It’s 92 degrees. Chateau Marmont is buzzing. Two Brits sit in a corner drinking coffee talking about constantly bumping into strangers and reading the newspapers on the London Underground. Sir Ian McKellen is in Hollywood promoting his latest film Mr. Holmes and I had the chance to sit down with the fellow Londoner to talk about the film, bees – yes bees, London and Beauty And The Beast.
I place my iPhone down in the middle of the table and he expresses his concern for the device possibly not recording and working for our interview. We check and it’s good, although deep inside I wonder what if it were to fail me one day. On the subject of technology and talking about Awards Daily, Sir Ian McKellen tells me he should have been in the Guinness Book of Records for being one of the first bloggers.
Sir Ian McKellen: I should be in the history books, because when we were doing Lord of The Rings, we started that in January 2000. The internet had just arrived, nobody really knew what it was. Peter Jackson (Director) and I both said, “We should be contacting all the people who have been waiting for this film to be made. So, under the radar of the studio and its marketing publicity, Peter and I just sent out messages. We got into trouble, the studio were saying you can’t do that, so I started to blog, I never called it blogging, I called it E-Post. It didn’t catch on, but the idea did, and I think I was one of the first actors or one of the first people ever to blog, and Peter was doing the same.
It’s interesting because what are actors doing, they’re trying to get an audience to come along and see what we’re doing. I’ve always liked publicity, I always thought it was interesting with how to capture people’s attention. Not all actors like doing it, some are too busy, but it’s interesting.
The first thing I ever wanted to be was a journalist.
Awards Daily: Really? Did you study journalism?
SIM: Oh no. I did go and see the editor of our local newspaper in the North of England and I asked him for a job. He had more applications per day for jobs, than he had more jobs to give in a year. So, I decided to become an actor. [Chuckles]. I do like the challenge of trying to write something concise, accurate and punchy. That’s the only writing I do. I put things on my Facebook.
AD: You are simply magnificent in this film as Sherlock Holmes, do you remember when you first discovered Sherlock Holmes?
SIM: No I don’t. Isn’t that funny? I’ve asked other people if that. No, I’ve always known about Sherlock Holmes, it’s like Father Christmas. If I really had to identify, I bet it was on the radio, when I was a kid, before TV we used to listen as a family to the radio, I bet there was a Sherlock Holmes play on it. I know John Keele and Orson Welles did a whole series of Sherlock Homes on the BBC, they were broadcast here as well. On film and then on TV, and probably on books, but I’ve kept all of my books and I don’t have any Sherlock Holmes books. I really can’t tell you, he’s just in the ether, and he still is really.
I’ve always got an idea of what Sherlock Holmes is, which is what’s good about Mr. Holmes because you think you know Sherlock Holmes but uh-uh, you don’t. [Laughs].
AD: What research did you do for the role?
SIM: Well, there would be little point in watching other people. I was meant to be playing someone who wasn’t quite like the traditional Sherlock.
As for research for being 93, I helped nurse my stepmother til she was 100. She had a bit of senility, severe memory gaps and I had seen that at close quarters. Being an actor if I can’t remember a word or why I’ve gone into a room, if you’re an actor, you can apply that little moment t being an actor. The only pre work I had to do was the bees.
AD: Did you really handle those bees?
SIM: Yes, come on, it’s not bad was it?
AD: That was brilliant.
SIM: I lift them up, I turn them. Bees are fine as long as you don’t get in their way.
AD: That bee scene with you and Milo Parker (who plays young Roger) was great.
SIM: There was a bee teacher. He collects honey in London. He has hives on top of the National Gallery and Fortnum & Mason. This is the purest honey because London has so many open spaces and parks, so the bees at Fortnum & Mason feed almost exclusively at the flowers at Buckingham Palace Gardens. Whereas bees in the countryside are feeding off plants that have been sprayed with pesticides. So, he taught me how to handle bees and not be frightened of them. You make them a bit dozy with the smoke.
AD: Did you get stung?
SIM: I did not. Nor did anybody on the film. No human being was hurt in the making of this film. Nor was a bee.
AD: Milo was brilliant. Did you give him any advice?
SIM: Ooh no. It was his first film. Bill, the director was always whispering things to him so I didn’t want to get in the way of that relationship. He had the confidence of youth without the bratishness. Some children are so confident that they make you feel totally inadequate, and you know in ten years time they’re going to be running the government. Milo was a delight to be just where he was. Very sociable, very polite as child actors often are. They do what the grown ups tell you. He had quite a relationship with Laura (Linney), I think they still email.
AD: You worked with Bill Condon on God and Monsters, what was it like being reunited with him again?
SIM: We became friends when we did Gods And Monsters. It was a very close relationship when we did that film. We shot it here in Hollywood in 4 or 5 weeks. Not many actors can say they’ve made a film in Hollywood as most Hollywood films are made somewhere else. We worked in the studios in Silverlake that had a glass roof from the days when they used to act indoors, but by natural sunlight.
Everybody on that film knew that it had an importance beyond its own story that it was probably the first time that Hollywood had put a gay man at the center of the story and treated him the same. The fact that he was gay wasn’t the point. That for me and Bill as out gay men was an important message to us which was why we liked to do the story.
Bill of course has loved horror all his life. The director of the first Frankenstein movie was his hero. Anyway, everybody involved in the film had a personal relationship to him. It can happen with an independent movie with a small crew, not much time to do it, we’re all in it together, let’s get this made, and there’s no time for friendship to turn sour. You come out of there as if you’ve all been on a wonderful working holiday together. Bill and I have been friends ever since .
He always said we’ll do another film someday. I kept saying, “Yes, when’s that going to happen?” He called up one day and said, “I’ve got it.” So, it wasn’t going back to Bill after all those years, we kept in touch.
AD: And now, you’re doing Beauty and The Beast together again. You’re playing Cogsworth,tell me about that because everyone is really excited for it. I’m really excited for it.
SIM: It’s amazing how many people are. It’s some people’s favorite movie that they must know from when they’re a kid. I play Cogsworth and I can tell you that he does not have his own song. Whenever I go up near a microphone and saw Alan Menken, I start singing [sings], “My name is Cogsworth and I’m a clock. Tick Tock.” I’ve been doing that. I told Bill we should write Cogsworth his own song, but he said no.
Most of the time my character is in animation. But, what a great cast, Audra McDonald and when she starts singing and Emma Thompson.
AD: You’re teasing me now. I’ve got to wait two years for this.
SIM: I spoke to him (Bill Condon) last night. He’s editing it now in New York. He’s already seen a lot of it and is very happy. He’s a worrier, so if he’s happy then you’ll be good.
AD: How does preparing for a role like Holmes compare to preparing for a role you’re playing on stage?
SIM: Sometimes research can get in the way. You’ve got a script. Somebody spent a lot of time deciding what to put in that script. Along comes a director, and then the producers with their point of view, and then the actor. The last thing they want is an actor saying, “Hey, I don’t think we need that. I’ve got an idea.” All my job is to understand the character that they have presented. Research isn’t necessarily the order of the day. Unless of course you’re playing somebody who you can’t quite something emotionally, you might want to talk to the director or writer and do a little bit of reading around that.
I’ve played a lot of soldiers in my time. I’ve done the drill and that stays with you. I know about standing up straight, the angles of caps, the various salutes. I know how to do a smart turn. Usually the real responsibility as an actor is not delving into research outside the script, but on what’s there’s in the script. If you’re Eddie Redmayne playing someone with a motor-neuro disease of course, I’ve done similar things. I’ve played a mentally handicap man in Loving Walter. I did lots of research, I had notes, went down the streets like a mentally handicapped man. But Mr Holmes, I’ve worn those sort of clothes before. You find the character inside yourself. When I was working with Michael Mann on The Keep, I had to learn a Romanian accent, so I went over to Romania. I soaked myself into Romanian culture. When I walked on to the set on the first day of shoot, they were like, “No, I don’t like that, make him more Chicago. OK. Action.” Sometimes your research is absolutely wasted. That would be a lot of research, doing an accent.
When I was in Apt Pupil directed by Bryan Singer, I had to do a man who had been born in Germany and had moved to California in his middle years. So finding an accent that was a mix of Germany and California, when you’re English, you need help.
AD: We need to talk about your voice as 93-year-old Sherlock and your make-up.
SIM: They put stuff on my face, stretched my skin, let it dry and release it, and that’s how you get the wrinkles. Cleverly, he could get the same wrinkles day after day after day.
AD: You couldn’t tell at all. It was just so well done.
SIM: Big false nose. I love make-up. When I started out, I was working in regional theatres outside London doing a different play every two weeks with the same group of actors. The previous play closed the Saturday night, you’d be in rehearsal the next night, Monday morning you’ve got to do the dress rehearsal for the next play. You’ve only just learnt the lines, you put yourself under the mirror and think, “What am I going to look like?” Shall I cut my hair? Shall I put my hair forward? Shall I have a moustache? But if you do that looking in a mirror, sometimes the character starts to emerge.
When I was doing Lord of The Rings, I sat there for two days whilst they were putting all sorts of beards, eyebrows and mustaches before they got it right. They just got the beard the right length and we suddenly saw the character. There’s a DNA in you, if you get some parts of the performance right you can then transfer it throughout the body. Like if you got the walk right, or if you got part of the voice right. Or even if you got a line right and the director says, “That line is absolutely the character,” then that goes through the rest of you. So seeing what you look like is very helpful.
Once we put all that make up on and we went outside to take photos, I thought to myself I looked 93. That’s when acting became easy.
AD: A lot of the film deals with memory, I read recently that you were planning on writing your memoirs, are you still writing them?
SIM: No, I’m not which is why I’m here. I put 9 months aside and I started writing, then I realized, as much as I like writing, there wasn’t an emotional need to write this down. It’s not easy, you have to go into your past, I wanted it to be a book that really meant something and I realized I didn’t want to commit to it. I decided I wouldn’t. I put aside nine months for it, so here we are two months into it and I’m not writing, so here we are.
I do write on my website a lot. If you want to know what it was like doing Macbeth with Judi Dench you can go and read it there. There’s probably more there than there’ll ever be in a book.
AD: So, what are you working on next?
SIM: I’m going back with Pat Stewart to work on No Man’s Land which we did on Broadway last year. We did it alongside Waiting for Godot.
If something turns up, I might do it, I might not. At 76, I say to myself, “This job you’re about to do might be the last job you ever do. Are you absolutely sure you want to do it?’
In the past, I’d almost take any job, from the point of view that if I do this job I’m going to find out how to be a bit better as an actor because I’m going to be working with this director, this script, no matter how long it takes, how long I’m being paid, because at the end of it all it would have all been worthwhile. Now I think, it’s got to be really good, what I really want to do.
I’ve just done a BBC Play, The Dresser. It’s about an old actor and his dresser, Anthony Hopkins is the old actor, and I’m the dresser. I did it purely to work with Anthony.
AD: Do you follow the Awards buzz?
SIM: I’m not really aware of it. I don’t act to get an award. The acting is the reward. If it means that the film has been a success and it has. It slipped in through all the big movies razzmatazz and there are still lots of people who haven’t seen it, then I’m very happy to go on talking about it. I’m very proud of it. In the marketplace, there’s always room for something a bit more contemplative. What surprised me was I thought it was Sherlock Holmes, the big selling point, but when they got in, it was a film about something everybody could relate to; an aged parent, a little boy, a widow and the sense that it’s optimistic. Those are all things that are going on together. It’s a much more cunning script than I realized.
AD: The narrative is nice, there’s no a plot twist or unfolding drama.
SIM: It is. It’s a pastiche of a Sherlock Holmes book or film.
AD: IS there any case you wish you had solved?
SIM: [Laughing] I do crosswords and sudoku. Everybody loves a mystery. Sherlock Holmes is a hero to so many people because he could do what we all ought to be able to do, but haven’t quite trained ourselves to do. It was lovely playing someone who was so certain about life, but then realized that life’s a problem.
On that note, we wrapped things up. Special thanks to Miramax, LTLA Communications and Roadside Attractions.
Mr. Holmes is out on DVD on November 10. Watch the trailer below: