Sir Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson co-star in “Learning to Drive,” which premiered Monday night at the Paris Theater in Manhattan. Directed by Spanish director Isabel Coixet, the movie is based on Katha Pollitt’s essay that ran in the New Yorker. Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s veteran film editor, beautifully edits the film. (The after party was held at the elegant Southgate on Central Park South.)
Patricia Clarkson plays a Manhattan literary critic, Wendy, who has an encounter with Darwan, a taxi driver from India (Sir Ben Kingsley), on the night her husband (Jake Weber) dumps her for another woman. A devout Sikh and decent man, Darwan is on the verge of an arranged marriage (Sarita Choudhury) with a woman from India. Darwan gives Wendy driving lessons as she tries to regain her independence, and she gives him tips on how to treat and impress a woman.
On the red carpet, Patricia Clarkson, who just completed a theatrical run in London of “The Elephant Man,” with Bradley Cooper, told reporters, “I miss my co-stars, but now I’ve got Sir Ben.”
This is the second time she’s co-starred with Sir Ben; in 2008 she appeared with Kingsley in “Elegy,” adapted from a Philip Roth novel, and the first time you see her, she’s naked on top of him. In “Learning to Drive” their relationship is more chaste. But as for co-starring with him again, she told me, “The second time around is even better.”
Fielding the inevitable driving questions, Sir Ben told reporters, “I don’t drive in New York City because I’m not qualified to.” He added that he has a driver, and it’s his job “to get me to the red carpet on one piece.”
This is when Sir Ben told reporters that the film is not literally about driving. “I’m really sorry to spoil your fun, but driving is a tiny metaphor,” Sir Ben said.
When asked by a reporter if he’d done research for his part, Sir Ben replied that he didn’t have to. “I have an amazing memory, and my memory is like a bank of people that I’ve met. Many, many years ago, I was doing a film in India called “Gandhi” – which you may have heard of – and I had to my great joy and benefit, a Sikh bodyguard-driver who was with me for all the five months of filming,” said the actor. “And when I learned that I was to play this role, he came right out of the shadows of my memory into sharp focus. Spending time with him in India was, of course, extraordinary for me.”
The director, Isabel Coixet, told me of Clarkson that the actress is “very direct and has a very ironic sense of humor, and I feel it’s what you will see in the film.”
Coixet also told me she learned how to drive while making the film. “I know how to drive,” she told me. “I don’t know how to park. That will be the next film, ‘Learning to Park.’”