THEATRE director Tyrone Guthrie taught Ian McKellen to take risks, to dare and “to jump off the end of the pier and see if you can swim,” says the actor.
“Guthrie taught me to demand things of myself that I didn’t know whether I could do.” Risk-taking ran contrary to McKellen’s early years. As a gay man in postwar Britain, where homosexuality was illegal, he was rather reserved. “I was very shy as a boy,” he says.
“You were always disguising yourself.”
McKellen’s film career began to flourish after he came out in 1988, aged 49. In his 50s and 60s he became a mainstay of British cinema.
Now 76, he is a star, courtesy of his turns as Gandalf in director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation, and his performances as Magneto in the X-Men films.
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His roles in the X-Men and The Lord of the Rings were in 2000 and 2001, respectively, his casting no doubt influenced by his electric 1998 performance in Gods and Monsters, in which he played the troubled filmmaker, James Whale, for director Bill Condon. It was a seminal moment, earning McKellen the first of his two Oscar nominations.
“When Bill Condon sends you a script, your heart lifts,” says McKellen, who has reunited with the American filmmaker for Mr. Holmes, an intriguing and expertly crafted Sherlock Holmes movie based on the 2005 book, A Slight Trick of the Mind, by US author, Mitch Cullin.
In Mr Holmes, the super sleuth is in his 90s and in retirement, living away from London, where his stories, penned by his colleague, Dr. Watson, remain ever popular. For McKellen, Holmes’ age and frailty proved part of the attraction.
“It was a story I could relate to,” he says, “not because I am a great follower of Conan Doyle. I am 76 this month, so old age and mortality rang true. At the same time, it was all a bit of a lark.” Part of the story is told in flashback.
“I get to play old and then very old. That’s fun.”
In this adaptation, “the Sherlock Holmes that we meet is not like the Sherlock Holmes that Watson writes about,” says McKellen.
“Sherlock in our movie complains that the Sherlock of popular imagination, created by Watson, has been an embarrassment, a distraction and an annoyance.”
McKellen says that audiences are intrigued by fictional detectives’ private lives.
“Conan Doyle may have started that, but Agatha Christie, with Miss Marple and Poirot followed on,” he says.
“There have been endless books about detectives and their personal problems, which may be at odds with their public image. That is certainly true of Sherlock and I think that’s why people go back again and again to Holmes.”
The Conan Doyle estate launched a lawsuit against the filmmakers, claiming that the film draws on the Scottish novelist’s later stories, which are still under copyright in the US.
They have filed a suit against the movie studio, Miramax, publisher Penguin Random House, and author Mitch Cullin, who is also one of the film’s screenwriters. The news had yet to break when McKellen and I met.
McKellen says that for all the plaudits he’s received on stage, he will likely be best remembered for fantasy blockbusters and his 2005 turn on the popular British soap, Coronation Street.
“That’s only natural,” he says. “Some people have seen The Lord of the Rings 20 times, so one becomes part of their lives or the performance does. When I die, it’ll be ‘Gandalf dies’, of course. That’s fine, because I am not ashamed of The Lord of the Rings.”
He cites the example of Alec Guinness, who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars films. “He hated being famous for having done Star Wars, but that was Star Wars. I did Tolkien!
“There are very, very few plays or films that I have not thought were worth making,” he says.
“It would be awful to get stuck with a character that you didn’t think was very good. I am not a snob at all. There are some people who think I am a Coronation Street actor. Well, what a great accolade to have.”
The accolades keep coming. McKellen was knighted in 1991, for his service to the dramatic arts, and was secondly Oscar-nomination in 2002, for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. He has also earned four BAFTA and five Emmy nominations.
He is working with Condon for a third time, appearing as Cogsworth, the butler-cum-clock, in the latest re-imagining of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and is back on the small screen, alongside his old friend, Derek Jacobi, in the second series of the sitcom, Vicious.
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“There’s less of the viciousness and more of the love between Derek’s character and mine,” he says of the latest series, which has attracted mixed reviews.
“That was always there, underpinning the modus operandi, which was to be horrible to each other. But their love is more explicit in this series.” Beauty and the Beast is a Disney film, and also stars Emma Thompson, Emma Watson and Kevin Kline.
“The cheek of it made me want to do it,” he says. “They had written this fantastic character. He is a butler that gets turned into a clock. It is based on the Disney animation, although here animation is used for the characters that the prince sees when he is under the spell.”
The prince-cum-beast, played by Dan Stevens, won’t be animated. “He will be a monster, a beast. Basically, I just have had to supply a voice and the animators will do the rest. Then, at the end of the film, the characters all turn back into their real selves and then I sing and dance in a Disney movie.”
"Beauty and the Beast" starts! pic.twitter.com/nOZ7Nk0KVf— Ian McKellen (@IanMcKellen) April 15, 2015
He is also set to star in a TV adaptation of The Dresser, with Anthony Hopkins, a quintessential story about life on the stage, and will also lend his voice to the animated film, Animal Crackers. He is still very much in demand and says he is always happy to take risks, referring back to Guthrie.
Before he worked with Guthrie, acting had often been a means to an end, a pretence, a way of hiding his true self. “When I came out, I was dealing with my own real emotions and acting became about revelation and telling the truth, rather than disguising things.” His acting is a joy to behold. Audiences watching Mr. Holmes will find it hard to disagree.