Ian McKellen tackles the many layers of the complicated title role in 'The Dresser'

In the Starz-BBC co-production of “The Dresser,” Anthony Hopkins plays a past-his-prime Shakespearean actor known only as Sir who is on the way to mental breakdown. Ian McKellen costars as Norman, the faithful assistant of the title whose own career and identity depend entirely on Sir. 

One of the first things that McKellen did after accepting the part was to send an email to Tom Courtenay, the man who played the same character in the 1983 film adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s stage play. “I’m sorry,”  it said. “I’m tramping over your territory – but it’s in a different way and in a different pair of boots.” 

Indeed, as originally written, Norman is decades younger than the award-winning septuagenarian McKellen, whose casting adds a layer of encroaching extinction: by turns trusty, obsequious, sharp-tongued and briskly motivating, working-class Norman is struggling to keep what will undoubtedly be his last job.

“He needs Sir as much as Sir needs him,” says the London-based McKellen when he was recently reached by telephone. “After him, that’s it for Norman. There’s no future.”

So what was it like to see Anthony Hopkins perform bits of “King Lear” for this production?

There was a real audience in a real theater. I packed it with my friends, saying it was their last chance to see Sir Anthony live on a stage. In the end, [Hopkins] enjoyed it so much, coming back to London, he said, “Oh, couldn’t we find a play to do?” I said, “Like what?” And he said, “Waiting for Godot.” And I said, “I’ve just done ‘Waiting for Godot’ 450 times. I don’t think I can do it again. Even with you.” [Pause] Maybe someone will write something for us. That would be a thrill. 

Does Norman secretly pine for Sir? Or is it the job that he loves most?

Some think Norman is in love with Sir.  But I don’t think it’s a sexual thing. I’m not even sure Norman is gay. It’s the sort of love that is dependence and not quite imagining life without the other person. Not the same as sexual desire. He was probably asexual or put those things to one side. 

Before you became known as Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and Magneto in the “X-Men” films, you made your name as a stage actor. So what is it that fuels Norman’s devotion?

I think Norman's very much what he seems to be. He’s not a very pleasant man. But his virtues are of a different sort. He’s reliable, determined. I’ve met so many Normans. There’s probably a Norman inside of me. Someone who can’t imagine a life outside the confines of the world that he knows so well. He’s not trapped in it. He knows he’s in the best possible job in the world. He’s got power, influence, fulfillment, safety, security and friends.

You turned 77 on May 25th. How did you celebrate?

 I opened a gay film festival in Mumbai. Which is an important thing at the moment: They’re trying to get rid of a really bad, old law called Section 377 that the empire left behind. It makes homosexual activity illegal. Although repealed, it’s been put back on the statute books by another authority. I thought I was in the U.K. 30 years ago, hearing familiar complaints about gay people and how dangerous they were, how anti the culture they were and all that sort of ignorance that breeds prejudice. And there were a lot of very brave people there standing up for themselves as best they can. So to be able to support them? What a lovely way it was to celebrate my birthday.

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