25 May 2006

Ian McKellen E-Posts

14 August 2001


Q: Recently everyone was buzzing about how Russell Crowe had to gain something like 30 pounds for "The Insider," then lose it and muscle up for Gladiator. You, though not as drastically, have also made noticeable physical changes for your movies. I would like to know whether you think it is worth it for actors and actresses to go to this much trouble for a role. Also specifically what did you have to go through for some of your movies.

A: All my professional life, my hair has been styled and cut to suit whatever job I was currently involved with. At the moment I am growing it (as well as a beard and moustache) so that it may be shaped for whatever we decide Edgar in the play Dance of Death should have. On stage and screen I have used padding — for Magneto's muscles and Richard III's misshapen shoulder. As for more fundamental changes of weight loss or gain, that hasn't yet been necessary. I saw Raging Bull recently, where Robert De Niro's shape shrank and grew impressively. But to look overweight is hard. A double-breasted jacket easily disguises a bulbous stomach and you will note in Raging Bull and in other films that the actor invariably appears with his shirt open, to prove that he really is as big as is required.


Q: What do you think of Marlon Brando as an actor? I had never seen any of his work until recently his emotional reality was good and everything but I could hardly understand a word he said. In "Streetcar..." I would have to rewind certain scenes over and over again until I finally understood what he said, and then I would enjoy them, seriously!

A: Brando is credited with establishing a style of film-acting which is still the norm although in most of his performances his idiosyncratic delivery (however easy to mimic and mock) is an uncertain model for his admirers to copy. Until you wrote, I thought I was the only person to find him tricky to understand!


Q: How critical would you say formal education in theater is to being a good actor? Also, is it realistic for a person who is 6'8" and a tad portly to go into a career of acting? While I love the theater and would love to do it professionally, the combined problems of my size and the lack of available (read affordable) learning venues make me wary of plunging in.

A: Following on from the previous question, being a tad portly doesn't seem to have held back Brando! I am reading Christopher Lee's autobiography which in the early chapters complains of the difficulties of tall actors working in film, where so many of the stars (from Alan Ladd to Tom Cruise to Dustin Hoffman to Elizabeth Taylor) have been below average height. But Christopher persevered and succeeded. In the theatre, height is harder to disguise than on film. For instance tall leading ladies (like Vanessa Redgrave) are always hoping for equally sized romantic leading men.

If you are wary of turning professional, don't do it. No formal or academic training is essential, however, unless you are the sort of person who is stimulated by it. All actors are different.


From: Melanie melhope@hotmail.com

Q: Since first seeing you on screen in the APT PUPIL, I have tried to find every movie you have done. You have my admiration for your courage in being very open about your sexuality. Educating our children to do more than just tolerate is very important. You are taking a wonderful step towards that. I myself have caught a slight case of the "Acting Bug" and would like to delve into that area. I am a young divorced mother of a 6 year old boy, and I have a full time day job that has me running ragged. I have written a play, and it has received a few student awards. They did not mean as much to me as the audience leaving with tears in their eyes and hugging their daughters and sons. After all this time, do you still feel a passion for what you do, for life and your surroundings?

A: You answer your own question perhaps. If you have had your play performed you could presumably act in other people's work with the same company. Acting is worthwhile whether you are paid to do it or not. Yes, after 40 years acting professionally, I continue to be satisfied by it with no desire (yet at least) to think of retiring.


Q: Have you ever heard of The Juilliard School?

A: This New York school for students of the performing arts has many distinguished alumni. Some of them have founded The Acting Company which tours classical plays in the States.

Star Wars

Q: Would you ever take a role in the next two Star Wars films?

A: I haven't been asked but I think after five fantasy movies in a row (Lord of the Rings is a trilogy and X-Men" sequel is imminent.) I shall avoid a sixth and a seventh...


Q: Over the past few years you have raised your public profile somewhat. Was it intentional or do you think that the older you get the more and better offers you get? Do you have any other roles you would love to get your teeth into?

A: Acting in films brings more attention than acting in plays. Richard III convinced a few people I could be trusted in front of a camera. I'm now really looking forward to being back on a stage. I've no ambitions beyond Dance of Death for the moment.

Return to the UK?

Q: When o when r u coming back to the UK stage... in any shape or form... in any role, any capacity, any means... Broadway with Helen Mirren is a must for any Big Apple eaters but beyond my budget... please.. please.. when back in the UK!!! The people (me) need to know

A: Ignore that last reply - I'll be back working in UK as soon as I can!

Derek Jacobi

Q: I've been looking at Sir Derek Jacobi's work on video a lot recently. I find his work and yours immensely inspiring. Have you ever met him? Any thoughts on his work as a colleague?

A: One day I shall post some juicy comments to a list of plays I did as an amateur, in which Derek and Trevor Nunn and John Barton and David Frost would feature heavily on the "Cambridge 1958-61" page. Derek was a year ahead of me, reading law at St John's College (I was doing English at St. Catharine's). So we overlapped by two years and became friends, though not alas passionately, acting in Henry 4th part 2 (he Prince Hal, me Justice Shallow), Love's Labours (a musical), Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Cymbeline. He had an aptitude for speaking verse as rapidly as Gielgud and to as great effect. 

He was a star beyond Cambridge as Hamlet for the National Youth Theatre whilst still an undergraduate. He didn't need a drama school training. At Birmingham Rep Theatre he shone until Laurence Olivier stole him for the new National Theatre where he showed to his best advantage over many seasons at the Old Vic and at Chichester, where we met as professionals in Armstrong's Last Good Night playing two overly butch lairds in John Arden's impenetrable masterpiece. I don't think he has been back to the National under Hall, Eyre and Nunn (all three graduates in English at Cambridge.) But he is the most popular actor of his type and generation on television and on stage throughout the UK and beyond. He can be overwhelmingly good on film as Francis Bacon in Love is The Devil. We remain good friends and have tried to work together for Sean Mathias, at the National and elsewhere but no luck so far. We can make each other laugh. He acts one hundred percent. I am glad his work gives you as much pleasure as it does me.

Film Production

Q: As a movie-fan my love for cinema is equally directed at actors and actresses, at cinematographers and sound designers, at directors and film composers, at art directors and costume designers, etc. Knowing that actors are the most public aspect of a motion picture, I'm wondering how someone like you would look at the other disciplines of filmmaking: can you recall any moments where you were pleasantly surprised by certain cinematic additions (musical or editorial for instance) that enriched your performance beyond your expectations?

A: I was woefully unappreciative of music and sound in film until I made Richard III when I also discovered how crucial good producing has to be on a low-budget movie. Watching Richard Loncraine at close quarters managing the various key contributors to his film, I realised that those who thrive in the industry are those who love it and who want to work in a team. I take for granted that the acting is crucial but should not aspire to dominate the finished film whatever it says on the marquee. Look at and listen to the final battle in Richard III. I had no idea what that would look like it was dull and dangerous by turns shooting in the ruin of Battersea Power Station and I had no exact sense of the music and racket of war that so enhances the action. And there again I had assumed the swimming-pool finale to Gods and Monsters would be like a silent movie, forgetting that they were always accompanied, although never by a score as sublime as Carter Burwell's.


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