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“You never see a bad performance in a Bill Condon movie,” says self-effacing Ian McKellen as we sit down to record episode seven of my Awards Chatter podcast and I compliment him on his performance as Sherlock Holmes in Condon’s Mr. Holmes.
The legendary British thesp was also directed by Condon in his first big-screen success, 1998’s Gods and Monsters (“the role of a lifetime — or, my lifetime”), and in the upcoming live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast (which recently wrapped).
As for Mr. Holmes, which Roadside Attractions and Miramax released in July, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but the performance of its 76-year-old star as the world’s greatest detective at 93, trying to solve his final case in the face of memory loss, and in flashbacks at 60, when he first encountered that same case, has won universal praise, just like the vast majority of his prolific stage and screen work over the last half-century.
(You can play the full conversation below or download it — and past episodes with Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Danny Boyle, Eddie Redmayne, Jason Segel, Ramin Bahrani, Michael Shannon, Ridley Scott, F. Gary Gray, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell — on iTunes.)
Over the course of our conversation, McKellen discusses the youthful experiences that inspired him to become an actor, his deep love of Shakespeare, and his decision to “come out” as a gay man — years before Rupert Everett, Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris — during a 1988 radio debate about a Thatcher-era policy that would have persecuted gays. The announcement could have ended his career but instead, he says, it kick-started it. He had long been established as a great of the stage, but he suddenly became more versatile, he says, and began landing major screen roles. “It all happened after coming out,” he marvels. “I had no idea this silly thing was a weight on my shoulders.
“That’s my message to anyone in this town who thinks ‘I’ve got to stay in the closet to be successful in films,'” he emphasizes. “I didn’t.” He asks, “Do you want to be a famous movie star who has love scenes with ladies and in private be an unhappy gay? There’s no choice. Forget the career, dear. Go and do something else. … A closet’s a really nasty place to live, you know? It’s dirty, it’s dusty, it’s full of skeletons. You don’t want it. Open that door — fling it wide and be yourself.”
After the Gods and Monsters breakthrough — his portrayal of gay British director James Whale in 1930s Hollywood landed him his first Oscar nom — he was offered a major part in Mission: Impossible II, but turned it down because the producers wouldn’t show him the full script. It was a fateful decision, he explains: “If I’d done that movie, which was delayed and delayed and delayed, I would have missed out on doing the first X-Men movie and I would have missed out on doing Lord of the Rings.”
McKellen’s portrayals of Magneto in the former and Gandalf in the latter made him a household name and face around the world — an impact similar to that which Star Wars had on another revered British vet of stage and screen, Alec Guinness, which we discuss. We talk at length about The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the first installment of which brought him his second Oscar nom — how he prepared for it by listening to recordings of Tolkien; his interactions with the rest of the cast (Christopher Lee envied the part of Gandalf); the experience of shooting the three films consecutively over the course of a year in Wellington, New Zealand; the technical challenges of acting in a film of that scale (greenscreen work etc.); and much more.
Mr. Holmes was a far simpler and more traditional project, and one that McKellen relished making. He was undaunted by the idea of inhabiting a character previously played by more than 100 other actors dating back at least to Basil Rathbone, since he’s used to stepping into parts previously played by other great actors and making them his own (see: all of his great Shakespearean roles), which is precisely what he does in this quirky little film. After all, where else has one ever seen Holmes stripped of his iconography and presented as a human with passions (beekeeping, for which McKellen went to school) and frailties (getting old ain’t for sissies) just like you and me?
Mr. Holmes, which is being distributed in the U.S. by Roadside Attractions and Miramax, is still playing in select theaters. Awards voters are being asked to consider McKellen for best actor.
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