Actors Sir Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi”), Patricia Clarkson (“Pieces of April”), Jake Weber (“Medium”), and Sarita Choudhury (“Homeland”) gathered with journalists in New York this week to talk about their new film, “Learning to Drive,” opening in New York and Los Angeles on Fri., Aug. 21, 2015.
It’s a wonderful movie that is character-driven, real, and never gives in to a predictable movie formula. (Read my interview with the director, Isabel Coixet, and the screenwriter, Sarah Kernochan, as well as Paula Schwartz’s report from the film’s premiere.)
Kingsley plays a Sikh driving instructor named Darwan, and Clarkson plays an accomplished New Yorker named Wendy, whose husband (Weber) has just left her. Meanwhile, Darwan, a former university lecturer in India, is getting married to a woman (Choudhury) chosen for him by his sister and sent to him sight unseen from India. The bulk of the film is about the touching friendship that develops between Darwan and Wendy, as Darwan attempts to teach Wendy how to drive.
“Learning to Drive” is loosely based on an essay of the same name by Katha Pollitt (a well-known columnist for The Nation) that was published in The New Yorker in 2002. The story captured the imagination of Patricia Clarkson, and when she found out that producer Dana Friedman wanted to make it into a film, she was chomping at the bit to be involved. What followed was nine years of trying to get the movie made.
In retrospect, Clarkson feels that she wouldn’t have been able to do the part justice when she first read the story at age 46. “I needed to be in my 50’s,” she said. “See, the movie gods stepped in and said, ‘No no no, Patty, we’re going to make you wait to make this film. Then, you’ll be the right age to play Wendy. Then, you’ll have lived and loved and lost and had all the right elements to play this damn character.’ So, I was captivated by this story, and it wouldn’t leave me.”
According to Clarkson, finally getting it made involved “tenacity, courage, patience, and bourbon.”
“This is a difficult film,” she said. “It’s two middle-aged people in a car. It’s three strikes against this film. A lot of people wanted to change the ethnicity of Darwan so we could cast Viggo Mortensen or put a famous man opposite me. Or they wanted to take a lot of the scenes out of the car. I was like, ‘No, that’s the whole point of the film.’”
“There were so many elements in this film that worked against it, but yet, they were the essence of the beauty of the film for me. I wasn’t compromising on anything, and neither was Dana Friedman. The script went through some rewrites. Certain little things changed here and there, but the core of this story is a hardcore New Yorker – a brilliant, intellectual woman – a Sikh, and a car. And that was not going to change – ever.”
Despite the long road to getting “Learning to Drive” financed and completed, Clarkson believes independent art films are having more of an impact on the film industry today and making more money. That doesn’t mean she’s against making big studio movies, though.
“I’m all for blockbusters,” she said. “I’m part of “Maze Runner.” I love that job because I love Ava Paige. I love playing that character, and they pay me so well! Hence, my nice purse and my nice shoes. [Laughter] But these films that are labors of love? At the end of the day, this is really why I’m in this. I’m not in it to win it. I’m in it for this. I’m in it to make movies like this and never give up for nine years – Dana Friedman also.”
Clarkson did all the driving required in the film, but as a New Yorker, much like Wendy, she hadn’t driven in years. She said that driving across the Queensboro Bridge in the film was one of the most frightening things she has ever done in her life.
“I do have a driver’s license, and it’s valid,” she said. “But I don’t know how valid…. I said to my father, ‘You know, Dad, maybe the next time I come home [to New Orleans], you could teach me to drive again.’ He was like, [in a Southern drawl] ‘Oh, Patty. Oh, Patty. I don’t know if there’s enough red wine in the world.’”
Sir Kingsley was my second interview with a “Sir” in a matter of days, as I interviewed Sir Patrick Stewart last week. Kingsley told us that due to the beard and turban he wears in the movie, no one in New York recognized him during filming.
“Our dear Dana Friedman, our producer, was at an early screening,” he said, “and she was accosted by a member of the audience saying, ‘I came here to see Ben Kingsley in a movie, and he wasn’t in it.’ I can be in a supermarket in the United Kingdom and not be recognized because people don’t expect me to be there. And I was never recognized whilst driving as Darwan because no one expected me to be driving a yellow cab in a turban.”
Many people don’t realize that Kingsley’s father was Indian, but he still had to learn about Sikh culture to play Darwan. While shooting “Gandhi” years ago, he had a Sikh driver, and he used some of what he learned about that man for his character. “I used to sit in the back of his ambassador car,” Kingsley said, “and he would be in the driver’s seat driving. And I could see the back of his head and the turban and these strong shoulders, and I knew that actually, he would really intervene if anything threatened me. They are a warrior race, and they have immense dignity and stillness and are men of very few words.”
According to Kingsley, the key to the success of the film was having two people from very different worlds thrown together by fate. “Not only are they thrown together, but they are also confined in a very small space,” he said. “It’s a part of the narrative of the film that I think is really clever. They’re not at opposite ends of a park, or they can’t walk away from each other. They’re sort of captive in each other’s small environment.”
“Learning to Drive” is, of course, a metaphor for learning to live. “I love the word ‘metaphor,'” Kingsley said. “There is a great ancient metaphor, which is probably one of the seven original myths, and it is of the ferryman. And when you get onto his ferry on one bank of the river and cross the river with him under his guidance – basically, your life in his hands if it’s a dangerous river – and then you disembark on the other side, and somehow, your molecules have been rearranged. You’ve learned something. Or perhaps more importantly, there’s been a shift. You can’t name exactly what it is. You don’t know how or why…. So, I think that Darwan is the ferryman to Wendy, and she, in a sense, is the passenger, but they both learn from one another in the film.”
Kingsley also told us what he loves about acting in general. “It’s always glorious to be so involved in creating a portrait of somebody,” he said. “I really find that a joyful exercise. Although I don’t use paints or oil on a stretched canvas, I am a portrait artist, and I use my body and my voice and my imagination to create the portrait. And it is a state of absolute bliss.”
For Jake Weber, who has little screen time in the film as Wendy’s wayward husband, “Learning to Drive” is refreshing. “It’s nice to see a movie that is about love and people. There are no capes and swords,” he said. “It’s nice to see a grown-up movie that is tender and touching and funny.”
He also had nothing but praise for director Isabel Coixet. “She does this great thing with the camera. She moves the camera as part of the scene,” he said. “She’s the operator, so if we were doing a scene, the camera would be all over, and you wouldn’t know when it’s on you or your partner. It’s just a very fluid, dynamic way of shooting.”
I asked Choudhury, who plays Darwan’s new wife, Jasleen, about the difficulty of playing a role that involves little dialogue. Since her character has just arrived in New York from India and barely speaks English, much of the character is portrayed through facial expressions.
“First, I’m lucky to have Ben Kingsley as the person I’m looking at,” she said. “A lot of acting is listening and looking. And because of the way Isabel shot, I didn’t know when she was on my face. So, in a way, I got to really relax into watching. And all the nerves I have as an actor, I could use as Jasleen. Those kinds of roles, even though they seem difficult, they’re almost easier than the power roles where you cannot make a mistake or your character will fall. In a way, with Jasleen, I could fall into any mistake, and it would kind of work with the character.”
Of course, we couldn’t let Jake Weber go without talking about “Medium,” his beloved TV series that ran for seven seasons. He welcomed the opportunity to talk about his costar. “I love Patricia Arquette,” he said. “She’s an absolute angel, a really big-hearted woman. In seven years, I had one moment where she and I had a little spat. It lasted about a minute and a half, and it was done. She’s just a great human being.”
Clarkson spoke about her recent time on the London stage in “The Elephant Man” after a successful Broadway run and a Tony Award nomination. “Talk about another extraordinary and beautiful journey in my life!” she said.
“I’m an incredibly lucky actress to have these projects coming together at this moment. Basically, the last year of my life has been ‘Elephant Man’ and Bradley Cooper. Awwww… I had to work with Bradley Cooper every day and Alessandro Nivola. Life is hard, very very hard. I had to be naked every night on stage with Alessandro Nivola and Bradley Cooper. [Laughter] It actually was hard [being naked]. But we had such a beautiful run on Broadway, and we were trepidatious heading to London with the British. Would they respond? We were 13 Americans.”
She called Cooper “a mensch.” “He’s a great, great actor, but he’s first and foremost, he was raised so well,” she said. “He has a kickass mother in Gloria. His mother and father have raised a beautiful son, and he took all 13 actors to London. He said, ‘This is the play. We all go.’ And I miss it terribly. You guys, I just gave my last performance like a week ago in London on the Royal Haymarket stage in one of the most beautiful theaters I’ve ever been in in my life. Beautiful ghosts and gods that live in that theater, and the acoustics from heaven. And the royal box and the royal room – my dressing room was woooo!”
She said her flight back home and saying goodbye to her character, Mrs. Kendal, were emotional experiences. Now, she’s turning her attention to trying to get a movie made about early film siren Tallulah Bankhead.
I highly recommend “Learning to Drive.” If you’re in New York or L.A., catch it in the theaters. (It’s rated R.) If not, watch for it to come to your area on the big screen or via DVD/VOD.