Skip to main content

Podcast Episode 5: Sir Ian McKellan On ‘Richard III

The British actor best known for playing Gandalf talks about bringing the Bard to life on screen

Sir Ian McKellen reflects on playing Shakespeare's Richard III.

Credit: United Artists

Above: Sir Ian McKellen reflects on playing Shakespeare's Richard III.

Episode 5: Sir Ian McKellan

Sir Ian McKellan talks about adapting Shakespeare in an archive interview from 1996.

Subscribe to the Cinema Junkie podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcatcher.

Transcript

This week Sir Ian McKellan appears as Sherlock Holmes in a new film. So Cinema Junkie looks back to the archives for an interview with the actor about playing Richard III.

British actor Sir Ian McKellan first brought his brand of Shakespeare to San Diego in 1987 when he performed his "Ian McKellan: Acting Shakespeare" at the Old Globe Theatre.

You could say that McKellan is an actor who lives and breaths Shakespeare. Introduced to the Bard when he was only eight, McKellan says he was "riveted by the idea of people standing up on a platform speaking other people's words and weaving magic out of it all."

McKellan used to be primarily known for his stage work but then he appeared in a pair of blockbuster movie franchises that changed all that. He appeared as Gandalf in the "Lord of the Rings Trilogy" and as Magneto in "The X-Men" films. But back in the mid-nineties he wanted to increase his film work so he decided to adapt "Richard III," which he'd been performing on stage, to film and to provide himself with what he calls one of the best parts ever written. As directed by Richard Loncraine, "Richard III" brilliantly showcases McKellen's flair for bringing Shakespeare to vibrant life.

Free of the paralyzing reverence that often hampers productions of Shakespeare, co-adapters McKellan and Loncraine cut the text severely but with great care. The result is a "Richard III" that clocks in at -- surprise, surprise -- well under two hours and which moves with the rapid-fire speed of a 1930s Warner Brothers gangster film. As with the original stage production, the film moves the play's historical setting of the late 1400s to the 1930s, where Richard becomes a fascist dictator who rises to power by murdering all those who stand in his way. The updated setting turns this fifteenth century melodrama into a modern-day political thriller that resonates chillingly for contemporary audiences.

As played by McKellan, Richard is a consummate actor who knows what role to assume, what props to use, and what words and actions to employ to turn a scene to his best advantage. But while Richard deceives almost everyone around him, he never deceives himself, never loses sight of his true nature. He dryly notes, "I rather hate myself for hateful deeds committed by myself. I am a villain." The complexity of Richard's character and the fact that Shakespeare gives us insights into what provokes his villainy, make the character fascinating and insure that he doesn't lose all his humanity.

The film also approaches Shakespeare's soliloquies with cleverness and sly humor. When McKellan's Richard breaks the fourth wall to make his first aside, he does so by looking in a bathroom mirror and catching sight of us, the audience. The moment catches us off guard and plays nicely off the symbolism of the mirror which emphasizes notions of duplicity, acting and putting on a good face.

When Richard turns to address us directly, he takes us into his confidence and begins to work his strange spell. He takes such delight in his villainy that we're immediately riveted. Yet he stirs a paradoxical emotional response-- we feel simultaneously repelled and fascinated by him, condemning and admiring his abilities.

McKellan shares his insights into Shakespeare and his thoughts on how to make the Bard more accessible to a wider audience.

FEATURED PODCAST

San Diego News Matters podcast branding

KPBS' daily news podcast covering local politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings so you can listen on your morning commute.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.