Sir Ian McKellan On ‘Richard III’
Cinema Junkie / July 17, 2015
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.
I’m Beth Accomando and welcome to the brand new Cinema Junkie Podcast on KPBS, and what’s a better way to kickoff something new! There is something old, something old and cool; at least I think it is, with Mr. Holmes opening this week and Sir Ian McKellen taking on the role of Sherlock. I thought I’d go back into my archives, from my 1996 interview with him about Richard III. I did this interview back at the old KPBS Studios. This was when we were located back by the telecommunications department on the SDSU Campus and had trailers for most of our staff. I had been told that Ian McKellen will be driven up in a limousine out behind the studios, and I was carefully instructed to make sure and call him ‘Sir Ian’ and not just Ian McKellen.
He arrived in his limo which seemed a bit out of place on the San Diego State Campus and he was exceedingly gracious. I led him back to the KPBS Studios which were far from glamorous at the time. We sat down to do the interview, and at one point during the discussion he casually leaned back and put his elbow on part of the sound baffling that was at the back of the studio and the whole thing fell down. He was very gracious about it, simply kept the conversation going, picked it up, pushed it back on the wall and secured it. So that’s my memory of interviewing Sir Ian McKellen. It was a great interview and he was so passionate about Shakespeare, and that’s another reason why I thought this interview was a great one to pull out of the archives. This summer the Old Globe Theater is doing a summer Shakespeare film festival. And listening to this interview, I realized how much information he had about adapting Shakespeare from the stage to the screen. So without further adieu here is my 1996 interview with Sir Ian McKellen.
One thing I wanted to ask is, I thought that was interesting that Ophelia and Richard III have both made it to the screen at the same time, because I find a similarity between Iago and Richard. Do you think there is something about their villainy that makes them particularly interesting at this point in time?
Sir Ian McKellen: I don’t know. I mean I’ve just been setting this movie up for three years and I expect Oliver Park has been doing the same thing with his movie, and it’s 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’s been despised for his physical deformities since the day he was born. But you will witness some Maggie Smith’s character in the movie, his mother.
[Movie Plays] [00:02:34 - 00:03:20]
Sir Ian McKellen: Iago doesn’t quite have those reasons for his ill behavior, but yes, they’re both good actors too. They both fool people all the time. Richard fools everybody, fools – tricks a woman into marrying him, he has a better world. He kills his brother who trusts him right to the end and so also his younger son. Shakespeare is very interested in villains, but I don’t think just as an embodiment of pure evil, and I don’t like when people think Iago and Richard III and Macbeth are just evil characters. They’re not. I think Shakespeare is showing the humanity behind the evil deeds.
Beth Accomando: Well, what interests me about those two in particular is they’re kind of artistes in evil, is how I’ve always seen them. They seem to enjoy the act of creation and in their case they happened to be creating evil. I don’t know if you see it that way.
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, certainly in Richard III, Richard is a play written when Shakespeare was quite young, in his mid-20s or something. It’s full of a youthful exuberance, 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 stopped there. He then turns to the camera in the case of this movie, and says, Well, I’m doing this for this reason and I’m not going to do this, and come along with me, I think you will enjoy it. And that means we’re rather on his side and find him rather beguiling and, hopefully, halfway we think to ourselves, “Oh, crikey! What am I doing being on the side of this man and wanting him to succeed?”
Beth Accomando: Well, I think it is very interesting, because he is by far, I think, the most interesting, intelligent, and witty character in the play and you have to kind of somehow reconcile that with the fact that he is also a kind of a violent character in the movie.
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, that’s I think 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. I mean that seems to be his message, don’t put, or just stamp labels on people, because – then you stop seeing them as human beings.
Beth Accomando: I was interested in how you decided to do the first speech, this The Winter of Our Discontent. Normally I believe, it’s a soliloquy done at the beginning of the play. And you chose to do it kind of like as a public speech, and then at a certain point cut it to jump to like a – his own variation of it.
Sir Ian McKellen: Yes, the – when you’re turning a play into a movie and that’s what we’ve done with Richard III. The Richard III you see in the cinema or on the big screen with digital sounds, it is no longer a play that’s been translated, it’s different. It’s the same words, it’s the same story and it’s the same Shakespeare’s same intention, but hopefully, it translated utterly believably into a popular movie that can be seen all over the world.
Cinema has certain advantages over the theater. In the theater, yes, they have to come down at the outset of the play and it stops, now is The Winter of Our Discontent, what winter of discontent, the audience might say to themselves. Well, in the movie they don’t have to ask themselves, because they’ve seen it. They’ve seen the world just coming to an end. They’ve just – they’ve seen Richard behaving as the commander in chief. They’ve seen his brother, they’ve seen his brother now installed as King, and they’ve seen the royal family celebrating. And it’s at that point that he makes his public statement.
[Movie Plays] [00:06:40 - 00:07:10]
Sir Ian McKellen: The son of York, he refers to as not just the son of the Sky, but of course the son of the York family, King Edward who is now a king. And also it’s a triple pun in the typical style of Shakespeare. The son of York is also Richard who is also another son of the York family. But it’s rather written phrasing, it’s rather pompous language, it’s rather conscious, it draws attention to it, so a very public statement. And when I did it on stage, I used to think of myself making a public announcement. But halfway through, as you point out, halfway through the speech it suddenly shifts in tone and mood.
[Movie Plays] [00:07:43 - 00:08:47]
Sir Ian McKellen: Richard gets more intimate. He starts talking about himself. He starts talking about his sexual inadequacies. He talks about his appearance and what he thinks about it as 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 the place where a man might expect to be alone, which is in a bathroom and he is washing his hands having performed and he’s looking at himself in the mirror. And it’s just at that point he glances through the mirror and sees that there is an audience watching him and I turned to camera and invited the audience to come along on this rollercoaster ride to destruction.
[Movie Plays] [00:09:26 - 00:10:08]
Sir Ian McKellen: So you can by changing the place where you actually shoot the film or the score, which I think is already in the text. And that’s why, although this looks like no Shakespeare movie you’ve ever seen before I’d put hand on heart strategy, it is absolutely Shakespeare, but translated into cinema.
Beth Accomando: I just thought it was a very nice twist on it, because having heard the play many times before, you get – you have certain expectations set up and then when you do that I thought it was very interesting, because I heard the words in a different way.
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, I always like it when someone says I’d never heard that line even in a play that they know extremely well. But of course as an actor on stage and screen, my principal responsibility is not to you who know the play somewhat, or not to those who know the play very well indeed, but to those who’ve never seen it before. And that’s the motive really for setting Shakespeare’s old story in a new setting of the 1930s, where because the clothes are recognizably modern and you can judge from them what somebody does for a living and what social status they have, and how much money they earn. This is all very useful information when you’re telling a backstage story of politics and a political thriller really, and you need to know all the characters as well as possible, and modern costume helps that enormously.
Beth Accomando: And why did you decide to place a particular kind of an imagined 30s with him, not say, overtones?
Sir Ian McKellen: The 30s into – 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 incredible that the 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 left, Soviet Union as well as Fascism, that it will 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 is not a – he doesn’t write the documentary.
The Richard III that he writes is not the real historical Richard III and we just borrow elements of the 1930s to make the story more convincing. But – in point of fact, you’re right, it isn’t the real 30s of tone, nobody ever uses a telephone in this movie and they ride around in Rolls-Royce’s and the battle scene is set in an urban landscape of tanks and some horses, of course, but the horse a horse mind you a different horse. But the tanks are off 1940s tanks. The army uniforms were – are not strictly British army uniform. So it’s a bit of history that never happened and Richard III is the most dreadful man who never lived actually. And he becomes therefore, a type, an archetype, a myth, he is a mythical talent. He seems to be a tyrant through and through and through, whichever way you cut him, and stands as a standard for real dictators some of who might think have based their careers on the fictional rise of Richard III.
Beth Accomando: So what do you hope that contemporary audiences were going to take away from seeing your film?
Sir 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 have done it, a very, very clear story, rather melodramatic at times but Shakespeare recorded the tragedy of Richard III. And I hope this film, unlike Laurence Oliver’s movie 50 years ago, will draw attention to the psychology of Richard. Richard 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 Richard. And I don’t think the playwright in Shakespeare, or the actors need to judge him or his behavior.
So I hope they will have a rollicking good time basically, and be excited and perhaps want to see more Shakespeare on the screen than they did on stage. But beware, always check first whether the Shakespeare production is any good, whether it’s onscreen or stage, because there is nothing worse than bad Shakespeare.
Beth Accomando: I know. When I was in – what I always hated was in high school, being introduced to Shakespeare and having some teacher have maybe some kids read it or something and it just – I remember I brought in the Zeffirelli film of Romeo and Juliet to listen to, because my teacher was – had this very monotone delivery, and he would read pages and pages of Shakespeare and his…
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, Shakespeare is undoubtedly very difficult to teach and to act and therefore, for an audience the only need is to appreciate and some of them spend a lifetime puzzling how to do it. It’s always finding a balance between being aware of the beauty and the subtlety and the complications of Shakespeare’s actual writing, the thing that he wrote in verse, and at the same time holding true to his own instruction of a Hamlet to speak the speech, I pay you as I pronounce it to you tripping 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 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 whether I could bring that off in the cinema where, of course, the audience is closer than they ever are in the conventional theater using the camera coming just six feet away from you, picking up every nuance. And it’s interesting that this old war horse of a play, this old melodrama, does bear some examination and if taken seriously, there's a lot of subtlety in it.
Beth Accomando: Now, when you want to cut the text, because it’s been cut quite severely, in fact when I saw the film what struck me is that it moved a lot more like Macbeth did, that very swift kind of progression of taking him from where he was to his rise to power. How difficult was it when you went to cut it? Do you have guidelines that you were going by?
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, one thing that didn't worry me 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, ‘Come 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 seems to have 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, and I was excited by that.
And having played the play 300 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 and I was cutting it for – to make it to our movie, that’s what I – that was the translation I was doing. Not a three-year movie, there would have been no doubt looking at that, not a four-hour movie, because I know nobody would come and see it.
Was I turning it into a ballet or an opera or any of the other translations that have gone out of shape? This was for a two-hour movie and we’ll be kept as much down a two-hour movie we felt we could take. But of course, this is a talkie as well as movie. I mean there are words and if there weren’t, there will be no point in doing it because that’s what Shakespeare hangs his storytelling on, obviously.
Beth Accomando: At the end I was wondering… it seems like it’s a bit of a homage to James Cagney in White Heat. Was that something that was on your mind?
Sir Ian McKellen: You mean with the song that they’re in?
Beth Accomando: The song and the falling, the kind of the gleeful look on your face as you…
Sir Ian McKellen: The end of Richard III is perhaps not as clear cut as it sometimes seems on stage. It’s more ambiguous. I think often at the end of these strategies Shakespeare doesn’t want the audience to feel, Ah, Fortinbras is going to be the perfect man to take over everything that's rotten in the state of Denmark at the end of Hamlet. Young Malcolm is going to solve all the problems of Scotland that Macbeth has left behind. And 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’s 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 did the deed, and then you think, well, we've got a liar as king of England, another liar. And it’s at that point that Al Jolson starts singing "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" because that's how Richmond feels, and as we cut to Richard falling down to hell and the song continues…
[Movie Plays] [00:20:11 - 00:20:21]
Sir Ian McKellen: Then it becomes an ironic comment on Richard, but some people have said to me, I loved the Jolson because it reminded us of how people did think in the 30s, that they were sitting on top of the world and we know how long that lasted. And so the – 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 20th century in your movie, and don’t you in a movie which is excitingly created around Shakespeare's words, 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.
Beth Accomando: Yeah, I thought it was great, but when you played the song at first it is over Richmond, so you can think of him. But when I saw him falling into the flames, Richard falling into the – it was just that image of Cagney from White Heat, who he knew he was going to die, but still was a top of the world man. I’m going to die, but I still had a good time.
Sir Ian McKellen: But of course Richard III is a bit of a gangster, isn't he, as well as a politician, and as well as a son, as well as a dreadful husband, as well as a dreadful uncle, as well as a dreadful brother. There are many aspects to him.
Beth Accomando: Did you have any doubts, or the director have any doubts about casting Americans in with the British actors? Did you ever hesitate about that?
Sir Ian McKellen: No, when we’d originally rehearsed the play just for the London stage and the tour of the world, having put it in the 1930s, we thought what will be a good 30s equivalent for this Queen Elizabeth character and her brother, Earl Rivers, who are social outsiders in Shakespeare’s play. They’re not of the same aristocratic class as everybody else. A good fit, equivalent to 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 I did the screenplay and thought, yes, great, let’s have two American actors speaking with American accents, showing the world that you don’t have to be English to play Shakespeare, and that’s so ridiculous. What I’d done – unwittingly done in my innocence because I’d never written a screenplay before was, I’d written in two fabulous parts, because in Shakespeare… for two Hollywood movie stars and as we got Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr., that meant that their presence in the movie enhanced the attraction of the movie for investment. And so that part, from that point of view, it was absolutely crucial, but it wasn’t the reason we made them American and it was just a happy chance.
Beth Accomando: Yeah, because it did seem to make them – well, for one thing it made it easier I think for people unfamiliar with the play to relate to the two of them together.
Sir Ian McKellen: That’s right.
Beth Accomando: And also I think it did make it seem, especially once the king died, I think you felt that their situation was much more precarious feeling that…
Sir Ian McKellen: Well that’s – thank you, good, I’m glad that suits well, because increasingly Annette Bening’s character is isolated, and initially her husband is – just been made kind of and she is on top of the world. But she knows her husband isn’t well, and she’s worried about that. She brings her brother over from the – from America to support her, and as soon as her husband died then Richard bumps off her brother and she is very much isolated. And then her two little sons are put in prison and then they’re killed in person and all shes got left his daughter, and then Richard comes in and he says that he wants to marry her 15-year old daughter and a wonderful applaud, it’s a great scene I think of the script when Richard makes that bid.
[Movie Plays] [00:24:06 - 00:25:01]
Sir Ian McKellen: And perhaps we shouldn’t tell the audience the outcome, because Queen Elizabeth seems to be ambiguous at the end of the scene. Will she – will she give her young daughter to save her own skin.
Beth Accomando: Well, I think two of the best scenes are actually with the women, Richard wooing, and after he just killed her husband and then the one with Elizabeth also.
Sir Ian McKellen: It’s good isn’t it, that it’s a screenplay with so many wonderful parts for women. I find that touching that the young Shakespeare living in age in where men rule the world although there was a Queen of England, of course. He was as interested in women as in men. And there are these great parts and my God; the actresses had run with him. We asked Kristin Scott Thomas has – solves all the emotional problems in that scene brilliantly.
Beth Accomando: Can you remember what the first Shakespeare play you ever saw was before you began performing?
Sir Ian McKellen: I think it was Twelfth Night or it might have been Macbeth. They were very close together done by an amateur – who is an amateur actress in the north of England when I lived in and I suppose I was about seven or eight and my sister told me the plot, the beginning of the plots, and I don’t know, I was riveted, absolutely riveted. And have been ever since about the idea of people standing upon a platform and speaking other people’s words and weaving some sort of magic out of it.
Beth Accomando: And what was the first Shakespeare you ever performed?
Sir Ian McKellen: It was a little excerpt from Twelfth Night, I played Malvolio and then I did full length Shakespeare at school and it was the first attempt, and I went to University of Cambridge I fell in with a crowd of people that included David Frost and Trevor Nunn, who tried to tape Cats and Les Miserables on my own Macbeth and Ophelia and some. But they were all going to become professionals and so I decided to give it a try and I am still trying.
Beth Accomando: And doing quite a good job.
Sir Ian McKellen: Thank you.
Beth Accomando: What do you think of Oliver’s Richard III? I know it’s probably sacrilegious to say, but I never have liked that version. It just seems like he kind of drained Richard of some of the energy. I mean what did you think of that?
Sir Ian McKellen: Anything I say about that particular work and that particular man must be set in – to the context of my idolizing him and his career, and having known him and indeed worked for him. He is a great standard and model for people of my generation. I think Richard – his Richard III is very much of it’s time. He – it’s perhaps the last great performance in that line of Richard III through the ages of – Richard treated him as a comic, jolly villain, sort of Captain Hook and Peter Pan. You all feel very base that that character on the traditional Richard III, more melodrama than tragedy.
Now, of course, Oliver does it with immense subtlety and wit and he is extremely funny, and engaging, and charismatic, and unlike any other man you’ve met. And he lifts the play I think, out of the reality so that Richard becomes a passionate and glittering monster surrounded by scenery in the movie which is clearly stage scenery, it’s not a real setting. So I think he was thinking back, I’m trying to record his own performance in the stage production and set it in medieval costume, floppy hats and wrinkled ties and hands on hips. You can’t really work out who everybody is in the way it became in our movie, I think. So consequently, the Oliver performance gets even more separate and far from the rest of the play and the rest of the characters and the lines seem to be there just to bolster his performance. Now that’s 50 years ago, another time, another place, another actor; and since then in the theater Richard III has drawn attention as a political story, as a not too deep analysis of a political system, and realizing that Richard could not have made it to the top unless he’d been surrounded by a lot of other greedy people who were also trying to scroll to the top but just didn’t have his resources, willpower, and energy, and some.
And again in the Oliver movie he wasn’t concerned with the – his relationship with his mother. That part really wasn’t in the movie, nor that he did have the – that wonderful scene we were just talking about with Queen Elizabeth – as Queen Elizabeth is a part that’s run down in his movie as well. So although his last half an hour is longer than our version, it’s full of stuff that I don’t think is as good as the stuff I’ve kept in. But there we are it’s not to condemn that movie or to tell people they shouldn’t go and see it. I would love people having seen us to go back and look at the video of Oliver and see, as I know too well, there are many, many, many ways of doing these great parts. And even if you just did the one with stage and exactly the same set and had the same cast, two actors playing Richard III would do it quite differently, and that’s the glory of the classics, is that they constantly can be renewed by those of us who dare to take Shakespeare and turn him into a popular movie. No, the scripts still exist for the next fool to come along with them and do whatever he or she wants to do.
Beth Accomando: Well, I remember one of the favorites – it wasn’t actually a production, it was a recording where Richard – Robert Steffen is doing Richard III.
Sir Ian McKellen: Oh yes.
Beth Accomando: Which was wonderful, I mean he just took such a delight in everything he did.
Sir Ian McKellen: Yes. He had the voice, he really relished the language.
Beth Accomando: How difficult was it to get financing for a film like this? Did you meet with a lot of opposition to bringing Shakespeare to the screen?
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, my financiers were aware that of late there have been a few Shakespeare on the screen that have covered that cost, perhaps not made a spectacular amount of money, but that’s not always necessary, but I’m not a bankable name in international movie circles, and it was constantly persuading people that the movie whoever was in it based on the script that I’d done, based on my knowledge of the play was going to be something that would entertain not just in art, as to movie going audience, but a wider audience than that.
Young people would enjoy it and understand it immediately whether they’ve come across Shakespeare or not before; there would always be that constituency of people who are interested in Shakespeare. I don’t have to tell anyone listening in San Diego that Shakespeare is a popular formal entertainment as it is throughout the world, as he is throughout the world. So there would always be those people who will be intrigued. But I wanted to get beyond them and I – gradually I did convince people, and the people who was easiest to convince first were people who were going to be involved, other actors and the director, Richard Loncraine; they could see it. Fnanciers were a little bit more reluctant to come along then, and now they cannot believe their luck that for so cheaply they’ve got this wonderful movie that the credits are going bananas about so it worked out very well. But it took about three years from the point of which I finished the screenplay to the part of which the film is actually completed.
Beth Accomando: Do you have a particular scene that you enjoyed the most as an actor performing in the film?
Sir Ian McKellen: In Richard III?
Beth Accomando: Yeah.
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, I enjoyed all. I suppose the bits, and it’s not the bits, because it’s most of the part that I enjoyed most is when Richard is lying, because actually that’s very easy to do, because as you set up with the audience that you’re going to lie to the next person you’ll meet – when you go back into the story of the film. Once you’re with the brother, Clarence, and he is going off to the [indiscernible] [00:33:04] of London at your request although he doesn’t know it. To lie and just be charming and loving, all I have to do is look at Nigel Hawthornstyle of madness of King George, and I love him as a brother and the scene works. I don’t have to keep turning into the camera and winking or saying I’m being a bad guy here, because the audience does that work for you. So the audience’s participation in the film, and knowing that I’m being so duplicitous with my nose [indiscernible] [00:33:35] within the story; always knowing that the camera and the cinema audience want me to succeed because they know what I’m doing. It’s made acting for the camera seem a less lonely business than it sometimes feel. When you’re just stuck within your character and that’s all you have to do, I was always aware there was an audience because it’s that your, my theater treading I suppose.
Beth Accomando: Now, how difficult is it as an actor to do those asides to the camera, where you’re playing in the scene and you suddenly do the little turn to the camera?
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, it’s quite easy technically to do. You just turn to the camera and think of it as a person, just one person. You don’t think about millions out there who’re there. Of course, direct address as we call it in the theater, is very simple to walk out onto a stage and say [indiscernible] [00:34:27] discontent. There are so many conventions that can be used in the theater that’s – that odd one of someone who is clearly a character talking to the audience as if he’s just walked off a street. The audiences accept that and then join indeed, and Shakespeare depends on it very heavily and many of us players.
When you come to translate Shakespeare to the television screen, well, that’s easy too. We all understand talking and where we’re always being talked through the camera into the screen and into our living room. But on the big screen with the digital sound and the music going and all the sound effects, when a character turns on the big screen and looks at us I wonder whether we actually believe it. I mean, isn’t the problem with that we’re reminded that actually this is a film that was made some months ago and that the actor who’s trying to be intimate with his talking directly to us is type of embedded across the world somewhere? But I couldn’t see an alternative, and having looked at other Shakespeare films that hadn’t used, taken advantage of the device, Oliver doesn’t talk to the camera in his Hamlet, Brianna didn’t talk to the camera in Much Ado About Nothing and about – I thought both performances lost because of it. I thought it was worth risking and going out. And it’s very satisfying when I see the film with the audience now to hear and relish the way which they’re picking up those little moments of intimacy…
Beth Accomando: Oh, the audience loves it. Every time you turn to the camera there was a huge response. What do you see are the differences between doing Shakespeare on stage and in film, and what do you appreciate about the differences in those media?
Sir Ian McKellen: Shakespeare wrote the plays for the stage, there is no doubt. And – but not our modern sort of stage, there is no such thing as an authentic Shakespeare production now. Well, an authentic Shakespeare production wouldn’t have any actresses in it because he doesn’t use them. It will be in the open air, there will be no scenery. It wouldn’t be a sort of theater that we would necessarily enjoy too much. So every time you do a Shakespeare play, you are doing it for the particular situation that you’re in, is it a small theater, is it a large theater, is it a small cast, are we going to be playing a lot of part, are we going to make our entrances through the audience, are we going to have scenery, and is it going to be a touring production. All these things affect the way you present the story. So it’s quite different to the discipline that I’m used to, to say right when I’m going to do these words for the camera, and we’ll do it in the studio and then we’ll do it in vacation in London, and we’ll visit all these places and take the cinema audience with us.
As long as you understand the media of film like Richard Loncraine does, we just say to ourselves we’re making a two-hour movie just as we might say, we’re doing Richard III in this small underground cellar. And so it’s just a matter of translation and…
Beth Accomando: But in film you do have opportunities to – if you do want to do a scene change you don’t have to physically move the scenery off the stage or…
Sir Ian McKellen: That’s right.
Beth Accomando: Or if you want to do a very small gesture or steer your attention to a different part…
Sir Ian McKellen: Absolutely. Those are the things you can do. But also it is amazing even on the very big widescreen that we have for Richard III have – there is so much to see and that the audience still has to work. It isn’t all presented, not everything is in – and the camera doesn’t zoom in and say look at this. It does invite you to use your imagination and to keep your wits about you. And if you do, of course you won’t miss – you will see all sorts of little beauties that, just on one viewing you might miss that little scar on Maggie Smith’s face, just in the corner of the screen as Robert Downey, Jr. dumps some presents.
Beth Accomando: Oh, the packages?
Sir Ian McKellen: Yeah. You didn’t pick that.
Beth Accomando: Yeah.
Sir Ian McKellen: There are all sorts of little things like that [indiscernible] [00:38:37] and it is very intriguing for an actor who spent a lot of his time spouting Shakespeare, because I’ve worked in very big theaters where you have to do that and wave your arms around to get the message over to the people sitting in the back of the gallery. And I think everyone who’s paid their money deserves the performance. Well, now in the cinema that really isn’t the case, it’s quite different. Everything is picked up, it’s very close and your main responsibility is to just exist and be the character and not stop projecting it and that’s a very interesting discipline for me and I’d like to do more of it.
Beth Accomando: Do you have a preference for doing it on stage or on film or would you like to continue doing it in both?
Sir Ian McKellen: No, I think in the end when it comes to Shakespeare I don’t think all of his plays are necessarily suitable for filming. And the later we get in his career when you got to the great poetic plays like Macbeth for instance, and King Lear, and Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra and Ophelia. These are complicated structures, and if you start removing a little speech here, or the outline there, the whole fabric can begin to implode and you think, well, why are we bothering doing it? Richard III is different. It’s a young man’s play. It’s exuberant. It’s [indiscernible] [00:39:57] written at times. There is a lot of repetition in it. You can really take a lot of it out and still leave not just the skeleton of the structure, but quite a lot of meat on it and it’s a relatively easy job. But if I’m going to do, let’s say, Macbeth once more I think it will be the theater I’d like to do it and go into the problems of making that text theatrically exciting.
Beth Accomando: That’s always [overlapping conversation] [00:40:30].
Sir Ian McKellen: I have done it on screen, at show, on video screen…
Beth Accomando: In both?
Sir Ian McKellen: In Trevor Nunn’s production. If anyone is interested they should root it out, because it is terrifying as long as you don’t play it on your own with the drapes close to it.
Beth Accomando: Well, that’s always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.
Sir Ian McKellen: Yes, I love it too.
Beth Accomando: I was also interested in – I don’t know if you had anything to do with it, but the – it seems like the use of sound was very good in the film and sometimes little things, I think it was the scene at the train station when just as you’re puffing on the cigarette, it’s like the steam from the train also lets out at the same time. How much of a role did you play in some of the – those kind of decisions?
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, it’s been one crash course and you have to make movies for me. And Richard Loncraine, the director who is extremely suspicious of Shakespeare, as many people quite rightly are, because they’ve seen too much bad Shakespeare in the theater and on screen and been talked badly, was always pulling as we were preparing the production to – saying we’re making a movie here and we’re making a movie there. And I was always saying to him, yes, please make a movie, please make a movie. But wait a minute here, I think Shakespeare can help you here, everything that springs out of Shakespeare. So I was allowed to be on the whole planning of the way the movie would look. I was involved with the casting of it and the actual filming of it. I was able to make suggestions when it was being kept together and, yes, the sound was of great interest to me, because it is a talkie and I do want the audience to listen.
And the opening 10 minutes gradually leads them into the idea that they’re going to be invited to listen eventually as we get the exposition of the events which lead out to the beginning of our story. We see the end of the Civil War. It begins very quietly, no words are spoken. Type of a Morse code, it’s the whine of a dog, it’s the scrape of a knife and fork, and a plate is Richard’s first victim at his last supper. And then the dog stops barking and then comes Richard III riding on a tank. The dogs bark at me as I pass by them. I mean that was the reason they’re not directly into the text although that’s why that happened. And then the sound continues in here, Richard’s heavy breathing through the gasmask he is wearing, and I’m breathing in the rhythm of blank verse [indiscernible] [00:43:09] and then I shoot my second victim and the movies starts.
And then you see Richard go across the screen R-I-C-H-A-R-D I-I-I and that’s the first word that has an impact, and it’s the word that Shakespeare gave us the title. Then we hear some music and then there is a song. Oh, so those are the first words, yes, the song and the song is written unfortunately not by Shakespeare. I went right through the canon; I couldn’t find anything that I really approved off. So it’s “Come and live with me and be my love”, words by Christopher Marlowe, but when they were first published actually were published under Shakespeare’s name. And did you notice the big band playing behind; it was William Shakespeare’s Band, [indiscernible] [00:43:54] into the band stands, WS Band. And then you see the dance, you see the crowd celebrating, and then Richard is the command – the successful commander in chief ,steps up on to the platform and the singing goes. And through a microphone we hear the first public words “Now is the winter of our discontent”. And I hope the audience by that time wants somebody to be speaking, as pleased as if they know the play to realize, ah, it is the first words of the play. And for those who don’t know the play because of the prologue and the lead up to it, they can actually understand what Richard is talking about and what events he’s referring to, and that really kick starts the play and – oh no, this kick starts the film in a way that the play often doesn’t do. It takes a long time for people to get into Richard III on stage, but in this movie we’re – they’ll learn right from the word Go, hopefully.
Beth Accomando: Do you have any plans to do any other Shakespeare on film?
Sir Ian McKellen: I don’t have plans and I have thoughts and I’ve looked at a couple of texts, but as I was saying to you earlier, it isn’t as easy with other players as it was with Richard III. I don’t think they all lend themselves to what we did in this particular case, but who knows. I think actually having spent three years setting this up and doing it I’d like to do more films if there is an actor. And I hope probably to be getting back to the theater, because I’ve not been on the stage or not been in a play enough since Richard III stage production closed at UCLA three years ago.
Beth Accomando: Do you feel the need to go back to the theaters [inaudible] [00:45:43]?
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, it’s what I do best I suppose or where I feel most at home, but it has been exciting doing a bit of venturing and going and getting into movies. I hoped… and one of my motives for doing this film and providing myself with the best – one of the best parts ever written was the hope that I would then go on to do more movies. I mean, I – it’s with some slight envy then to look at Tony Hopkins career when I say when Tony can do theater and the film if he wants ,and I would like to be in a similar position. But – so what it will be next, I don’t know, but I certainly won’t be producing a movie.
Beth Accomando: Well, Hollywood will probably offer you some more villains to play.
Sir Ian McKellen: That’s the most likely thing, isn’t it? Yes, certainly he didn’t [indiscernible] [00:46:37], I don’t know. It’s a bit annoying that the English accent these days is always thought to be a sign of villainy and I’ve not helped myself by playing Richard III. But perhaps people who’ve seen it, they realize that, like I do, quite like doing comedy and I don’t always have to look like myself. I can go into some sort of disguise and there are parts I could play.
Beth Accomando: One last question, and one of my favorite scenes I think was also when you’re – just before they ask you to become king and you’re in front of the mirror and they give you the “prayer book”. To me that seems very much Richard, the actor, they are preparing for the scene. Did you play him? I mean did you really consciously go into it thinking I want to play at the – his enjoyment of acting and creating these different phases?
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, it’s certainly an obsession of Shakespeare that ‘All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players’. And as so often his villains are wonderful actors. How often is it that someone in public life has died and only later that we realize that that public image was absolutely nothing like the real person [indiscernible] [00:48:01] elements in it, there were contrary to the public perception, and of course that’s the picture in Richard’s case. And yes, the scene where he accepts the invitation to become a king, just as Adolf Hitler made sure that he was voted into power as Chancellor of Germany. I think Hitler based his career a little bit on Richard III. It was an opportunity to see Richard backstage and we changed the occasion from the one that Shakespeare probably would have expected for a stage production. And Richard is waiting to appear to greet the political rally, and so it’s appropriate that there might be a makeup artist on hand to just check that dreadful appearance, and trying to push him back into shape and make him look presentable at least from a distance, put a bit of powder on his nose. And yes, he is getting ready to give a performance. So, these are just little references to the idea of his being an actor, which are truly Shakespeare, although presented in a quite modern way.
Beth Accomando: Okay. Well, I think they’re going to need you to move on to your next…
Sir Ian McKellen: Okay.
Beth Accomando: Yeah, which is at 10 – I mean 9:45, so I’ll let you go and thank you very much.
Sir Ian McKellen: In come all your audio bullets.
Beth Accomando: I don’t know, I think so.
Sir Ian McKellen: Well, thanks.
Beth Accomando: Thanks so much.
Sir Ian McKellen: Thanks for doing your homework.
Beth Accomando: Thanks for listening to the Cinema Junkie Podcast. I’m Beth Accomando. I’ve more than 20 years of interview archives with the likes of Clive Barker, David Cronenberg, Guillermo del Toro, John Woo, Jackie Chan and more. And I will be pulling more of these out of the archives for future Cinema Junkie Podcast. So if you enjoyed my interview with Sir Ian McKellen, please subscribe to the Cinema Junkie Podcast on iTunes and make sure you give us a rating.
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place