Interview: An Afternoon Chat with Ian McKellen from 'Mr. Holmes'
by Alex Billington
July 17, 2015
"I like to arrive in front of the camera with all the information that I can possibly need." He's a legend. I was lucky enough to get a chance to meet up with actor Ian McKellen in New York City earlier this week for an afternoon interview. I met at his hotel near Central Park, and we spoke briefly before his appearance on a Reddit AMA. We could've chatted for the entire afternoon, but I didn't want to delay him any further. I interviewed him for his new film Mr. Holmes, where plays an aging Sherlock Holmes. I saw the film in Berlin and loved it so much that my effusive quote is featured in the trailer and on the official poster for the film. He's played many of my favorite characters, and I tried to ask some interesting questions about acting.
It was a complete honor and absolute delight to speak with Mr. McKellen, who has always been one of my favorite actors. In my review of Mr. Holmes from Berlinale: "I must compliment Ian McKellen because he is absolutely magnificent in this film, taking on the role with complete authority and differentiating himself (from anything he has done before) with minor quirks and physical mannerisms. He does give us a Sherlock Holmes that we have never seen before, both likable and unlikable, but still traditional and nevertheless wise. Through his charm, and the impressively conceived narrative built around emotion, this film left a strong impression on me that will likely last for a long time." So true. Let's jump right into the interview…
I'm a huge fan of yours. I saw Waiting for Godot when your were on stage here a few years ago. I loved it. My first question is - do you mind that people sometimes confuse you with your characters? Do you feel that there's a responsibility with that? Or do you just trust what you are delivering with that character and hope that people find the best in it?
Ian McKellen: I don't know. I hope that people might want to follow my work so that… and if they do, they won't confuse me with the characters, because I try not to play the same character more than once. Well, if you are in the Middle Earth movie then there are six of them over a long period… but I did a lot of other stuff in between.
So, it's not like I've only played one character. Although, for some people, of course, particularly young people who, maybe, like Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, they only know me as Gandalf. I've not met a kid yet who ever confused me with Gandalf. They know I'm his sort of representative.
That's good to hear, at least.
McKellen: Sometimes some of them will say, "Oh, will you sign it 'Gandalf'?" I say, "Well, Gandalf is not here…" But that's usually an adult wanting to get it for a child. So no, I don't think there is a confusion. I may be wrong. It would be a pity if somebody had only seen me as, let's say, Iago or Richard III, or Macbeth and thought that I was really like those characters…
With this particular Sherlock Holmes and most of your characters, how long did it take to develop the character and does it differ per character? I know with Gandalf I'm sure you can just fall right into it. But does every character take more time?
McKellen: Well, it's a confusion that I've not quite ever reconciled myself to when you are making a film. Although, you will talk about the character. You'll have a costume fitting and the makeup. But any preparation… they won't actually really rehearse. Now when you are doing a play, of course, a rehearsal involves you making decisions and making agreements with the other actors and trying it one way and then doing it another. Gradually, all that process might take a few weeks.
Film - you get dressed up, you put the makeup on, you go onto the set, and you are expected to deliver the performance. Well, of course, you are not delivering the whole performance. You are just delivering a little bit of it. And if a director is clever, he'll make sure that the first day isn't actually too arduous or you are not making too many commitments.
A prime example of what can be difficult in this regard is on the first day of… I was shooting Lord of the Rings in 2000. I did Gandalf's very first entrance into the movie, a cart going to Bag End. The next day we're in the studio and I was doing the very last scene of the third movie. I wasn't Gandalf the Gray. I was Gandalf the White. So I was suddenly different. And I was saying goodbye to four little people and I was introduced to the actors. I didn't know them. These were the Hobbits. And I said to the director, "What do I have to do? I don't know what my relationship with them is. I've read the script, but…" He said, "Well, you've been through a lot." That's very difficult. Now, it's very acceptable in a play. Of course you have worked up to that climax of a scene and you would know everything about it.
So I find, therefore, you have to do an awful lot of work on your own and make a few decisions on your own. If the director is alert, you will be corrected, if necessary, and he'll help you just get it right. But it is a bewilderment to me that a film performance is actually created after the actor has left the set by the editor and the director.
Do you wish you had more control? Do you wish you could direct your own performance?
McKellen: No. I don't miss that. But I do like it when you have a rehearsal. I mean you don't want to make too many commitments, because with the cameras rolling you want to feel free and spontaneous, inventing in the moment. I don't want to get a whiff of repetition. That wouldn't be good. But…
No. I don't want to direct myself. But I would like to have more preparation… And I usually ask for it. Sometimes I get it. Sometimes I don't.
Does it show if you have more preparation in the end? Have you felt like you've watched a performance where you didn't have enough preparation and it could have been better?
McKellen: Yes. I'm not going into details, but absolutely. I can tell. If other people don't notice, then it's sort of all right. But I like to arrive in front of the camera with all the information that I can possibly need. Then I can be free and imagine myself in the situation as the camera is rolling, and sometimes surprise myself, and that's fine.
The more preparation for me, the better. If there's not going to be a rehearsal, then you have to do it on your own. You know, there are midnight phone calls with the other actors. I don't know why… I think a lot of time is saved if people rehearsed.
There seems to be such unique challenges between working on both stage and screen. Do you find them equally invigorating?
McKellen: I don't get the question.
What I'm really trying to ask is - do you prefer stage over screen?
McKellen: [laughs] No. They're different. The crucial element [between both] is using what you might call an actor's imagination. It's actually just a human imagination. You have to use your imagination to allow yourself to be open to the character taking you over. How that is achieved is what we're really talking about.
If you are doing a play, and Godot, I've played that part 450 times. I would say, no help to the audience, but I would say my performance of Godot took place over 450 performances. I would never say one is it. They're all it. But in film, there's the moment. Well, you might do it 10, 20 times and the director will select a little bit and a little bit.
I see what you mean about would I like to direct myself. No. But I wouldn't mind editing myself. Sometimes the directors get it wrong, particularly in a laugh situation. I can tell them, "No. The camera should be on the other character to get the laugh," that sort of thing. But I did once go in to watch a bit of the editing on X-Men, but I was so bored. There were so many decisions being made that I didn't care about…
You have worked with so many talented filmmakers over so many years. What's the greatest lessons or advice you've learned working with them over the years?
McKellen: It's not so much the lessons you've learned, but their approach and attitude. Bill Condon [the director of Mr. Holmes] is remarkable in that he sets… he organizes everything so that there is a calm and a concentration… if he's not quite seeing what he wants, a quiet word in your ear. He doesn't actually say much. But there are some directors who just shout and they shout because they don't know how to get it right. They don't like what they're seeing and they shout in the hope that it will inspire a change which they will then like.
But as for a specific piece of advice? No. I don't recall getting one. I've stopped saying this, but I used to say, when I had done fewer films, I'd say to every director: "Please help me. Please tell me. I don't always know what I'm doing. You must tell me what the best angle would be for the camera," and all that sort of…
I think once they are filming and they are looking through [the camera lens] and they're watching, they're just judging the performance… of course, the crucial thing as far as actors are concerned for the directors is casting the right actor. And they are casting you perhaps for something you don't know that you've got, some quality, some element. As long as they see that, they're happy. They're not worried that you don't feel quite as at ease with it.
There was no problem with Sherlock Holmes once we got the look right. It was the same with Gandalf. Once we got the look, once I looked in the mirror and saw, "Oh! There he is." It was then very easy to, with imagination, say, "The man who looks like that talks like this. The man who talks like this walks like this." It's, sort of, in the DNA. And then the reverse is true. If you can get the walk right, you suddenly feel, "Oh, yeah. That's Gandalf. Oh, I see it; determined, a bit unstable…" You can then pass it through every other part of your body, the way you think, as well.
But none of this will be to any avail if the script weren't good.
Right. And it's all about telling a great story.
McKellen: It's all about the script. Everyone will say that: "Don't make the film unless you've got the script." That's true for a play, of course, as well. Some will say the script is sacrosanct. You can't change it or make a comment on it. But, on the whole, the work will have been done by the screenplay writer and the director, and actors arrive then in the process, really. And if that's there, you can lean on it. You rely on it and take comfort from it. Remind yourself: you are only a part… it's a good word, isn't it, for an actor? The script is your part. It's not the whole. It's your part.
I like that.
McKellen: Each man plays his part. As I said, this is a wonderful script. It was a showy script for me since I get to play old and… very old. And, of course, all the wonderful actors. And Bill sets up a very friendly atmosphere on the set, very relaxed. Usually you can do what you want. Independent movies are all about being on the watch and running out of time because you don't have any money.
A very big thank you to Sir Ian McKellen for taking the time to speak with me this week, and also thank you to Roadside Attractions + Ginsberg Libby for arranging. Go see Mr. Holmes.
Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellen, is now playing in cinemas worldwide. Check your local listings and go see it as soon as you can. Read my review from Berlinale and visit the film's official website.