With Mr. Holmes, Sir Ian McKellen will star in his first non-franchise theatrical film in a decade. But with a twist, he’s playing a character who’s become a film and television franchise in the 21st Century: Sherlock Holmes. Bill Condon‘s (Chicago) film treats Holmes as a real person, who is attempting to age with grace and gain closure with his (very real) past cases. There’s no Dr. Watson, just a housekeeper (Laura Linney), her son (Milo Parker), and Holmes’ bees (one of his many home cures for his fading mental capabilities).
Mr. Holmes reunites McKellen with Condon, who directed the powerhouse actor to his first Oscar nomination as Frankenstein director James Whale in Gods and Monsters. And recently, I sat down for a coffee and a career chat with McKellen. We talked about the universality of Holmes, the hillsides of England, his upcoming role in Beauty and the Beast, and his past role as Gandalf in both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. And with a stroke of perfection, when I left the interview and exited the hotel, CBS’ Elementary was shooting on the same block. The detective is on the case at all times, it seems.
Collider: We recently spoke with Laura Linney and she said she was a huge fan of the Sherlock Holmes character, and very well read on his stories…
IAN McKELLEN: Oh yes, she knows her stuff.
What is your fandom level of Sherlock Holmes?
McKELLEN: I bet you’re the same as me. I bet your readers are the same, like me, I can’t remember when I heard of Sherlock Holmes. I’ve always known about him. Don’t you feel that? Was there a day when you were suddenly given a book? How do you pronounce that…”Sherlock…” no, I’ve always known about Sherlock Holmes. You?
You’re right, actually. I guess the only thing about Holmes that made me stop and wonder “why?” was this great pop song about “Sherlock Holmes” (by Sparks).
McKELLEN: Oh, he’s so pop! This Entertainment Weekly here [pulls an issue, and flips to the page listing 12 actors who’ve portrayed Holmes], sorry to draw attention to a competitor of yours. Somewhere in here there is a rundown on TV and film Sherlock Holmeses of the past, and it seems to me that I’ve seen them all. I wasn’t really aware of that before; it’s not fandom, it’s just always been pop. There are of 12 them, and I’ve seen them all.
Do you have a favorite?
McKELLEN: No! They’re all Sherlock Holmes aren’t they? Well, yes I suppose I do: Jeremy Brett; he was an English actor who was on television quite a long time ago, these were straightforward, (Sir Anthony) Conan Doyle stories, but he discovered the dark side of the character. He wasn’t just a suave know-all, he was a deeply troubled man, and he caught on to the fact that Sherlock was too much brain, too little heart. I feel some sympathy in that. But [Holmes’ character] does seem to bring out the best in actors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad Sherlock. It’s not a difficult part, it’s not too complicated.
Was that how you approached Mr. Holmes: trying to lessen the amount of weight that comes with what we think of Sherlock Holmes? You said he’s not complicated.
McKELLEN: Well the conceit (in Mr. Holmes) is that he’s a real person. He’s a real person, and since we’re making a film about a real person, we want to make him real. Find out what he’s like. So, this script is concerned about what Sherlock Holmes is like. Most Holmes scripts are watching Sherlock Holmes find out about something else. This movie, he’s finding out about himself. So, there you go. It’s a very rewarding part to play to that extent, because I can have the fun, showing off, doing a little investigating, but then I also have the fun of being a real guy at the end. Tired and needy.
The last time you worked with Bill Condon was 17 years ago (on Gods and Monsters) and since then he’s made Chicago, Twilight, Dream Girls, etc. How did his process change with those larger films, even though he’s come back to something a little more intimate with Mr. Holmes?
McKELLEN: Like me, Bill has got Catholic tastes in entertainment. He likes all sorts of theater, and all sorts of films. He’s lucky because he’s successful and he gets to do a variety of things. So he’s done the blockbusting Twilight series, he’s done his musicals which he loves, but he’s also got this interest in quirky people, James Whale, Holmes, Julian Assange, Alfred Kinsey. That’s Bill at his most forensic, and fascinated by people and amused by them, which I understand. The other stuff, I hope to tell you an awful lot about human nature, but that’s fantasy. The films I just mentioned are little case studies aren’t they? Real people, but quirky and talented people. Assange, Kinsey, Whale, Holmes, people who were right at the edge of their precipice. Right up to the limit of their studies. But they have something inside that is unfulfilled. I think that seems to be his interest.
And as someone who’s been working in a lot of franchise for the past decade, were you at the edge of a performance precipice?
McKELLEN: The chance to work with an old friend is just always nice. I just love Bill. Frances de la Tour who plays the mad music teacher, she and I have done Jacob Sternberg together on the West End; we were in a sitcom with Derek Jacobi called Vicious; Roger Allam who plays the doctor, we were in pantomime in Aladdin together and he played Abbanazar, the wicked wizard, and I played Aladdin’s mother, Widow Twankey. I’ve worked with Frances Barber who plays the mad music teacher in the Holmes film that he goes to see. Frances played my daughter in King Lear.
All that’s fun; I was living at home, sleeping in my own bed. It’s quite a good commercial for UK travel industry, isn’t it? We should’ve been given a big grant. You know, we shot in London, that is modern London, what you see in this film, 1947, it’s still there in places. And the beautiful countryside. So that was fun. Playing two ages is fun. It all seemed to be “Oh what an adventure, what a wheeze.” And then suddenly realizing that I was playing Sherlock Holmes, that was the last thing that I really…it wasn’t the first thing that hooked me in.
Speaking of Bill and also fantasy, you are working with him again in Beauty And The Beast, I wanted to ask, are you doing motion capture for that? Because you’re playing a clock…
McKELLEN: Unfortunately not, no. They’re using a variety of techniques, but the Cogsworth Clock, that has all been choreographed without me. I’ve added my voice to the picture, and the other way around, and then there is a big scene at the end where everybody comes back to life, and the prince is restored and I go back to being the majordomo and my wife appears and we dance together. So that was my big contribution to the film: being in the big dance scene. So, no. I wanted to be the clock, but I couldn’t. But my voice will be heard! And my face will eventually be seen!
The reason why I asked about motion capture…
McKELLEN: I’d be very interested in playing an animal, I’d like to do that.
Is there a particular animal?
Ian: I’d be a very good gorilla, I’d have been a very good King Kong. And I keep auditioning for Peter Jackson. [laughs]
The reason I was especially curious about if you did motion capture for Beast is because in the Lord Of The Rings you were witnessing a new form of performance with Andy Serkis as Gollum.
McKELLEN: Oh yes, he’s amazing. Simply incredible. I’d like to do it, sure.
Was there any difference working with Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit, in terms of shooting style or approach?
McKELLEN: I suppose there was really. The first time around (Lord of the Rings) it felt as if we were making the most expensive home movie that’s ever been made. It was very domestic, everybody lived close by (in New Zealand), but of the foreigners, everybody knew each other. We were filming in an old paint factory. We used to have to stop shooting when the airplanes took off, because there was no sound baffling. It was a make-due and mend-it; there was a lot of going out to location, waiting for the weather.
This time around, with The Hobbit, we were shooting in state of the art studios built out of the profits from Lord Of The Rings. We were shooting in 3D, with big cameras—remote controlled cameras—with more green screen than before, less location stuff. We had amazing sets, amazing sets, that’s true with the first films, too. But the technology that was available, the variety of ways in which they could shrink the hobbits, or grow Gandalf, in a capacity, there were a variety of ways of doing that. [In Lord of the Rings], you put the big character closer to the camera, where he always looks bigger, because when you’re told that he really is bigger. Then your eye and imagination join together and you do the work, but there were many other ways of doing it, some of which involved motion capture.
The story of those films, really, is the story of those developments. If you look at the early Gollum, in the first movie, he looks like a Muppet, you can almost see the strings, the hand, and then by the end, there’s this amazing creature. That didn’t really involve me, but (with The Hobbit) I was aware that there was more money being spent, which meant that there was longer time to spend on each scene, and technology had to be attended to. And that dear cinematographer lighting camera, who lit those films, made the light in Middle Earth has died now. Andrew Lesnie. One of the great heroes of those films. There was a lot more hanging around, waiting on The Hobbit. But my part wasn’t as crucial in The Hobbit as it was in Lord Of The Rings.
[pauses]. Dear Andrew. Wow, you’re making me rather nostalgic for New Zealand. Have you ever been?
No. My mother has, she loved it.
McKELLEN: Put it on your list. It’s magical.
Speaking of nostalgia, I had one quick question, I’m wondering this X-Men, you’re not in this X-Men but would you visit the set because you’ve done so many of those films, and they’re shooting now: are franchises that chummy? That you could just re-visit like a family dinner?
McKELLEN: No, I’m not in the new X-Men, don’t rub it in. [laughs] What went wrong? Michael Fassbender, I mean, he’s got three films coming out this year, you’d think he’d let me be in one of them. Greedy boy. You know someone stopped me on the street the other day and asked me if I’m Michael Fassbender. Are you kidding? Is he even 40 years old? Come on chaps, at least say, Magneto.
Mr. Holmes opens select theaters on Friday, July 17. You can watch the trailer, and read the synopsis below.
MR HOLMES is a new twist on the world’s most famous detective. 1947, an aging Sherlock Holmes returns from a journey to Japan, where, in search of a rare plant with powerful restorative qualities, he has witnessed the devastation of nuclear warfare. Now, in his remote seaside farmhouse, Holmes faces the end of his days tending to his bees, with only the company of his housekeeper and her young son, Roger. Grappling with the diminishing powers of his mind, Holmes comes to rely upon the boy as he revisits the circumstances of the unsolved case that forced him into retirement, and searches for answers to the mysteries of life and love – before it’s too late.