EXCLUSIVE: Oscar winner Ben Kinglsey is no stranger to inhabiting larger-than-life characters. From Gandhi to Schindler’s List and Sexy Beast, the actor’s career has spanned a wide variety of roles with presence and gravitas. Despite his comfort with such parts, Kingsley says that approaching the enigmatic and iconic Salvador Dalí in Mary Harron’s Daliland – the story of the artist’s strange and fascinating marriage to his tyrannical wife Gala (played by Barbara Sukowa) – was still a “daunting task”.
“He was exhausting and exhilarating to portray,” comments Kingsley in his first interview since wrapping the movie. “Dali’s cup overflows. I had to give myself the opportunity to take risks. Dali encouraged me to take risks. That could have been catastrophic, but it could also pay off. If I’m in Dali’s silhouette, then I must allow myself to take certain risks. His artwork, writing and public appearances were one risk after another. He was not a character that one could portray carefully.”
Kingsley does not describe himself as a method actor, but he both inhabits and is inhabited by his characters while the camera rolls, a complicated experience when it came to Salvador Dali. “At the beginning of some days, I knew that Dali was reluctant to let me in, until he’d seen me go through certain hurdles. Then I’d think to myself, ‘Ah, Dali, yes’, and he let me in. That was an extraordinary feeling.”
American Psycho filmmaker Harron has been working on the Dali project for a number of years. The pic originated with producers Edward Pressman and David O. Sacks, and the director says she was initially reticent to get involved because she saw similarities with her Andy Warhol film – 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol – and didn’t want to retread similar ground. However, her husband John Walsh, who penned the screenplay, convinced Harron there was a way to do the movie and put their own stamp on it. The fact the story revolves around a married couple gave it an intriguing angle for the pair, the director tells Deadline.
“It’s about the beginning and the end of someone’s carer and marriage. It’s bittersweet and there’s a lot of comedy in it,” says Harron. “Dali and his wife Gala had this legendary marriage, but it was a marriage without sex. It was based on her incredible belief in his art, she was a voyeur and had sex with other men. But she had absolute faith in his genius.
“In the 70s she was infatuated with a young man named Jeff Fenholt who was playing Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway. She decided that Jeff was a genius and she was going to make him a star. This caused great jealousy and tension, that was part of the drama. At the same time Dali had his own new muse, Amanda Lear.
“We started looking at Dali in the 1970s, the older Dali, with flashbacks to the younger Dali [played by Ezra Miller], which are rendered like an old movie. That format really excited me. Ezra had like three days between finishing Fantastic Beasts and starting The Flash, and he insisted on coming and doing our film. The story is all played out through this kind of Nick Carraway figure [Christopher Briney], who comes into Dali’s life as an assistant and sees it all,” the director explains.
Despite the film’s high calibre across its cast, director and producer, this was an intensely independent production. Harron says they begged, borrowed and stole to get everything they needed for the shoot, which was complicated by the Covid restrictions on set.
Kingsley credits his fellow cast and crew with helping to realize the production in those conditions without sacrificing quality. “Mary cast it really well, there was not one uncommitted person on the set, neither was there any uncommitted crew member,” the actors comments. “The cast held the narrative structure in place quite brilliantly – Barbara Sukowa as Gala, Christopher Briney as James, Andreja Pejic as Amanda Lear, Rupert Graves [as Captain Moore]. These are people of varying experience but huge commitment and enthusiasm.”
Key to the possibility of getting the film made on a budget was the finding of its central location, which stood in for the historic St Regis hotel in New York, where Dali and Gala lived on and off between 1966 and 1973. International travel was complicated by the pandemic, so the team, led by UK producer Chris Curling, identified the Adelphi hotel in Liverpool as an appropriate stand in.
“A lot of hotels have been done up and look totally different now,” says Harron. “The Adelphi hasn’t been remodeled like that. It was built at the same time as the St Regis, around 1910, and has big ballrooms, chandeliers, etcetera. Because of Covid we were able to rent the whole hotel, so we had everything in there. It allowed us to do it quite cheaply.”
The filmmakers were also able to be smart about costuming (Hannah Edwards was the costume designer), typically an expense on a period piece. Having Andreja Pejic and Suki Waterhouse, both of whom are noted models, in the cast meant top designers were happy to lend them clothes, says the director.
Casting Kingsley was another way to elevate the relatively low-budget project beyond its means. “It’s interesting working with an actor of that league. When he arrives on set, he brings a whole performance that you’re so drawn into. He completely inhabited the part. When you turned the camera on, he’s living it,” she comments.
Securing Barbara Sukowa as Gala was equally key. “When you have someone like Sir Ben you have to have someone of equal power for Gala. You had to feel that Gala could intimidate Dali and boss him around,” the filmmaker adds.
When the idea of casting Kingsley was first floated, Harron wondered if he might be too “powerful” an actor for the part. “One thing about Dali is that he was a big coward, there was a lot of weakness there,” she explains. Interestingly, the role that sold Harron on Kingsley was one you might not necessarily expect – Marvel movie Iron Man 3. Kingsley plays the terrorist the Mandarin in the film, who (spoiler alert) turns out to be an actor, Trevor Slattery, hired to play the terrorist part. “[In that film] he is the scary terrorist and then the curtain gets pulled away and he’s just Trevor,” recalls Harron. “It reminded me he could play anything, and how fantastic he is at comedy. There’s a lot of comedy in Daliland – Dali reveled in absurdity and ludicrousness.”
Crucial to the role was the look, an essential part of Dali’s character. “He made himself an icon with the moustache, like Warhol did with his wig – they created very strong brands, everyone knows what they looked like, they knew how to market themselves,” adds Harron.
Kingsley always works with the same wig artist, Suzanne Stokes-Munton, and the actor declined wearing any prosthetics, opting to achieve the likeness with facial acting. As you can see from the new image at the top of this page, as well as the previously released one below, the likeness is uncanny:
Harron hopes that the film might encourage renewed appreciation of Dali’s later works, which can be overlooked in favor of his earlier art. “There’s a cliché of Dali that all his interesting work was in the 30s and 40s but he remained an interesting, innovative artist until the end,” she comments.
The 70s era of Dali’s career was also a time of flamboyant partying and social interactions with the great and the good of New York’s art and music scenes. Harron herself studied in the city at a similar time so was familiar with the period. “Dali loved surrounding himself with flamboyant, colorful people,” says the director. “His social life was very important. He worked very hard at art, but there was a constant swirl of parties. We tried to capture some of that, the Dali carnival.”
The ever-busy Kingsley is off to New York shortly to begin filming on a new project while Daliland completes post-production (the film will be ready circa October, so won’t be at Venice, a regular premiere spot for Harron). When in New York, Kingsley says he might visit the St Regis and see if he can find the suite that Dali used to live in. “I want to see if any ghost pats me on the head and says, ‘you did a good job’,” he jokes.
Bankside Films is handling international sales on Daliland at Cannes, CAA Media Finance is repping domestic rights.