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Arts & Culture

Richard III/Interview with Sir Ian McKellan

You could say that Sir Ian McKellen is an actor who lives and breaths Shakespeare. Introduced to the Bard when he was only eight, McKellen says that 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. infected with the acting bug, McKellen went to Cambridge where the example set by fellow students Trevor Nunn and David Frost helped convince him to pursue a career in the arts.

McKellen is primarily known for his stage work and has only made a handful of screen appearances, most notably in Scandal and Priest of Love. But the actor 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 McKellen 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 plays 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 McKellen, 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 McKellen'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. I asked McKellen why he decided to take the opening soliloquy of the play and split it into two parts-- the first a public speech by Richard and the second, Richard's private ruminations on his current state of affairs.

IAN McKELLEN: When you're turning a play into a movie and that's what we've done with Richard III, the Richard III you see on the big screen with digital sound is no longer a play, it's been translated, it's different. It's the same words, it's the same story, it's Shakespeare's same intention, but hopefully translated and utterly believably into a two hour popular movie that can be seen all over the world. Now cinema has certain advantages over the theater, in theater yes, they have to come to the outset of the play and it starts, "Now is the winter of our discontent..." What winter of discontent, the audience might say? In the movie they don't have to ask themselves that question because they've seen it, they've seen the war just coming to an end, they've seen Richard behaving as the commander in chief, they've seen his brother now installed as King and they've seen the royal family celebrating. And its at that point that he makes his public statement.


CLIP: Richard: "Now is the winter of our discontent..."

IAN McKELLEN: But it's rather rotund phrasing, it's rather pompous language, it's rather conscious, it draws attention to itself, very public statement. When I did it on stage I used to think of myself as making a public announcement but halfway through, as you point out, halfway through the speech, it suddenly shifts in tone and mood. Richard gets more intimate, he starts talking about himself. He starts talking about his sexual inadequacies as he sees it. He talks about his appearance and what he thinks about it and this is not suddenly a speech for public consumption, it seems to be more private, more intimate, more neurotic and that's why I put it in a place where a man might expect to be alone which is in a bathroom and he's washing his hands having performed and he's looking at himself in the mirror and just at that point he glances through the mirror and sees that there is an audience watching him and I turn to camera and invite them to come along this roller coaster ride to destruction. So you can by changing the place where you actually shoot the film, underscore what I think is already in the text and that's why although this looks like no Shakespeare movie you've seen before, I put hand on heart and swear to you, it is absolutely Shakespeare. But translated into cinema.

BETH ACCOMANDO: And why did you choose to place it in a kind of imagined thirties with a Nazi overtone?

IAN McKELLEN: The thirties seemed to us, when we did the original stage production for the Royal National Theater, that the 1930s was the most recent period in history when it would have been credible that a senior member of the British Royal family might at a time of social unrest, the depression and so on and unemployment, growing tyranny in Europe from the right and from the left, Soviet Union as well as Fascism, that it would be credible, that Britain might fall for a dictator or elect one and that they might be from the Royal family but of course Shakespeare isn't writing real history, he doesn't write a documentary, the Richard III that he writes is not the real historical Richard III. And we just borrow elements from the 1930s to make the story more convincing but in point of fact your right, it isn't the real thirties at all, no one ever uses the telephone in this movie. Its a bit of history that never happened. Richard III is the most dreadful man who never lived. And he becomes therefore, a type, an archetype, a myth, a mythical tyrant, he seems to be a tyrant through and through and through, every way you cut him, and stands as a standard for real dictators some of whom have based their careers on the fictional rise of Richard III.

BETH ACCOMANDO: What do you hope contemporary audiences will take away from seeing your film?

IAN McKELLEN: Well I hope they will be entertained and by entertained I hope they will be amused and moved but given something to think about. I hope they get from Shakespeare, through the way we've done it, a very clear story, rather melodramatic at times, but Shakespeare did call it the Tragedy of Richard III, and I hope this film, unlike Laurence Olivier's movie of fifty years ago, will draw attention to the psychology of Richard which is firmly there in the play so that we see some of the reasons why he turned out to be as he did, never excusing him of course, but that's up to the audience to judge really, and I don't think the playwright, Shakespeare or the actors need to judge him or his behavior. So I hope they'll have a rollicking good time basically and be excited and perhaps want to see more Shakespeare on screen and perhaps on stage. But beware, always check first whether the Shakespeare production is any good whether it is on screen or stage because there is nothing worse than bad Shakespeare. Well Shakespeare is undoubtedly very difficult to teach and to act and therefore for an audience or a reader to appreciate. And some of us have spent a lifetime puzzling it out how to do it. Its always finding a balance between being aware of the beauty and the subtlety and the complications of Shakespeare's actual writing and the fact that he wrote in verse and at the same time holding true to his own instruction in Hamlet to speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you trippingly upon the tongue. He doesn't want the actors to mouth the lines like the town crier, he wants them to achieve a level of reality and I think that that is the trick of Shakespeare acting, to be aware of the technicalities of the verse but not bother the audience with them. And use those technicalities to make the words as clear and as effective as possible. And it was a big challenge to me to see if I could bring that off in the cinema where the audience is closer than they ever are in the conventional theater, the camera can be just six feet away from you, picking up every nuance and its interesting that this old war horse of a play, this old melodrama, does bare some examination and taken seriously, there's a lot of subtlety in it.

BETH ACCOMANDO: I think its interesting that Othello and Richard III have both arrived on the big screen at the same time because I see a similarity in the kind of villains that Iago and Richard are. Do you think there is something about them that makes them particularly interesting at this point in time?

IAN McKELLEN: I don't know. I've just been setting this movie up for three years and I expect Oliver Parker's been doing the same thing with his movie so its probably just coincidence. But the last Shakespeare part I played before doing Richard III on stage was Iago. And there is a similarity between the two of them and they both do dreadful things, of course, and they're both soldiers, they're both, I think taking revenge on the world for their own private reasons. Iago probably because his marriage has failed and Richard because he has been despised for his physical deformities since the day he was born. Witness Maggie Smith's character in the movie, his mother.

CLIP: Margaret: Are you my son?... and bloody be your end.

IAN McKELLEN: Shakespeare is very interested in villains. But I don't think just as embodiment of pure evil. And I don't like it when people say Iago and Richard III and Macbeth are just evil characters full stop, they're not I think Shakespeare is showing the humanity behind the evil deeds.

BETH ACCOMANDO: What interests me about those two in particular is that they are kind of artists in evil, that's how I've always seen them. They seem to enjoy the act of creation and in their case they happen to be creating evil.

IAN McKELLEN: Well certainly in Richard III, a play which was written when Shakespeare was quite young, his mid-twenties or something. It's full of a youthful exuberance and there's a lot of irony and wit in the script, of course, which comes across principally because Shakespeare allows Richard III to talk directly to the audience. So even as he is tricking everybody else in the story and killing an awful lot of them or giving the orders that they should be killed, nevertheless he just stops the action and turns to camera, in the case of this movie and says, "I am doing this for this reason and I am now going to do this and come along with me, I think you'll enjoy it." And that means we are rather on his side and find him rather beguiling. And hopefully halfway through the story, we think to ourselves, "Oh crikey what am I doing being on the side of this man and wanting him to succeed."

BETH ACCOMANDO: I think it is very interesting because I think he is by far the most interesting, intelligent and witty character in the play. And you have to somehow reconcile that with the fact that he is also the vilest character.

IAN McKELLEN: Well I think that that is the point of Shakespeare's humanity, is that there are no simple solutions. You have to look at the evidence and make up your own mind. That seems to be his message. Don't just stamp labels on people because then you stop seeing them as human beings.

BETH ACCOMANDO: Did you have any doubts about casting Americans in with the British actors? Did you ever hesitate about that?

IAN McKELLEN: No. When we originally rehearsed the play, just for the London stage and the tour of the world, having put it in the 1930s we thought what would be a good thirties equivalent for this Queen Elizabeth character and her brother Rivers who are social outsiders in Shakespeare's play, they are not of the same aristocratic class as everybody else. So a good thirties equivalent of that is to make them non-British, no disrespect in terms of social class to Americans in general, and so we didn't follow that through when we did it on stage but I picked up the idea when we did the screenplay and I thought yes great lets have two Americans, speaking with American accents, showing the world that you don't have to be English to play Shakespeare which is so ridiculous, what I had unwittingly done in my innocence because I never written a screenplay before was that I had written in two fabulous parts from Shakespeare for two Hollywood movie stars and as we got Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr., that meant that their presence in the movie greatly enhanced the attraction of the movie for investment.

BETH ACCOMANDO: Now when you went to cut the text, since it was cut quite severely, in fact when I saw the film, I thought it moved much more like Macbeth, that very swift progression taking him from where he began to the throne. How difficult was it to cut?

IAN McKELLEN: Well one thing didn't worry me which was the sense of time passing because you're right the movement of the play should be very swift and on stage directors are always whipping actors, com'on get a move on it, get a move on, get a move on. Well they would never say that if they saw this movie because my god it moves fast and he's no sooner started on the journey than he's achieved his end with the fatal decline satisfyingly at the end. But I never really thought, what am I going to cut. I was always rather thinking what am I going to keep in. I was excited by that. I mean I having played the play three hundred times across the world, it was while I was in the states, each night after the performance I would go to my hotel room and start the screenplay. And I knew what the audience most enjoyed. I knew what they laughed at, I knew what they found thrilling or intriguing. I also knew where they were confused and puzzled and sometimes bored. I knew where they turned off in the theater. I knew the things that you didn't actually need and I knew the things that you desperately did need to keep the core of the story so it was a very simple thing for me to do to cut the text.

BETH ACCOMANDO: At the end, it seems like it is a bit of an homage to James Cagney in White Heat. Was that something that was on your mind?

IAN McKELLEN: But of course Richard III is a bit of a gangster isn't he? The end of Richard III is perhaps not as clear-cut as it sometimes seems on stage, its more ambiguous. I think often at the end of these tragedies, Shakespeare doesnt want audiences to feel, 'Ah Fortinbras is the perfect man to take over everything that's rotten in the state of Denmark,' at the end of Hamlet. Or 'Ah, young Malcolm is going to solve all the problems of Scotland at the end of Macbeth.' I don't think young Richmond, who vanquishes Richard III is necessarily going to be turned into a great head of state and that's why as Richard commits suicide and falls backwards off the top of the girder to his certain death, it was quite unnecessary for Richmond to fire into the falling body but as he turns to the camera and grins you know that when he gets down below and meets his supporters, he's going to claim that he's done the deed and then you think well we've got a liar who's king of England, another liar, it's at that point that Al Jolson starts singing "I'm Sitting on Top of the World," cause that's how Richmond feels and as we cut to Richard falling down to hell and the song continues, then it becomes an ironic comment on Richard but some people said to me I loved the Jolson because it reminded us of how people did think in the thirties, that they were sitting on top of the world, and we know how long that lasted.

CLIP: Al Jolson singing "I'm Sitting on Top of the World"

IAN McKELLEN: So an authentic voice from the period, I thought was nice and as Warren Beatty said to me when one night we were talking about should we put in that song or not, he said, 'Well don't you want to have the greatest American performer of the Twentieth Century in your movie? And in a movie which is excitingly created around Shakespeare's words, don't you want to have the first voice that was ever heard in a movie in your movie?' And that clinched it for me and I'm very happy with that ending.

CLIP: Al Jolson sings the refrain We're Sitting on Top of the World