From “Schindler’s List” to “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” the non-Jewish, award-winning actor Ben Kingsley has starred in a number of Holocaust and other Jewish-themed movies.
The recurring theme in his career wasn’t an accident, he said in a recent interview. Instead, he said, he picked the roles because his “vigorously antisemitic” grandmother motivated him to want to speak out on the issue of antisemitism.
Talking to Parade magazine earlier this month, Kingsley was asked why he has played so many Jewish characters in film. His British mother is thought to have Jewish ancestry, but “the thread is so fine there’s no real evidence,” he said in a 1994 interview about “Schindler’s List,” in which he plays Oskar Schindler’s helper Itzhak Stern.
He told Parade:
I must answer very candidly, and it’s an answer that disturbs me but it’s the truth. I remember as a schoolboy watching a wonderful television documentary series, which examined World War II. And as a schoolboy, alone in the house, I watched the liberation of Belsen [a Nazi concentration camp] on film. And I do remember as a young adolescent, I think I was maybe 11 or 12—this was way after World War II, of course, it was a retrospective—but I think my heart stopped beating for a little while. I went into deep shock as a child.
The disturbing part of this story is that I remember within the same few days having a conversation with my maternal grandmother, who was inexplicably but quite vigorously antisemitic. So, the two impressions came to me almost simultaneously, and as a child it was very difficult for me, impossible for me to counter my grandmother’s outburst, but I think a seed was planted in me that said to me, “One day I will speak.”
Why Kingsley's grandmother was antisemitic
Kingsley, who had an Indian father and won an Oscar for portraying Mahatma Gandhi in the 1982 biopic “Gandhi,” has previously said that his grandmother’s antisemitism stemmed from the fact that a Jewish man abandoned her once she became pregnant.
In an on-screen career dating back to the 1970s, Kingsley has also earned Emmy nominations for playing Otto Frank in a TV miniseries called “Anne Frank: The Whole Story” and for playing Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in a 1989 TV movie called “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story.”
He played Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky in the acclaimed film “Bugsy” — about the life of Jewish mobster Bugsy Siegel — and an organized crime boss called The Rabbi in the 2006 thriller “Lucky Number Slevin.”
In 2019, he played a Mossad agent in “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” a drama about a 1980s Israeli mission to rescue Ethiopians. He has also played Nazi Adolf Eichmann, in the 2018 drama “Operation Finale.” He said he kept a photo of his real-life friend Elie Wiesel in his pocket while filming that movie.
Before Wiesel’s death in 2016, Kingsley told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he had told the best-selling Holocaust survivor: “The next time I walk onto a film set that is appropriate to your story, I will dedicate my performance to you.”
He said he kept his word: “Every day as promised, I looked at a picture of Elie that I carried in my pocket and said ‘I’m doing this for you,’” he said.
Kingsley’s newest movie, “Jules,” is a sci-fi story about an older man named Milton who befriends an alien who crash-lands in his backyard.