In a memorable guest appearance on the comedy series Extras, Sir Ian McKellen reveals the secret of his success: “How do I act so well? What I do is I pretend to be the person I’m portraying in the film or play.” It’s played for laughs, but the real-life McKellen realises this is the version of himself that surfaces when he slips back into publicity mode. And so this is the quandary he establishes at the start of McKellen: Playing The Part: “What side of Ian McKellen am I going to present?”
Throughout this autobiographical documentary, we are presented with a number of McKellens, including the actor, the gay rights activist and the ‘concerned older gent’. Speaking with the gravitas that only hindsight can provide, McKellen recalls pivotal moments in his life through to his status as the leading classical actor of his generation, working with the likes of Maggie Smith, Albert Finney and Laurence Olivier. McKellen recounts how, from an early age, he was always fascinated with the idea of performance and how it finds its way into the everyday, from market stall holders hawking their wares to the fake accent he put on to help him fit in at school. Childhood make-believe soon became an unwavering passion. “It defined me,” he says, noting that other boys were off playing sports while he put on plays.
The backbone of this film is an interview with McKellen, reportedly culled from 14 hours of footage. Filmmaker Joe Stephenson supplements this with dreamy black-and-white dramatisations and plenty of archival material of a younger McKellen making his living treading the boards across the UK before catapulting to worldwide recognition on the silver screen. For those who have only ever known McKellen as James Whale, Magneto or Gandalf, watching this historical footage is both an illumination and a confirmation – he’s one of those rare actors who seemingly emerged fully formed, capable of taking on the meatiest roles in the theatrical canon.
Backstage footage of the final performance of Waiting for Godot in 2014 shows him tearfully realising, “I feel like that’s my last performance on stage ever.” That’s proven to be untrue – he’ll play King Lear in London’s West End this year – but for an actor who has devoted a lifetime changing the lives of others through stage and screen, it’s a sobering reminder that even the greats must face the eventual curtain call. — Chris Tse