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The Mandarin, originally conceived in the Marvel comics as a Chinese super-villain who wears 10 rings which give him various powers, has undergone a suitably mutable makeover in Kingsley’s hands; imagine Afghan president Hamid Karzai as samurai mercenary, sporting fatigues, starched robe and topknot, with a sinister burr that errs on the north-of-Hadrian’s-Wall side (“Some people call me a terrorist… Kingsley cheerfully admits that he came to the role free of the burden of expectation from comic book aficionados.“I only had a vague notion of Marvel and what it’s all about,” he says. I simply worked from the script.” While conceding that he’s “no great watcher of franchises”, two things marked Iron Man out for him; the “wit” of the enterprise, and the stellar rep company of actors involved (in the third instalment, Rebecca Hall and Guy Pearce join Kingsley alongside regulars Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Robert Downey Jnr). “He’s great company, and he has a great arc as a human being and an actor.
And I have to take my hat off to her, she’s absolutely right.” Tilda might care to look away now.
A question about why he thinks he’s so good at what he does – to “pretend to be someone else, convincingly”, as he puts it – yields an answer that’s simultaneously heartfelt and almost omni-luvvie, and therefore beyond lampoon.
For Don Logan, it was “the hurt child, lashing out at others”.
And for the Mandarin, he picked up on a line from the script: “You know who I am, you don’t know where I am, and you’ll never see me coming.” “It’s a sort of embedded nugget that I can keep in my pocket and build the performance from,” he says.
At 69, he’s certainly trim, and spruce in a black leather jacket and dark jeans that complement his saturnine brow.
He orders a peppermint tea (“I’m going to let it steep a little while, thanks,” he says, politely but firmly, when the waiter tries to pour it), and prepares to expound on his latest “fragment”.“I have a dear friend, Tony Palmer, who made a documentary on the life of Richard Burton,” he says in his precise, measured tones.“It featured some interviews, in many of which he was a little the worse for wear.As he gets older, he continues, he finds this idea of miniaturisation more attractive.“I think I’m an artist maybe a few seconds of every year, when I really nail it against extra-ordinary odds.But the spine of the documentary was a mosaic of his performances. “I think, when I leave the planet and the equivalent of Tony tries to construct something similar, then fragments of my roles, those bits, would form a composite portrait of me. Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” The Sir Ben who says this, on a cold spring morning in a London hotel suite, is wearing a mask of cordial benignity (this will eventually slip, just a little, of which more later).