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Kingsley felt a duty to icons past and present

Ben Kingsley (with Asa Butterfield) plays Georges in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.’’ Ben Kingsley (with Asa Butterfield) plays Georges in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.’’ (Jaap Buitendijk)
By Judy Abel
Globe Correspondent / November 27, 2011
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Spoiler alert: The following includes a key character detail that is not revealed until deep into the movie “Hugo.’’ Turn back now if you prefer to be surprised.

NEW YORK - The prospect of playing film icon Georges Méliès in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo’’ was intimidating, even for the great Ben Kingsley.

He worried about successfully conveying the achievements of Méliès, whose work, which includes “A Trip to the Moon’’ (1902) and “The Impossible Voyage’’ (1904), he deeply admires, and he desperately wanted to live up to director’s image of the filmmaker.

“Playing a film icon and being directed by a film icon was daunting, but at the same time perfect,’’ says Kingsley during a recent telephone interview. “With Marty watching me it was quite scary. But Marty is a very loving director and it was quite collaborative. He encourages all sorts of surprising ideas that come from the actors.’’

The film, which is based on Brian Selznick’s award-winning novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,’’ flashes back to Méliès in his filmmaking heyday when he was young and energetic. Méliès, who died in 1938, is also portrayed in his later declining years. Kingsley says he was determined to do justice to both the young and elderly Méliès, which was a challenge.

“I was basically playing two different men at two very different phases of their lives and it was a thrilling and beautiful experience,’’ say Kingsley.

He credits Scorsese for helping him pull off the feat.

“In the end it was a joy, thanks to script and direction and my various costume changes,’’ Kingsley says.

Kingsley shares scenes with Asa Butterfield, who plays the title character, and Chloë Moretz, who plays Méliès’s goddaughter. Both actors are 14 and Kingsley says the young people enhanced his performance.

“I love working with children,’’ he says. “They don’t have any filter - what they offer the camera comes straight from the heart and it invites their adult counterparts to offer the same truth. They are the most truthful, honest actors to work with and I absolutely love it.’’

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