Ben Kingsley Brought A Lot Of Himself To His Shutter Island Character

"Dr. Cawley was thin to the point of emaciation. Not quite the swimming bones and cartilage Teddy had seen at Dachau, but definitely in need of several good meals." Such is the introduction to Dr. Cawley in Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel "Shutter Island." Set in 1954, the thriller concerns a pair of U.S. Marshals assigned to investigate the disappearance of a patient from a treatment facility for the violent mentally ill. Cawley, as orchestrator of Ashecliffe Hospital's treatment program, aims for "a moral fusion between law and order and clinical care" — to heal his criminally insane patients more than punish them.

When Martin Scorsese picked up Laeta Kalogridis' adapted screenplay for "Shutter Island" (which would release in 2010), Ben Kingsley was cast in the role of the good doctor. The two Marshals, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, find the doctor looking and sounding slightly different from his demeanor on the page: rather than the gaunt, cigarette-smoking American described in the novel, Kingsley's iteration of Cawley has more of an intrepid Sherlock Holmes feel, with an English accent and a smart-looking pipe. Speaking to the The Independent, Kingsley explains his choices:

"Marty saw him as American. I said, 'May I make him not an American but someone on a quest? Someone who wants to live at the cutting edge, where it's most difficult?' Doctor Cawley is in the middle of an intense debate about whether to connect to patients by listening, talking and engaging in role-play, as opposed to the people who were traveling 'round the country at the time, performing lobotomies. I think he'd be drawn to somewhere he could really battle it out on the front line, rather than stay in Oxford or Cambridge as an academic researcher. A knight goes where the dragons are."

I absolutely claim the pipe!

In Scorsese's adaptation, Kingsley's Dr. John Cawley is stately, carrying an imposing assuredness about himself on the cutting edge of medical progress. Gesturing genially with his pipe, Cawley explains why Marshal "Teddy" Daniels (DiCaprio) is there — to look into the sudden disappearance of filicidal patient Rachel Solando (Patricia Clarkson) — and why he is there: "Sanity's not a choice, Marshall. You can't just choose to get over it." Kingsley tells The Independent about his character's inspiration, drawn from an esteemed British film:

"I absolutely claim the pipe! I think in the book the doctor smokes cigarettes, but I said to Marty, 'Please can we have a pipe?' He and I both love the films from the era of [Michael] Powell and [Emeric] Pressburger, that feature British actors of a type we don't have any more. In 'A Matter of Life and Death,' there's a wonderful doctor, reactionary and tweedy and pipe-smoking, archetypically reassuring — but of course the doctor who smokes a pipe or bites his nails or sucks his thumb, it's a flaw."

Scorsese is indeed such a fan of the filmmaking duo that, alongside the British Film Institute's Ian Christie and Kevin Gough-Yates, he resuscitated the canon of Powell and Pressburger and shepherded the curation of proper prints of films like their 1946 Technicolor romance-fantasy "A Matter of Life and Death" (during which time his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker met Powell, whom she would later marry). In a 2008 interview for the Criterion restoration, the "Raging Bull" director calls it, "a very romantic, lush, unique picture that really makes a stand for love surviving all and conquering all."

As for Kingsley's character pitch to Scorsese, "He was very gracious. He said, 'Yes that's wonderful. That will work.' He allowed me to be as close to my own voice as possible."