Home sweet Holmes
English actor Sir Ian McKellen tells M what it's like to play the famous detective - as a 93-year-old
Consider the irony that one of the greatest actors of all time, whose performances of Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth and Richard III are considered seminal, is best known by most moviegoers for his roles in comic-book and fantasy movies.
Sir Ian McKellen, 76, has been knighted by the Queen and honoured with awards, not for Magneto from the X-Men flicks or Gandalf from the Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, but for his stellar stage career.
The English thespian is one of the lucky few who was born to do what he is doing.
And in our interview at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills, he is again on a stage, his favourite place to be, dressed down and genial.
We are talking about his latest film Mr. Holmes, which opens here tomorrow. He plays iconic detective Sherlock Holmes at age 93, self-exiled to retirement in the country.
There, he raises bees, haunted by the memory of his last case which went unsolved and struggling with an erratic memory and other ailments of old age.
Co-star Laura Linney plays his war-widow housekeeper with a young son who finds an unusual bond with Holmes.
WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE HOLMES?
My favourite, well, not John Gielgud. John Gielgud, a hero of my youth, played Sherlock Holmes on radio and his Dr Watson was his old friend Sir Ralph Richardson, and Moriarty was played by Orson Welles. They're all on YouTube. Not their best work. The man I was really intrigued by was a British actor called Jeremy Brett who had worked with me at the National Theatre of Great Britain under Laurence Olivier, and he delved into what's interesting to us these days about Holmes, which is the dark side.
WHAT'S DIFFERENT ABOUT YOUR VERSION?
What's intriguing about this one is that he's uniquely old... and nobody had done a really old Holmes. The story develops in such a way that it is Holmes, of course, but it's also about what it's like to get old, and anyone of my age has thought about that.
HOW IS YOUR MEMORY?
These days the only human beings who have to use their memory in the sense of remembering things are actors. We can't do without it.
There are ways around it, but if your memory for learning lines goes, it's probably the end of your career. I don't have that problem yet, although when I was doing No Man's Land on Broadway last year I spent nine months learning the lines in advance.
I remember people used to say, how do you learn your lines? I used to say, what a stupid question, it's the easiest part of acting. Well, now it's not the easiest part. It's a slog, essentially.
DO YOU THINK ABOUT DEATH?
Well, anyone of my age will tell you - all the time we're going to funerals. All the time, 'oh, has so and so gone, you know. Is so and so still alive?' So I think the face of death I see is just a fact of life really. And you can't avoid it obviously and therefore I don't see why you should avoid talking about it. It does make you value every day. And in the film, it's very touching to have a very, very old man have a very, very young friend. It makes it as much about life as it is about death.
HOW COMFORTABLE WERE YOU WITH THE BEES?
The only cast members I was uncertain of were the bees. I said 'Look, I'm not going to do anything with bees' and (Mr. Holmes director) Bill (Condon) said 'Yes, you are'. He said, 'We're not going to use CGI. There are going to be bees and you're going to be touching them'. So I had to go to a bee teacher (laughs).
Bees turn out to be so busy in their very short lives working together. It's rather touching really. They have no interest in human beings at all as long as you don't get in their way. You talk to them and you give them a little smoke so they're a little bit drowsy and you do it all very gently and I was not stung nor was anybody else. It turned out to be oddly one of the joys of making the film.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE MODERN INTERPRETATIONS OF HOLMES, USING GUNS AND FISTS?
Well, you mustn't tell Robert (Downey Jr, who plays Holmes in two movies) that I haven't seen his movies, so I can't comment. I don't object. You let them get on with doing what they want to do because the original is always there. They're not destroying anything. They're potentially adding to it.