Sto­ries from a screen leg­end pre­par­ing for his fi­nal act

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - INSIDER -

IAN McKellen wipes away as much grease­paint as he can for Play­ing The Part, a doc­u­men­tary that seeks to re­veal the man be­hind mem­o­rable, of­ten larger-thanlife char­ac­ters such as Richard III, Mag­neto and Gan­dalf.

More arm­chair chat than tell-all au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, the vet­eran Bri­tish ac­tor does his level best not to “per­form” in what he de­scribes, jok­ingly (in an out-take over the cred­its) as a “bit of an obit­u­ary”.

Fans and the­atre afi­ciona­dos will be fas­ci­nated by this intimate dis­cus­sion with the “real” McKellen, which is based on 14 hours of in­ter­views — at one point he ob­serves that hu­man be­ings are act­ing all day long: “You are never just your­self, but part of your­self.”

Ca­sual ob­servers, on the other hand, might well have pre­ferred more of the the­atri­cal alchemy McKellen has pulled off in projects as di­verse as Lord Of The Rings, Gods And Mon­sters and the ac­claimed stage pro­duc­tion of Wait­ing For Godot with Patrick Ste­wart.

McKellen him­self ac­knowl­edges that com­pared with the glo­ries of act­ing, “life seems to be pretty mea­gre”.

Off stage, the man widely re­garded as one of the world’s great­est liv­ing ac­tors re­veals him­self to be thought­ful, un­pre­ten­tious, and at 79, keenly aware of his own mor­tal­ity. He says he thinks about death every day.

In Play­ing The Part, di­rec­tor Joe Stephen­son en­cour­ages his sub­ject to talk can­didly about the im­por­tant land­marks in an ex­traor­di­nar­ily rich and fruit­ful 57-year ca­reer.

As a young boy, McKellen says he ac­quired a taste for per­for­mance at Wi­gan’s weekly mar­ket, where the stall­hold­ers would get him to spruik their wares.

He re­calls his time at Cam­bridge af­ter nail­ing the “most im­por­tant au­di­tion of my life” for an iras­ci­ble, ac­tor­prej­u­diced ex­am­iner who granted him a mi­nor schol­ar­ship.

The doc­u­men­tary cov­ers his brief stint with Lau­rence Olivier’s The Old Vic, where McKellen ad­mits to be­ing in­tim­i­dated by co-stars Al­bert Fin­ney and Mag­gie Smith. And it peels back the cur­tain on his col­lab­o­ra­tions with Judi Dench, who would come up with wicked games such as count­ing hid­den red spots dur­ing a the­atri­cal stage pro­duc­tion.

McKellen also talks can­didly about his ex­pe­ri­ence as clos­eted gay man, and how com­ing out at 49 lifted a huge weight off his shoul­ders — al­though his po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism takes the place of any de­tailed dis­cus­sion about his pri­vate life.

A warm, sonorous, in­sight­ful look at McKellen’s life and ca­reer, in the ac­tor’s own words — and of course, he’s a born sto­ry­teller.


Sir Ian McKellen in a scene from McKellen: Play­ing The Part.

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