As the cunning adviser to a king in Spike TV's Tut, Sir Ben Kingsley chose not to judge his character. "I tried hard to honor him and understand his motives."
It's been 34 years since Ben Kingsley won a Best Actor Oscar for playing the title role in Gandhi, but the honor means just as much to him today as it did back then.
“I’m not kidding - as we speak, I’m sitting in my little library and I’m staring at my Oscar,” he says via phone from London. “It’s still an absolute thrill to have that beautiful symbol in my home.”
Kingsley also earned a Grammy for 1985's The Words of Gandhi, and this year he could add an Emmy to his mantle for his deviously subtle performance as Grand Vizier Ay, who undermines Egypt's King Tutankhamun, in Spike TV's six-hour limited series Tut.
"To be even considered for an Emmy — given my affection for television and all the beautiful experiences I've had through it — would be equally delightful," Kingsley says.
Sir Ben has always moved easily between film and television, from his 1966-67 stint on the U.K. soap Coronation Street ("It was wonderful to be part of that iconic show") to his searing portrayal of a famed Nazi hunter in HBO's 1989 biopic Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story, which brought him an Emmy nomination
The actor has also become known for the diversity of his roles. After playing the famed peacemaker in Gandhi, he earned Oscar nods for embodying gangsters in 1991s Bugsy and 2000's Sexy Beast; before portraying an ancient powerbroker in Tut he appeared as a mild-mannered Sikh driving teacher in the 2014 indie comedy Learning to Drive.
"I don't have a strategy to my career," he says. "I love to be surprised."
What surprised Kingsley most about Tut (which debuted last summer and is available to Television Academy members on the Spike website) was how relevant its themes remain 4,000 years later.
"Everything has changed and nothing has changed," he explains. "We inhabit very different landscapes and architecture, but certain basic patterns of human behavior concerning dynasty, nepotism, power, greed, narcissism and self-adornment are immediately accessible and recognizable."
Kingsley says he chose not to play Ay as a villain, but rather as a pragmatic politician. "I try to avoid judging my characters," he says. "I allow the audience to judge. [Ay] can have that wonderful chameleon-like ability to be completely earnest, engaged and honest with one person, then say the opposite to another person and be equally sincere."
Ay's Machiavellian mastery led him to the throne, despite his lack of noble blood. "I tried hard to honor him and understand his motives, which were that he felt he should be number one," Kingsley says. "He was locked out of the club, but he got in by playing power against power and individual against individual, and I do believe he had a deep affection for Tut."
Shooting in Morocco helped Kingsley get into character. "We felt like we were suspended in a wonderful environment," says the actor, who has shot there eight times. "It really focused the storytelling — we didn't get into our cars and go into a Western city at the end of the day. We stayed within that lovely bubble."
Whether an Emmy comes his way for Tut, Kingsley won't be looking to join the small circle of EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) winners, as he's sworn off stage work. "I couldn't commit to a rehearsal period and long run because I've got so many screen projects going on," he says. "Film and TV are thrilling."