Ian McKellen’s not slowing down, taking ‘Mr. Holmes’ on a thoughtful journey


Visiting a friend’s apartment roof-deck here recently, the British actor Ian McKellen quietly began singing to himself. The tune was not one you’d expect from someone who’s won six Olivier Awards playing the likes of Richard III. It was far more contemporary — a number from the Disney musical “Beauty and the Beast.”

McKellen is shooting scenes for the largely live-action film adaptation as Cogsworth, chief steward to the lead lumberer, and as he relaxed he took the chance to get into character.

“There’s something interesting,” he said wryly between bars, “about playing a clock.”


Time seems to be of little concern to the 76-year-old McKellen. At an age when most actors would happily trade an IMDB credit for a few weeks in the south of France, the classically trained Brit has instead been poring over scripts and waking up for early call times.”

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He recently wrapped the British TV movie “The Dresser,” based on the Ronald Harwood classic, and shot a second season of his gay-themed sitcom “Vicious.” Last year he and pal Patrick Stewart performed a twofer of “Waiting for Godot” and Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” on Broadway; the two are reviving the latter on the West End next year.

And in “Mr. Holmes,” which opens this weekend, McKellen inhabits both a reflective 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes and his younger self. In his tenacious desire to remain working and relevant at an advanced age, the character could double as a metaphor for McKellen’s own late-career attitudes.

“I thought a few years ago I was going to slow down — you know, accept all those invitations and go somewhere just because you want to see a place,” he said, settling down for a cigarette at a sun-dappled table. “But then I thought: ‘It won’t be long before you trip and break your leg and that’s the end of your acting career. And then you can just do radio — if your eyes don’t give way.’ So I kept going.”

“Kept going” is a key phrase for McKellen, who in the past few years has shot three “Hobbit” movies as his signature Gandalf character and reprised his Magneto role for another “X-Men” installation. Once a force primarily of British stage and screen — the actor had few major Hollywood roles until the 21st century — McKellen embodies what happens when massive global fame arrives later in life, and with hardly a conscious plan.

“Kept going” is also evident in “Holmes,” in which McKellen finds himself in nearly every scene, in a part as physically nuanced and demanding as any senior-citizen role around.

Directed by Bill Condon (who helped launch McKellen’s modern film career with the James Whale drama “Gods and Monsters” 17 years ago) and based on a novel by Mitch Cullin, the film is a kind of spiritual bookend to Barry Levinson’s 1985 hit “Young Sherlock Holmes.”

“Holmes” finds the detective retired on his country estate circa 1947, happy to engage in beekeeping as well as occasionally mentor the son of his officious housekeeper (Laura Linney); he’s far removed from his days as the celebrity hero of books by Dr. Watson. But when the boy (Milo Parker) encourages Holmes to write a short story, the detective finds himself troubled by forgotten events from his crime-solving heyday, particularly a case involving a troubled woman. He soon sets off on a path of rediscovery.

Putatively (and enjoyably) a mystery, the film is equally interested in investigating what happens when gumption smacks up against the wall of old age.

“There’s a fun in impersonating old age — I mean real old age,” said McKellen, whose walk, breathing and gestures in the film possess a lived-in feel. “Just stepping toward the camera with the makeup on, it lands on you pretty quickly. But it’s not like I’m viewing old age from a long way away. It’s the pain at the bottom of your spine you can’t easily relieve by stretching, or going into a room and not knowing why you’re there. Everybody has intimations of mortality like that from an early age. It’s just that there’s more and more of them as you get older.”

Work appears to be a tonic in that regard, keeping McKellen focused, or at least distracted. He remains playful on stage — Stewart recalled that the actor is not above leaning in to him right in middle of a performance and slyly commenting on the proceedings around them. “It’s always mischievous, never harsh,” Stewart said. “There’s almost something wonderfully boyish about it.”

Condon believes McKellen has remained vital because it took him a little longer than some to reconcile his public and private selves.

“It’s been interesting to know Ian during this time and see how things have changed,” Condon said by phone from the England set of “Beauty and the Beast,” which he is directing. “It’s almost unprecedented to watch a man become a movie star in his 60s. I think the act of coming out for Ian transformed his life [McKellen announced he was gay in 1988, at nearly 50], made him more accessible on screen.”

Linney offers a simple explanation for his late-career burst: “I think when you’re that talented, you just stay hungry.”

Though the “Hobbit” movies have now wound down and “X-Men” has appeared to fully pass the Magneto baton to Michael Fassbender, McKellen continues to remain associated with those properties. Improbably, there was a moment last year when he was the highest-grossing actor in the world, thanks to the release of new films in those franchises. “Not the highest paid, mind you,” he said. “Just the highest grossing.”

The celebrity factor has been something of a curiosity to him — talent can be honed but fame only accepted — but McKellen says he has welcomed the chance to turn younger viewers on to Shakespeare, if indirectly. He doesn’t especially mind the work itself either.

“Alec Guinness was famously disgruntled that people knew him from ‘Star Wars,’ ” McKellen said, then, with a slight twinkle, added, “But he wasn’t playing Gandalf, was he?”

The actor’s appeal among a younger generation was on display Thursday in a Twitter exchange between Patrick Stewart and Taylor Swift.

“So @IanMcKellen recited Bad Blood and I did Blank Space on @NPRAskMeAnother. May we join the squad, @taylorswift13?” Stewart tweeted, referencing a bit on the public-radio game show.

Swift soon replied: “Thanks for reciting my lyrics, @IanMcKellen and @SirPatStew! You’ve made my day. You two are ULTIMATE Squad Goals.”

McKellen has sought to use that millennial allure in the service of his politics. He will sometimes visit schools and say that if sufficient attention isn’t paid to schoolwork “you shall not pass” — a reference to his signature Gandalf line — then turn more serious in talking about gay and transgender rights.

“I tell them what it was like to grow up in a time when it was illegal to be gay, and they can’t believe it,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing they don’t know about it, but it’s also important to remind them.” Activism fueled his desire to take on “X-Men,” he said; the film’s mutants are often read as an allegory for racial and sexual minorities.

The main frustration these days is that he has few chances to play opposite contemporaries “because most things, once they have a McKellen, they don’t need another one.”

So he has been ticking major British actors off his co-star list— Stewart in the “X-Men” movies, Anthony Hopkins in “The Dresser,” Derek Jacobi in “Vicious.” The only one left, he says, might be the 82-year-old Michael Caine, who with key roles in “Interstellar” and the upcoming “Youth” is pulling his own professional “Cocoon.” (McKellen does have a standing offer to Meryl Streep to work together on a play. She had told him it would happen soon because the film work was about to dry up. That was 20 years ago.)

Still, as the nonagenarian Sherlock Holmes might remind, powers don’t remain sharp forever, and a life is vital until it’s not.

McKellen recalled going to visit an ill friend several years ago, a contemporary who was at death’s door.

“He was laying there on the bed, and I leaned in and took him by the hand and asked him if he was scared,” McKellen recalled. “And he said ‘I’m not scared. I just don’t want to miss anything.’ I think when I take a look at my life and career, I feel the same way.”