Legend of the screen Ian McKellen is happy playing his age and the parts keep coming – although he may stop to write his memoir
ACTOR IAN MCLENNAN IS SHERLOCK
Ian McKellen is wearing complicated boots, skinny jeans, a tightish shirt and a bright herringbone jacket that, as fashion demands, is about three sizes too small for him. Being McKellen – aka Magneto ( XMen) and Gandalf ( The Lord of the Rings) – he carries this off much better than your average 70-something would. Perhaps his secret is not pretending to be young.
“Sometimes I wake up and look in the mirror – if I can see – and think, ‘Ooof! I’m 76 next week – 76! That’s old,’ ” he says.
“And I know it’s old because a lot of my friends regularly die, and they’re my age.”
Sitting in the globalised nothingness of London’s Canary Wharf Four Seasons hotel (he lives – and owns a pub, the Grapes – nearby), we talk about age a lot. Inevitable, really: in his new movie, Mr Holmes, he plays Sherlock in both his 90s and his 60s. For him, of course, this is kids’ stuff. Gandalf was a 7000-year-old.
The older Holmes is, cognitively, going downhill and desperately trying to reassemble his memories.
McKellen’s mind, in contrast, seems to be fine, but he has been going through the same process. (His mother died when he was 12, his father when he was 24.) “With my cousin Margaret the other day, I was looking at some photographs – they’re of my young parents – and thinking, she would never see me grow up, and neither of them knew she’d got breast cancer, and they’d no idea what the future was, and they looked so happy and beautiful. I have an emotional response to it. I’ve got some letters from my father to my stepmother, and I don’t think I will be able to read them.”
Remembrance may now be a professional necessity as he nervously edges towards a memoir. There have been talks with publishers, and he has his first line: “I know exactly where and when I decided to try to be a professional actor.”
“It was outside the Arts Theatre in Cambridge,” he explains. “I could take you to the flagstone where I was standing. The publishers have actually persuaded me it’s worth doing. I’m not convinced. I don’t have a lot to say. I think, just in a fantasy world, I would like to have written some wonderful poems, I would like to have written a novel. I’ve never sat down with a blank sheet of paper and thought about it. But, you know, why should I? I’m good at what I do and I can carry on doing it. I’ve not run out of steam.”
McKellen defends becoming yet another Sherlock Holmes in Shakespearean terms. “If you do Romeo or Hamlet, you know stacks of actors have done it before, but that doesn’t put you off. The idea of playing a part that a lot of other people have played is not alarming.
“It’s nice to be offered a big part in a small film after those small parts in big films.”
Next, with Patrick Stewart, he is bringing their production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, a great success on Broadway, to London. He has also just returned with Derek Jacobi in the ITV sitcom Vicious. They play Freddie and Stuart, two gays who have been together for 50 years.
There will be no more Gandalf: the franchise is on hold. Christopher Tolkien is resisting further use of his father’s works. And there will be no more Magneto: “Michael Fassbender is, I suspect, the future.” But there will be much more McKellen in one form or another, even if that memoir never gets beyond the first line. (He asked me how to write a book, and I told him to start work at 6am. He looked shocked.)
I leave him, dressed young, but acting his age as Magneto, Gandalf and now Sherlock, tangible traces of a great actor’s life.
Mr Holmes opens today
IN A FANTASY WORLD I WOULD LIKE TO HAVE WRITTEN WONDERFUL POEMS, I WOULD LIKE TO HAVE WRITTEN A NOVEL
Sir Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes in a scene from film Mr Holmes.