Stage Whispers and Screen Stories with “Mank’s” Ferdinand Kingsley
Ferdinand Kingsley is a bit tired.
“This car crash of a year has been strange,” says the actor, who portrays legendary movie producer Irving Thalberg in one of the most critically lauded films of the year, “Mank.”
The black-and-white biographical drama, set in the Golden Age of Hollywood and centered on screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his struggle to complete the script for “Citizen Kane,” received 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director. It won both Best Cinematography and Best Production Design.
“I started the year with such good discipline,” Ferdinand adds “I'd wake up and do my 7 a.m. yoga, get creative, do loads of writing, loads of reading, loads of music. And then pandemic fatigue started to set in, and I've just sort of found myself occasionally sitting looking at the window and thinking, oh — a day has happened.”
That being said, Ferdinand (aka Ferdy –– “but any variation of some of the letters of my name will do just fine”) thinks he did “a really good job of surviving this shitstorm of a year.”
But he admits that he’s “a bit anxious about what version of me is going to come out the other side.”
Aren’t we all?
On an episode of The Katz Walk, host Joe Katz talks to Ferdinand about growing up in the English theatre scene, the exquisite torture of working with Mank’s director David Fincher and why bad moods require ill-fitting trousers.
On ‘Hamlet’ and peculiar beginnings
Ferdy’s mom met his famous dad under “strange circumstances,” and the pair split when he was just four. Though his dad wasn’t always around while he was growing up, he has a lot of love for Sir Kingsley.
A self-described “Midlands boy,” Ferdy grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare.
“As the child of a theatrical family, I'm an absolutely vulnerable cliche,” he says.
If his famous surname hasn’t tipped you off, he’s the son of Sir Ben Kingsley, the legendary thespian whose role in “Gandhi” won him an Academy Award for Best Actor.
His parents “met under quite strange circumstances,” Ferdy says on the podcast.
In 1973, his father was playing Hamlet in a “radical modern” production at the Royal Shakespeare Company directed by “Buzz” Goodbody, who was the first woman ever to direct at the RSC. (“She was really blazing a trail,” Ferdy says of Buzz.)
Ferdy’s mother, Alison Sutcliffe, was Buzz’s assistant and flatmate as well. Sadly, days before opening night, Buzz took her own life. And so Alison took over the production. (She went on to have a decades-long career as a theatre director.)
“It was obviously a very strange play to be doing in the wake of death –– a play about death and wanting to not live. That was pretty heavy.”
His parents split when he was about four years old.
“I don't have many memories of them together,” he says. “Most of my knowledge of my parents is of them as separate people … It's weirder for me to imagine my parents together than it is to imagine them on their own.”
Though she is now “semi-retired,” his mum went on to have a remarkable, decades-long career as a theatre director.
“She basically speaks in Shakespearean verse,” says Ferdy. “She's incredibly clever.”
When he looks back on his childhood now, he recognizes that it was tough sometimes when his father was shooting in far-flung locations around the world. But he “was an amazing, wonderful dad” even though “he didn't do the school run every day. That wasn't the shape of parenthood with us,” says Ferdy.
The perks (and pitfalls) of being a Kingsley
Growing up in a theatre family (and a theatre town), Ferdy began his acting career at a young age. But even with a head start, he still had something to prove.
As a kid, Ferdy wanted to be “a spaceman, a football player, a fireman … and an actor.”
He remembers being about seven years old, sitting in the green room of a theatre one evening when his mum was working, and watching “grown-ups milling about, dressed up fantastically, laughing, telling really cool stories … and then going out and [acting in] what I basically thought were fairy tales to thousands of people every night.”
He thought: This looks like quite a fun life.
As a young citizen of Stratford-upon-Avon, he first graced the stage when local theatres “harvested local kids” to play children’s roles in plays –– “you know, ‘Child at Party’ in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or like, ‘Child Who Will Inevitably Die’ in some Ibsen play.”
He went on to earn an acting degree at the elite Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. In an intensive, three-year program, he studied Shakespeare (but not exclusively) as part of his classical training –– a term that “makes it sound like we just sort of went around in doublet and hose, only talking in verse,” Ferdy says. “But we really did that some days.”
His theatre career was well underway by the time he entered Guildhall, fresh from a run of “Troilus and Cressida” at the Royal Shakespeare Company. And while he was still in school, he appeared as the younger version of his father’s character, Ambrosinus, in the historical Roman epic "The Last Legion.”
Ferdy is refreshingly frank and humble about the fact that doors opened easily for him early on.
“I'd be disingenuous if I said there weren't any auditions I got into because of my surname,” he says. “It’s probably inevitable that people are going to be curious.”
But here was a flip side to that privilege: “There's no blank slate,” he says. “Everyone's got either an opinion or an expectation –– good, bad, ugly, whatever –– about Dad and therefore about me at the start of my career.”
So his “young man's neurosis” led him to work diligently to prove to everyone –– especially himself –– that he was pursuing acting because he wanted to and because he was good at it –– not because he had a leg up.
Plus, “I want to be doing this for a million years –– until they have to wheel me off. I can't go through that thinking I don't really deserve to be here.”
Acting began with ‘voices around the campfire’
Storytelling is fundamental to our humanity. But Ferdy’s parents taught him that acting isn’t always easy (or glamorous).
Ferdy’s mum and dad were always supportive of his ambitions, but they “made sure I knew it’s tough,” he says.
“It can be lonely for all sorts of reasons. You can spend a lot of time on your own if you're working and you can feel very alone if you're not. It can be tough on your mental health; it can be tough on your family and the people around you.”
Their advice was to be realistic -– and to know that, for all his brilliance, Ben Kingsley’s career was the exception, not the rule. “So don't expect glory … just focus on telling the stories,” he adds.
Both his parents “believed passionately in acting, theatre and film and TV as really important mediums for –– well, for humanity,” he says.
“Dad sometimes talks about the voices around the campfire. It's built into us as humans, in a tribal sense: the need to communicate through metaphor, through sometimes telling a story that's ostensibly not about you, but is unlocking something deep inside yourself.”
Another thing Ferdy’s father taught him: “While acting can be can be really therapeutic, it shouldn't be treated as therapy.”
That’s fundamentally counter to what he believes about performing: That it’s “an act of giving.”
Working with director David Fincher is ‘masochistic’
Director David Fincher has a rigorous working style — often calling for up to 60 takes for a single shot. Ferdy, a true professional, found this exhausting ultimately rewarding.
Ferdy’s expansive view of performance is informed by his conservatory training. He studied Stanislavski and Meisner alongside clowning and all kinds of other styles.
It was very “anti-guru,” he notes. “It was very much like all those methods are streams that lead into one big river. Take what you need when you need it.”
As a result, he has become an “adaptable actor” with his own set of approaches to “studying the text, working out my actions, intentions and obstacles ... basics like that. But beyond that, I like to collaborate and enjoy the game of it –– le jeu, as some French directors would say.”
He has applied that outlook to a wide range of roles on stage and screen, including Rosenkrantz in “Hamlet” (or which he received a Ian Charleson Awards commendation in 2010), Hamza Bey in the 2014 film “Dracula Untold,” and Queen Victoria’s chef Francatelli in the ITV series “Victoria.”
Being able to enjoy the “game” was crucial when working with David Fincher, who doesn’t have a method as much as he has a style of working, says Ferdy. And it’s not for everyone.
“If it feels a bit too much like hard work on a Fincher set, you shouldn't be there,” he says. “He's famous for doing a lot of takes, sometimes 20 or 30, sometimes 60 or 70, of a [single] shot … He likes to run the whole thing wherever possible. You'll be spending a couple of days on a four-minute scene, easily.”
But the key was to accept that he was running a marathon, not a sprint –– and that he would “come out the other side of it fitter,” even though he was exhausted after filming dozens and dozens of takes.
That’s because it was the kind of exhaustion you feel when you've done a really hard workout –– “like, I’m drained but I feel stronger now.”
Overall, he was happy as “a pig in shit,” he says. On the last day of shooting “Mank,” Ferdy told Fincher he loved every second of it, and Fincher called him “a fucking masochist.”
Ferdy on fashion: Dressing up is a ‘game’
For Ferdy, mood influences wardrobe — a lot! He appreciates well-fitted trousers and getting dressed up, but loathes to feel like an imposter.
“I love fashion,” Ferdy says. “But I'm not as concerned with what is most current.”
He describes his taste as “erratic” and tied to his mood.
“You know, if it's a crap day, I find myself actively choosing clothes I hate. I'll go to my wardrobe like, those clothes are too nice for you to wear. You don't deserve to wear that. And I don't even mean expensive when I say nice. I just mean –– they fit you too well. You should wear your bad trousers today.”
Not that there are many in his wardrobe, because “it's all about fit for me,” Ferdy says. “I'm quite a skinny boy with quite broad shoulders. And straight lines work well on me. So I really like simplicity.”
When Ferdy walks the red carpet, he dresses in a “kind of costume,” but pairs glamorous items with things that remind him “it’s me underneath.”
If it's “an absolutely gorgeous double-breasted suit, I might wear one of my favorite t-shirts or a pair of really lovely trainers” as well, he adds.
“When I dress up for something, I am sort of reminding myself that this is a game. This is not real life.”
That’s reflective of his “childlike” approach to fashion.
“There's glee in it,” he says. “There's absolute joy.”
This article is based on an episode of The Katz Walk, hosted by Hollywood stylist Joe Katz. Joe interviews celebrities and influencers about what they love, and what they love to do –– as well as how we all can look and feel their best. Hear this episode below or catch future episodes: subscribe in your preferred podcast app.