INTERVIEW: Ian McKellen talks ‘Mr. Holmes’ and Being an Academy Member

The word “sir” can do a lot in terms of expectations. For example, getting the chance to interview Ian McKellen is a very cool opportunity, but when you remember that technically he’s Sir Ian McKellen, that elevates things somewhat. Luckily, when I sat down this week to talk with him about Mr. Holmes, he was charming, disarming, and blunt in the best way possible. He even laughed when I brought up his scene on the show Extras. Below you can see the highlights of our short chat, which not just covers his turn as Sherlock Holmes, but what draws him to certain roles and even how he deals with being a voting member of the Academy.

Take a look and stay tuned for my Mr. Holmes review, as it opens on Friday. It’s directed by Bill Condon, co-stars Laura Linney (who I also spoke to here), and is one of McKellen’s best turns to date.

Here now are the best bits from my quick chat with McKellen:

On being a member of the Academy and the less than ideal way that voting is done

Ian McKellen – For that year (the year he was first nominated, going forward) I was invited to vote, and therefore they send you screeners. Therefore, you don’t see the films the way they were meant to be seen, which is the cinema. You watch them at home. What’s the point of watching The Lord of the Rings at home? You want it on the big screen! Anyway, it came to voting time and I hadn’t seen all of the movies. So what did I do? I had a party and we collectively voted. And I voted for some films that I hadn’t seen. Well that’s ridiculous! So I’ve never voted since, and I suspect I’m not the first person to do that, and therefore what you’re doing is probably very important. You should be paid more!

His response to me quoting him from the TV show Extras

IM – (Laughs) Well, that (Laughs again)…what’s he called? Ricky Gervais, he and his partner Steve Merchant wrote that, I didn’t invent it, they wrote it and I just learned it. And I curse them and thank them at the same time because they got me exactly right. I’m like that man! The blessing is that now having seen myself being that pompous, when it comes to being interviewed, I really do try not to be like that. I suppose there’s a side of me that is, but there’s another side of me that’s not!

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When I see other actors talking about their jobs, I go “shut up!” And it’s not their fault, they’re being asked these questions. They’re not asking to be on television, they’re invited to be on television. They’d like to talk about all sorts of things, but no, they get to talk about themselves. God! No wonder we’re boring and bore people, annoy people, and are thought to be pretentious.

On the changing nature of acting in regards to public and press interest

IM – Actually, I think…when I was starting to go see people act and wanted to, because I enjoyed their work, I didn’t read about them. I didn’t read their confessions and I didn’t know anything about their private lives. I didn’t know about their sexualities, all I knew was I enjoyed watching them work, their performances. Now, these are theater actors more than film actors. Film actors who are stars always had these publicity machines. But Laurence Olivier didn’t give interviews. Paul Scofield didn’t give interviews. John Gielgud never went on the junketing circuit, didn’t have time to do this. The point I’m making is that if you know too much about the actor, it might get in the way of his performance. Stars are different. Stars we never want to change. They must always be the same, look the same, sound the same, be the same character, seen him do this a hundred times before, can’t wait to see him do it another hundred times. Then there’s actors like me who try to be different each time. Well, we shouldn’t really talk about ourselves.

If he prepared at all to play Sherlock Holmes by researching the character

IM – I read a couple of the books, just to check, but of course the conceit is that this one isn’t like that Holmes. We all know what Sherlock Holmes is like though, don’t we? That’s what makes him a riveting and popular character, we recognize him immediately. Except of course when he’s in disguise! Really, what it comes down to is the act. This character was a real man. (Whispers) Sherlock Holmes wasn’t. (Laughs) So this is a real man and his problems and his feelings are those of a man like us all, struggling with life, and for him a long life. So to get the performance right, it was more important to delve into the reality of that than going back and seeing if I’ve got the angle right on my Deerstalker.

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How he decides on what role to take

IM – Well, I don’t initiate projects very much. I do in the theater, but the only time I’ve done it with film was when I wanted to do Richard III, which I’d done on stage. I wrote the screenplay and eventually produced it and go it on. That really was my calling card into the film industry and once I’d done that people were interested and didn’t think he was just someone who shouts in the evening, which is what people say about theater actors. Otherwise, I just wait for them.

And how do I judge? Well, do I like this script? Is this a movie I want to see? If the answer is no, forget it. Yes I would like to see it…can I play this part? Yeah…have I played it before? If the answer is yes, don’t do it. Haven’t played it, not quite sure I can play it…ooh, that’s exciting. Who’s directing it? Who else is in it? How much am I being paid? How much time have we got? Where is it? Does it fit in? All these things, and there may be a lot of negatives, sometimes you have to draw up a list of pros and cons. Now, Mr. Holmes…Bill Condon says I’m sending you a script. Ooh! (Laughs) And you’re to play Sherlock Holmes. What? And he’s very old but also not too old, in the same film. Well, I hardly had to read it, but when I did, it was intriguing, witty, elegant, stylish. Then I heard who was going to get it, every box was ticked. And I got to sleep in my own bed at home!

There you have the best of my talk with McKellen. You can see him this weekend in Mr. Holmes playing the detective of the same name. He’s quite good in the role too, I must say…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!

About Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of Indiewire's Criticwire Network as well as the Internet Film Critics Association.
  • Joey Magidson

    Enjoy!

  • Sad to hear that he doesn’t actually use his Oscar ballot. I’m betting he would have pretty good taste!

    • Joey Magidson

      Agreed.