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Words by Ian McKellen

Ever since I saw Richard Attenborough's biopic Chaplin, I have been a fan of Robert Downey, Jr., and working with him in Restoration was a joy.

 

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Robert Downey, Jr. and Dialect Coach Andrew Jack on the set of Restoration

As in Chaplin, Robert's adopted English accent challenged even Meryl Streep's legendary prowess: more praiseworthy than that, as Merivel he effortlessly entered and embodied the complicated world of Rose Tremain's 17th century England. As with all great acting, it was impossible to see how it was done. He seemed indifferent to the camera, fully in character whenever it turned. His range stretched from high camp to low comedy, from intelligent wit to bewildered dumbness, from elegance to clumsiness.

Elsewhere in Restoration some of the English actors who should have done better, assumed an artificial archness as they aimed for the subtleties of the Caroline period. Robert meanwhile improvised hilariously for the camera, accent and stylishness never faltering.

Endearingly he was grateful that an actor of my stage experience was prepared to play a supporting part. (Our roles were reversed when he paid me the return compliment in Richard III) Once, oh dear, he asked me to give him an acting note and so I threw him a challenge. "In this next take, see if you can do something that has never been done in a film before." I peeped through the crack in the scenery as Merivel, nursing a terrible hangover, carried a precious pineapple in a carved wooden box and presented it to his beloved wife. She refused the gift and the hangover stabbed sharply at his gut. As he turned away from her, the gift still in his hand, Robert flipped open the box and feigned vomiting into it. My stifled guffaw must have ruined the take, which never made it into the finished film. Alas.

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Robert Downey, Jr. (Merivel) and 
Ian McKellen (Will Gates) in Restoration

One day, an American producer whom I was yet to meet because of his interest in the production, visited us on set and I looked forward to a chance to lobby him on behalf of Richard III which was in need of finance. He didn't introduce himself. I couldn't complain because he only managed a brief hello to our star Robert Downey, Jr. Then he spent a couple of hours in the trailer of Hugh Grant who only did a brief stint on the movie but whose Four Weddings and a Funeral had just opened. Hollywood is attracted most by heat. — Ian McKellen, June 2000


Merivel (Robert Downey, Jr.) trapped in the Great Fire of London

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