The Lowell Hotel, located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, opened in the 1920’s and is so rich in heritage that it boasts the only wood burning fireplaces of any hotel in New York City. “Look at this old fireplace,” says Ian McKellen. “Isn’t that marvelous?”
Truth be told, at 76, the legendary actor is only a decade younger than the hotel itself. But dressed on this day in white skinny jeans, a blue blazer over a gray t-shirt, blotted with what looks like modern art, and a string of orange Mardi Gras pearls, he might be the most spry, dapper fellow in the building.
That’s not the case in his newest movie, Mr. Holmes (opening Friday), in which McKellen plays the famed British detective Sherlock Holmes, retired at 93 years old and squired away, raising honeybees as his mind flashes back to the last mystery that he never quite solved three decades earlier. The film’s conceit, based on the 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, is that Holmes is not a fictional creation but a real person. He even goes to the cinema — to watch a Sherlock Holmes movie.
And the topic of Sherlock Holmes movies is where we begin our interview. I showed McKellen the latest print edition of Entertainment Weekly, which includes a feature on the most famous movie and TV interpretations of Holmes over the years — all the way from Basil Rathbone’s World War II era Holmes up to McKellen’s newest graceful, poignant version. The issue of EW also happened to be our annual Comic-Con extravaganza. “Let’s see if there’s any X-Men in here,” McKellen sighed. “But do I feature? No, it seems not, darling.”
But look, you feature a lot in the Sherlock Holmes thing.
Oh, yes. It’s very interesting. You know, I think I’ve seen all these, isn’t it amazing? And I don’t think of myself as a Holmes fanatic.
The one missing here is the first one, William Gillette. He did it on stage and they then filmed his stage show as a silent movie, it was that long ago. He was a very good stage actor at a time when not many people were, because the stage actors were far too big for the camera. He wasn’t. But he invented the deerstalker cap and the pipe, so the image we have of Sherlock Holmes really comes from William Gillette. And he was an American.
Oh, isn’t that interesting.
But there was one before him, even. It’s a little snippet and you can find it on YouTube. It’s a short little piece of cinema, where the villain vanishes, using a bit of film trickery in the very, very early years. And nobody knows who this actor was. That’s the thing I challenge you to do.
That sounds like a good Sherlock Holmes mystery.
It would be. Anyway, that’s for the aficionados.
So some people assume you’ve already played Sherlock Holmes because you’re perfect for it. What’s your relationship to him as a fan?
Well, I wouldn’t even call myself a fan. But it’s like Father Christmas, Santa Claus. He’s always been there. I say to people, “When did you first come across Sherlock Holmes,” and they look blank because they can’t remember. We have always known about him. Most people think he was a real person. I mean, there’s a statue of him on Baker Street in London along with the politicians and the general and all those other people. It is rather funny.
Had you been offered to play him before this film?
No. And I would love to have done so. He’s a wonderful character. Limited, in a fascinating way. No big emotional scenes.
Jeremy Brett, who played it on British TV for 10 years, said that Sherlock Holmes was like the dark side of the moon.
Yes, have you ever seen his Holmes? Just wonderful. He’s dead now, unfortunately. I think that of all of them, his was the most satisfactory. And at the time his was quite revolutionary. His wasn’t just a suave know-it-all. His Holmes was more troubled. But I guess it all depends on the scripts too. The material is excellent.
But what attracted you to this particular Holmes, which comments a lot on longevity and retirement?
Well, I wasn’t offered three different versions and picked the one I wanted to do. It was the script, based on a novel. So the idea of what Holmes should be was already settled. But I wanted to do it because it was Bill Condon who asked me. I have a long-standing friendship with him.
Condon said that he was aware of the parallels between this movie and your previous collaboration, Gods and Monsters.
We both did sort of smile and say, “Oh, well, here we go again.” And I put on a straw hat, not unlike the one that James Whale wears in Gods and Monsters. To see them both in one day, they would make very good companion pieces. And Gods and Monsters holds up. I think it was nearly 20 years now.
Well, there you go. And here we are. Hold on, excuse me a moment. [Responding to publicist] Two minutes left? Oh, no, we’ve barely just started. Okay, well. Hurry, hurry.
Michael Caine recently said that the alternative to playing old people is playing dead people.
Yeah [laughs], I prefer those who are old and surviving. But they are likely to have some decrepitude of some sort, either mental or physical. And be about the dilemma of age. I’ve played King Lear, you know. And if you think Sherlock Holmes has it rough in this film, just take a look at Lear. I relate to the problems those two guys have and I’m glad to not be either of them.
You were in New York in 2013 for the two plays with Patrick Stewart, Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land, and you announced that you were retiring from the New York stage.
Now how does that relate to preparing to play a Holmes who’s retired? I mean, somewhat of a similar situation?
Well, with respect to Broadway, I think I said, “That’s it — for the time being.” I then decided to go back home and I’m doing No Man’s Land again with Patrick next year in London. But the business of coming to do a show in New York is different than doing a play anyplace else. That’s what I was talking about. It’s wondrous, it’s glorious — when you’re a hit. But it’s a very emotional experience, because the stakes seem to be higher and there’s lots of added responsibility.
Well, so you’re not 93 like Sherlock Holmes, but does that signal an admission that you’re slowing down?
[Feigns a hoarse voice and mimes taking false teeth out of his mouth] I’m sorry? I can’t make out what you’re saying. Umm, where did I put my teeth?
You look much better than 93!
Well, the make-up team did a very good job, didn’t they? They gave me that great nose. They wanted it to be aquiline.
It’s interesting because you alternate between two ages, neither of which you actually are.
Yeah, about thirty years. I’m either in my 60s or my 90s in this film.
But would an actor in his 30s bring the same life experience to this role as you do?
Well, I’ve played old men. When I went to Cambridge University, I did an audition to join the amateur dramatic club. And I audition with a play by John Osborne called The Entertainer, which Olivier has had a huge success in. And I chose to audition with a speech not by the main character, Archie Rice, but one by his father, an old man. Why on earth did I choose to do that?
You were about 18 at the time?
Yeah. The most crucial audition I ever did and they let me in because I was playing an old man. So what did I play at Cambridge to begin with? Always old men. I did 21 productions in three years. And when I decided to become an actor, I said, “I’ve got to stop with this old men lot.” I realized I had to do much more difficult things—like play my own age.
Well, that might be a challenge for a lot of us.
Well, it was. And so I eschewed old men for quite a long time, but of late I’ve come back to them, funny enough [laughs]. And absolutely, this Holmes would not work unless I’d invested something of myself and my experiences and my concerns about getting old. But another part of me is really thinking, “Ah, it’s just another old man I’m playing.”
Oh, that’s interesting.
There was a famous English actor called Lewis Casson, who in his 80s was playing someone of his own age. And he came on with a stick, doddering. And the director said, “Lewis, what are you doing?” And he said, “I’m being old.” And the director said, “You are old!” So you have to do less than you think.
I heard an interview you did recently with BBC radio, where you were talking about regrets.
[singing] I’ve had a few…
Not professionally, you said. But you spoke about your shyness. And the regrets you have about times when you’ve been somewhere and decided to stay in your hotel room instead of going out by yourself to explore.
You’re not like that, huh?
I can be. I think everyone can be.
Some people are not like that at all. Some people can’t wait to bound out and explore. Dangerous. Go to that place where they don’t know anybody and be excited by that. Me, I’m more like, “Oh Christ—nobody I know will be there?” It’s pathetic of me.
Well, it’s very human. But most people would think you were the most comfortable guy in front of crowds of strangers.
Well, I am. When I know what’s going on and when I know what part I’m playing. Last night I was at a party with 300 people and I was fine because they knew who I was. Being a bit famous is for me an asset, a bonus, a help. Because basically I’m a shy, stay-at-home type of guy.
It’s a very honest, vulnerable thing to say.
You can’t help envy the people who love setting off on adventures all alone. They come back with the most amazing stories. A group of us after the Gay Pride Parade [where he was the Grand Marshall along with Derek Jacobi] were all going off to the dance party. Seven thousand men with no shirts on — the things one has to go through. Anyway, we were leaving the apartment where we’d all been meeting, and on the stoop outside, enjoying a cigarette, was a young man. So everyone says hello to him. He was not gay himself. But we were full of bonhomie and we said, “We’re going up to the dance party, do you want to come with us?” He said, “Sure.” And he charmed everybody, he saw things he couldn’t have ever dreamt of, he had a wonderful time.
He just went along for the ride.
Went along for the ride. And I admire that. That’s the spirit, you know. That’s the spirit that conquers empires.