People expect delightful things from Ian McKellen, the English stage and screen great. He saw his first play at age 3, stepped onto his first stage at 6 and, since his professional debut in 1961 at age 22, has never been out of work.
One of his generation’s stellar classical actors, he played Shakespeare’s key heroes and villains, was knighted for his service to the arts by Queen Elizabeth in 1991 and then began flourishing on film. His roles as Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies and Magneto in the “X-Men” movies made him a global icon.
In his latest film, McKellen plays another character with great fandom: Sherlock Holmes.
Calm, charming and down-to-earth, McKellen may be one of the nicest knights in Britain. With classic British understatement, he describes one of the most impressive résumés of the past half-century simply as a job he does in a craft he enjoys. He amiably scoffs at the suggestion that he is an international superstar.
Bursting into resounding laughter by phone from New York City, he said, “It doesn’t feel like I’m that. You mustn’t overestimate it. I’m not Tom Hanks. And I’m not Tom Cruise. I can walk down the street. I do go on public transport.
“Rather late in the day I’ve been in some films that have been extremely popular, but you take me out of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and you’ve still got Peter Jackson’s extraordinary work. I was part of the team. I think it’d be a good part for another actor. I’m just the lucky one, really.”
But he does get noticed on the street.
“It’s true that wherever I go these days it’s likely there will be people who recognize me. But I don’t mind that,” he said. “It makes me feel welcome wherever I happen to be. I don’t mind shaking the odd hand. I don’t have electrified gates around my house.”
Perennially popular character
In “Mr. Holmes” (opening in the Twin Cities area Friday), his Sherlock is retired and forgetful at age 93, analyzing an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman.
For McKellen, it is the second time he has starred as an elderly genius for director Bill Condon. In the pair’s 1998 “Gods and Monsters,” McKellen’s depiction of “Frankenstein” director James Whale earned him an Oscar.
They have teamed a third time, with McKellen recently finishing his turn as a talkative, fussy antique clock in Disney’s live action remake of its classic “Beauty and the Beast.”
Many of McKellen’s roles have been played by many others many times, but before his interpretation of Holmes he hasn’t been cast as a character that was filmed so frequently.
Since the legendary detective was brought to the screen in the 1900s, he has been endlessly popular, with Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller following in the footsteps of Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing.
“Our impression of Sherlock Holmes comes as much from the actors who’ve played him as the actual stories,” McKellen said. “I’m familiar with all of them and they’re all so different, aren’t they?”
He went back to Conan Doyle to research the part. The film’s script was adapted by Minneapolis playwright and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind.” As the story shifts between postwar London in 1947 back to three decades earlier, McKellen represents Holmes in robust maturity and in his declining years.
“It was fun to play him both as a man in his prime and at the beginning of his dotage,” he said. “You can’t worry that so many other actors have had remarkable successes playing the part. When you play Hamlet or Romeo or King Lear, somebody’s been there long before you, many hundreds of times.”
It was playing an elderly character in his university days that won McKellen the positive attention that helped inspire him to follow a postgraduate career onstage. A glowing review said, “ ‘This might well be a name to remember.’ When you read that in print, you think, ‘Oh! Perhaps I’m good enough to become an actor.’ It was one of the main reasons that I did,” avoiding his father’s vocation in civil engineering. “It gave me confidence, so I went on playing men with long beards.”
One-on-one with Guthrie
One of McKellen’s early mentors was renowned theater director Tyrone Guthrie, who had created his own theater in Minneapolis. In 1963, Guthrie traveled to England’s Nottingham Playhouse to mount its presentation of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” lifting the inexperienced, nervous McKellen from the small part he expected as an unnamed spear carrier to the co-starring role.
Guthrie read the cast the introduction to an American edition of the play that interpreted the tragedy as a love-hate relationship between the title character and his sworn enemy on the battlefield.
Saying, “I agree with everything this says,” Guthrie wanted McKellen to play that part of the homoerotic archenemy in an era when such a relationship was considered insidious in theater and illegal beyond. Although Guthrie was badly ill through the rehearsals, bundling up in a heavy coat and scarf, he found the energy to rehearse McKellen’s soliloquies in private.
“It was the end of his life. He had a stinking cold throughout the process, but he was very, very attentive to me and helpful in many, many ways,” McKellen said. “I liked him very much and was very impressed to be in his company. He was the biggest star in the ensemble, the leading director of Shakespeare worldwide. Those one-on-one rehearsals were a very, very sensitive way of not letting me be embarrassed by making a fool of myself in front of other people.”
The production was a smash. “This production would honor London,” raved a New York Herald review.
“I just felt blessed to work with him,” McKellen said. “That’s what led me to the newest Guthrie’s stage for me to do ‘King Lear’ there” with the sold-out 2007 Royal Shakespeare Company tour.
Campaigning for LGBT rights
McKellen, one of the first openly gay English celebrities, has been for decades a devoted campaigner for LGBT rights. He was in New York last month to promote “Mr. Holmes” and to serve as a Pride March grand marshal. Speaking just hours after the milestone Supreme Court decision granting a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, he said, “This didn’t come out of the blue.”
He explained, “This isn’t the beginning. It’s actually the end of the process. It shows that the people who’ve been arguing the case for years and years and years are right. That’s what’s happened today. The Supreme Court has caught up with the rest of America.
“That doesn’t mean everything’s all right. Because old prejudices die hard and not slowly and must be tackled almost case by case, coast by coast, family by family.
“But just for the moment there’s a joy in the streets of New York that’s palpable. I’m going now to see what’s happening outside, and see the joy on people’s faces, I expect.”