29 February 2000
Q: Dear Sir, I just wanted to say I think you are a great actor, so much that I do not recognize you from film to film. How do you achieve this?
A: One of the very few books about acting that I discovered as a kid dealt with makeup for the stage. It had double-page spreads of black and white photographs, showing how to turn a Caucasian face into "a red Indian brave" and "a Negro type" - these were the politically incorrect days of the Black and White Minstrel Show on BBC television. There were also diagrams showing how a young face could be disguised thanks to Leichner greasepaint as an old one, wrinkles of "lake" colour highlit with no.5 (ivory). There were also impenetrable lessons on how to fashion a beard and moustache from a hank of crepe hair.
At school and university, actors applied their own makeup and I kept my Leichner, powders and brushes in the traditional cigar box. Wigs from Charles Fox were mailed from London and rarely fitted snugly: they had canvas fronts which had to be smeared with a base colour to match the forehead's complexion. I began to look out for professional makeup on stage, screen and in publicity photographs. There was a lot of it about and Laurence Olivier was renowned for his false noses and complicated makeup charts. As a tyro actor at Coventry I was restrained from following the great man's example by slapping too much paint on, although early on I managed a convincing octogenarian face as the butler in Black Coffee. Even as a character my own age I tried to alter nature and emphasise eyes and mouth to accommodate the footlights and bright lights from front of house. What we all did was to apply a mask.
Nowadays, stage lighting is less constant and it is impossible to devise makeup that is convincing under the varied cross-lights and overhead lamps currently favoured by lighting designers, relative newcomers to the theatre. In the '50s and '60s lighting was devised by the director. In my early work, playing a new part every two weeks for the regular audience, it was fun to try and be unrecognisable or at least to vary one's appearance. Hair is the most crucial feature of the head when the audience is too far to see even a reddened mouth or eyes outlined with mascara. I became adept with Brylcreem and brush. This wasn't just to entertain the audience with versatility it was a quick way of discovering visual characteristics which, once I had discovered them in the dressing-room mirror, could then be extended through gesture and gait into someone other than smooth-faced Ian McKellen. I was impatient for real wrinkles and lines.
Although in the film and television industries, makeup and hair are applied by experts, I am intrigued by their art and grateful for it. There are many actors who seem to think it appropriate that all the characters they play should look the same and they resist all efforts to alter their shape and the hairstyle which suits them best. I am of the contrary school, happy on occasion to have been noted as a protean actor whose craft lies partly in disguise. Makeup doesn't always disguise. I remember an actor playing the Duke in Merchant of Venice who wanted to look different from his other roles in a Shakespeare season at Stratford-upon-Avon. He wore a wig and false eyebrows and had a beard. He even stuck on false cheeks and lengthened his nose with putty. He had so expanded his features that he ended up looking just like his usual self but with an over-sized head!
The Scarlet Pimpernel
Q: The first time I remember seeing you perform was in The Scarlet Pimpernel when I was about 14 years old. At the time, I thought of you only as the villain but as I've watched the movie over and over again, I have grown to appreciate your powerful and moving performance in the role of Chauvelin. What is so attractive about that character?
Merci beaucoup. I always thought it odd that the Scarlet Pimpernel, the ultimate monarchist aristocrat, should be more of a hero for audiences in the USA than his arch republican rival. Chauvelin's political savagery is, after all, at the service of the revolution on which the United States based much of its Constitution.