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Ian McKellen is Sherlock Holmes in ‘Mr. Holmes’

PUBLISHED: 11:19 15 June 2015

Sir Ian McKellan in Mr Holmes

Sir Ian McKellan in Mr Holmes


When Ian McKellen was offered the iconic role of Sherlock Holmes in director Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes he did a little research into how many times the brilliant sleuth has appeared on screen.

Sir Ian McKellan in Mr HolmesSir Ian McKellan in Mr Holmes

When Ian McKellen was offered the iconic role of Sherlock Holmes in director Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes he did a little research into how many times the brilliant sleuth has appeared on screen.

“There have been 150 films, apparently,” he says. “That’s a lot but it shows that this is a character that people are endlessly fascinated by.”

Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes first appeared in print in 1886 and has indeed become one of the most enduring characters in popular fiction and on television and in film.

“I suppose that it is an invention that struck some sort of chord with people. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Sherlock Holmes was. I don’t remember being introduced to him; he’s always been there,” says McKellen.

“That seems to have been true for a lot of people, and not just people who can read English books, which is where it all began. What’s interesting is that he was so clearly a man of his time, but you can remove him from his time and he remains himself.

“I really don’t know why he endures so well. I mean, he’s not an attractive person – you wouldn’t want to spend any time with him, would you? I wouldn’t. He’d have nothing to say to you, and he wouldn’t be interested in you, unless you were interesting to him.

“He’s not friendly, he’s not sociable but there is something about him that we are intrigued by.”

Condon’s film is based on Mitch Cullin’s acclaimed novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, and, says Ian, offers a very different perspective on the legendary detective. In the story Holmes is a real – rather than fictional – man and his legendary exploits have been chronicled by Dr. Watson, who has now passed away, rather than Conan Doyle.

It’s 1947 and Holmes is now 93 and struggling to come to terms with early dementia as he tries to recall his last case some thirty years earlier. Living in rural Sussex with his housekeeper, Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her bright young son, Roger (Milo Parker), Holmes spends his retirement tending his beloved bees and trying to piece together what happened to a missing woman, Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan).

Sir Ian McKellan in Mr HolmesSir Ian McKellan in Mr Holmes

“I get to play the standard, the expected, the Conan Doyle, John Watson version, and then this other imagined version, which actually turns out to be more real than the traditional,” says McKellen.

“The way the film plays with all that, and does it in the style of a Conan Doyle story is what’s clever about it, I think. You could, if you didn’t know anything about it, think, ‘Oh, this is just another Sherlock Holmes story – about a man investigating himself, for the first time.’”

Ian had worked with Bill Condon before, on Gods and Monsters (1998) when they became close friends and in the following years often discussed the possibility of collaborating again.

“I regularly stay at Bill’s house in LA. He doesn’t stay with me in London – I think the premises aren’t quite good enough for him,” he jokes. “And his partner, Jack – I see them regularly, and follow everything he has done, of course. But this came out of the blue; I didn’t know this was happening. I think I said I’d do it before he told me what it was.”

Now 75 he says, the themes of ageing and a failing memory spoke to him. “Yes, well, old age, if you’re 75, is of interest to you,” he says.

“Some people never reach it, of course, and I had contemporaries who are dead. Some are struggling towards it with dreadful illnesses, and some people seem to be immortal, and each day is a new blessing.

“So I just think of Sherlock Holmes as an old man, really – coping, and coping better than most. I do like the last image, where you feel that he’s ready for whatever comes, and he’s earned the right to just sit, finally.”

McKellen spent a long time in the make up chair to play both versions of Holmes, one, of course, younger than the actor himself and the other older.

“Although when they put the young make-up on – because I needed more make-up to look 60 than I do to look 93 – the process is different,” he explains. “They put some false cheeks on me, and I don’t know whether you could, but all I could see was the actor, John Gielgud.

Sir Ian McKellan in Mr HolmesSir Ian McKellan in Mr Holmes

“Someone should write a movie about John Gielgud, and I would play him. I would do the voice. Astonishing! It was a bit like Rory Bremner, or one of those impressionists that puts on make-up and looks like people,” he laughs.

Ian was born and raised in Lancashire, England and studied English literature at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. After college he worked extensively in repertory theatre in the UK and later with the Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre.

His films include Plenty, Scandal, The Ballad of Little Jo, Six Degrees of Separation, Richard III, Restoration, Bent, Gods and Monsters, Apt Pupil and Emile. He played Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy and reprised the role in the three Hobbit films. He also stars as Magneto in the hugely successful X-Men franchise.


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