At 76, Actor Ian McKellen Embodies An Older Sherlock In 'Mr. Holmes'

At 76, Actor Ian McKellen Embodies An Older Sherlock In 'Mr. Holmes'

1:31pm Jul 20, 2015

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, British actor Ian McKellen, is probably best known to American audiences as the wizard Gandalf in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord Of The Rings" films, a role that earned him one of his two Oscar nominations. But he's been acting in film, theater and television for more than 50 years and is so highly regarded in England that he was knighted in 1991. Among his other films are "Scandal," "Six Degrees Of Seperation," "Richard The Third," "Gods And Monsters" and three "X-Men" films. McKellen, who came out in 1988, has been a prominent gay rights activist in the U.K. and was co-grand marshal of this year's Gay Pride march in New York.

Ian McKellen spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about his career and his latest movie, in which he plays an aging Sherlock Holmes. In the film, called "Mr. Holmes," the famous detective is 93 and living on a seaside farm when events prompt him to try and remember his last case, one that made them retire from the profession years earlier. In this scene, McKellen, as Mr. Holmes, is visiting Japan and having lunch with a man whose mother pours tea and asks about some signature elements of his popular image, such as the large hat called a dearstalker that he was known to wear in Sherlock Holmes films and illustrations.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) You are very great detective.

IAN MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) Thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) My mother - she wonders if you have brought your famous hat.

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) Oh, the deerstalker - that was an embellishment of the illustrator. I've never worn one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) And the pipe?

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) I prefer a cigar. I told Watson if I ever write a story myself, it will be to correct the million misconceptions created by his imaginative license.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: And that is Ian McKellen in the film "Mr. Holmes." Ian McKellen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MCKELLEN: Thank you very much indeed.

DAVIES: You know, one of the things that I noticed right away in the film was how completely convincingly you captured someone who is 93. I mean, the breathing, the pitch of the voice. You want to talk a little bit about preparing physically to deliver that?

MCKELLEN: Well, I've been preparing all my life because I now 76 years old, so I'm closer to 93 than I've ever been before.


MCKELLEN: It's acting. You know, it's imagining. It's exaggerating feelings that - of mortality that we all have., but I've had aches and pains that just, oh, niggle and affect the tone of my voice. So I just imagine that I've got more physical inconveniences, and then it all seems to work. Now, if you get the look of a character right, it seems to me - it feels to me, you probably, having got the face right, have got the hands right, too. That's somehow using your imagination. Nothing special about an actor's imagination, except that he uses it a lot.

If you're sounding right, you're probably walking right, and vice versa. If you get the footwork right - if you get even one line right in a rehearsal, the director will say, do you know when you said that, it was exactly the character. You were - really landed on it. Oh, I see. Yes. And if you're able to repeat what it felt like when you were doing that - whatever it was that was right - line, gesture, move, tilt of the head - then you can say, oh, yes, I can feel that. Now I'll put that into the way I walk, the way I move, the way I sit, the way I get up, the way I speak.

DAVIES: I want to play another scene from "Mr. Holmes." And this is early in the film, when you, as the aging Sherlock Holmes, has returned from Japan.


DAVIES: And you realized, using your powers of investigation, that someone has been into your study while you were away. And you confront the young boy Roger, who lives on the farm where you keep your bees. Roger is played by Milo Parker, and you confront him. I'm just going to mention two things about the scene. One is we will hear the kid referred to Sherlock Holmes' amazing ability of perception and analyzing detail. And again, I'm just going to note the remarkable things - the difference between the voice that we're hearing of you now and the voice we hear of the 93-year-old Holmes. Let's listen.



MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) Why did you do it?

MILO PARKER: (As Roger) Sir?

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) Break into my study. My study is my sanctum sanctorum - private place.

PARKER: (As Roger) Before you went to Japan, I saw you writing that story. I didn't know you wrote stories.

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) No, Dr. Watson - yes, he was the writer.

PARKER: (As Roger) Well, so I borrowed Mum's key and went into your study, and there it was.

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) And how much did you read?

PARKER: (As Roger) Just to where you stopped. It was a good part, too. A man comes to Baker Street. You say, you've come about your wife. How could you tell? Did you do the thing?

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) What thing would that be?

PARKER: (As Roger) The cane shows the marks of a dog's teeth. The wood is from an island southwest of Madeira - that thing.

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) And how would you tell that a man's visit was about his wife?

PARKER: (As Roger) He wears a wedding ring?

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) The clothes are all on that page - this sentence, to be exact.

PARKER: (As Roger) One day, into the room came a young man in newly pressed, albeit inexpensive clothes. Clothes are freshly pressed. He's a young man, though. Not expensive clothes - then his wife must press them. Men don't have the talent, and he can't afford a servant to do so.

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) Very good.

PARKER: (As Roger) That's how you knew it was about the wife.

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) No, no. When you're a detective and a man comes to visit you, it's usually about his wife.



DAVIES: That is...

MCKELLEN: I love that - I love that line. It sort of debunks everything, doesn't it?

DAVIES: Right, right.

MCKELLEN: Who needs - who needs to be clever?


MCKELLEN: Just - I've been a detective for a few years, and you get understand human beings.

DAVIES: Yeah, analyze all the details.

MCKELLEN: Interesting that you should draw attention to the voice there, and it is radio, after all, that we're indulging ourselves on. The - it's a voice he doesn't put any energy behind. It doesn't have the energy. As long as the little boy - and the microphone is just quite close by. There's no need to speak like this, you know, like we might in life and certainly would on-stage.

So it's fun. It's just allowing the energy level to drop. I suppose - I suppose that's what happens as you get older. You don't have spare energy. You can't easily get out of the chair. You can't run. You can't make it to the top of the stairs without groaning, and you can't speak often without getting breathless (laughter). It's a miserable business - not for sissies.

DAVIES: No, it's a (laughter) - well, you know...

MCKELLEN: Bette Davis, wasn't it?

DAVIES: You know, I read your father was a lay preacher and that your grandfathers were preachers. And I wondered if you picked up anything about - I don't know - performance, commanding attention from being around them.

MCKELLEN: (Laughter) Yeah. My grandfathers - one was a professional - had his own church - Congregational Church - United Reform, I think you may call it. And the other one was a Baptist lay preacher, and he was - he was the great performer - W. H. McKellen. Used to do wide gestures and suddenly point beyond the congregation's heads and say, I see the children of Israel. And he'd point and all the heads in the congregation would turn around to see what he was pointing at, but, of course, there's nothing there. He was acting (laughter).

I once saw him address a large meeting in Manchester in the north of England, and he was in his 80s and a bit frail. He was living in our spare bedroom at the time. And he suddenly stopped speaking, and there was a dreadful, dreadful pause as we all realized the old man didn't know quite what to say next. And in his confusion, he just sat down. And, well, a thousand people buzzed with worry and embarrassment, and he sensed that. And he suddenly (laughter) comes out of his seat and said quite in quite a loud voice, you know, this is worrying you a lot more than it's bothering me.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MCKELLEN: Oh, God bless him. And do you know - that self-confidence of being able to do what not many people can do, which is talk to a room full of strangers, off-the-cuff, is a bit reflected in what I do for a living, except I don't, on the whole, speak off-the-cuff. But I'm at home in that situation, as he was at home, so I think I may have inherited that. But the side of the preaching that I eventually surprised myself in wanting to do - because I've never thought of acting as being preaching, although there might well be a message in the story being told - was when I came out as a gay man and found myself on platforms, making a case, pleading with people to understand, shouting, on occasion, about the certainties of my life which people hadn't understood that were, I think, reminiscent of what both my grandparents often did. And they're also missionaries in my family, and teachers - a lot of teachers. And these days, I go around schools quite a lot, talking about what it was like to grow up gay when it was illegal to have sex and - for me. And so I've turned into a teacher, as well (laughter). And I think it's on that side of my life, rather than the acting, which is - I feel myself to be part of a tradition.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Ian McKellen. He stars in the new film "Mr. Holmes." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Ian McKellen. He stars in the new film, "Mr. Holmes," about an aging Sherlock Holmes.

You recently were the grand marshal in the New York City Gay Pride March, along with Derek Jacobi, who's your co-star in the comedy "Vicious." And this is not something new to you, I know. But for a lot of years, you were not openly gay, although I read that you revealed yourself to your acting friends for many, many years before the public knew.


DAVIES: And it occurred to me that that's probably - wouldn't be possible in today's world. And I wondered if back then, did people in the media know and respect your privacy, or was it something that you feared was going to get out?

MCKELLEN: You know the phrase, to out someone...


MCKELLEN: ...To tell them against their wishes, perhaps, without their permission, to announce to the world - define someone's sexuality on their behalf, outing them? It was a phrase invented by - what was he called? William Henry was it, the third? I don't - he was a critic for Time magazine, I think. Anyway, he revealed to me just before he died that he was gay himself, although happily married. And he said, the dilemma of when you know someone's gay, can you say that about them? Just as you know they dye their hair, can you say that about them? They've got a secret. You know it. They've revealed it to you, maybe. Do you have a responsibility to lie on their behalf?

This is the dilemma of outing, and it's not an easy one to solve. But my life, up to the point in which I finally came out - and coming out is a bit of a journey you go on. It can be short, can be long, as it was in my case. You come out to yourself, as it were, first and then reveal it to people close by. And I, frankly, just responded to the situation that it was at the time I was living. Yes, it was perfectly easy in the British theater to be openly gay at work. Nobody gave a damn. Yes, I could live openly with another man and be surrounded by straight and gay friends. No, we could not show any affection in public because we might be accused of causing a breach of the peace if someone took objection to us and threw a stone at us. No, I didn't tell my parents because we didn't talk about (laughter) important matters of the heart. And, no, I didn't talk to the media about it because if I did, I would be identifying myself as a criminal because when I started acting, it was against the law for me to have sex. So I wasn't very brave. I wasn't very - really part of the real world. I didn't make the connections with other people who weren't as privileged as I was to live fairly openly as a gay man. And all this only became evident to me when I felt the need to come out to the media and therefore had to come out to my close blood family, and then my coming out was complete. And that all happened because there was a very bad anti-gay law being - going through Parliament that I took exception to.

DAVIES: Right, and it made a difference to have someone of your stature coming out and joining that cause.

MCKELLEN: Well, yes, I suppose it did. Yes, and (laughter), I think my main use when I started activating with other people who'd been standing up for themselves and other gay people for much longer than I had, my most valuable contribution was my fan effects, was my addresses, my names of people like myself who - totally sympathetic to changing the laws of the land but had never done anything about it. And I could call them up and say, come on, will you join in? And, on the whole, they did.

DAVIES: You know, before you came out, when you were living a life, I mean, you were in public, at least, having to pretend to be something perhaps different. And of course acting is about pretending, but it's also about...

MCKELLEN: That's right.

DAVIES: ...Finding some true part of yourself that relates to the character. I mean, there has to be an honesty to it for it to be convincing. And I'm wondering whether keeping the secret or eventually shedding it changed you as an actor?

MCKELLEN: Well, that's very perceptive of you. Yes (laughter), absolutely. And if I'd known that, maybe I would've come out earlier on professional grounds. I think one of the reasons that so many actors - at least in the past - have been gay - albeit secretly - is that they are robbed of everybody else's birthright, which is to be themselves and to be honest about their relationships, to celebrate their relationships, to send out wedding invitations, to show pictures of children which confirm heterosexuality. Because as a gay person - well, A) you couldn't get married and you didn't have children, and it was against the law, so you kept quiet. But within the confines of a play or a screenplay, or a script, a piece of fiction, you could indulge your emotions, which you weren't allowed to do publicly as an ordinary person.

Now, once I came out, once there were no restrictions on being myself, once I could hold hands with somebody I loved in public, once I could draw attention to my feelings, acting for me came - changed from being about disguise and came to be about revelation, about telling the truth. And so you're right. It's extraordinary, isn't it? I didn't do anything, other than coming out, and my closest friends said, well, you've become a better actor. Your acting's better now - and because I'm dealing with the reality of my emotions, not the character's emotions, they'd say to me.

So you won't meet a single gay person who ever regrets coming out, and here's - I'm another one to confirm that. And everything becomes better in your life. Your relationships become better because they're based on honesty. Your self-confidence grows because you're your own person. Why wouldn't you become better at your job, particularly when that job is dealing with - in a life?

DAVIES: In those days when you were not yet out, did you have any concerns about being cast in a love scene with a woman, on film, for example?

MCKELLEN: I did. I did, and I thought I wouldn't be very good at it because I hadn't had any experience of it. Yes, I was - it was a bother to me. I also used to say to myself - not often, but I did - I can't let people know I'm gay, otherwise they won't be able to accept me as being straight in the play or the movie. Well, it's not true. It doesn't worry - I don't care about any actor's private life. I don't - their sexuality is of interest, but the point is, is the character they're playing convincing? Do I believe them? So I think it was just an excuse. And I didn't want to cut myself off from the possibility of playing Macbeth or King Lear or many of the - Uncle Vanya - parts that are resolutely straight. And that would be, for me, cutting off my nose to spite my face.

However, the first job I took as an actor after having come out was to play as resolute a heterosexual as I could find. And that was a disgraced British politician called John Profumo, who, in the movie "Scandal," his story is told about how he lied to Parliament about having had an affair with a prostitute, which he inadvertently shared with a Russian spy. So that wouldn't do for a cabinet minister.

All right, I played this part on film. And my first job was to appear to be having sex with Joanne Whalley-Kilmer in the marital bed. Well, this would've been a joyful scene for any straight actor to play. She's extremely beautiful and a lovely person, and I didn't know what to do with her. So I went to a friend, Edward Petherbridge, the actor, who's (laughter), knows about these things. And I said, Edward, I've got to do this love scene. Can you explain to me - can you draw me a little diagram? So he did. He gave me some stick figures...

DAVIES: Really?

MCKELLEN: ...Showed me what was possible. So I'm now an expert on the missionary position, and everything went well.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Ian McKellen, who stars as a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes in the new movie, "Mr. Holmes." After a break, McKellen will talk about his role as the wizard Gandalf in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord Of The Rings" films. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with actor Ian McKellen. He stars in the new movie, "Mr. Holmes," playing a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes. McKellen is best known in the U.S. for his role as the wizard Gandalf in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord Of The Rings" films. His other films include "Scandal," "Six Degrees Of Separation," "Richard III," "Gods And Monsters," and three "X-Men" movies. McKellen came out in 1988, and this year he was co-grand marshal of the Gay Pride March in New York.

DAVIES: I want to talk about "Gods And Monsters." This was 1998, for which you earned an Academy Award nomination. It's the fictional story of the last days of James Whale, who was the - a real person, the British director of the films, "Frankenstein," "Bride Of Frankenstein" and, I think, "Invisible Man."

MCKELLEN: That's right.

DAVIES: And in the film, he's living in Hollywood in 1957. He's old. I think he's had a stroke. He's a gay man in Hollywood. Why don't we listen to a clip here? This is you as James Whale, speaking with a young journalist, who's played by Jack Plotnick, and you insist that the interview be conducted at the - beside your pool. Let's listen.


JACK PLOTNICK: (As journalist) So - journey's end brought you to Hollywood?

MCKELLEN: (As James Whale) I've got a little proposal. This line of questioning is getting old, don't you think?

PLOTNICK: (As journalist) I don't mind.

MCKELLEN: (As James Whale) Well, I do. Let's make it more interesting for me. I will answer truthfully any question that you put to me, and in return for each answer, you will remove an article of clothing.

PLOTNICK: (As journalist) That's funny, Mr. Whale.

MCKELLEN: (As James Whale) Yes, yes, isn't it? My life is a game of strip poker. Shall we play?

PLOTNICK: (As journalist) So the rumors are true then?

MCKELLEN: (As James Whale) What rumors would those be?

PLOTNICK: (As journalist) That you were forced to retire because of a sex scandal.

MCKELLEN: (As James Whale) A homosexual scandal, you mean? For me to answer a question of that magnitude, you'll have to remove both your shoes and socks.

PLOTNICK: (As journalist) You're a dirty old man.

MCKELLEN: (As James Whale) It is kind of you to indulge your elders in their vices, just as I endorse the young in theirs.

DAVIES: And that is Jack Plotnick and our guest, Sir Ian McKellen, in the film, "Gods And Monsters" in 1998.

MCKELLEN: What a good dialogue. That is based on the novel...

DAVIES: Christopher Bram's novel, yeah.

MCKELLEN: Christopher Bram. Lovely to hear that scene. That's so funny.

DAVIES: Yeah, and - well, and people in the audience who haven't seen it might want to check it out. It's a really rich story and performance. I mean, the more meaningful relationship in the film is between your character and a good-looking young gardener, played by Brendan Fraser, who is most emphatically straight and kind of typically homophobic for his day and your character, Whale, who no longer directing films, does do drawing, asks the young Brendan Fraser to pose for him insisting he has no interest in his body. Do you want to talk a little bit about what that relationship is like?

MCKELLEN: (Laughter).

DAVIES: And what it was like with Brendan Fraser?

MCKELLEN: Oh, Brendan - well, (laughter).Well, there he was. He was what he appears to be. Brendan looks like that - stunning figure he had, and worked at it hard. He wasn't yet a star. He was about to become a film star with the release of one of his big movies. We got on terribly well. Canadian, theater background, so we rehearsed together sometime - and usually without the director. We went to the script together. We noted things of mutual interest. So when we came to the rather hurried schedule - another cheap movie. That's what independent movies means - cheap movies.

DAVIES: So you've got to shoot it in a hurry.

MCKELLEN: Exactly, and that can be very good because the spontaneity is inevitable. So he was very, very easy to work with. But we knew, I think, that we were doing something that was - might be considered outrageous. We were telling the story of a man, almost uniquely, in Hollywood in the 1930s, the most highly-paid director of his time, was gay and openly gay and made no bones about it. Absolutely unusual. A gay icon, really, in retrospect, thought I think he'd be surprised at that. He just was his own person. Although, interestingly, like a lot of other people, he hadn't been able to become his own person until he reached California. An awful lot of people escaped from somewhere to arrive in California, and knowing that, you know, you can't go any further - next stop is, well, the Pacific Ocean and China, and who wants to go there? So they're stuck. And maybe they blossom, like David Hockney, or other gay people - Christopher Isherwood and so on. And so Whale was one - was a real pioneer, although not fighting on anyone's behalf but himself.

So we knew that to tell this story, we were one of the first films to take a gay person at his own - as he stood up for himself and was himself, and present him really as an example of what we should all do if we're going to have fulfilling lives. And it was a very gay affair - not that Brendan's gay, but - or Lynn Redgrave - but there was Jack Plotnick and me, and Bill Condon, many of the designer. The entire support system on the film were lesbian. (Laughter). It was a labor of our love and self-expression really, and to have Brendan supporting us in that was good.

DAVIES: We are speaking with Ian McKellen. He stars in the new film about an aging Sherlock Holmes. It's called "Mr. Holmes." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is actor Ian McKellen. He plays an aging Sherlock Holmes in the new film, "Mr. Holmes."

You had such a terrific acting career, so much of it in theater, done so much Shakespeare, but probably many people are going to know you best for your role as the wizard Gandalf in "Lord Of The Rings" and "The Hobbit" films. I thought we'd listen to a clip. This is from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," in which you, as Gandalf the wizard, arrive at the hut of Bilbo Baggins, who's played by Martin Freeman. Let's listen.


MARTIN FREEMAN: (As Bilbo Baggins) Can I help you?

MCKELLEN: (As Gandalf) That remains to be seen. I'm looking for someone to share in an adventure.

FREEMAN: (As Bilbo Baggins) An adventure? No, I don't imagine anyone west of Bree would have much interest in adventures. Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things - make you late for dinner.

FREEMAN: (As Bilbo Baggins) Good morning.

MCKELLEN: (As Gandalf) To think that I should have lived to be good-morninged by Belladonna Took's son as if I was selling buttons at the door?

FREEMAN: (As Bilbo Baggins) Beg your pardon?

MCKELLEN: (As Gandalf) You've changed, and not entirely for the better, Bilbo Baggins.

FREEMAN: (As Bilbo Baggins) I'm sorry, do I know you?

MCKELLEN: (As Gandalf) Well, you know my name, although you don't remember I belong to it. I'm Gandalf. And Gandalf means me.

FREEMAN: (As Bilbo Baggins) Gandalf - not Gandalf, the wandering wizard, who made such excellent fireworks? Old Took used to have them on midsummer's eve. (Laughter). No idea you were still in business.

MCKELLEN: (As Gandalf) And where else should I be?

FREEMAN: (As Bilbo Baggins, laughter).

MCKELLEN: (As Gandalf) Well, I'm pleased to find you remember something about me even if it's only my fireworks.

DAVIES: And that is our guest, Ian McKellen, with Martin Freeman in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

MCKELLEN: Oh, if you want to understand how film works - music works in the film - listen to it on radio. Wasn't that wonderful...


MCKELLEN: ...How it shows the music coming in and underlining what the audience might've missed, that this conversation is crucial and is the beginning of an adventure and all that excitement. It's wonderful.

DAVIES: Which you don't hear while you're doing the acting, of course.

MCKELLEN: Of course not, no. Nobody tells you. And often enough, of course, it's 'cause the actors haven't done their work properly then the director has to resort to some music that will do it for them (laughter).

DAVIES: Well, you know, you say - you hear that actors, when they are figuring out how to portray a new character they try and find something of that character within themselves.


DAVIES: What part of you is Gandalf the wizard?

MCKELLEN: I think, perhaps, the man who when he knows he's right, wants everyone else to accept it and get on with doing what's right themselves...


MCKELLEN: ...That aspect. But you know, (whispering) Gandalf was a rather easy part - shh.

I listened to Tolkien reading "The Hobbit" out loud. What a show-off. If anyone thinks that he wouldn't have enjoyed the movies, I think that recording would prove them wrong because he clearly likes the idea of his story being theatrical-ized. But once I listened to that, and then they put makeup on me - the false nose, the wig, the bit, the wrinkles - and twinkling through that mask, there he was. And once I'd see him - poof, that was the end of any problem. And the story, of course, was so strong. The situations were so alive and alert, and on the whole, these characters say exactly what they mean. There isn't a deep subtext that you're having to worry about. It's not Chekhov, it's Tolkien. It's very on the nose, very to the point...


MCKELLEN: ...And so relatively easy to play.

DAVIES: Maybe easy to get the character, but shooting was a bit of an ordeal. You were in New Zealand - was it for a year for the first three films with all of the other actors?

MCKELLEN: I think it was, yes, and then followed-up by extra return visits for quite prolonged periods of time, which suited me. It's no pain living in New Zealand, you know. It's a country with not too many people and a plethora of spectacular scenery, and landscapes, and environments in which you can get lost in. It's thrilling. So no, there's the pain really involved. In any movie, there's lots of hanging around and, you know, there are plenty of scenes that I'm not in in "Lord Of The Rings." Those are the times when I could go off and have a vacation in New Zealand, so it...

DAVIES: Did you and a bunch of the other actors come away with shoulder tattoo - identical tattoos?

MCKELLEN: Yes, and if only this were television, I would happen to show it to you, David. But it's on my upper arm, my tattoo, and it says nine in Elvish - nine members of the Fellowship, of course. But I don't know what the word is, and I can't read it 'cause I can only see it upside down when I look down at it. And from my vantage point, it seems to spell Gucci (ph).


MCKELLEN: Anything less appropriate for Gandalf to have on his arm, I can't imagine.

DAVIES: And, do you like having it now? Do you...

MCKELLEN: I do like having it. I mean, I never see it, really. I never notice it. Sometimes it's a surprise to see it still there. But it does link me to dear people who I don't see enough of. And I remember holding Elijah Wood's hand while he was having it done. It was in a rather tender spot on this body that he wanted his.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MCKELLEN: And he winced every so often, and I was able to help him through that. My dears, it's not childbirth, you know?

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MCKELLEN: It's a tattoo, and a very small one.


MCKELLEN: But they were dear people. I loved them to bits. And being allowed into their world, it's so - it's so appealing. And then Christopher Lee - the late, alas, Christopher - who, playing Saruman - and older than any of us, older than the hills - and at our first meeting (laughter) over supper at a restaurant where Peter Jackson was providing, Christopher Lee came up to me and said, I'd always thought that I should play Gandalf. (Laughter) Oh, dear.

DAVIES: And you also did the voice of Gandalf for a whole series of video games based on the films. And I just have to ask, were there moments when you're there in a studio with headphones on, doing the voice for a video game, thinking, boy, this is what I've come to, from the Royal Shakespeare Company of my youth?

MCKELLEN: You're absolutely right. It goes like this - because you have to provide the voice for every situation that the non-characters might get into.

(Imitating Gandalf) This way, Legolas. This way, Bilbo. This way, hobbits. This way, everybody. Come quickly, Legolas. Come quickly, Legolas. Come quickly Legolas. Come quickly. Oh, Jesus.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MCKELLEN: Well, you do all that, but you do it, frankly, for money. I was paid, I think, more for doing that than for the film. Then when we came to do "The Hobbit," I thought, oh, there's that lovely money coming from the games that people play. By that time, our producers had bought-up the games company, and so in your contract, you were told that you would be required to do these games. And if you did, you would be paid a pretty paltry sum. And if you didn't choose to be paid the paltry sum - which I didn't choose to do - somebody else would imitate your voice. So that's what it's come down to, that you don't pay actors for doing their work.

DAVIES: Well, Sir Ian McKellen, it's been terrific. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.

MCKELLEN: I'm sorry to end on a grouse (laughter). I love radio. Thank you, and lovely to be on NPR whenever possible.

GROSS: Ian McKellen spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Mckellen stars in the new film, "Mr. Holmes." Coming up, Ed Ward profiles the now-forgotten soul singer Garnet Mimms who had the hit, "Cry Baby." That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station