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BERLIN (Reuters) - To play an evil-doer convincingly, Ben Kingsley says, you must first understand the pain that turned that person into what they are.
Kingsley stars as a Ilya Grinko, a corrupt Russian policeman in U.S. director Brad Anderson's new film "TransSiberian," a Hitchcock-inspired thriller about an American couple's perilous voyage of discovery across the Trans-Siberian railroad.
Kingsley, who in recent years has played a series of movie villains in films ranging from "Sexy Beast" to "Death and the Maiden," said on Saturday that what attracted him to the parts was the challenge of uncovering the emotional core of each one.
"What sustained my performance in 'Sexy Beast' was my decision that Don Logan was probably an abused child," he told a news conference at the Berlin film festival.
"What I found so poignant and valuable in building Grinko was the loss of his son."
"It's more a question of 'How do you live with your psychological inheritance?' rather than you decide to be bad. I tried to portray Grinko as having no choice," he added.
"It's just circumstance which will bring the good angel or the bad angel out of each one of us."
U.S. actor Woody Harrelson and Britain's Emily Mortimer play the pair that set off from Beijing hoping to inject new life into their marriage but are instead embroiled in a fight for their lives after making friends with the wrong people en route.
Mortimer's figure drives the narrative, as her inner demons and weaknesses ensnare her in a web of deceit that expose the moral ambiguities of the protagonists.
Harrelson, by contrast, epitomizes the trusting, strait-laced and naive American abroad.
"Not many Americans travel," said Anderson, who journeyed across the Trans-Siberian railway in the late 1980s. "They don't have that curiosity that other cultures tend to have. Woody's character is somewhat of a stereotype in that regard."
"We wanted to have a character who didn't have the secrets, who didn't have the complicated darker side."
As the train steams across the bleak canvas of the snow-filled wastes, the film, which Anderson said was a form of homage to several Alfred Hitchcock movies, explores the scars left in Russia by the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
"In Soviet days we were people living in the darkness," Grinko says in the film. "Now we are dying in the light."
The claustrophobic film, featured in the Panorama section of the Berlinale, and Anderson's first since "The Machinist" in 2004, was first premiered at the Sundance Festival last month.
Kingsley, 64, said the film, in which he speaks Russian in a number of scenes, had enabled him to live out his lifelong curiosity about what made other people who they are.
"I would spend a lot of my childhood staring at other people -- much to the discomfort of my parents," he said. "And I was told it was rude. I can't understand how curiosity can be rude."
Recalling a Russian restaurant he visited in California, Kingsley said Grinko belonged to the class of people who were too dangerous to stare at: "he'd break my fingers," he said.
"And I remember sitting in the restaurant trying to watch these people, putting my own life and limb in grave danger. Shortly after visiting the restaurant Brad offered me the role of Grinko, and I said to myself, now I can look."
Reporting by Dave Graham