Sherlock Holmes has widely been portrayed as a quick, clever and mostly youthful British detective, recently embodied by Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch. But in the new film, “Mr. Holmes,” the hot shot detective is re-imagined as a 93-year-old whose mind is no longer as a sharp as it once was. Stepping into this version of the famed investigator: Sir Ian McKellen
When McKellen joined us on The Frame, we asked him about reuniting with the director who helped launch his career, his over-the-top British sitcom, and what people always get wrong about him:
Your breakout role was as director James Whale in "Gods and Monsters," directed by Bill Condon who's directing you in "Mr. Holmes." What was it like to be offered your first leading role?
It was overwhelming to be offered the leading part, which suited me down to the ground — he's English, openly gay like me, he'd started off wanting to be an actor, he comes from the same part of the world as I do, and then he ended up in Hollywood directing movies. [laughs] My life seemed to be mirroring his a little bit, and I felt very comfortable in it.
Up to that point, Hollywood had not perhaps treated gay people with the respect they deserved, they were figures of fun. But this put a gay man right at the heart of the movie with all of his failures and treated him as a regular human being.
In the film, "Mr. Holmes," your character makes a point that there are many misconceptions of Sherlock Holmes. Especially since you're writing your biography right now, are there any misconceptions that people have about you?
I think the biggest misconception I could put right is that I did not play Dumbledore in the "Harry Potter" movies.
In fact, two actors did!
That's right, but neither of them was me. I'm often mistaken for Dumbledore. And I think in the most recent posters, they make [Michael] Gambon up to look very much like Gandalf, but of course, I will always be the actor who played the real wizard.
Other misconceptions? Oh, I don't know, really. Do people have any conception about me at all? I hope not really because it's not much fun drawing attention to yourself because, you know, everybody knows they're not as charming as they would like to be. There's not as sensible as they would like to be. They haven't achieved as much as they would like to be. So to draw attention and say, Look at me! Look at me! is not what I really like to do. I much rather say, Look at my movie! Look at my movie!
You picked an odd profession if you're uncomfortable drawing attention to yourself.
Well, no, Laurence Olivier, the great actor of my youth, never gave interviews. Paul Scofield, a man who won the Oscar, I think he gave one interview in his entire career. Maggie Smith of "Downton Abbey," she doesn't give interviews. It's a bit of a bind as budgets for advertising movies gets smaller and smaller. The traditional way of advertising a film, putting a poster up, that's more expensive than getting me sitting in a studio and doing 30 interviews on the trot, which is what I've been doing just now.
One of the things that is true in "Mr. Holmes" is that, through some incredible makeup work and gorgeous costumes, you get to play a version of yourself as an actor that's both younger and older. What did you find the most intriguing and the most terrifying when you looked at yourself as you once were, as well as how you might look down the road?
[laughs] Nature has its way, doesn't it? If you see a young actor all dolled up to be an old one, by the time he's old himself he doesn't really look like the imagined old man that makeup devised. But being a little decrepit, finding it a little bit difficult to get into a chair and almost impossible to get out of one, mind still racing but not as easily controlled as in the past — this is all stuff that I've got to look forward to.
I'm grateful that I still am functioning and my memory's not gone. [laughs] These are daily preoccupations when you get into your 70s, as some friends and contemporaries don't have quite as good a time with it.
You've also been in the British TV comedy series "Vicious," in which you play Freddy Thornhill, a retired actor who's been in a gay relationship for 50 years. Your character's a little snarky, a little miserable and very funny. I guess the show could be described in the U.S. as a modern "Golden Girls," but gayer. What's the delight for you as an actor to play in something so broadly funny? And what's the delight for you as a person to play a character who's openly gay?
[laughs] Some of my friends think that, with "Vicious," we've put television back by 50 years. [laughs] Because it is reminiscent, not just of "Golden Girls," but of sitcoms beyond that, like "I Love Lucy." It's clearly steeped in that tradition.
As for playing an openly gay man, well, yeah! Good for Freddy that he is openly gay and surviving. He doesn't seem to be aware of what's going on, and they don't seem to be aware of Gay Pride parades — they live in the middle of SoHo where Pride happens every year and they never mention it. [laughs] He's not a model, and I hope people don't assume that, because I'm playing him, this is the sort of gay man who I most admire.
I want to come back to "Mr. Holmes." At an earlier point in Sherlock Holmes' career, he makes a particularly important choice that could have gone entirely differently. As an actor, was there ever a moment where you hit that fork in the road? Were you tempted to do something besides acting?
An early hope was that I might be a journalist or a chef, but acting was something different. It was absolutely absorbing, a very intense hobby; I didn't think I was ever going to be a professional actor, but I might be an amateur actor like people I admired at home who did acting in their spare time.
It was only at Cambridge University, when I got a wonderful review for a play, and I sort of slipped into it. It wasn't a lightning flash, but rather that, without knowing it, I'd been preparing to become a professional. I took the plunge and I've never been out of work, thank goodness, so it just sort of happened.
You've played scores of characters, both on screen and on stage. Is there a role that you would cite as being the closest to who you are as a person?
On the whole, of course, it's fun playing characters that are not like yourself, but you're probably going to be unconvincing unless you put a lot of yourself in them — the way you think, the way you feel, maybe the way you walk and talk.
I think the closest I may have got to it was in "Gods and Monsters." I think that James Whale is a version of me, and he has a very nice quote which I certainly concur with: "Making movies is the most wonderful thing in the world. Working with friends, entertaining people...wow." And so say I.