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‘I even loved his Twankey’: Dench, Hopkins, Mirren and more on Ian McKellen at 80

‘He’s a fairy godmother with a roaring engine inside’
Michael Sheen

Ian has been been very important in my life, even before we became good friends. When I was a young teen I remember watching Walter on the TV and being hugely affected by it. Then at Rada in the early 90s, I finally saw him live, in Richard III at the National. I was blown away. I remember him doing the opening speech while lighting a cigarette one-handed. It was brilliant, so understated. It exemplified his mastery – and his work ethic. To do something so difficult and complicated and make it look so easy. Ian has an innate sense of theatrical audacity, something I think he shares with Olivier. They both did things that would make the audience gasp self-consciously.

For me, one of the most enjoyable phases of his life was when he went: “I don’t give a fuck any more, I’m going to do exactly what I want.” And then he did Coronation Street and panto. And loved it. I saw his Twankey and it was fantastic.

Nothing like a dame … McKellen as Widow Twankey,





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Nothing like a dame … McKellen as Widow Twankey, Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

He’s not a mentor. He would never dare to tell anyone what to do. He has great humility and a very gentle way with people. He’s almost like an Alan Bennett character, though he sort of plays on that a bit because he’s very mischievous. I think it quite suits him at times to be a fairy godmother figure, knowing he’s got this roaring engine inside.

He’s extremely sure of what he believes in, so much so he doesn’t need to push it on people. He’s very open and non-dogmatic. His confidence about how good he is gives him a “fuck you” quality. People are clearly not going to take his career away from him because he speaks his mind. He’s one of the greatest actors of all time and has proved he can do anything he wants. He’s an unstoppable force.

‘It was a really, really intense sex club’
Bill Condon

I first met Ian in Los Angeles in 1997 when he was 57. He was very frank about the fact he had made a mark in theatre and now intended to do so in movies. He was considering playing the horror director James Whale, but was worried because the script had Whale at 67 with snow white hair, having suffered a stroke. Even though Ian had renown and acclaim, he thought of himself as a fresh face. He was only convinced when we made Whale 35.

Nearly 20 years later, when he was about 75, I asked him to play someone who was 92 for Mr Holmes. I remember him saying: “What’s next? Methuselah?” Then finally, last year, we made The Good Liar, in which he plays his actual age.

‘He’d shoot for 12 hours then ring me at 1am with notes’ … with Rosalynd Ayres in Gods and Monsters, for which he was Oscar-nominated.





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‘He’d shoot for 12 hours then ring me at 1am with notes’ … with Rosalynd Ayres in Gods and Monsters, for which he was Oscar-nominated. Photograph: www.ronaldgrantarchive.com

In the flesh, he doesn’t seem anywhere near 80. He’s such a young spirit. On Gods and Monsters, the Whale movie, he’d shoot for 12 hours then ring me at 1am with notes. At the time he was also really embracing the movie star life. He had a wonderful house in the hills with a pool and a jacuzzi, and threw fun parties all the time. He does nothing with reserve or looking down his nose.

Mr Holmes was low budget so Ian invited us all to his house in Limehouse, London, for a huge wrap party. He has this wonderful trick of suddenly making it clear the party is moving next door to the pub he owns, The Grapes. It is a great way to get people out.

Last year, when we wrapped The Good Liar in Berlin, we went to a nasty club to celebrate. It was a really, really intense sex club but also an art installation in a factory. I left them there at 4am. It was wonderful.

‘I can’t wait to ask him how many eyes a scorpion has’
Judi Dench

I must have worked with Ian at least eight times. The first was in 1965 in The Promise at Oxford. It moved to London and ran for nine months. Hard work, my goodness. You have to get on and fortunately we did from the get-go. The play was about the siege of Leningrad, which was spoken of all the way through. I remember one night, Ian and I made an entrance in the second act in fur coats and hats and we heard this lady in the audience say very, very loudly: “Oooh, all them furs! Anyone would think they were in Russia.”

Will he say wooky-nook? … Judi Dench and McKellen in Macbeth at Stratford, 1976.





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Will he say wooky-nook? … Judi Dench and McKellen in Macbeth at Stratford, 1976. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

We have often been very near corpsing, Ian and I. Sir Laurence used to call it it “exquisite agony”. It’s to do with fear and nerves. I can go completely to pieces and, with Ian, it’s very easy to make a duo of it. It’s always exciting working with him because you don’t quite know what’s going happen next. Oh, how we’ve laughed. Crikey.

I never let him forget the time we were in a very intimate, in-the-round production of Macbeth. I was kneeling at his feet and he said: “Light thickens and the crow makes wing to the wooky-nook.” Wooky-nook instead of wood, said purely by accident. I thought: “Well, I suppose it’d be all right if Lady Macbeth had hysterics at this point because she’s rather tense.” I’ve said that line to him, in so many ways, throughout our careers.

He hasn’t changed much. He’s just got older, like all of us. He’s still up for a wonderful laugh and getting up to no good. After playing Gandalf and having huge success, he’s probably more settled. I think he must be very, very pleased – and why ever not? Maybe he’s not so anxious.

He went to sex clubs in Berlin with people? Oh dash, I’ve missed out. I haven’t done that at all – and will take him to task for it. But it would be heaven to go to his pub sometime, especially on a quiz night. My grandson Sammy takes part. All my life I’ve thought up quiz questions and I think Ian is the same. I’ve just learnt how many eyes a scorpion has and I can’t wait to ask him.

He’s somebody who’s ever-present; a very good friend to me. I know that if I rang he would always make time to see me or be around or to be there with advice. It was lovely doing Cats [the forthcoming film of the musical] earlier this year. While he did his number, I was in an enormous cat basket. I had on a very big fur coat and nothing else. It was fantastic. I could have dropped off if I wanted. It was wonderful to just watch him working. He plays Gus the theatre cat and that’s perfect casting. He’s like no other animal I know. A rare beast.

‘None of that awful moody stuff’
Anthony Hopkins

I’ve known Ian for 40 years but didn’t work with him until four years ago. A producer asked me who I’d love to star with in The Dresser and I said Ian. I didn’t dare think it would happen. But a week later I got an email from him saying he’d love to do it. I was thrilled. I remember the first day: the fifth of February 2015. It was all just perfect, one of the energising and satisfying things I’ve been involved with and one of the best times of my life – mostly because of Ian.

It was a surprise and a relief to both of us how well we got on. There’s great solace in working with people who are so disciplined and professional. None of that awful moody stuff. I think it’s the sense of irony and self-mockery. Which is the greatest thing you can have as an actor – no nonsense, get over yourself – and Ian is so like that.

‘One of the best times of my life’ … with Anthony Hopkins in The Dresser.





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‘One of the best times of my life’ … with Anthony Hopkins in The Dresser. Photograph: Joss Barratt/BBC/Playground

He’s very funny. He made me laugh all the time with little camp in-jokes. I’d be acting my head off and he’d say: “Ooh, dear, get her.” In the theatre, it’s impossible to work with such people. I have to walk off the stage because I’m laughing so much.

I’m two years older than Ian but he doesn’t feel like a whippersnapper. We’re both creaking a bit now. I’ve got slight back problems, but we’ve both got tremendous energy. I want to go forward like a 35-year-old but I trip over things.

‘People were fixated by his one-handed striptease’
Derek Jacobi

I was in my second year at Cambridge when Ian arrived. I was reading history, he did English. He was probably cleverer than me. We had the acting bug in common and we came from the same sort of background – there was maybe a slight sense of surprise that we’d ended up somewhere like Cambridge. He was ambitious but not unpleasantly so, and we acted at every opportunity we got. I think he had an agent by the time he left.

Our careers mirrored each other: we did the same plays at different times in different places. We would meet up, but only very occasionally – we were too busy acting our socks off. We crossed paths in Much Ado about Nothing, at the National in 1965. I don’t think the National was his scene, though. He went off with Prospect, a touring company. He didn’t want to stay at the National playing supporting roles. He wanted leading roles. Who can blame him?

‘He’s got more energy’ … with Derek Jacobi in Vicious.





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‘He’s got more energy’ … with Derek Jacobi in Vicious. Photograph: Joel Anderson/ITV

As an actor, he has an absolute focus on what he wants and how to get it. He is amazing with props. I remember in Richard III, in the wooing scene with Anne, he only had the use of one arm. And he kind of stripped off with that one arm, down to his bare chest, then gradually put his clothes back on. People were fixated on this one-handed striptease. It was very Ian: eye-catching, theatrical, riveting.

He once directed me in a Tom Stoppard play in Leicester. I’ve had many dictatorial directors who think actors’ creative juices only start working if they are in a state of terror. Ian was completely the opposite, very helpful, very benign. Then we were on the telly in Vicious: two ageing thespians letting their hair down. There was competition in the best sense of the world, no upstaging. We trusted each other and enjoyed sparking off each other.

At Cambridge, I didn’t see him as a snazzy dresser. I think that’s been acquired later. He loves a good laugh and is fun to be with. Now he’s on an 80th birthday tour! Rather him than me. Well, he is younger – he’s got more energy.

‘He wouldn’t have a margarita until after he’d married us’
Patrick Stewart

When Ian and I first worked together in 1977 we weren’t really friends. There were reasons for that – my timidity, mostly. I had admired him from the start of his career. When I saw him play Claudio in Much Ado at the National, I was dazzled. Not only was Ian an astonishingly compelling actor – which I didn’t feel I was – he was drop-dead gorgeous and I wasn’t. When he joined the RSC, I was frankly intimidated.

We shot the first X-Men film in 2002 and I wasn’t absolutely ready to just fall into his arms. But we had adjoining luxury trailers and took to hanging out. Ian always had nice nibbles – pastries, nice things he’d made before he came to work. And we quickly found we had so much in common. He’s a Lancastrian and I’m a Yorkshireman; we are a year apart and grew up on opposite sides of the Pennines. We became very good friends. As well as X-Men, we have worked together a lot on stage. Sometimes I feel we’re enjoying it too much and the audience don’t quite understand why we’re having so much fun.

‘He always had nice nibbles’ … Patrick Stewart and McKellen on stage.





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‘He always had nice nibbles’ … Patrick Stewart and McKellen on stage. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Ian is very close to my wife, Sunny, and that’s why, when she agreed to marry me about six years ago, she suggested Ian perform the ceremony. Ian agreed and set to work getting qualifications from a rather obscure online church. At the time, he and I were in a production of No Man’s Land in Berkeley. The wedding was planned for a week after the run, at a magnificent mansion by Lake Tahoe in Nevada. But a fortnight before, we found out the papers only covered us for California. Disaster: we had a lot of friends and family coming.

So one night after the show, we all went out for dinner to this emptying Mexican restaurant. Ian – the only one in on this other than Sunny and I – suddenly stood up and pulled out a glamorous dressing gown. He opened up the papers and said he was going to perform the wedding ceremony, and the others were to be witnesses.

We were continually interrupted by waiters trying to refill our glasses, so Ian kept having to say: “Not now, just leave it alone for a minute.” He was getting quite irritable. Anyway, he did it beautifully. He spoke personally and talked about his feelings for us. We all had margaritas and champagne, but he wouldn’t touch a drop until after the ceremony. He wanted to do it properly.

A week later we all flew to Nevada to go through what was a completely sham ceremony. We thought telling the truth would spoil the event for our families. And Ian loved every moment – the drama and secrecy. He made a speech that was so beautiful and touching and loving that all the guests – including Sunny and I – were quietly weeping.

He’s been asked to marry people since, now word has gone round he’s passed his exams. I know of one ceremony he was invited to perform at – they were going to pay him a very significant amount, but he would have had to wear his Gandalf costume. He refused. Quite rightly.

‘There we were in New York on the morning of 9/11’
Helen Mirren

The only time Ian and I worked on stage together was in Dance of Death, on Broadway in 2001. We had our last run-through on the morning of 9/11. Both of us got rather British and Blitz-like: the way you combat this is by carrying on, you know? So there we were in New York after that devastating terror attack – in a play called Dance of Death. But we learned about the amazing resilience of Americans, and New Yorkers in particular. It was a remarkable thing to share.

Ian, above all, is a Brit. That’s what I love and admire about him: his faithfulness to the whole of the country. He is forever touring and has never been exclusive and capital-based. He’s generous with his talent and has a great loyalty to his friends – and to theatre as well.

‘He’s a miracle to watch’ … Helen Mirren with McKellen in New York.





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‘He’s a miracle to watch’ … Helen Mirren with McKellen in New York. Photograph: Matt Baron/BEI/REX/Shutterstock

Every actor has a slightly different approach. Some reach their performance quickly, others take a long time. Ian likes to really explore all around the edges before he decides on the centre. He likes to leave it quite open and doesn’t hone it until quite late. He is absolutely masterful. I would stand in the wings and watch him: an extraordinary technician, so in control of the audience. It’s a miracle to see.

The reason he is so successful in blockbusters is because of his classical background – he brings a gravitas to those films. They’re not little kitchen-sink dramas: they need grandeur and presence.

‘He can strut like Jagger and display like Gaga’
Stephen Fry

One of the greatest actors I have ever seen on a stage, Ian is a man of infinite courage and wisdom whose activism in the cause of LGBT rights can be seen as driving the UK – or most of it – to equality in consent and marriage. The world should know too how kind Ian is to young talent, to causes and cases around the world that awaken his sense of justice. His performance as Marlowe’s Edward II, shown on television, shot through the young me like a bolt of electricity. He kissed his lover! Long on the lips! On the BBC!

One feature of his brilliance on stage is the physical detail: so scrupulously and intelligently thought through, and so lacking in ostentation – unless the part requires it, of course. Then he can strut like Mick Jagger, display like Lady Gaga, and erupt like a volcano. I remember his Iago to Willard White’s Othello at the Young Vic. He somehow transformed his body and movements into those of a tightly muscled, detailed, fanatically precise soldier. You didn’t spot it at first. I thought to myself: “I never knew Ian was so virile, so military in his bearing, such a pernickety sergeant-major of a man.” Then I remembered that he wasn’t like that at all, just as this Iago.

as Iago with Willard White in Othello for the RSC, 1989.





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Precise … as Iago with Willard White in Othello for the RSC, 1989. Photograph: Alastair Muir/Rex/Shutterstock

I have a letter he wrote to me after he came to see a production of Twelfth Night in which I took on Malvolio, a role he had played. The observations, insights and distilled wisdom were of unequalled quality and kindness. The letter was written not as advice and notes from a great actor to an infinitely lesser member of the profession, but from a friend and creatively curious equal, anxious to share experience. I am not sure my reply to it quite captured how moved by it I was. I felt I had touched the hem of his garment.

Incidentally, how great is he at comedy? A glorious panto dame – and stunningly hilarious in Chekhov’s Wild Honey. He’s the most delightful and entertaining friend anyone could ever have.

‘He was meant to be showing off his erect private member’
Janet Suzman

He is in the grand tradition, to this foreigner anyway, of that most English of creatures, Mr Mischief: camp, brilliantly talented, clever as paint, well educated. He went to Cambridge and read English as thousands of others have, but he put his degree to Good Use by getting to be an actor, one of those creatures who use the English language at its best practically all the time.

He was a good friend of my ex-husband Trevor Nunn. Same history really: working-class, Cambridge scholarship, oodles of talent and hard work ensuing. They did Lear together and Macbeth. Trevor asked him to be our son’s godfather nearly 40 years ago. I don’t know what wisdoms Ian might have demonstrated to my boy, but warmth is ever on tap. He is wise and brave – and, popularity being franchise driven, he became another person after Gandalf. Good for him! He’s ideal in the part: mischievous and magical in equal measure.

Giggles … Janet Suzman and McKellen in Priest of Love.





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‘Proportionate gusts of giggles’ … Janet Suzman and McKellen in Priest of Love. Photograph: Allstar/Filmways Pictures

What I did do with Ian was a stupendously interesting film about DH and Frieda Lawrence called The Priest of Love, an unfortunately uninteresting title for a film that deserved better. It also boasted Ava Gardner – what a beauty! Ian was DH, I was Frieda and we all travelled to the best locations in the world film-wise: Oaxaca, Florence, Lake Garda. What more could you wish for?

It sank without trace. But it did have a scene of great naughtiness: one fine day, DH was meant to be showing off the stupendous dimensions of his erect private member – in silhouette, of course. Proportionate gusts of giggles from the prop and make-up departments. The morning passed fitfully. Trying to keep a straight face while filming passion is a test, to say the least.

‘He’ll do selfies with people and be as excited as they are’
Russell Tovey

Ian does not behave like an 80-year-old man. He is so youthful and thirsty for knowledge. He loves gossip and wants to know everything about other actors. When we were filming The Good Liar, we ended up in this club in Berlin. We sat out on the kerb drinking and everyone wanted to talk to him. He was so open – he loves a chitchat.

‘He wouldn’t perform Monday nights so he could make it to the quiz at his pub’ … Russell Tovey with McKellen in 2010.





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‘He wouldn’t perform Monday nights so he could make it to the quiz at his pub’ … Russell Tovey with McKellen in 2010. Photograph: Joanne Davidson/Rex/Shutterstock

He is the most genuine man you’ll ever meet. When he was doing King Lear in the West End, he wouldn’t work on Monday nights so he could make it to the quiz at his pub. I think that’s absolutely hilarious. During filming, he’d be coming up with quiz questions with Helen Mirren and me.

On location, nothing makes him happier than finding the local amateur dramatic company. He looks out all the little theatres. His one-man show is a theatre nerd fest: he is at the top of his game but still so excited by it. Afterwards, he’ll hang out for selfies with people and be as excited as they are. He is inclusive on every level and has never taken his success for granted.

I started at the National when I was 19 and I remember the first time I heard about him. I was having vocal coaching with Patsy Rodenburg and we were sat on these chintzy couches. I said they were nice and she said they were donated by Ian. Then I saw him at events for Stonewall and the Terrence Higgins Trust. He has always been at the forefront of activism for gay rights and HIV/Aids. He’s a busy man but he finds the time to do it – then goes off to give an incredible performance in a play.

He loves an anecdote, too. They flow out of him. He really is the most impeccable storyteller. I’ve never heard the same one twice. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him sad or moody. I’m sure he gets tired but it never becomes anyone else’s problem. When you make him laugh, it’s the best noise in the world.

Ian McKellen on Stage: Tolkien, Shakespeare and You! is touring across the UK throughout 2019.

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