In his new film “Jules,” Ben Kingsley plays Milton, a lonely old man in a small Pennsylvania town whose quiet life is turned upside down when an alien spaceship lands in the middle of his azalea bushes one night.
It’s a movie that’s alternately funny and heartbreaking. For Kingsley, 79, accepting the role offered by director Marc Turtletaub was an easy decision given the unlikely pairing of influences Kingsley recognized in Gavin Steckler’s script.
“Reading the screenplay, I went through several different perceptions rapidly,” Kingsley says in an interview a few weeks before the Screen Actors Guild went on strike. “Starting with it possibly being ‘The Tragedy of King Lear,’ and then on page 10 or 11 it turned into ‘E.T.’
“It was a very intelligent combination of the two,” he says. “That you have the extraordinary ambush, into a man’s life, of the completely unexpected and inexplicable. But at the same time the journey towards the end of that man’s life, which is tragically almost predictable.”
Suddenly, Milton’s quiet life of speeches no one listens to at the city council, and his daughter’s fretting that his memory is slipping, has the excitement of an unexpected visitor, the small gray alien Jules, who comes into his house, a secret visitor that the federal government is hunting.
“So you have these two worlds, realism and naturalism colliding with something utterly not quite supernatural but beyond our normal experience,” Kingsley says. “And for a character like Milton, who perhaps laments the fact that he hasn’t really had a life, for him to suddenly be ambushed with an abundance of opportunity in life is a huge opportunity for the actor, and a huge contrast to go from a man who is almost invisible into a man who has been seen by the universe and visited by the universe.”
“Jules,” which opened last week, also stars Jane Curtin and Harriet Sansom Harris as Joyce and Sandy, Zoe Winters as Milton’s daughter Denise, and Jade Quon as Jules the alien.
In an interview edited for clarity and length, Kingsley talked about finding his way into Milton’s skin, working alongside his talented castmates, and more.
As you were saying, Milton doesn’t feel seen. Tell me about finding your way into such a quiet, private character, a man who seems more perturbed that the alien landed on his azaleas than the fact that there’s an alien in his house.
A couple of keys. One, I think, is something said by, if I dare quote Hamlet, just very briefly please. He talks to the other actors about the modesty of nature. Therefore, I, rather than project into the camera a characterization, I had to almost put that into reverse, and keep my approach and my performance as faithful to Milton’s limited experience.
And, as you say, a man of very few visitors. And sometimes quite a lot of words, but the fact is no one’s listening. So he’s a man who is neither seen nor heard. And that has to be played modesty. And, because he’s neither seen nor heard, I think that the fact the universe sees and hears him and visits him, I can’t play that. I have to play the vacuum that is built by that experience.
So a very, very wonderful acting exercise, and a wonderful approach to storytelling that one isn’t often offered.
You mentioned that the look of the film helped capture aspects of the story and its characters.
Our wonderful director of photography (Christopher Norr) captured something that Marc and I discussed early on. We’re both very fond of one of your great American painters, Edward Hopper. And some of the scenes of the house, the window, the light, are very, very Edward Hopper.
Edward Hopper was a great exponent of light, shade and color. And I believe that we’ve captured some of the Americanness that Edward Hopper captured in his paintings. In a sense, they’re paintings about ordinariness, but they’re very compelling to look at. I think that’s the excitement of this project. You have an opportunity to make ordinariness into something compelling.
Other than Jules, who doesn’t speak, you have the most time on screen with Jane as Joyce and Harriet as Sandy, who Milton at first doesn’t want to let know about his alien guest. What was it like working with them?
I had never worked with either of them before, but admired them from afar greatly. They both have different skills. They bring different notes and musical instruments to the trio, and they were faithful to it.
Harriet is emotionally supremely articulate as an actor, and used her wonderful range of emotional articulacy very carefully, caringly, lovingly and fondly to serve the narrative. Which she does beautifully.
And Jane, I think Jane gives a very brave performance because Jane’s skill set is as a comedienne. And she actually put down a lot of her bag of tricks. I don’t mean that unkindly, but comedy is very technically demanding, and she didn’t rely upon years of brilliant technical comedy skill. What she did was revert to an ordinariness and a naturalism that in turn was very touching and moving, and at times very amusing.
With Jade as Jules, you’re acting not just with someone in makeup and costume as an alien, but as an alien who never speaks.
Jade Quon embodies a creature that is indescribable to us human mortals, and approached that characterization with an astonishing stillness, and an economy of gesture to that the slightest movement of face, the angle of her head, or her eyes conveyed volumes.
I don’t believe she makes a single sound in the film, but she does make a gesture. And when I did see it with an audience they gasped. Lovely, lovely to work with her. What a beautiful performance.
Both Milton and Sandy have adult children they don’t see all that often. Talking about playing father to Zoe Winters as Denise, does your own experience as a father or so enter in?
What I try to do is allow some empathy to come into play on my behalf, but at the same time, I have to disappear. I try and resist bringing anything of my own narrative into the story, because I don’t believe that is what the audience need or deserve as a storyteller.
I did warm very much to Zoe’s performance. There’s one point in the film where I think she adjusts the collar of my shirt during a speech that could be read as a reprimand. Because of that wonderful gesture she made it went from a reprimand to an act of love.