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Ben Kingsley On Portraying Holocaust History

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

SIMON: The Whole Story."

SIMON: Can playing people who are considered heroes in the history of the Holocaust ever be just another role?

SIMON: To wear a yellow star in a film is an enormous responsibility. You are honoring ghosts. And sometimes, you feel that you're guided by them.

SIMON: Let us please take a look now at a - I think - quite a famous scene. They're all famous in a way, but a particularly famous scene from "Schindler's List."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SCHINDLER'S LIST")

SIMON: (As Oskar Schindler) How many?

SIMON: (As Itzhak Stern) 8,050, give or take.

SIMON: (As Oskar Schindler) Give or take what, Stern? Give or take what? Count them. How many?

SIMON: (As Itzhak Stern) What did Goeth say about this? You just told him how many people you needed and - you're not buying them. You're buying them? You're paying him?

SIMON: The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around the edges lies the gulf - is the line that you didn't hear from that clip. That's compressed dynamite. What a beautiful gift to me, to be privileged to say those lines.

SIMON: Some of "Schindler's List" was filmed, literally, in the shadow of Auschwitz, wasn't it?

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: What was that like?

SIMON: I visited it twice. It's a brilliantly, horribly designed place. It's all straight lines. It's regimented. There's no escape for the eye. There're no curves, no soft beds, nothing. I am proud to say - and I'm completely baffled to say - I left feeling dead, feeling deeply resentful that I felt nothing, because it took everything out of me. There was nothing left to feel.

SIMON: I want to talk about your portrayal of Otto Frank now. Anne Frank and the Frank family, I think for hundreds of millions of people around the world, are at the heart of their understanding of the Holocaust. And your portrayal of Otto Frank is the portrayal of the - in a sense, the unlikeliest survivor of that family. Tell me how you approach - did you begin by reading the diary? Do you begin with the script before the diary?

SIMON: It started during "Schindler's List." And I had no idea that I'd be offered the beautiful opportunity to play Otto. I had a picture of Anne Frank in my coat pocket, and I would say to this picture of this beautiful girl before takes: I'm doing this for you. My simple, direct line from me to her. And I was thrilled beyond measure when Robert Dornhelm asked me to play Otto in the film, because I already loved her.

SIMON: I think we want to take a look at a scene from that film now, which is after the Frank family are rousted from the attic in Prinsengracht and, I believe, ordered to Westerbork.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANNE FRANK: THE WHOLE STORY")

SIMON: (As Otto Frank) If I may, I'd like to request that my daughters be assigned to kitchen duties.

SIMON: (As Anne Frank) I can do anything. I'm very handy.

U: No privileges for criminals of S barracks.

SIMON: (as Otto Frank) May I ask what crime we're accused?

U: Failure to report when ordered. Next.

SIMON: (as Otto Frank) It's not a crime, sir.

U: Next.

SIMON: (as Otto Frank) It's not a crime, sir.

U: Next.

SIMON: (as Otto Frank) It doesn't make us criminals, sir.

SIMON: Help us understand the emotions of a survivor, as you had to play Otto Frank.

SIMON: Well, I tried to define Anne, and in order for me to get into the role of her father, I had to appreciate the energy, the love from Anne to her dad. So I would have this mental picture, and it was Anne waiting to be picked up from school in the quadrangle - playground, whatever, courtyard - with her mates, her friends. And her father comes to collect her from school. And Anne sees him and turns to her friends and says, see that man over there? That's my dad. And it was that's my dad, that realized that I was a hero to her.

A: Listen to my child, listen to my child. And I think that his work proliferating that voice was phenomenal.

SIMON: How has playing all these roles affected you as a human being, as an actor?

SIMON: And she faced me in the middle of this field and she said - 'cause I played Hamlet on stage the night before - she said, I saw "Hamlet" last night. How did you know about me? That's my job. I know you. I'm trying to know you. And through knowing each other and holding onto that tribal bonfire, we'll be OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SIMON: Sir Ben Kingsley, being interviewed onstage about playing Simon Wiesenthal, Itzhak Stern and Otto Frank, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.