Britain’s beloved Sir Ian McKellen may be famed for playing Gandalf in Lord of the Rings and Magneto in the X-Men series but that’s just scratching the surface of a remarkable stage and screen career. Not least his work with Bill Condon, who directed McKellen to an Oscar nomination as Frankenstein director James Whale in Gods and Monsters before reuniting on Mr. Holmes and Beauty and the Beast.
They’re back together now for a fourth outing, The Good Liar, with McKellen starring as Roy Courtnay, the nastiest character he’s played since his Nazi-in-hiding in Bryan Singer’s Apt Pupil. A career con-artist, Roy’s latest target is a vulnerable widow, Betty McLeish (played by Dame Helen Mirren).
We sat down with the 80 year-old McKellen to talk lying, dating and being a legend.
What do you admire most about your co-star from The Good Liar, Helen Mirren?
Having a career, carrying on, getting better at it. And wanting to get better. Not stuck in any sort of groove. Not, ‘Oh here we go again! She’s trying to pretend she’s ten years younger than she actually is.’ All that sort of stuff which you can get into, with beautiful people, that they want to keep their old beauty. Well, Helen is always in the moment, which is why she’s beloved, I think, aside from the performance that you get.
You worked with her on stage on Strindberg’s Dance of Death, performing in New York right after 9/11. What do you remember about that?
It was extraordinary. They closed off Manhattan. You couldn’t leave the island, you couldn’t come onto it – which meant that no tourists were in New York. So, all the big shows like The Producers – which had been running for years – suddenly had a lot of empty seats and [available] tickets, because the audience couldn’t get near it. Our audience, however, was local, as all Broadway audiences are to begin with. People who lived there, who could walk in. We were packed out! For a play called Dance of Death! Imagine? Extraordinary!
So, it went pretty well?
We were the big hit! Of course, the relationship between those two characters was poisonous. Horrible.
For The Good Liar, when did you and Helen sign on?
We’re quite late in the process. Bill [Condon] reads the book. Bill thinks it would make a good film. Or somebody else tells him it would make a good film and we don’t know what goes on there. It could be years, as they decide what the script will be like. And then quite late on they think, ‘Ooh, we better get some actors in.’ I think on this occasion, very, very unusually, the two actors they asked said ‘yes’. So that process – which can go on for months – was over the weekend. By the time we’re on board, [composer] Carter Burwell has been signed up, Keith Madden doing the costumes… the team is already in place and we jump on the bus.
Did you feel like Bill got the casting exactly right?
We seemed to be well cast. That was a bonus. We weren’t going to be experimenting too much. And rather touching that there could be a story about people of a certain age, because a lot of us are at that age.
You and Bill are now on your fourth film together. Are you two simply a great fit together?
I think so, yes. Bill was brought up going to the theatre, musical theatre. So, he knows what’s going on. The first question when he arrives is, ‘What should I go and see?’, meaning the theatre. And of course, he’s equally steeped in film. So, the points of reference with Bill are constant. You know exactly where you are and you admire the same things, and you can reach back into the past.
He’s also a very diverse director, right?
Bill’s sense of style is astonishing. The guy who directed Dreamgirls and directed Gods and Monsters and directed that wonderful film [The Fifth Estate] with Benedict Cumberbatch as [Julian] Assange and Beauty and the Beast… these are massive, they don’t get any bigger! You feel so confident with him.
Do all liars make good actors?
Lying…what is lying? I don’t know. We’re all actors. Human beings are actors. Dogs do not pretend to be cats. And they’re incapable of doing it. And although we cannot pretend to be another animal [Ian plays ‘Gus the Theatre Cat in upcoming Cats], we’re very adept at having many different sides to us, which we present on different occasions, and I cottoned onto that very early on and realised when I was at school, I had quite a different voice, accent, vocabulary, than I had at home. And the way I spoke to my parents was not the way I spoke to my grandparents. And it all came so easily. The person that you meet in the office, when you see them in the street, you can’t even recognise them sometimes. Because they’re not in the right setting or the right uniforms. So, we’re all terribly aware of how we present ourselves and we’re all very good at it, and if we’re not good at it, that’s a problem. We’re only doing professionally what everybody else does, whether they’re aware of it or not, from the moment you get up in the morning and decide, ‘What costume am I going to wear today? What would suit?’
This is a very old-fashioned thriller. Are you a big fan?
Well, the number of times I’m watching a film and I get caught up in it…I hate being frightened. Or horrified! But when something’s going wrong in the story or someone is walking into a darkened house and the light doesn’t work… I say to myself, sitting in the dark, ‘It’s only a film!’ But it’s too late by that time, I’ve already been frightened – so I’m a sucker!
The film sees your character meet with Helen’s character online. What do you think of online dating?
I’ve a number of gay friends who are couples who are married now who met online across the world. Discovered exactly the person they wanted. Oh! Wonderful! One could see it could go wrong, but equally…
So, you’ve never done it yourself?
When I started out dating, you had to work out if the person was gay or not. How do you find that out? Because you’re not at a gay club, there aren’t any – not in Bolton! So, it’s how you shake hands, it’s how you look at each other. Well, that’s all very interesting, and it’s part of getting to know someone, but it’s a bore if all you really want to do is go and have a cuddle somewhere! I think the internet is just wonderful for people who feel detached and feel a bit lonely and are not in the middle of a city where relationships are readily available. How many times do you go to a thriving city and feel lonely? Well, you needn’t anymore.
How do you feel when you meet the public?
I’m doing a show in London at the moment where I get to meet the audience in the theatre. When somebody roughly my age says, ‘I’ve lost my husband, but we met years ago. Macbeth – 1976.’ What? ‘Yes, it was the first time we’d been out, and we were so excited.’ And to be part of people’s lives and you don’t even know, it is wonderful. But actually, the side of my career which is legendary is not me but is the characters I’ve played. Gandalf was pretty well established long before I got my hands on him, so I ride on his coattails and lifted up like he is on the Eagle’s back. I’m carried along by Gandalf.
Do you feel that’s how most people know you?
There are some people who only know me for having cracked a few gags on The Graham Norton Show. And I don’t know that I’m happy about that – that isn’t really me, it’s a side of me. They tend to think they know you because you made them laugh. The idea of just coming out onto a stage or onto a screen and just being the character and accepted…that’s all I really want. And Laurence Olivier, the hero of my youth, was not someone who was recognised in the street. He didn’t sign autographs and he certainly didn’t do this sort of stuff. He didn’t give interviews. Nor did John Gielgud, nor did Paul Scofield. The idea that we make ourselves available and you get to meet the real people is quite a new one…and all a bit of a deception. So other people’s views of you are difficult to quite understand. But I think of Barbra Streisand is a legend. When she came into my dressing room when I did Amadeus, I almost fainted!
The Good Liar is in cinemas now.