During the pre-interview banter with Sir Ian McKellen at his Upper East Side hotel, I casually mentioned that I had noticed that the CBS series Elementary (a crime drama that stars Jonny Lee Miller as a modern-day Sherlock Holmes) was shooting on the block. I thought it was a fun coincidence that McKellen was promoting his new film, Mr. Holmes — about a retired Sherlock Holmes coming to grips with his last case; a film and performance that has garnered very positive reviews – while a very much not-retired, modern-day Holmes was doing his thing on the street below. What I wasn’t expecting was for McKellen’s eyes to light up, immediately insisting to his publicist that they crash the set. This was the fun-loving scamp that we all saw in those photos of McKellen and Patrick Stewart touring New York City together.
His publicists were worried about the rain, and rightfully so, as a downpour had just commenced. When I left after the interview was done, McKellen was still debating with his publicists about the logistics of crashing the set of an outdoor television shoot. I kind of assumed this wouldn’t happen.
But then, a couple of hours after this interview ended, McKellen tweeted at me to check out who he had met. (Yes, I will go ahead and take at least partial credit for this happening.)
McKellen’s contribution to culture is enormous; an advocate for gay rights who has also played two of the most popular cinematic characters of the last 15 years: Magneto in four X-Men movies and Gandalf in six Tolkien Middle-earth movies. In person, McKellen is boisterous, funny and quick with a retort. (At one point during an aside about wasps, a plot point of Mr. Holmes, I mentioned that I wish they would just disappear. McKellen responded, “I bet they feel the same way about you.”) We had a delightful, spirited conversation.
As I walked to the hotel, I noticed they were filming Elementary at the end of the block.
It’s a Sherlock Holmes-themed street right now.
[Calls for his publicist] Listen to this! Elementary is filming a block from here. [His publicist says she didn’t know anything about it.] But now you do! What are you going to do? [She asks if he wants to “go sabotage” them.] It’s obvious!
Now I want to see this. That will be amazing.
It won’t be that amazing.
Before I heard about this movie, I had never really thought about what Sherlock Holmes did after he retired. I’m assuming after X-Men and The Hobbit, and after Bill Condon did Twilight, you both were looking for a smaller story?
Well, I think the connection between this movie and Bill Condon’s other work – including Gods and Monsters and the Assange movie and the Kinsey movie – is that he’s writing about brilliant high achievers. All of them hugely influential and all of them have a frailty inside them; a feebleness, a lack. But they are all pioneers in a sense, but they are all frail human beings. That’s what connects them all. But the other side of Bill’s interests – and indeed mine – is something much brasher, much bolder — more colorful, much more bigger and broader and cruder and entertaining. Showbiz! That’s fun, too. Bill and I don’t want to get stuck doing just the one thing.
You play a younger and older version of Sherlock Holmes, which works very well. But if you two decide to do another one where it’s just the younger version solving mysterious, I’d watch that, too.
[Laughs] You’d like to see more of that, would you?
I like both sides of it, but that was very entertaining.
Well, I’d be up for it. Perhaps it’s time we got back to Arthur Conan Doyle or John Watson’s Sherlock Holmes, as opposed to all of these variations. Are we being post-modern? I never know what that phrase means, but I suspect we are being post-modern. Or existential, I’m not sure.
Even though you’re from England, you’ve become an American treasure.
You know that’s true. Look how people reacted to those photos with Patrick Stewart.
Well, the image of those fun photos of Patrick and me – which were taken by his wife, Sunny – are of someone who seems to be enjoying themselves. And not removed from the everyday; not living behind some gated community in Beverly Hills, remote from the rest. And that is the case! I go on public transport at home and here. Sometimes there’s a limo, but on the whole, I’d rather just walk everywhere and that’s reflected in that image. Now, I think, frankly, I could do without having an image at all. I’d rather just be the actor who just shows up and works, then goes home. Nobody ever took a selfie with Laurence Olivier. They never even recognized him! He was never bothered in the streets. He never gave an interview.
It’s a different era.
These giants of showbiz never gave an interview. Now, we’re giving interviews the whole bloody time.
As we speak.
As we speak. So, what I thought was fun about Sunny’s idea to do those shots of Patrick and me, was at least they were taken by somebody who knew us; who knew what we would like to do. There was nothing that was forced. It wasn’t a PR idea. It was, but it was in family.
But, selfishly, as an admirer of your work since I was a kid watching And the Band Played On, I am delighted by all of this.
Well, I’ve always been interested in PR because it’s to do with selling tickets. And if you sell a ticket, someone is coming to see you work. It’s what I’m doing. I want people to see my work. I’m proud of the work. I don’t do any work that I don’t want to do. And I sort of, without drawing attention to it, put McKellen’s seal of approval on a script by appearing in it, “Come and see what I enjoy doing.” Now, in the old days, you used to have to shout, “I’m in a film! I’m in a play!” And all sorts of people heard that, and stray dogs, and no one much paid attention. But with social media, we can target people and get to the person who really wants to know. So, to deny yourself that opportunity of contacting people is perverse, particularly if you are a showoff like me.
Were you close with Patrick Stewart before X-Men?
I’ve known Patrick since the 1970s. I was the guy who, when he told me he’d been offered this series called Star Trek, advised him to think hard about it and probably not do it.
Well, that’s seven years of your life. You’re stuck in Hollywood and you can’t do a play. And that was a disadvantage. It was one of the cons, but there were too many pros. I’m glad he didn’t take my advice.
Were you hesitant to do the first X-Men? I know you worked with Bryan Singer on Apt Pupil, but comic-book movies were in a bad place then, following a Batman movie no one liked.
That’s true, yeah.
I know Bryan Singer had a vision for the film. But it was different then.
Well, he persuaded me. X-Men was about something. Superman isn’t really about anything. It’s a joke. The nerd changes his underpants and becomes a Superman. That’s James Bond: “Shaken, not stirred,” silly, stupid, British twit… and then, Action Man! But X-Men is about the problems of being a mutant. And we’ve all felt we’re mutants on occasion. So, that was the hook for me. And don’t forget, I didn’t have to sign to do anymore than one; I’m just doing a movie.
And now you have to sign multi-film deals.
So, it wasn’t that big of an adventure. Well, it was a very good job, but I never had to think, Oh, do I want to do this for the next 10 years? It was just a one-off movie.
I think that first X-Men movie being so well received is a big reason where we are now with superhero movies.
Well, that’s very interesting, yeah. That’s Bryan’s contribution to cinema, it’s amazing.
Last time we spoke was before the first Hobbit movie. On same-sex marriage, you said, “It will all row forward, and, in a few years’ time, we will all be wondering what the fuss was about.” Now, three years later, you’re right. Everything is different. I know, personally, you use the word “indifferent” toward marriage…
Personally, I don’t want to get married. That’s not the point what I want, it’s what somebody might want. If a man and woman live together, they don’t have to get married, there’s no obligation. They may not want to, but if they want to, of course they can. That seems to me such an obvious principle that couldn’t be denied for much longer. And was accepted by so many people in this country, eventually it would happen. But there will be some residual resistance, then it will be a forgotten issue.
You might poo-poo this, but I think you’ve played a big role. You are Magneto and Gandalf and have always been open about who you are. That means a lot to a lot of people.
Yeah, well, anyone who has ever spoken about being gay, or said that they are gay, have contributed. My contribution has been publicized and it reaches out further, so to that extent, yes. But it’s not crucial, I wouldn’t think. But it’s part of the efforts, part of the growing awareness. But I would say that the X-Men movies as a whole, as a conceit, as an idea, are part of the particular process… and being in And the Band Played On, you know they couldn’t find an American actor to play the part? They didn’t want to be sullied by the idea that they could convincingly be gay.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.