Back in the 1970s, as a regular in the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sir Ian McKellen became one of the leading Shakespearean actors of his generation. Geeks the world over know him for his role as the anti-hero Magneto in the “X-Men” movies, and of course, the wizard Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, for which he earned one of his two Oscar nominations.
The other was for the indie film “Gods and Monsters,” directed by Bill Condon. He also directs Ian in the new film “Mr. Holmes.” In it, Ian plays an elderly Sherlock Holmes, who’s now retired and keeping bees as a hobby. He’s also trying to solve a final mystery… even as he loses his memory.
When Rico and Brendan spoke to Sir Ian, they mentioned the actor must’ve spent his whole life being exposed to others‘ portrayals of the great detective.
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, a bit difficult not to. And actually, there’d been 130 people who played Sherlock Holmes before me. And I’m just lucky to be playing the real Sherlock Holmes — they were playing the fictional versions.
And that’s the conceit of this story. That Sherlock Holmes was an actual, real person, and is alive after the Second World War, age 93, living in retirement. So, I didn’t have to worry too much about other people’s interpretations because I was out on my own, really.
Rico Gagliano: Were you a fan of the books or the movies? What’s your relationship to this character?
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about them. I must’ve read them. They’re very readable for kids because most of them are short stories. But I must’ve seen Basil Rathbone, mustn’t I? And even on radio, one of my great heroes, John Gielgud, classical actor, played Sherlock Holmes on the radio, with Orson Welles as Moriarty. Both of them giving disastrously bad performances, I thought, but anyway…
Rico Gagliano: Really? Is that possible?
Sir Ian McKellen: I think they hadn’t had quite enough rehearsal.
Rico Gagliano: You play him — Sherlock — at both age 50-something and 90-something. You, yourself, are — if we may say…
Sir Ian McKellen: In the middle.
Rico Gagliano: Yes, you’re between them. There have been many examples of actors — you know, young Dustin Hoffman, I’m thinking of, in “Little Big Man” — playing somebody far older than he is. But you’re somebody who, if we may say, has lived a little. Do you think you played this role differently now than you might have earlier in your career?
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, I wonder, yes. I’ve often played older than myself. I mean really older than myself. And I did that at university when I was thinking of becoming a professional actor. And I had to stop playing the old parts, because I knew that if I was going to make a living at all as a professional actor, it would be, on the whole, playing my own age. Which is actually more difficult to do because you’re not disguised.
But, you know, once you’ve played a 7,000-year-old wizard, 93 doesn’t seem… [it’s] almost a toddler!
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes. I want to ask you about that wizard. You know, this is not some cracking Sherlock mystery yarn. It’s really a quiet, realistic drama. Meanwhile, you’re arguably best known for playing that wizard Gandalf, and a mutant, in these big, fantasy CGI blowouts. How do you prepare for a huge special effects movie versus one like this with zero bells and whistles?
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, I think it’s exactly the same.
Although I mean… When Bill asked, “Will I play Sherlock Holmes?” he did say I had to work with bees. I said, “But I can’t work with bees! No, I don’t like bees.” I said, “CGI them, put them in later, you know, paint them onto the screen!” He said, “No, this is an independent movie!” By which he meant a cheap movie. So there was no possibility of technology coming to my aid.
Now, if you’re playing Gandalf and he’s facing off the Balrog, who you never see until the movie is finished, and actually what you’re doing is shrieking your head off at a yellow tennis ball on a stand in the studio. You feel silly, frankly. But you just have to imagine that you’re where you are.
And if you’ve been on the stage as often as I have in my time, you know, when I stand on the stage and there’s a castle behind me, [whispers] it’s not a real castle.
Rico Gagliano: [mock horror] What?!
Sir Ian McKellen: It’s all pretend! Acting, actually, is quite a complicated business, isn’t it?
Rico Gagliano: Is there one you prefer, by the way, an indie versus a tent-pole film?
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, I mean, it can be fun doing an independent movie because it’s all so quick. It has to be. You don’t have money to luxuriate in take after take after take. So the tension can be quite high, which can be quite good. But it’s always a bit nerve-wracking.
There was a scene in “Gods and Monsters,” a crucial scene in which my character, James Whale, was telling a long story about his past and getting quite emotional about it. Bill Condon, the director, said to me — it’s about 5:45 in the evening — he said, “Ian, they’re going to pull the plugs in 15 minutes. No more shooting, so you’ve got 15 minutes to nail this.” And the speech was about seven minutes long.
So, he said, “When you get to the end of the speech, don’t stop. I’m not going to say ‘cut.’ Just go back to the beginning and do it all over again.” So, I actually kept them all waiting until half past 6 p.m., doing the speech over and over again. But it would be rather nice not to have to do that.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I’d like to ask you about another acting challenge which is… you know, we mentioned your career interpreting Shakespeare. Among many performances, you acted in a notorious production of “Macbeth” with Judi Dench.
We actually had Kevin Spacey on the program, and he told us that Judi Dench is notorious for “corpsing,” which is theater-speak for cracking up on stage. And so, we wonder: is this true, and do you have a good example if it is?
Sir Ian McKellen: She’s a very naughty, naughty, naughty girl. She will try and make you laugh.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Really?
Sir Ian McKellen: Which is not quite corpsing, but…
Judi’s acting is a miracle to me. You can’t work out, when you’re working with her, how she does it. She doesn’t ever read a script before she does it. She just arrives on the first day — this is for a play — and hasn’t read it, and is sometimes rather alarmed. “I thought you told me Mother Courage was a decent part,” she said after the first reading.
So she’s rather bewildered, at sea, very much on the outside. And then, it could be as early as the third day of rehearsal, she suddenly stops being Judi Dench and is the character. And once that’s done, that’s done. And then she spends an awful lot of time in the rehearsal room doing the daily crossword in the newspaper because she needs to get on with life. And sometimes acting gets in the way for her! Which I think is why she likes to have this added spur of: let’s make sure we all enjoy it.
Yeah, when we were doing “Macbeth” one day, she arrived at a matinee — we had done it about 200 times, so…
Rico Gagliano: Sure.
Sir Ian McKellen: …We were given a little pink spot. And you had to wear that about your person during the matinee performance. And the winner of this competition was the one who could identify where the pink spot was on all the other characters.
Rico Gagliano: While you’re delivering Shakespeare?
Sir Ian McKellen: I mean, what a… where do you suppose she had hers? She had hers in the lobe of her ear as if it was an earring!
Rico Gagliano: Damn her!
Sir Ian McKellen: The comic porter put his on the end of his nose. I had mine on the pommel of my sword. Another guy had it on the sole of his shoe. But that’s the sort of thing she gets up to — games! She loves games.
[To hear Ian answer listener etiquette questions — and do an impressive imitation of Gore Vidal — click here.]