LOTR Movie Site
Sir Ian McKellen

British Heritage
February 10, 2000

A Thorough Professional
Barbara Roisman-Cooper

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 People.

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 leisurely!"

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 worthwhile."

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 incredulously.

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 favourite.

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 beautiful."

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 limousine!"

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 plays.

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 Theatre.

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 coffee table.

"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 Stockmann.

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.