Ian McKellen — excuse me, Sir Ian McKellen — is one of the finest Shakespearen actors alive, with a stage career that spans Romeo to King Lear. But today, at 76, the actor is best known for playing the wizard Gandalf in six film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga, and the mutant Magneto in five “X-Men” adventures.
As his version of Sherlock Holmes hits theaters with the release of “Mr. Holmes,” McKellen would like to remind the world that he never intended to build a career based on interpreting some of the world’s most indelible characters.
“It isn’t as if I said to myself, ‘Right, I’m just going to play iconic heroes from literature, and turn them into movies,'” McKellen says, by telephone from New York, where he is promoting the new film. “That is what’s happening. But I’m simply somebody involved in telling stories. They are likely to be stories that people relate to, and want to have more of.”
McKellen’s No. 1 criterion for choosing a part these days: Is it fun? The actor says he also takes into consideration such questions as “Where is it, when is it, who else is in it, how much does it pay and am I available?” But pleasure takes precedence. That, and a good yarn.
Directed by Bill Condon — whose 1999 film “Gods and Monsters” garnered McKellen his first of two Oscar nominations — “Mr. Holmes” is based on “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” a 2005 novel by Mitch Cullin imagining Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective as a slightly doddering 93-year-old retiree with a desire to “correct the myriad misconceptions created by (his chronicler, Dr. Watson’s) license.” To that end, Holmes has begun writing — or, rather, rewriting — an account of his last case, the details of which he’s now struggling to recall.
The crumbling of one’s mind, McKellen says, is something he knows all too well, having observed the slow decline of his stepmother Gladys, who died in 2006. Her dementia, and the way she retained her dignity, informed his portrayal. “I learned as much from knowing my stepmother when she was 100 years old,” he says, “as from having read any of Conan Doyle. It’s the reassurance that you can function as things are collapsing around you. Even if the mind is going, there’s life going on as human beings battle against death.”
Such insights into the character, according to McKellen, are accidental. “This actor doesn’t do what some people refer to as research,” he says. “You could read your way through every one of — what is it? — 57 short stories that Conan Doyle wrote. You’d enjoy it. No doubt I’d enjoy it. But what’s in the script is what matters. I used to do a bit of that in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, and say to Peter Jackson, ‘There’s a very good bit here in the novel that you don’t have in the script.’ He’d say, ‘That’s right, we decided not to include it.’ End of discussion.”
These days, McKellen reports, “I just come along at the last minute and learn the lines, basically.”
In a case of life imitating art, McKellen, like Holmes, is about to write his own memoir. Despite having long insisted that he had neither the time for nor the interest in such navel-gazing, the actor recently signed a deal with Hachette to write his autobiography, for a reported 1 million pounds.
The book will likely focus not just on McKellen’s stage and screen career, but on his gay rights advocacy. The actor, who came out in 1988, just shy of his 50th birthday, recalls the milestone as a professional as well as a personal turning point. For a closeted young actor, McKellen says, the stage was a way to hide, as he puts it, in full view — a disguise that was fun at first, but that gradually became a necessity. After coming out, he says, acting became all about “telling the truth, and revelation.”
For the time being, telling stories on stage and screen keeps McKellen, in his words, “occupied,” though he knows that the book is going to entail a reduction in his workload. Next year, the actor will return to the London stage for a reprise of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” with McKellen’s “X-Men” pal Patrick Stewart. (The two first performed the play two years ago in New York, in repertory with Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”) Meanwhile, “Vicious,” a sitcom with Derek Jacobi about a bickering gay couple, is likely to be renewed for a third season. Look for the premiere of the second season next month on PBS.
So when does McKellen expect to slow down and start writing? “Just as soon as you stop asking me all these questions,” he says. Though the actor says he’s joking, it sounds like the truth.