Interview date: 01/07/2009
Run date: 02/11/2009
He has earned cinematic immortality both as hero (Gandalf in the “Lord of the Rings” saga) and villain (Magneto in the “X-Men” films). But for the wide variety of roles on his resume, it would still in no way be untoward to refer to Sir Ian McKellen first and foremost as a Shakespearean actor. McKellen’s work in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien may not yet be over, but until he gets that call from Guillermo del Toro about “The Hobbit,” Sir Ian has the work of the Bard to keep him occupied. This includes his latest performance, as the title character in “King Lear,” which will air as part of PBS’s “Great Performances” series beginning March 25. We spoke with McKellen about the origins of his love of Shakespeare, some of his early Hollywood work (“The Keep,” “The Shadow,” “Six Degrees of Separation”), his work with Bryan Singer, and if he’s keeping a spot on his calendar open for another lengthy jaunt to New Zealand.
Bullz-Eye: First off, I was at the tour back in July, and I was fascinated how much attention your nude scene in "King Lear" got. Paula (Kerger, PBS's president and chief executive officer) would not say “yea” or “nay” as far as whether it was going to appear in this production or not.
Ian McKellen: I think that’s probably their way of hoping the question will go away if she gives that sort of answer. I know, I think the instruction came down that it was not to be seen, though on what grounds I’m not quite sure. It’s odd, because when Trevor (Nunn) asked me to do…well, we were talking about doing “King Lear” together after one of our pre-meetings, and I can remember him now getting into a taxi and saying two things about “King Lear.” One, real rain, and two, naked. And I said, “Okay,” and that’s what we got. We got real rain and we got real naked. But not on the telly.
BE: And you said it didn’t bother you terribly much that they cut the nudity.
IM: No, because I was always bothered that it was slightly distracting. Inevitably, if someone strips off, the eyes are so interested that perhaps the mind gets disengaged from the real matter of the scene.
BE: My first experience with “King Lear” was actually having it recited in the background of “I Am the Walrus,” by the Beatles.
IM: Oh, yes.
BE: What was your first experience with the play?
IM: I think it was seeing John Gielgud play it. It’s been done at Stratford by him, and he toured it, and I saw it in the north of England, where I live. So I think that was the first time I saw it. But about the same time, I think I saw an amateur production, and on and off I’ve been seeing it ever since. I saw Charles Laughton play it at Stratford. I never saw Olivier do it on the TV; I’ve not seen it that often. The production that made the most effect on me was done for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it was done in a small theater, the little theater where we did Macbeth and Othello, just 100 people, and I remember that Tony Church came to a little theater in Denver to play King Lear.
BE: My understanding is that the first Shakespeare play you ever saw performed was “Twelfth Night.”
BE: Was it one of those instantaneous moments where you knew you were a Shakespeare fan, or did you need a couple more plays to be fully convinced?
IM: I think it was my sister’s enthusiasm for the theater -- she was five years older than me -- which matched my parents, and I just joined in with their own enthusiasm. But it wasn’t just Shakespeare that we used to see in amateur productions or professionals. There was a theater company in town, a professional company that did a different play every week. They had been doing that for 29 years when I was a boy, and I just thought, “Twenty-nine years of bad productions,” because you can’t do a good production with a new one every week! But alongside that, there was another theater with touring ballets and operas, and ours was quite a small town. And the further theater did variety, sort of vaudeville. So I was introduced to all that sort of theater at about the same time, and I wouldn’t separate out “Twelfth Night” or Shakespeare from the rest of it; I loved it all. I still do.
BE: And then the first one in which you actually performed was “Much Ado About Nothing,” is that right?
IM: What, as a professional actor?
IM: Yes, you’re right. A part, Claudio, that I went on to play again later at the National Theater, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. I must say, I am very fortunate to have played that part twice. Yeah, I joined a company in Coventry in the middle of the U.K., which had only civic theaters that did a different play every two or three weeks, so it was an advance on weekly changeover. There you did all sorts of plays: new plays, Agatha Christie, reviews, musicals, and a couple of Shakespeares a year. So that’s why I was hesitating to think, but, yes, that was the first time I professionally acted Shakespeare.
BE: When you did “Richard III,” whose idea was it to do the reinterpretation to be in a fascist state: yours or Richard Loncraine’s?
IM: Well, I think that we could both claim that it was our idea, because we made the decision together, in the company of Bob Crowley, who was the designer. The three of us met on a number of occasions in Richard Eyre’s office at the National Theater, where I was then -- where we were both working. We would just talk through the play and read it out loud, and without almost anybody making the argument, it was agreed that we would set it in a period as close to our own time. Dublin House, I think. It’s not as bad as Julius Caesar or Coriolanus, where everyone is indistinguishable because everyone is wearing sheets; you can’t work out who anybody is. But, then, can you set a play about an English king in the late 20th century? Because there isn’t a king, and isn’t it confusing to suggest that there is? But if you set it just a couple of generations, back at a time when it is not incredible that an English king might have been running a fascistic state, as it was happening in Spain and Germany and Greece and other places at the time. And if you can put people in a modernish dress whereby you can easily distinguish what somebody does for a living; whether they are in the military or they’re aristocracy or they are civil servant or what are they, you would be able to tell by what they are wearing. You can’t always tell if you put people in Elizabethan dress. So that’s my defense for putting these plays -- setting them out of their own time. And Richard Eyre and Bob Crowley would have no problem in imagining a Shakespeare play brought up to date. But who actually first said it? I don’t know.
BE: I can accept that. Do you find that there is a dividing line between those who can accept the modernization or the adaptation of Shakespeare versus the absolute purists?
IM: Well, what does that mean? (with mock concern) Who are these purists?
BE: (laughs) The ones who feel the plays should be done in their original manner, as in Shakespeare’s own time.
IM: Yeah, but you will say to them that, presumably, there won’t be any women in your production, because Shakespeare purists would want an all male cast. And they would be doing it in the open air, of course, and there will be no scenery, no lighting. Only afternoon performances. I mean, where do you draw the line? You certainly don’t draw it under the setting, the period. And, actually, a purist would know that Shakespeare’s own productions were not historically accurate; they were done in modern dress; well, what for him was modern dress. And that’s part of the experience of seeing Shakespeare: that you may be watching a story set in olden times, but the characters are bang up to date and that remains true 400 years on. So I’ve never met a so-called purist in the professional theater, where the sort of conversation we’re having about it and the points that are being made have long since been accepted in the professional theater. And I don’t know that I can remember a time when I did a play in the so-called authentic period. “Macbeth” has been sort of updated; in “Hamlet,” I wore jeans; “Iago” was sort of set in late 19th century; “Richard III” we talked about; “Coriolanus” was a mishmash of costumes; “Romeo” -- “Romeo” we may have done sort of Renaissance.
BE: In “Richard III,” whose idea was it to incorporate the Al Jolson song (“I’m Sitting on Top of the World”) into the ending? I grew up listening to Jolson, my father is a big fan, so I was rather tickled by that.
IM: That was the director’s. It was Richard Loncraine. And I resisted it, and I had to say because, basically, I had done the script and it bothered me that it wasn’t by Shakespeare. Everything else, including the song that opens the film, “Come Live With Me and Be My Love,” has been attributed to Shakespeare. Probably he didn’t write it, but he certainly didn’t write “I'm Sitting on Top of the World!” Warren Beatty was around because his wife was in the film, and I was saying to him, “And Richard wants to end it all with an Al Jolson song,” and he said, “Well, what do you think about that?” I said, “No, it doesn’t seem right to me.” He said, “So you keep making the point that Shakespeare can belong in the cinema, and that soliloquy spoken to an audience in the theater can work particularly well on the screen. You’re determined to discover everything that’s filmatic and cinematic about the play and express it on the screen -- and you don’t want the support of the man who was the first person to ever speak in a movie?” Well, that comforted me totally. (grins) And there we are.
BE: The “Simpsons” obsessives on our staff wanted me to say “Macbeth” in front of you to see if anything fell.
IM: (abruptly looks up, then laughs) No, we’re all right.
IM: “Macbeth” has always been a lucky play for me. I was in a wonderful production of it and I’m one of the few actors who doesn’t mind saying “Macbeth.” So far, it hasn’t been…
(At this point, McKellen suddenly grasped his side and gasped, giving the PBS publicist quite a start. When he realized that she didn’t realize that he was doing a bit, he laughed and quickly waved her off, saying, “No, no, I’m only joking!”)
BE: A lot of people reference your role in “Six Degrees of Separation” as being kind of a turning point for your career in Hollywood.
IM: Oh, right, yes.
BE: What do you recall about working on that film?
IM: Well, I recall that I really hadn’t had that experience before. I was playing a supporting part, but it was…all my work was with Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland and the young Will Smith, whose first movie it was, I think. Well, I remember we shot it in New York, on location. The apartment that I was visiting was actually an apartment, and the view out the window actually was Central Park. It doesn’t always happen like that with film, so that was rather unusual. And what a naughty man Donald Sutherland is, I remember that, and what a naughty woman Stockard Channing is. And I suppose Will Smith, in his way. He was very nervous; it was his first big chance, and, my god, he took it and ran and was terrific in it.
BE: Oh, absolutely.
IM: So I was always glad I did it, but I don’t think my South African accent was quite spot on. And I wasn’t on there for very long, maybe two or three weeks, but I just felt very at home. That was partly Fred Schepisi who’s a no-nonsense Australian, you know, who treats everyone the same. I had worked with him before in “Plenty,” with Meryl Streep. But I suppose it was a bit of a turning point. It was thrilling to be living in New York and filming in New York, and it’s not often the case. I’ve just been doing a TV series, part of which is set in Manhattan, that was recreated in Cape Town. Nothing wrong with Cape Town, but it’s not New York.
BE: Is that “The Prisoner?”
IM: That’s “The Prisoner,” yes.
BE: Certainly you have no problem doing reinterpretations, but were you a fan of the original “Prisoner?”
IM: A fan? I was aware of it, but I didn’t turn it on week after week, and I haven’t subsequently looked it up. I think one of the intriguing things about the original series was that there was no real explanation given as to what it was all about, where you were and who was running it. Which meant that people could go on arguing those points ever since.
BE: And do.
IM: And do. (pauses) Do they? Are you a fan?
BE: I am a virgin to the show, I must admit, but I have certainly seen the arguments go online.
IM: Yeah, well, I hope they take to this new version -- which isn’t a new version. It’s not a continuation. It looks quite different. It’s different in style; the preoccupations of our lives are a little bit different from what they were in the 1970s. But the biggest difference between the two series is that ours explains everything. And by the end of the sixth episode you know where the village is, why it exists, who started it, who’s running it, and all is very much not as it seems, so it’s a bit of a thriller as you’re trying to work it out.
BE: You’re actually in a couple of my guilty pleasure films, one of which is “The Keep.”
IM: Um, “The Keep,” yes.
BE: The other is “The Shadow.”
BE: Sounds like there’s a story there.
IM: No, I was very nervous about that because I was -- what’s she called? Ann Miller, something Ann Miller, young girl.
BE: Oh, Penelope Ann Miller.
IM: Penelope Ann Miller! Well, she was American, and I had to try and be American, and it just never works for me. But I was also with Tim Curry in “Old Maids,” and that was good fun, and a very, very nice director (Russell Mulcahy), and they had these wonderful sets. That was the thrilling thing about it, wonderful sets. It was a big Hollywood movie, you know, we filmed it, we were out on the streets of downtown L.A. Thrilling, thrilling, absolutely. And “The Keep,” well, “The Keep,” I think that was the first time I had been in a big movie. It was shot in the rain in Wales, and I was kept waiting with a rather complicated makeup. Thirteen days in a row I didn’t get near the camera, and I was made up every day. I was going stir crazy and asked permission to go home for the weekend, and then they hired me a helicopter and brought me back to London. Saved my sanity, I think. That wasn’t an easy shoot. Michael Mann is very volatile, and then he had written it and was producing it and directing it, so whatever he said went. But I know there’s an awful lot that is wonderful in it, particularly the beginning. I think by the time -- Molasar, is he called?
IM: The ghost, or the monster, when he turns up, it goes slightly off the rails, I think, but -- no, I think the beginning of it is wonderfully evoked. And, you know, he’s a great filmmaker.
BE: Absolutely. You were also in “I’ll Do Anything.”
IM: I was, yes. With Albert Brooks and -- Nick Nolte, wasn’t it?
BE: Yes. Do you remember the great controversy over the songs being cut?
IM: Oh, no, I wasn’t privy to anything. I was just there for two days; it should have been one, but I was there for two days. It was very bizarre, because James L. Brooks was directing, but, of course, his forte is television, isn’t it? This was a film, and he was sitting in a little area away from the set, and he would bring in guests to come in there and sit and watch and -- not provide a laughter track, but if they didn’t laugh at what they saw on the screen that the actors were currently doing in the next set, he would come in and say, “Well, it’s not working, the audience isn’t laughing.” And sometimes when they did laugh, they would laugh so loud that we had to stop filming. Albert Brooks had to do his stuff over and over again, as the director urged him to do it differently; it was painful.
BE: I’ve read that he actually likes to do a lot of takes, though.
IM: Who does?
BE: Albert Brooks.
IM: Oh, does he?
BE: Well, I’ve heard he enjoys seeing if he can do something a little bit differently.
IM: Oh, well, perhaps I shouldn’t have felt sorry for him, then. (laughs) But it wasn’t easy for us, just sitting there, feeding him the occasional line. That was part of the period when I was getting ready for doing “Richard III,” and I was very happy just to take almost any part in a film, just to see how films were made. It’s also quite nice being in a film where you don’t have any responsibility with it. You’re only there for two days, and then you could leave it. All the worries about Prince’s music being dropped, I didn’t know anything about that.
BE: When I went to see Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie,” I couldn’t help but hope -- even though I knew it was a ridiculous hope -- that maybe he would sneak you in a cameo as a Nazi, as a callback to “Apt Pupil.”
IM: Yes, that’s a nice point. No, I never heard from him about that. Have you seen it?
IM: Is it good?
BE: I enjoyed it, yeah. I mean it seems to be getting a lot of mixed reviews, but I mean they handled the avoidance of the German accents very well by having Tom Cruise start his narration in German, then add English narration over top of it and gradually fade out the German.
IM: I see. Right. Well, that’s good.
BE: Did you have any hesitation about doing “Apt Pupil,” given that the character was ultimately as evil as he was, or did you enjoy the challenge of evolving from sympathetic to evil?
IM: Well, I’ve played an awful lot of people that other people would call villains, and that isn’t a very helpful attitude to have if you’re about to play them. They are just people, and they may do dreadful things and say dreadful things, but your job as an actor is to know why they do them or say them. Well, I was a little bit nervous, because, after all, it’s using the dreadful, dreadful things that the Third Reich perpetrated and putting them at the service of a rather melodramatic little story. I wanted to be certain that the story was good enough to merit being written on the back, really, of the Third Reich. Well, I think it was. It was all right. And I loved doing it because it was a wonderful problem, the accent, to play part American and part German. It was very intriguing to me because, again, it was a Hollywood movie, it was shot in L.A., and I was playing the leading part. Shortly after that, I did the same thing; I did “Gods and Monsters,” which was the same year, it was the next job, and in L.A. again. The studio that we made “Apt Pupil” in was the oldest working studio. It belonged to -- Lillian Gish, I believe. It was her studio. And they still got the glass roof where they used to film in daylight, you know. So that was thrilling, thrilling. Yes, and dear Brad Renfro.
IM: A sweetheart. (lapses into silence)
BE: With “X-Men,” has here been any further discussion of the rumored Magneto movie?
IM: Well, I was told that we’re going to make one, and I think there is a script knocking around, which I haven’t read. I think it’s about the young Magneto, so I suspect that I wouldn’t be much involved, if at all.
BE: I didn’t know if they would do any bookending.
IM: Yes, might be. But I think all will depend on the way the Wolverine movie goes, which is coming out soon. And other than that, maybe a Storm movie. I think it’s such a pity that they can’t turn them out, you know, like used to happen in the old days; quite cheaply, but continuing the story. But they are multi-million dollar movies, and their special effects have to be so special, but they are worth it. The stories being told are worth telling and there’s always a moral to them.
BE: They’re certainly epic, I think.
IM: And they’re epic, yes. I know that Marvel still publishes the comics, it’s their favorite comic, and they like it because the demographic is young blacks, young Jews and young gays. They are the main readership, because they all relate, because that’s how they have been made to feel on occasion. Now, I think teenagers in general read them as well and generally like “X-Men,” but, well, they’re just good stories.
BE: And the last one, so I don’t get yelled at by your very kind publicist. Are you officially on “The Hobbit” as Gandalf and ready to roll when Guillermo is?
IM: Not officially. There is no contract. But I think they have announced Peter Jackson as producer and Guillermo Del Toro as the director that they intend to do it. I think that’s enough. When Del Toro was appointed director, I thought, “Well, it’s his ‘Hobbit,’ and he may have different ideas. He may want a different sort of look all together.’ But I think the decision has been made that “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” should very much seem to be in the same Middle Earth. Middle Earth won’t be re-imagined, so I’m a beneficiary of that. But, as I’ve said, there is no contract.
BE: But you’re ready if they want you?IM: I’m certainly ready, and I’ve put 2010 aside specifically to go back to New Zealand.