Sir Ian McKellen on Shakespearean stimulus, bossing the pub quiz and why life’s too short for TV
You’re releasing a new iPad Shakespeare app to aid understanding of the plays. Are people bored of the Bard?
Shakespeare’s plays are not meant to be read, they’re meant to be learned and spoken. The minute [a play] is read out loud, that’s an improvement; if it’s read out loud by actors who know what they’re doing or have been in the play, it’s very personal and engages you more intimately. If Shakespeare is not in your life it’s a great pity because he knew more about human nature than any other writer who ever lived.
What play should the uninitiated start with?
Start with an early play, like Romeo & Juliet.
Your Macbeth was inspired by JFK, your Coriolanus by John McEnroe. Which modern characters have inspired other roles you’ve played?
When I was doing Richard II, I thought, “Who is there alive today who thinks he’s a god? Can’t be anybody, can there? Oh! The Dalai Lama.” That doesn’t mean to say that I based Richard II on the Dalai Lama, but I took comfort in the fact that even today there would be somebody, admirable in many ways, deluded perhaps in some ways, who was treated like a god.
Would you ever do panto again at The Old Vic?
I hope I do because it’s very, very enjoyable. Everything that the theatre can do is contained in pantomime.
Is it hard getting into the mindset of a 7,500-year-old wizard?
Gandalf is an immortal. Well, I can’t play that, I don’t know how to imagine that, so you don’t, you play what he appears to be: an old man with a lot of energy who is a politician, a general, an encourager, a man who likes a drink and a joke. As for the voice, I copied Tolkien’s own voice.
Do people recognise you more as a wizard or a mutant?
If it’s young people coming up to me – teenagers and younger – it will be Gandalf. And probably Dumbledore, which is a part I didn’t play.
People mistake you for Dumbledore?
Yeah. One wizard is much like another. There are lots of wizards around, aren’t there?
Do you play along with it or do you correct them?
Correct them, I suppose. It’s an easy thing to do. I’ve often met an actor who I’ve known on screen and mistaken them for another actor. Easily done.
You have played so many different roles – is there anything you can’t do?
It would be a challenge to be in a musical. The main challenge is to make an intimate contact with the audience and get their attention so they’ll enjoy the material you’re presenting as much as you do as an actor. That can happen anywhere and with anything, but by my age you’re just glad you’ve got the energy and the physical ability to act at all.
You’re the landlord of The Grapes in Limehouse, London. What’s it like to own a pub?
Well, I don’t own a pub, I am a licensee and there are three of us. I don’t go in pubs very often, but I go to the quiz each week.
Is it a good quiz?
Well, a lot of people go to it. It’s an old community around there and much has changed, but what has survived for four to five centuries is The Grapes. So it’s very nice for me to have a steak in there and make sure it continues.
Do you win the quiz?
It has been known, yes. We have a regular team. We’re not the best team but sometimes we make it into the last three.
Apparently you like both lowbrow and highbrow culture. Are you a TV junkie?
No. I can’t start watching television. There’s too much of it, you would never do anything else. I’m way behind what’s popular. I’m amazed people have the time. The commitment! I like a one-off film or a play that’s over in two hours, but the thought that I’ve got another 10 episodes to go and that’s only the first series... I just blank out and think, “Sorry, I shan’t…” I’ve never seen Game Of Thrones.
What about The Sopranos?
Never saw it.
We’ll go out on a limb and say it’s pretty good…
Yes, well, so were the walks I went on and the meals I ate and the people I was introduced to while you were sitting at home watching the television!
Your friend Patrick Stewart posted a picture of himself dressed up as a lobster in the bath.
He’ll do anything for publicity.
If you had to dress up as crustacean, what would it be?
It’s not my style. Not my style at all. I don’t bathe, I shower, so I don’t think I’m a candidate.
You are going to be on stage with him soon, right?
We did No Man’s Land on Broadway about 18 months ago and knew it would work in London, so we decided to revive it. We’ve already sold 50 per cent of the seats for a show that doesn’t open for five months, so if people are interested they had better get booking.
Heuristic Shakespeare: The Tempest iPad app is out now; heuristicmedia.tv