LOTR Movie Site
Sir Ian McKellen
February 10, 2000A Thorough Professional
Outside the stage door of Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre,
John, Sir Ian McKellen's dresser, smoked a cigarette. Horns honked and brakes screeched in
the background, but as he led me inside to the noted British actor's dressing room, all
grew calm and quiet.
"A dresser," John explained as we walked through the corridor, "is like a
butler. I make sure all the buttons are on the shirts, vests, jackets, and coats; check
seams; and steam and press the wardrobe, which is used in eight performances a week."
As he spoke, he gathered the various costume elements hanging at the far end of the
dressing room. "'Sir Ian will be on time. He is a thorough professional," John
said of the actor who was starring in the production of Henrik Ibsen's play Enemy of the
McKellen's dressing room did not reflect its current resident; it contained no
photographs, no personal mementoes he brought with him on tour. There were only the
requisite items: brightly lit makeup table, mini-refrigerator, sofa, wing chair, coffee
table with sweets and ashtray, and of course a bed--really a cot uncomfortably pushed
against a wall--where the actor napped between performances.
While I took all this in, Sir Ian, awarded a CBE in 1979 and a knighthood in 1991 for
services in the performing arts, entered stage left. He wore shorts and sleeveless
shirt--as suited the weather--and carried a small bottle of drinking water.
In the recent production of Enemy of the People, directed by his former Cambridge
colleague Trevor Nunn, McKellen played the part of Tomas Stockmann, a small-town doctor
who discovers and then reveals that the water in the town's money-making public baths is
contaminated. The local leaders don't want to hear this, so they attempt to crush the man
whose discovery threatens their economy. First performed in 1883, the play remains as
thought-provoking today as it was a century ago.
"He's a warning to people to speak up for the truth. He's not the best advocate, is
he, for his case? He's one of those people who say the right thing but say it in the wrong
way," McKellen observed astutely. "The point of politics is to know what needs
to be done and how to get it done." He believes audiences have to admire Stockmann.
"You could say he's a hero; you could say he's a troublemaker."
As the actor playing the role, Sir Ian explained, "None of that crosses my mind when
I'm doing it. I just have to be the character; and what people think of him is up to the
individual audience members; just like the characters in the play have different views of
him, the audience has to decide. That's what the play's about. What side would you be on?
How would you cast your ballot? That's the fun for the audience."
The playwright himself, Sir Ian noted, was unsure whether to call the work a comedy or
simply a play.
Just prior to tackling the Stockmann role, McKellen managed to fit in the filming of Gods
and Monsters, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. He ran his fingers
through his tousled hair as he explained, "You do an independent film for not much
money; no one's getting paid properly; we do it because we really believe in it and want
it to work." As he continued, he removed his wire-rimmed glasses to dislodge an
infinitesimal speck from a lens. "You've got to get it done in four weeks. There is
no money for a fifth week. That brings everyone closer together."
That's the good news, he said; the bad news is that "nobody outside the process
really cares; otherwise they'd give us more money and we could take it a bit more
Gods and Monsters is based on Christopher Brain's The Father of Frankenstein, focusing on
the last days in Hollywood of James Whale, the great British filmmaker who directed
Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man. It takes place after Whale's
stroke and concludes after his mysterious death.
The restless actor moved from the comfortable sofa to a straight-backed, red leatherette
1950s diner chair. "The film was very rewarding," he continued. "You
actually do it, and it comes so beautifully together. Then you know it's all
Dropping his voice in awe, he said, "The little studio where we shot some scenes for
Gods and Monsters is where Mary Pickford shot two films"-Romance of the Redwoods and
The Little American were both shot in 1917. "Then," he continued, "the
studio was owned by Robert Aldrich when he filmed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It's all
interconnecting bits and pieces of movie history."
It's a history Sir Ian keenly appreciates. He explained, "A lot of what I like about
the theatre is rooted in my childhood experiences. I love going on tour. I love being in
companies; a commitment, a bit of an obligation to the sort of people I and my family were
People don't have as many opportunities these days to see live theatre. I feel I'm part of
a tradition which I'm very grateful for."
Perhaps McKellen's love for the make-believe world of the theatre was an antidote to the
bleakness of northern England where he was born and raised.
"In a sense, it was an escape, like any entertainment. In Wigan, it was the grey of
the coal mines. In Bolton, grey Bolton it was cotton mills." Fortunately for today's
theatregoers, his parents loved the stage. Even in these industrial towns, there was an
abundance of theatre. At the Hippodrome in Wigan, a repertory theatre performed a
different play every week.
When the family moved from Wigan to nearby Bolton, young Ian had an opportunity to attend
touring companies' productions of opera, ballet, and pantomimes. "The most magical of
all for me was the variety theatre, vaudeville. My father knew the man who owned the
theatre, and I was allowed to go backstage." His eyes sparkled at the memory.
"At 14, I used to go every week and was allowed to stand in the wings," he said
Since Manchester was not far, the family went to the theatre there and saw many
productions bound for London's West End and some on the way back from the West End for
provincial tours, One of McKellen's most memorable theatrical experiences was witnessing
Sir John Gielgud in King Lear. Another was seeing
Ivor Novello, the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day, starring in his own shows. He especially
remembers seeing Peter Pan when he was only about three years old. Last season at the
National Theatre, Sir Ian revisited his youth, but this time on the other side of the
footlights, playing both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook in a production of the J.M. Barrie
Retirement--and a career in acting--were both far from his thoughts when he entered
Cambridge to read English. "I had no intention of ever going on the stage. I loved
going to the theatre, I loved acting, did a great deal of it at university--as a hobby
That's the part it was going to play in my life. I considered teaching. I didn't know what
I was going to do."
As we talked, he again removed his glasses, this time peering into the past. "If I'd
had other parents, I might have discovered what I really enjoyed doing was going to
football or rugby matches. Now I would be a retired athlete. So I'm lucky to have found a
job where I don't have to retire unless I want to!" laughed the 59-year-old actor.
By the time he left university, he had been in 21 undergraduate
productions--and enjoyed them so much he thought he should have a go at being a
professional. He applied to a number of repertory companies and was accepted to one.
"There didn't seem to be a need to go to drama school. Besides, what do they teach
you at drama school?" he asked rhetorically, raising an eyebrow. "Fencing?
Singing? Voice projection? How to walk? I thought those were things I could pick up. So
I've learnt on the job." Not that he didn't need training. "I had to learn to
act well. But I didn't need--with my background of seeing so many plays, caring so much
about theatre, and reading so much about the history of it--to have an intensive
introduction to what acting was about."
Other than Trevor Nunn, still a great friend and his director on several projects (notably
Shakespearean), Cambridge colleagues included Corin Redgrave, whose father, Sir Michael,
"hadn't been to drama school!" He came to see student performances, accompanied
by daughters Lynn and Vanessa. Another classmate was Peter Cook, who had two shows on in
the West End while he was still an undergraduate.
"During vacation, we recorded the whole of Shakespeare's plays. Undergraduates played
small parts, while the main roles were played by professionals. I even worked with Peggy
Ashcroft before I left Cambridge. Professionalism was in the air, and I came to feel a
part of it."
The name Ashcroft prompted a flood of memories about the great actress. "She was a
wonderful, wonderful person. She had a beautiful face, and like my mother, never wore
street makeup. She was not vain, and her spirit was beautiful."
He remembers her being a political and social radical. "She stuck up for things she
believed in. If there was a petition to be circulated about the ill treatment of actors in
Communist countries, Peggy would be there delivering it to the embassy--or to Downing
Street. She cared about actors. She was genuinely part of the theatre family."
Sir Ian says Ashcroft was an inspiration for how actors should participate in public life.
"As actors we're given a privilege that other people don't have to draw attention to
things that we can put right." To illustrate how she prompted him to act on social
issues, one has only to look at his dressing room door, where a sticker reads,
"'Closets are for clothes," indicating his advocacy of gay rights.
And Peggy Ashcroft was certainly a wonderful actress as well, he acknowledged. "What
was remarkable about her acting was that this generosity of spirit shone through." As
he brought these memories to an end, he said wistfully, "She was ... just
The memory of Ashcroft prompted reminiscences about another actress: Dame Sybil Thorndyke,
who had taken acting companies to the mines of South Wales during World War II. And
McKellen laughed when he remembered how, when he lived in Chelsea while performing in his
first play in the West End, "'I'd sometimes go along on the number 19 bus on the
King's Road. I remember Dame Sybil, then about 70, on her way to her matinee on the same
public bus. Booming away, talking to everybody."
He emphasized his remembrance by mimicking the great actress, raising his voice to a
falsetto while he flailed his arms about in imitation of her gestures. "She was a
very popular figure. But at her age, she could have done without the bus. But no, no,
no"--again in imitation of the thespian--"none of this turning up in a
The actor walked over to a table with a box of dark chocolate twists, selected one, and
continued, "So after I graduated, I went into regional repertory. You did play after
play after play, usually with the same group of people who were under long-term contract.
It becomes like a family. You get to know each other very well, help each other out and
are dependent on each other. I've always looked back on that as the ideal way of doing
In fact, his next work will be at Leeds' prestigious West Yorkshire Playhouse, where he
will appear in three plays, one after the other, in diverse roles. "I'll be easing my
way in as Dr. Dorn in Chekov's The Seagull, as it's not too arduous a part." Once
that opens, he segues into the role of Garry Essendine in Noel Coward's Present Laughter,
which he said is "a part I never thought I would play, although it's a very popular
play and done quite a lot. I thought if I ever did it, it would have to be in a long run
on the West End, and that's not my favourite sort of theatre." Once that's up and
running, he prepares for Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest.
It's a challenging schedule, but not one Sir Ian isn't accustomed to. He has played about
300 roles over the last three and a half decades.
However, he pointed out pragmatically, "There is no point in doing any of these plays
unless you're doing them in the right way." The "right way" begins
"lo-o-o-ong before what my part is going to be: Who's directing it? How are they
going to rehearse it? How long have we got to rehearse? Where are we going to play? What
size is the theatre? Who are the other actors? How much are we going to be paid? These are
very important issues."
McKellen has won more than 20 acting awards, including a Tony for his Salieri in Amadeus,
a Drama Desk Award for his one-man show, Acting Shakespeare, and three SWET (Society of
West End Theatres) Awards as Best Actor for Macbeth, Bent, and Wild Honey. "Isn't
that the most incredible acronym?" he laughed.
He has lectured at Oxford as Professor of Contemporary Theatre, accepted honours from
Nottingham and Aberdeen Universities, and currently serves on the Board of the National
When this award-winning actor does manage to get there, home is on the Thames River in
London, in the Docklands. Although many warehouses have been converted to homes in the
area, Sir Ian's is one of the few actual houses. Built in 1730, it was bombed during the
war and, although the original facade is still intact, the inside is "shot together
with block and plank really. It's sort of a beach house." He cooks and can manage a
dinner for eight without a problem; more than that and "I need help."
The actor has assembled an eclectic array of furnishings--a dentist's chair which
"everyone admires, but it's so heavy and takes up so much space that it was not a
sensible buy," and an airplane made out of soft drink cans which has landed on the
"It's a bit of a hodgepodge. I'm quite good at throwing things away," he
boasted, "but equally, if something has sentimental value, it stays and gets dusted.
If I find I've not looked at it for some time, it will find its way into the present
drawer to be given away."
With his very first salary of [pounds]8 he bought a painting. "Can you imagine--the
entire salary?" he asked incredulously. "It was a lot of money to spend. It
still gives me enormous pleasure."
He doesn't consciously collect paintings, but while on tour he visits galleries and
sometimes something will say to him, "I'd like to go home with you."
"It doesn't feel like a collection; it's stuff on the walls. It can bring back
memories of the time I found it." A favourite is a painting of a power station in the
rain by Antony Maitland. It reminds him of the North of England.
"I tend to like views, which extends back to my childhood homes. In Wigan, we had a
view in the back over cricket grounds; in Bolton, we had a view across the moors; in my
first place in London, I looked out over a square. So I guess my paintings are like
windows looking out onto views," he commented philosophically. His London home has a
panorama of London across the Thames.
Curtain time was approaching, and it was time for a quick nap. The dressing room door
opened and I saw John still tending to his wardrobe duties, hanging up an overcoat after a
vigorous steaming. The actor retreated into his inner sanctum, to emerge later as Tomas
In the future, he will doubtless emerge from many more dressing rooms, in the guise of
many other characters, as an advocate of the tradition and obligation he takes very
seriously: bringing live theatre to audiences.