EXCLUSIVE: Oscar winner Ben Kinglsey is no stranger to the idea of inhabiting larger-than-life characters. Of Gandhi at Schindler’s list and Sexy beast, the actor’s career has spanned a wide variety of roles with presence and gravity. Despite his comfort with such pieces, Kingsley says that in approaching the enigmatic and iconic Salvador Dalí in Mary Harron’s Daliland – the story of the artist’s strange and fascinating marriage to his tyrannical wife Gala (played by Barbara Sukowa) – was still a “daunting task”.
“It was exhausting and exhilarating to portray,” comments Kingsley in his first interview since the film ended. “Dali’s cup is overflowing. I had to give myself the opportunity to take risks. Dali encouraged me to take risks. It could have been catastrophic, but it could also pay off. If I am in the silhouette of Dali, then I have to allow myself to take some risks. His artwork, his writings, and his public appearances were one risk after another. He was not a character that could be portrayed with care. “
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Kingsley doesn’t describe himself as a method actor, but he both inhabits and is inhabited by his characters while the camera rolls, a complicated experience when it comes to Salvador Dali. “At the beginning of a few days, I knew that Dali was reluctant to let me in, until he saw me overcome some obstacles. Then I was like, “Ah, Dali, yes”, and he let me in. It was an amazing feeling. “
American psychopath filmmaker Harron has been working on the Dali project for several years. The photo is from producer Edward Pressman and the director says she was initially reluctant to get involved because she saw similarities to her Andy Warhol film – 1996 I shot Andy Warhol – and did not want to retread a similar floor. However, her husband John Walsh, who wrote the screenplay, convinced Harron that there was a way to make the film and put her own stamp on it. The fact that the story revolves around a married couple gave it an intriguing angle for the couple, director says Deadline.
“This is the beginning and the end of a caregiver and someone’s marriage. It’s bittersweet and there’s a lot of comedy in it, ”says Harron. “Dali and his wife Gala had this legendary marriage, but it was a sexless marriage. It was based on her incredible belief in her art, she was a voyeur and had sex with other men. But she had absolute faith in his genius.
“In the 70s, she fell in love with a young man named Jeff Fenholt who played Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway. She decided that Jeff was a genius and that she was going to make him a star. It caused great jealousy and great tension, it was part of the drama. At the same time, Dali had his own new muse, Amanda Lear.
“We started watching Dali in the 1970s, the older Dali, with flashbacks to the young Dali [played by Ezra Miller], which are rendered like an old movie. This format really excited me. Ezra had about three days between the end Fantastic beasts and starting The flash, and he insisted on coming to make our film. The story is played out through this kind of Nick Carraway figurine [Christopher Briney], who enters Dali’s life as an assistant and sees everything, ”explains the director.
Despite the film’s high caliber through its cast, director and producer, it was an intensely independent production. Harron says they begged, borrowed and stole to get everything they needed for the shoot, which was complicated by Covid’s restrictions on set.
Kingsley thanks his fellow cast and crew for helping to make the production under these conditions without sacrificing quality. “Mary played it really well, there was not a single unengaged person on set, nor any unengaged crew member,” commented the cast. “The cast kept the narrative structure in place quite brilliantly – Barbara Sukowa as Gala, Christopher Briney as James, Andreja Pejic as Amanda Lear, Rupert Graves [as Captain Moore]. They are people of varied backgrounds but of enormous commitment and enthusiasm.
The key to being able to make the film on a budget was discovering its central location, which replaced the historic St Regis Hotel in New York City, where Dali and Gala lived on and off between 1966 and 1973. International travel was complicated. by the pandemic, so the team, led by British producer Chris Curling, identified the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool as a suitable replacement.
“A lot of hotels have been renovated and now look completely different,” says Harron. “The Adelphi was not renovated like this. It was built at the same time as the St Regis, around 1910, and has large ballrooms, chandeliers, etc. Because of Covid, we were able to rent the whole hotel, so we had everything in it. This allowed us to do it at a lower cost.
The filmmakers were also able to be smart about costumes (Hannah Edwards was the costume designer), usually an expense for a period piece. Having Andreja Pejic and Suki Waterhouse, both famous models, in the cast meant top designers were happy to lend them clothes, the director said.
Casting Kingsley was another way to elevate the low budget project beyond its means. “It’s interesting to work with an actor from this league. When he gets on set he brings a whole performance that you’re so drawn to. He completely inhabited the room. When you turned on the camera, he saw it, ”she comments.
Securing Barbara Sukowa as a Gala was also key. “When you have someone like Sir Ben, you have to have someone of equal power for Gala. You had to feel that Gala could intimidate Dali and direct him,” adds the filmmaker.
When the idea of casting Kingsley was first floated, Harron wondered if he might not be too “powerful” an actor for the role. “One thing about Dali is that he was a big coward, there was a lot of weakness there,” she explains. Interestingly, the role that sold Harron on Kingsley was one you didn’t necessarily expect – Marvel movie Iron Man 3. Kingsley plays the Mandarin terrorist in the film, who (spoiler alert) turns out to be an actor, Trevor Slattery, hired to play the terrorist role. “[In that film] he’s the creepy terrorist, then the curtain goes down and he’s just Trevor, ”Harron recalls. “It reminded me that he could play anything and how fantastic he is in comedy. There is a lot of comedy in it. Daliland – Dali reveled in absurdity and ridicule.
The look was crucial for the role, an essential part of Dali’s character. “He made himself an icon with the mustache, like Warhol did with his wig – they made some really strong brands, everyone knows what they looked like, they knew how to sell themselves,” Harron adds.
Kingsley still works with the same wig artist, Suzanne Stokes-Munton, and the actor refused to wear prosthetics, opting for the resemblance to facial play. As you can see from the new image at the top of this page, as well as the previous one below, the resemblance is disturbing:
Harron hopes the film might encourage a renewed appreciation of Dali’s later works, which can be overlooked in favor of his prior art. “There is a cliché from Dali that all of his interesting work was in the 1930s and 1940s, but he remained an interesting and innovative artist until the end,” she comments.
The 1970s era of Dali’s career was also a time of flamboyant celebration and social interactions with the great and good of New York’s arts and music scene. Harron herself studied in the city around the same time and was therefore familiar with the times. “Dali liked to surround himself with flamboyant and colorful people,” says the director. “His social life was very important. He was a very hard worker in the art, but there was a constant flurry of parties. We tried to capture part of it, Dali’s carnival. “
Kingsley, always very busy, leaves soon for New York to start filming a new project while Daliland finishes post-production (the film will be ready around October, so it won’t be in Venice, a regular first place for Harron). Once in New York, Kingsley says he could visit the St Regis and see if he can find the suite Dali lived in. ‘, he jokes.
Bankside Films manages sales on Daliland at Cannes.