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Interview: Ian McKellen on Playing Sherlock Holmes in Mr. Holmes

The actor discusses how he finds a character’s DNA through the way that he moves.

Ian McKellen
Photo: Roadside Attractions

A Royal Shakespeare Company veteran equally at home wearing Gandalf’s long, pointy hat, Ian McKellen wears his greatness lightly. When we spoke this week at the Lowell Hotel, he started by raiding the sandwich plate and eating with enthusiasm while interviewing me a bit about how Slant Magazine makes money. Exhibiting a skeptical curiosity, a talent for close observation, and a healthy, if self-mocking, ego, all of which must serve him well as an actor, he was a delightful conversationalist, peppering his remarks with playful gestures and tart or mischievous asides.

McKellen was in town to promote Mr. Holmes, a lovely character study in which he plays an aged Sherlock Holmes struggling with memory loss and the dimming of that great mind while trying to solve the mystery of his own prickly personality. He also talked about being a grand marshal of last month’s historic gay pride parade here in New York and about the art of finding a character’s DNA through the way that he moves.

So this was just your first time as grand marshal for the New York gay pride parade?

I’ve done it before in San Francisco and Oslo. And next month I’m going to do it in Manchester, for the second time. But this was the first time in New York. This was a biggie. Actually reminded me of San Francisco, which, you can imagine, is a big one. But this was obviously a special year. It was interesting because the march kept stopping. So I’m in the car, stopped, saying hello to people, and up close, suddenly, is the whole of humanity. There were children, old couples, out of towners watching the free show, gay people, clearly straight people. And they were all cheering with the same joy, because of the Supreme Court ruling, seemed to me. And the fun for me, as you can imagine, is that suddenly, just at that moment, you’re the focus of all that joy. You haven’t caused it, but you share it. That was the remarkable thing. When we started the gay pride marches, it was just gay people. And a few people gawping. But now! The march went on for eight hours!

You know that Gandalf recently got married to Dumbledore after Ireland legalized gay marriage.

What do you mean?

You didn’t know that? They had a big wedding in Ireland.

I thought they were the same person. I thought I played Dumbledore. But apparently I didn’t.

So when you were playing Gandalf, did you have any theories about his sexuality?

I did. Well, I had questions. Because the author wasn’t around to answer them, Sir Tolkien. But I had a lot of questions about Gandalf. Like, where does he keep his toothbrush? Seems to have perfectly good teeth.

He had a pretty big hat.

Exactly! I thought he kept everything in his magic hat [miming removing something from a tall wizard’s hat]. Takes his pajamas out, the electric toaster. Anything he wants is in there.

Like Harpo Marx’s coat.

Yes! Wouldn’t that have been a good way to go? But no, they weren’t interested in that idea. So I said, who are his friends? That’s usually a good question to ask about a character. Well, his friends are the hobbits. Why I like him, really. But when it came time to do the hobbit films, which came second for us, there was a scene with Gandalf and Galadriel, a meeting. I sort of fell in love with Cate Blanchett and the idea of Cate Blanchett, you know?

What do you mean by the idea of Cate Blanchett?

Well, she and her husband were running—

Oh, the theater.

Yes, a theater company in Australia. And being an international movie star. Not even Meryl Streep does that. Not even Judy Dench. Running a theater? That’s a tough job. And acting in movies? And, of course, she’s a very congenial person. I think our mutual respect and affection gave the movie something Peter Jackson hadn’t anticipated. [laughs] There are a couple of moments when Gandalf seems to be enthralled, emotionally, with Galadriel, in a way that perhaps Tolkien hadn’t anticipated either. So, I think, [Gandalf] doesn’t seem to be even bi. I think he was resolutely straight. But, of course, wizards don’t have sex. They haven’t time! They’re too busy running the show.

Well, Dumbledore was gay, according to J.K. Rowling.

Oh, yes, Dumbledore’s gay. [In a faux-conspiratorial whisper] I play the real wizard. [laughs]

Much more than with most actors, I notice how you find your characters in movement.

Yes, I do.

Can you talk a little about how you found this Sherlock Holmes at different ages through how he moved?

It’s occurred to me, but not to all actors, that human beings all look different through time. We don’t seem to have doppelgangers—identical twins. And some of it is the face, the tone of voice, of course, which is something all actors attend to. But they don’t always bother about the way they walk. And everybody, I’ve noticed, walks differently. Not because their shoes are hurting or their shoes don’t fit, they just [mimes a couple different ways of walking, using his hands as feet]. I had cottoned on to this before the scientists did—that there was such a thing as DNA. If you can get the tone of voice, and you’re an actor, and the director says, “You sound exactly like him,” remembering that, doing it again, repeating it, you can then follow that, let it in through your imagination to the rest of your body and your heart, and that’s your DNA. Get the walk right and you’ll get the voice right. And vice versa. That’s my only theory of acting. It’s not a theory. It’s practical. It’s what I do. And thank you, I do—movement is very important. And the way hands move. Everything. It’s so obvious, isn’t it, when you think about it? But actors on the whole walk like themselves.

So many new versions of Sherlock Holmes have surfaced lately. What did you think was the key to playing Holmes?

Well, of course my Holmes is in a sense not only different, but superior to all the others [laughs], in that our Holmes is a real person. Like us, surviving in the real world. He’s not just a conceit, a fantasy, an elaborate joke.

What did you think was the most important thing to get right about him?

Well, I think the reality of it. For this film to work, the side that I had to get right is actually nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes at all, and it’s what it’s like to be 93 years old, for any of us. Mind, ooh, everything just going. [He mimes switching off a series of lights, supplying a click-click-click sound to accompany the motions.] And then it’s Sherlock Holmes’s mind that’s going. Well, the audience almost does that work for you. They’re told you’re Sherlock Holmes. In you come. Ah, that’s Sherlock Holmes? All right. Now, what’s the matter with him? That would be a question they’d be asking whether you were Sherlock Holmes or not: What’s the matter with him? But it’s a great help, in this film, for the audience to know quite a bit about you, so you don’t have to bother doing it. They know you’re brilliant. They know you live too much in your mind. They know you’ve got limitations. So you don’t have to act any of that.

A lot of the life review Holmes is doing in this movie has to do with regrets over how his arrogance has hurt people—unintentionally, but he feels bad about it.

Yeah, yeah.

So you’re playing that cold, unintentionally rude part of him quite a bit.

Well, that seems to be the nub of it. That he’s discovering himself, the humanity that he denied. And for 30 years has denied. It was so strong, this emotional attachment to this woman he only knew for eight minutes, that he turned down the possibility [of living with her]. And it was so troubling to him that he stopped his life. So he went through a real—well, I suppose he had a breakdown of some kind. But he went on for 30 years. And then one day he woke up and said, “I’ve got to sort this out before I die!” With, of course, typical Holmesian determination. Going to Japan just after the war? Just thinking about it! Sherlock Holmes in Hiroshima! I suppose he was looking out, in a way, over the desert of his own…lacks. The things he didn’t have.

So that’s all fascinating, of course. And he ends up being heroic, to my mind. He comes through. He regrets the harm he’s caused, and he decides, now he’s going to care a bit more about other people. Earn their friendship. Earn their respect. And [laughs, gesturing as he does at the end of the film, reaching up toward the sky] we just sort of invented that on the spot, with the stones going ’round. It just seemed right. King Lear is concerned with the numanists and the open air, and Holmes sort of becomes part of the real world. And if [this were] Peter Jackson and Heavenly Creatures, just elevating and vanishing, that would be quite appropriate. But that would be another sort of film. [laughs]

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