Oscar Icons: Ben Kingsley & Kevin Spacey

Lorenzo Agius

“Ghandi” (best actor, Ben Kingsley); “The Usual Suspects,” “American Beauty” (best supporting actor and best actor, respectively, Kevin Spacey)

What does it mean to be an “actor’s actor”? In the case of Ben Kingsley, 67, and Kevin Spacey, 51, it means outsize charisma that spills over into the category “force of nature.” You can’t take your eyes off them, no matter what they’re playing — whether it’s an angel (Kingsley’s title role in 1982’s Gandhi) or a demon (Spacey’s Verbal Kint in 1995’s The Usual Suspects). Both play to extremes: Spacey’s second Oscar, for 1999’s American Beauty, was him at his Everyman best, and Kingsley’s second-best-remembered performance was as sociopath Don Logan in 2001’s Sexy Beast (which earned him a supporting nom). But disappearing into villain/hero roles is the least of what they have in common. Both started in classical theater, live in London, produce films (The Social Network could earn Spacey a third Oscar) and have been deemed knight-worthy by the Queen of England. (Kingsley received knighthood in 2002; Spacey was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2010 — and he’s American!) Kingsley says Oscar has brought “profound recognition by my peers,” and Spacey acknowledges “having been picked out twice was beyond my wildest imaginings and remains the highest honor as an actor that I could hope to achieve.” For Kingsley’s part, the recognition keeps him grounded. “The changes are still happening,” he says. “I’m a better actor and, I hope, a better person.”

Photographed by Lorenzo Agius on Feb. 19 at the Old Vic Theatre, London