Sir Ian on the trail of M Hulot

Mr Holmes star on sunshine, being funny and a new film on Noel Coward.

by Richard Mowe

Sir Ian McKellen in Deauville: 'There is always enthusiasm but also uncertainty and self-doubts. I have learned to be funny, partly as a result of Jacques Tati'
Sir Ian McKellen in Deauville: 'There is always enthusiasm but also uncertainty and self-doubts. I have learned to be funny, partly as a result of Jacques Tati' Photo: Marco Schmidt
Mr. Holmes star Sir Ian McKellen breezed in to Deauville today (September 10) for the Festival of American Cinema believing it was the setting for one of his favourite films - Jacques Tati’s M Hulot’s Holiday.

He was rather crestfallen to discover that it was actually somewhere else - Saint Marc-sur-Mer, a sleepy seaside resort on France's north-western coast.

“That’s too bad,” said the McKellen, who adores Tati. He’s in the Normandy resort for a special tribute tonight and to herald the French release of Mr. Holmes in which he plays the iconic sleuth at an advanced age - older than his own 76 years.

Asked what gets him up in the morning, he beamed and said: “The sunshine” as he gesticulated to the cloudless skies. “That is why it is so great to film in Los Angeles because you can be guaranteed to find sunshine every day.”

As to whether the craft becomes easier with maturity he was more guarded. “Yes there is a certain confidence, because you learn things as you go along. There is always enthusiasm but also uncertainty and self-doubts. I have learned to be funny, partly as a result of Jacques Tati.

“But when a director says ‘Cut!’ I always greet it with the same sense of relief.”

Although more than 120 actors have taken the role of Sherlock over the years McKellen restrained himself from revisiting any of them. “When you play Hamlet you want to forget all the other Hamlets,” he said.

He believes that the key to most characters are the feet and the way they walk. “I have done so much theatre that I am interested in the physique of the character. On stage it is the silhouette of the body that expressed the character. With film the camera is the closest observer you can have. In film you rarely seen an actor’s feet but it is a fact that everyone walks differently. Some actors just do one walk for all the parts they play, but I like to be more protean than that. In the theatre, especially if you are in the front row, the first thing you see is the feet, you go up to the crotch and then to the face. How does he walk, how does he listen and what money does he have in his pocket? All those kinds of questions can start you off. And where would M Hulot be without that walk?”

Sir Ian McKellen: 'I would hate to be stuck with one part for ever more. I absolutely do not want to be part of a soap opera'
Sir Ian McKellen: 'I would hate to be stuck with one part for ever more. I absolutely do not want to be part of a soap opera' Photo: Photo: Marco Schmidt
McKellen, despite his experience of a lifetime, has no desire to pursue directing. “I have directed in the theatre three times and I thought that I wasn’t very good at it. The director has to be in charge of everything. I believe that directing a film is the most difficult responsibility you can have in this business. Acting is difficult enough …”

He is looking forward to a supporting role in a new film about the young Noel Coward, written by Martin Sherman, author of Bent which dealt with gays under the Third Reich and was a play close to his heart.

“I haven’t yet seen the script and as usual it is waiting for finance. if it all comes together I will have a small part.” Glee star Chris Colfer will play the gay writer.

Pondering if Mr. Holmes could develop into sequels, McKellen gave a hearty guffaw. “I doubt very much whether he could get any older. I did enjoy being in Lord Of The Rings and X-Men - they were a great blessing for me, I was proud to be involved in them and they were internationally successful. But it’s also lovely to be able to do a smaller and independently produced film such as Mr. Holmes. I would hate to be stuck with one part for ever more. I absolutely do not want to be part of a soap opera.”

Ageing holds few fears. He recalls that his stepmother died when she was 103. “Death is at the end of the road, of course. The aches, pains and confusion are all too easy to imagine.”

For the moment McKellen shows no signs of faltering. If he had to offer advice to a young actor it would be to carve out a career rather than seeking fame and fortune. He says: “Do not sit around and wait for a break. Just get better in your job and above all enjoy it!”

  • Mr. Holmes will be available to own on DVD and Blu-ray on October 26 and to download from October 12.
  • Report on Sir Ian McKellen and Laura Linney at the NYC premiere of Mr. Holmes.
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