Our hosts Giles Alderson, Tori Butler-Hart and Matt Butler-Hart visited legendary actor Sir Ian McKellen to discuss his theatre and film career.

Growing up Sir Ian said that he frequented the theatre regularly with his family, but they didn’t often “go to the cinema because I think my parents thought they were not very wholesome places.

The quality of the cinemas was not high, so I never got into the habit of going to the pictures, as we called them. I’m a theatre actor who landed in films by chance.”

Differences between Film and Stage

“I suppose the biggest difference, which pertains today, is that although films takes an awful lot of time setting up and arranging, particularly financing and so on, the one bit of preparation that doesn’t happen is rehearsing the actors and preparing them.”

He went on to say that actors are just expected to arrive on the day, and be in character, with very little time to ‘get into character’. In the theatre, you’d have had months “getting to know the character, getting to know the other characters and trying things out.

None of that is possible in filming. And I’ve never really understood why films are not prepared more in advance, as far as acting is concerned.”

As a theatrically trained actor, you rely a lot on projection, your body and your voice to reach everyone in the auditorium, “in cinema, the audience is closer to you”.

Another difference between film and theatre is that after rehearsing a play, the director is “no longer required, he’s off the payroll. Often he opens (the show) and is called in if something goes wrong. But in the cinema, the actor finishes his work and is onto the next job, but that’s when the work starts for the director and editor.”

Does He Watch His Own Films

“Oh yes, but I don’t enjoy them. I look at my performance. You have an impression as to what you’re doing and then when you’re looking at it, it looks a bit different.”

Most actors, after filming, might see themselves for the first time in ADR “adding the voice to it or changing the voice: that’s a wonderful gift. You can change your performance. You can change the intensity of the dialogue.”

What does Sir Ian look for in a Project… Script? Director? Character?

After receiving a script from a ‘very distinguished British director, Sir Ian thought that he should do the role based on the man’s success, but after reading the script, he realised that he didn’t respond to it, so declined the role. 

“Usually it’s the script. I’m not good at reading new scripts of plays or films. I often misjudge them. But my questions are:

Is this a film I would like to see?

Is this a part that I want to play, or is it a part I’ve already played in another movie?

And if you have a positive feeling about the script and the part, then, of course, you must meet the director. And if you don’t know their work, then there’s a lot that’s taken on trust.”

Learning from Your Directors

For the first 30 or 40 years of his career, Sir Ian would “say to every director that I worked with, would you please teach me how to act in a film, I don’t know what I’m doing? None of them ever did. They haven’t time, the directors and producers are always looking at their watches.

So if a director is not going to teach me how to act, I do depend on them telling me the truth, which they always do. If it’s not been right if they do not like what they’ve seen, what a fool they would be if they didn’t say so, because then they stuck with that rotten material.”

And one of the great things about filmmaking and a below standard performance is that budget and time permitting, you can reshoot it again. 

“Peter Jackson would think nothing about doing 20 takes of one aspect of a scene, and then it would be filmed from another angle. That’s why those films took a long time to make.”

Reaching Out to Actors

And if you’d like to work with an actor, who might seem ‘out of your league’ Sir Ian has wonderful advice, based on his experience of being a producer. 

“If I get a letter from a producer, whatever level they happen to be, I feel sympathetic because I know that this letter is not coming out of the blue. It gives you great pleasure to be able to help.”

So how do you reach out? “All actors have agents. I see every request that comes my way. It might come with a damning comment from the agent but they pass it on.

If I get a script from my agent, I give it more attention and more respect than if it comes out of the blue to where I live. We’re in a business, it’s a profession, and agents have a part to play.”

Actors want to work, and most actors remember a time when they needed to ask someone for a favour. When approaching an actor, don’t feel “that they’re doing you a favour. YOU are doing them a favour. I’m full of admiration for young producers who step out into the unknown and do things on their own terms.”

For more brilliant advice from the wonderful Sir Ian McKellen, listen here.

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