Stories from a screen legend preparing for his final act
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.