Words by Ian McKellen
I was working a heavy schedule of Coriolanus and Wild Honey at the Royal National Theatre when Fred Schepisi asked me to play the one-scene part of the senior diplomat who refuses Meryl Streep's request to promote her husband in David Hare's Plenty. I had seen the stage play (also at the National), when Frederick Treves shone in the same gem of a part opposite Kate Nelligan.
Sir Andrew (Ian McKellen, L) bids adieu to Susan Traherne (Meryl Streep) on the steps of the Foreign Ministry
Photo by Frank Connor
Fred explained that the scene would be shot in its authentic location of the British Foreign Office. As neither the diplomatic service nor the National Theatre functioned on Sundays, I was free to spend weekends at the illustrious location overlooking the Prime Minister's office in Downing Street.
I asked Fred to teach me all he knew about film-acting, although I was excited rather than nervous to be working with my favourite screen actress. We prepared by rehearsing the scene in advance of shooting just as if it were a play. The first half of the scene was shot with a continuous camera movement. Meryl Streep was perfection on and off the set. She was good company and careful to put me, as a visitor, at my ease. We laughed a lot and she let me try on her pillbox hat. On my final Sunday she arranged for the caterers to serve gooseberry crumble for which she knew I had a particular passion. Another day she did the cooking herself at home, where she seems to be the model wife and mother.
Once we were called to act, she switched into work mode effortlessly and completely and it was alarming to feel the character's neurotic contempt shining out at me, from the same eyes which minutes before had twinkled with fun. I wondered whether we might work together onstage one day. She said there would be plenty of time for that once the film industry got tired of her. Who could ever get tired of Meryl Streep? — Ian McKellen, June 2000