People expect delightful things from Ian McKellen, the English stage and screen great. He saw his first payday at age three, stepped onto his first stage at six 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 Mr Holmes, 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 resumes 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 recognise 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.”
In Mr. Holmes, his Sherlock is retired and forgetful at age 93, analysing 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.
Ever since the legendary detective was brought to the screen in the 1900s, he has been 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 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.” – Star Tribune/Tribune News Service