Playing the Part will be in cinemas on 19 June. Find your local screening at: mckellenfilm.com.
This illuminating, entertaining film is garnered from 14 ½ hours of candid interviews with Sir Ian McKellan by friend/ filmmaker Joe Stephenson. Featuring “private photo albums, a wealth of never-before-seen archive material- including diaries written when he was 12, and exclusive behind the scenes views of shows and films,” it finds the subject at ease with both himself and his audience.
We shift back and forth from McKellan in an armchair to a somewhat chronological history seamlessly illustrated by archival photos and film or black and white, reconstructed occurrences cast with actors who look so much the part, it’s often difficult to tell what’s real. Beginning with childhood – “Ian was the lad who loved the theater. It’s how I defined myself when boys defined themselves by relationships with girls” – McKellen relates personal feelings, professional history, and eventual activism.
Having flunked every test for Cambridge, McKellen got in when a disdainful administrator suggested he “do something.” The boy stood on a chair to forcefully deliver a speech from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and that was that. He talks about early days at school and performing in the provinces where he learned to play a wide variety of roles, experience he thinks of as priceless. Recommended to The RSC by Maggie Smith, he stayed only a year under Laurence Olivier fearing it would be too long before being given opportunity to prove his worth.
Ian McKellen as Richard II + Newspaper headline © Michael Peto Collection – University of Dundee
The actor achieved status as a leading man while still quite young and formed a company with like minded theater people. Having gone through life with a sense of inadequacy and discomfort (a closeted gay man until 49), he established lifelong friendships. Anecdotes (there’s a dilly about Judi Dench) are wonderful as is watching the thespian remember as he regales us.
“What woke me up was AIDS.” In the 1980s, McKellan came out and spoke out, raising funds and awareness. “Suddenly I identified myself before anything else as a gay man…People were hugely supportive…” We see eloquent passion both then and in recent years, particularly with young people. “I tell them what it used to be like and their jaws drop.”
Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth (1976) © Shakespeares Birthplace Trust
His first appearance on Broadway was accompanied by a love affair. (This is a reference, not a story. McKellen is discreet.) The actor’s most recent – Waiting for Godot with Patrick Stewart – evoked tears closing night. (There’s actual film on this.) Decades of performance range from Shakespeare to fantasy and science fiction.
Garnering every major theatrical award in Britain, he also produced, wrote and starred in a film of Richard III. Elsewhere on film, there was, in part, James White in Gods and Monsters, Gandalf in The Hobbit Trilogy, and Magneto in the X-Men series which he defends as “not just an adventure but a story worth telling.” McKellen muses on what he’s learned along the way.
Lord of the Rings
“I have no family, no dependents… no partner, no children…” I’ve invested it all in my acting,” Ian McKellen says perhaps just a bit wistfully.
Photos Courtesy of the film
Opening: Sir Ian McKellen