The day before I’m due to meet Ferdinand Kingsley, actor son of Sir Ben, he sends me a message to introduce himself via Twitter. ‘I’ll try not to be a complete a***hole!’ he quips merrily, for absolutely no reason at all since I hadn’t actually imagined that he would be. Does he normally behave badly during interviews, I query, suddenly hoping rather mean-spiritedly that he does. I can see the ‘thespian heir acts up’ headline already. ‘Oh, yeah, I’m a total moron.’
Sadly, Ferdy Kingsley, 26, is, in this regard, a disappointment. Firstly, though he does have some bad boy traits — beard and occasional musician among them — he is far too polite to warrant a real bad boy label, messaging me again ahead of our meeting to advise me to wrap up warm (‘the rehearsal space is freezing kiss kiss’). And moronic he most definitely is not. This is a man who turned down a place at Cambridge (to read English at Clare) and his CV is flagrantly highbrow. He and his older brother Edmund, also an actor, have been performing Shakespeare since they were little (‘my first role was “boy at party” in Romeo and Juliet, I think’), completing a Royal Shakespeare Company run of Troilus and Cressida the day he joined the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (‘God, they must have thought I was an a***, waltzing up on day one with my Real Job — how annoying’), followed more recently by a turn as Rosencrantz in Hamlet at the National Theatre, for which he was nominated for the prestigious Ian Charleson awards.
He gushes breathlessly about his new project, an immersive production of Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d (more on that later). That rather effusive thoughtfulness that Sir Ben Kingsley is known for? Yep, his son has it too. He has those same huge chocolatey-brown eyes too, though far more hair. He wails when I say that, supposedly, you inherit hair-loss tendencies from your maternal grandfather. ‘Yeah, but mum’s dad was totally bald too!’
He doesn’t, understandably, seem mad keen to discuss his Oscar-winning dad, or his mum (the theatre director Alison Sutcliffe) but he is nonetheless perfectly polite about that too. He has seen the film Gandhi four or maybe five times, he reckons (‘Er, yep, it’s pretty good’), and although his parents divorced when he was four — Alison and the kids lived in Stratford-upon-Avon and Ben nearby in Oxfordshire — they saw each other often. He has two half-siblings, Thomas and Jasmin Bhanji, from his father’s first marriage, when Ben was still called Krishna Pandit Bhanji (he changed his name because he was worried about getting work). Ferdinand does feels connected to his Gujarati heritage and to the name Bhanji, he says, but also to his own surname ‘since without it I wouldn’t exist. Dad made it up at a time when it was incredibly hard for someone with a foreign name to get work. If he hadn’t, I honestly believe he might not have made it, he might not have met my mum and I would not exist.’
Does his dad give him tips? ‘My parents were always pretty upfront about how difficult acting can be. They said from the beginning how lonely, how poverty-stricken it can be. I’d be lying if I said that my background hadn’t got me into a few rooms that I might not otherwise have got into, obviously. But then, once you’re in the room, you’ve still got to get the part yourself, haven’t you?’ He adds sanguinely: ‘Hopefully you’ll go away from this with more to write about than just “Ben Kingsley son acts in play”.’
Next up is the rather neglected Restoration tragedy Venice Preserv’d, a highly charged political thriller with verses so pretty and punchy they give Shakespeare a run for his money. It was first staged in 1682, when its conspiratorial premise found real-life parallels in the post-civil war anti-Catholic hysteria that surrounded the reign of Charles II; audiences were whipped up into a frenzy over the so-called exclusion crisis, through which the Whigs sought to remove the King’s Catholic brother from the order of succession.
In its new incarnation, the play has been adapted by ‘adventure-theatre’ company the Spectators’ Guild (run by veterans from the immersive theatre and cinema groups Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema), and will be a lavish, involving affair, where audiences travel on the Thames Clipper to the Cutty Sark to take part in a Venetian carnival and afterwards to West Greenwich, where 17th-century Venice will be recreated at an extraordinary former ship engine factory — complete with Rialto Bridge. Audience members will play corrupt senators.
Kingsley is the misanthrope Pierre, an antihero who plots with his best friend Jaffier against the tyrannical Venetian state. It’s a demanding role requiring a delicate balance of arrogance and geniality but Kingsley finds it reassuring, he says tentatively, to note that it has attracted several illustrious names over the years, including Julian Glover, Paul Scofield and Ian McKellen, who played the role to much acclaim at the Lyttelton almost 30 years ago to the day. ‘You don’t always have the luxury of knowing that a play is good. In addition to which I think the immersive thing will really give Pierre another layer. These plays would originally have been done in volatile environments, in places where you’d expect to be heckled. With Pierre, that intimacy, that sense of getting involved that we’ll give the audience, it’s particularly great because he’s such an ambiguous character. Is he a hero or not? You should decide, not us.’
Kingsley has a background in this kind of theatre. He got one of his first big breaks on the Cross as Jesus in the York Mystery Plays in 2012, a huge production involving hundreds of volunteers and performed in the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, that earned him a headline he laughs wearily about now: ‘My father played Gandhi; now I’m playing God’. He’s been in a few films too — his first was The Last Legion, in which he played a younger version of his father (he did audition, he insists) and more recently he has appeared alongside Martin Sheen in the hugely successful TV film The Whale and in Vincent Van Gogh: Painted with Words with Benedict Cumberbatch (he’s been dating Louise Brealey, aka Sherlock’s Molly for a year or so). Later this year he’ll be in Dracula Untold alongside Dominic Cooper.
It is a wonderful time to be a young British actor, we agree. Just look at the success across the pond of the likes of Cooper, Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston. Does he feel the siren song of Hollywood calling? A bashful grin. ‘If they’ll have me.’
Venice Preserv’d runs from 30 April to 8 June, with previews from 24 April.