Kingsley stated that he and Jason were so swept into the narrative: “the beauty of this film is that it’s not a series of dislocated gags. It has a very strong narrative thrust. Although Sacha is monumentally funny to be with and to be inches away from we were so entrenched in our own corner of the narrative, in our own characters. Surprisingly little breaking of character would happen during the takes. In a sense it’s a wonderful acting exercise in keeping that energy contained and if you break character you’re actually expelling a lot of creative energy. Its challenging as in life it would be challenging to not laugh at the ludicrous dictator who’s being idiotic in front of you. So that parallelsthe acting challenge that we have on set. To laugh would be to come out of character and that would be a disservice to Sacha because he never does. The film doesn’t require us to come out of character and say ‘just kidding.’ I don’t know who invented that phrase but I loathe it vigorously.” Mantzoukas reassured Kingsley, “Don’t worry, we’re going to find that guy! Oh he’s in for it!” Kingsley further elaborated why he detests the phrase ‘just kidding’ so much, “it causes the death of irony. That phrase doesn’t allow the irony to rest or be translated
by the listener, and it immediately cauterizes or aborts any enjoyment of the irony by banging it on the head with a hammer.” Mantzoukas added that the only thing worse than ‘just kidding’ is the abbreviation ‘j/k’, to which Kingsley was astonished and horrified. “Really? That’s a real thing? As a Brit, I find that terrible!” Mantzoukas assured him it was a real thing and that he would make sure to text him the abbreviation later on.

The actors were asked if they did much improve during the filming. Mantzoukas answered, “We improvised a lot. They wrote an amazing, great script. Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer! This is a who’s who of phenomenal comedy writers, and it’s also a group of writers who have worked for years with Sacha. So they all have a real rapport with each other and it was a great script. The way we worked in the scenes that I was in was that we would first do the script and we would get it so it felt like we had what the script called for, then we would explore. What I loved was that here’s this guy who is a comedic genius, here are these writers who are also geniuses, who ran Seinfeld or did Borat and Bruno, and are just truly such sharp comedic minds, who all felt they can make this funnier. There’s a funnier version of this, lets figure it out, let’s beat this. It was really just a tenacious, relentless pursuit of what is the best, funniest version of this. So then we would just do takes. There’s a lot of that in the nuclear dairy scene where I think his understanding of nuclear weapons comes from cartoons. A lot of that was improvised and there, by the way, is about two more hours of it. Poor Sir Ben is just standing behind us as we’re debating whether or not Popeye the Sailor Man is in fact a sailor man or a nuclear scientist. So yes, we did improvise a lot and some of that stuff made it into the movie but, for the most part, you watch that movie and you’re watching a brilliant script brought to life.”

The actors were then asked about the correlation between The Dictator and the Arab Spring, which started occurring during the shooting of the film. Kingsley answered, “Sacha is a true member of his society. He is the opposite of the dictator. He has his finger on so many pulses: historically, politically, socially. It makes him a great comedian. He started prepping this film two years before the Arab Spring. It’s possible that it’s serendipity but I think its more an amazing intuition that he had as to the direction that the world is taking and reflecting it comedically. By the time Jason and I joined the film the Arab Spring had erupted. It was present in the media and everywhere. In a sense we were not creating a series of gags in a vacuum but we were being political satirists in a very real and definite context.”

The Dictator is now playing everywhere!

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