I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I saw Gandhi and was inspired to don a loincloth and join the Peace Corps.

Or that I watched Sexy Beast and slipped into an obsession with the underworld and criminal capers.

Or that I saw Mr. Kingsley on a talk show and immediately shaved my head and started cultivating an intense stare and a British accent.

Close. But not quite.

When I say that Ben Kingsley changed my life, I’m talking about an actual encounter with the real guy. The flesh-and-bones, living-and-breathing person who was born with the name Krishna Bhanji but changed it to Ben Kingsley because he was afraid a foreign name would hamper his career.

That’s who I met. That’s who changed me.

So what happened?

Well, I was lucky enough to grow up in Oberlin, Ohio. Oberlin is a small town of eight thousand people that happens to have a liberal arts college of the same name planted right in the center of town.

Oberlin attracts all kinds of artists and musicians and creative folks – including actors – to its modest borders. And on an auspicious day in the fall of 1978, Mr. Ben Kingsley came to town.

I had never heard of him at that point. Most people hadn’t. He was an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he and few other members of his troupe were in town to do some performances and workshops at the college.

photo: erin & camera on flikr

I was in my senior year of high school at the time, and my English teacher thought it would be a good idea to invite Mr. Kingsley and his actor buddies to our classroom to discuss Hamlet. That’s right, Hamlet.

In my high school, we had to read a different Shakespeare play every year. For some reason, they thought it would be a good idea for the seniors to read a play about a perpetually-tortured, quasi-suicidal, chronically-ambivalent guy named Hamlet.

photo: Phil Kalina on flikr

For the record, I love Shakespeare. When Ben Kingsley came to visit our classroom, we’d recently memorized Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. You know the one.

To be or not to be. That is the question. 

What you may or may not know is that this particular soliloquy is a contemplation of suicide. Again, for whatever reason, they thought it would be a good idea for the seniors to commit this to memory and recite it in front of their peers. I’m sure they had a solid rationale for this.

But the language is exquisite. It’s Shakespeare. When I say, it doesn’t get any better than that, it really doesn’t.

When Mr. Kingsley arrived in our class, one of my classmates asked if he would recite Hamlet’s soliloquy for us.

He laughed.

It was eight o’clock in the morning. First period of the day. He explained that it was a little too early for Hamlet’s soliloquy. He hadn’t had his coffee yet. 

photo: Tim Boyd on flikr

Mr. Kingsley and his fellow actors from the Royal Academy proceeded to talk to us about their work. I remember them as jovial and friendly, with peppy British accents. They answered all our questions and provided us with a nice break from a typical school day.

And then it happened.

The class was almost over when Mr. Kingsley opened his mouth. Right then and there – with no prompting, no warning – he started reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy.

It is absolutely impossible to describe what happened next, but I will try.

Shakespeare is a genius. That goes without saying. His words have a power that transcends the written word. Ben Kingsley is also a genius. His ability to inhabit a character, to allow the personality of another soul occupy his own, is compelling and rare.

When these two things became one – Shakespeare and an actor trained to perform him, Hamlet and Mr. Ben Kingsley – it was as though a curtain in the room was parted, and I was allowed to slip through.

photo: guudmorning! on flikr

On the other side was a place of absolute awe and wonder. As Ben Kingsley let Shakespeare’s language flow through him, everything was imbued with lightness and expansion. I was both full of emotion and entirely clear-headed.

As each word was spoken, I was turned inside out. I was there, in an ordinary classroom in a small town in Ohio, and yet I was somewhere else. Somewhere that existed just below the surface of everyday reality. A place that had always been there, I just hadn’t known about it.

photo: SF Brit on flikr

When it was over, I couldn’t speak.

As a senior, I was allowed to leave the school campus whenever I wanted. So I did. I went home, just to be somewhere else for a while. It was as though I wanted to repeat in physical form what had just happened to me emotionally.

My father was home and I remember telling him that I’d just decided I wasn’t going to be a scientist. It was the only thing I could think to say.

photo: UC Davis on flikr

All I knew was that I’d just experienced something extraordinary, something I’d never felt before. And I knew that I wanted to devote my life to something that made me feel like that. Only I had no idea what it was.

Looking back on it now, I can see that my moment with Ben Kingsley was a turning point.

I was about to leave home. I was about to go out in the world and find my way. And that moment gave me hope.

It allowed me to see that there was a lot more going on in this world than I realized. That there was life and power and energy and emotion that I couldn’t see with my eyes. But it was there. I’d felt it.

In many ways, it was the beginning of my spiritual path. A moment of transport to another reality. A moment of magic and meaning and inspiration.

So when I say that Ben Kingsley changed my life, I mean it. And all I did was show up for school one day.

photo: naosuke ii on flikr

Who have you been inspired by? How were you changed by their presence?

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