When told that his new film “Learning to Drive” touches on universal issues regarding relationships, love and understanding, Ben Kingsley made an interesting point:
“I think that if you try to create a story to appeal to everybody, it misses. On the other hand, if you make it really specific, then it will translate to people better and become universal.”
To make his point, the actor turned to perhaps the greatest storyteller in the English language to further make his point. “I think William Shakespeare understood this very well, by making Macbeth the king of Scotland, Hamlet, the prince of Denmark. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Italian, and set a story that could only happen in that particular Italian town between those two rival families — the Capulets and the Montagus.
“I think if you make things really specific — like in this case a Sikh ex-university professor who now drives a taxi and teaches people to drive in New York — that’s very specific. Plus you have Patricia Clarkson’s character, who is a highly gifted book critic who lives in Manhattan, whose marriage has collapsed and she feels her well-ordered life is totally falling apart.
“These are very well-drawn characters. Then you put them in the mix of the story and see what comes out.”
Interestingly, Kingsley had a strong inspiration to create his character of Darwan Singh — dating back to his Oscar-winning performance in “Gandhi.”
The actor explained that his driver and bodyguard on the film was a Sikh gentleman. “For every day for five months, he drove me to and from the set. I built a delicate, almost tacit but quite dignified relationship with him. He was a wonderful man, and I learned a thing or two about the Sikh culture.
“So, on the first day on this film, my wonderful makeup artist was making me up as Darwan Singh. I kept my eyes closed until she finished. When I opened them, I looked in the mirror — and there he was! My driver from ‘Gandhi’ all those many years ago, looking back at me. My friend from India was alive and well and inside this new character. He was a driver and that’s exactly what I’m doing in this film, so it was the perfect inspiration!”
Though Kingsley and Clarkson are good friends in real life, while filming “Learning to Drive” they elected to not socialize — or even chit-chat between takes. “I stayed as Darwan and she stayed as Wendy,” said Kingsley. “We hardly spoke between takes and we never broke the bubble we created.”
Added Clarkson, “We didn’t want our own personal friendship to bleed into the growing, fictional friendship of Wendy and Darwan. That’s why we remained quite separate as we shot this film.”
The actress, along with producer Dana Friedman, spent about nine years working to get what was originally a story in the New Yorker magazine turned into a screenplay, financed and then finally made into a film. “The movie gods came together at the right time. I think I was more prepared to play Wendy the longer I waited,” said Clarkson, “Though I probably didn’t know that when this journey started, but I didn’t likely want to admit that.”
Giving a bit of insight into the world of moviemaking, Clarkson shared a funny story about “the day I talked on the phone to a possible financier for the film. He told me, ‘I really, really like your film and want to help get it made, but there’s one thing. You need to drop all the driving scenes.’ ”
Clarkson burst out laughing, recalling that moment. “The film, of course, is called ‘Learning to Drive.’ So, I simply said, ‘OK, thank you. We’ll move on.’ ”
At the mention of her own driving skills, Clarkson smiled. “I learned to drive from my father, growing up in New Orleans. But I’ve lived in New York for so long, I’ve truly become Wendy. I do have a driver’s license. It is valid, but to be honest, I kind of have lost my ability to drive living in New York.
“My driver’s license is now used more as my ID to get on planes. In short, it’s very good at getting me in vehicles that other people are driving!”