Entertainment & Arts

Ian McKellen: 'Working with Anthony Hopkins was bliss'

Sir Anthony Hopkins and Sir Ian McKellen in The Dresser
Image caption Hopkins (Sir) prepares to play King Lear with the help of his dresser, played by McKellen

Sir Ian McKellen tells the BBC why working with Sir Anthony Hopkins on The Dresser was "bliss", why plays make good TV and what it was like filming Disney remake Beauty and the Beast.

There's only one reason Sir Ian McKellen signed up to star in a new adaptation of The Dresser, and that's "because Anthony Hopkins was in it."

He says he'd seen Sir Ronald Harwood's 1980 play on stage, watched the 1983 film starring Sir Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney and thought: "They'd covered it. Who needs me?

"Then they said, 'well, Anthony Hopkins is playing Sir'," he tells the BBC. "So I said, 'well, that would be a joy!' And it was."

The latest adaptation of Sir Ronald's play, filmed at Ealing Studios for BBC Two, is the first time the pair have shared a screen together.

Image caption Sir Ian (left) plays Sir's devoted dresser Norman

"We should be old friends," says Sir Ian. "We were in a company together under Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic when he ran the National Theatre, but we didn't actually act together.

"And since Tony went to live in the States, there haven't been many possibilities when our paths could have crossed, we've never done a film together. So this was just bliss."

The drama in The Dresser takes place backstage at a theatre during the Blitz, where tyrannical and aging actor-manager Sir (Hopkins) - who is deteriorating in body and mind - prepares for his starring role in King Lear, with the help of his devoted dresser Norman (McKellen).

The camera ensures the audience are right up close to all the action. Did having such an esteemed sparring partner mean both actors upped their game?

"It may surprise you, [but] acting isn't a competition," smiles Sir Ian. "It's not a race, it's a communal activity we do together. It's more like a family, so no.

"[Sir Anthony] said after the first week he'd not enjoyed doing a job so much for years. At the end of six weeks he said, 'I can't bear it, it's coming to an end! Can we work together again?'"

Image caption Emily Watson (right) plays the wife of 'Sir', known as 'Her Ladyship'

According to Sir Ian, after years in Hollywood, Sir Anthony is now considering taking to the stage again.

"That was the effect this play had on him! It reminded him of how much he enjoyed theatre," says Sir Ian.

"He was working with people of his own age, who persisted in the business. Ronald Harwood, [director] Richard Eyre, [co-star] Edward Fox and me - so he felt very much determined, he was very relaxed."

Co-star Emily Watson - who plays Sir's wife 'Her Ladyship' (and King Lear's daughter, Cordelia, in the play they're staging) - says working with the two actors was an almost religious experience.

"We weren't quite kneeling in the wings, but nearly, it was like being in church. It was so brilliant," says Watson.

"To be going into work every day and having long, complex, big acting scenes with, one day it was Ian McKellen, the next day it was Anthony Hopkins. Both of them just playing to the top of their game, [it] was just thrilling."

'Great drama'

Sir Ian says people shouldn't be put off by The Dresser being a "backstage story", full of so-called 'luvvies'.

"It's surprising how often actors are asked to play caricatures of themselves. But these are not caricatures - they're exaggerated characters, but they are absolutely believable and true to life," he says.

"You see people struggling against the odds, you see people riding high, you see people with ambition, people who know it all and people who don't know anything - all mixed together, trying to get on and I think that's the charm of it all and the power of it all."

The Dresser's producers say it is "harking back to the great days of Play for Today", when single dramas were a staple on British television.

Sir Ian reckons plays "should be more available" on TV now too, as "plays work very well on television. You can get in very close, you can see it, but you hear all the words.

"I'm not quite sure why British broadcasters relinquished the one-off play. I think it's because they found it difficult to sell in the Radio Times, [which] loves series.

"You know where you are [with series]. 'Oh, it's this again', 'come and watch the same thing all over again'.

Image caption The Dresser was previously turned into an Oscar-nominated film

"The joy can be in the surprise of discovering something - 'give it a chance, let's see if you enjoy it! Give it five minutes, oh give it ten minutes, oh this is good! Let's watch it through to the end,'

"It's lost that, and it's a pity. You cut yourself off, you'll cut the audience off from meeting great, great drama.

"We don't want to have pretend Agatha Christie all the time. I don't anyway - 'oh, not another detective series.'

"Unless I'm starring in it and playing Sherlock Holmes, of course," he adds quickly laughing, in reference to his recent film Mr Holmes, in which he plays a retired Sherlock.

'Astonishing anticipation'

Mr Holmes saw him working again with Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon, who has since sorted Sir Ian out with a role in Disney's live-action version of Beauty and the Beast.

"I did frankly just say to him, 'what's my part in Beauty and the Beast?' A few days later he said, 'I think there is a part, but not a large one," says Sir Ian.

"I didn't do much work on it, because for most of the film my character's actually a clock. But when the clock turns back into a human being, that's when I come into my own."

Sir Ian says he has no idea how popular the film - starring the "wonderful" Emma Watson as Belle - will be.

"It is astonishing to me how many people tell me that the animated version of Beauty and the Beast is their favourite film of all time and they can't wait for this," he reveals.

"The anticipation is more than it was even for the filming of The Hobbit book after Lord of the Rings, so I'm very lucky to be involved."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Sir Ian is well known for playing Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings films

Before we get to see it - likely to be in 2017 - there will be more of his ITV sitcom Vicious, in which he and Sir Derek Jacobi play a gay couple who've been together more than 50 years.

"I think we're hopefully going to do a few more episodes of Vicious to put those characters literally to bed - a little group [of episodes]."

He's also taking to the stage next summer with another friend and former co-star, Sir Patrick Stewart, for a production of No Man's Land by Harold Pinter.

"Two old actors will be on the road, two Sirs will be on the road," he laughs, "but hopefully [we'll be] nothing like the character Anthony Hopkins plays in The Dresser!"

The Dresser is on BBC Two on 31 October at 21:00 GMT.

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