Over the course of his 50-year-long television and film career, two-time Academy Award nominee Sir Ian McKellen has taken on a handful of iconic characters and molded them into his own in a way very few actors can do with as much consistency and class. From Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield to Shakespearian principal roles like Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III and King Lear to larger-than-life characters including Adolph Hilter (1989’s Countdown to War), film director James Whale (1998’s Gods and Monsters), and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit franchises, it’s hard to imagine McKellen shying away from any challenge as an actor.
At 76, McKellen continues to impressively tackle these significant roles and seems to be getting better with age. In “Mr. Holmes,” which is adapted from Mitch Cullin’s 2005 book “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” McKellen portrays a retired Sherlock Holmes, the fictional London-based detective made famous by the novels and short stories written by Scottish author and physician Sir Author Conan Doyle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this most recent version of the character, Holmes, at the age of 93, looks back on his career and reminisces about his last unsolved case.
During a short telephone interview with me, McKellen discussed his own thoughts about retirement and how the strength of a film’s script indicates whether or not he will accept a role in a movie. We also talked about other recent Holmes portrayals and how his would stack up in both case solving and combat.
Has playing the role of a 93-year-old, retired Sherlock Holmes made you ponder about what you’d like to do yourself when you hang it up as an actor at the age of 93?
(Laughs) Well, acting is a great job because you don’t have to retire. There are always old roles needed, but they’re not often as good as this one. I did take some time out about five or six years ago to wind down. I stopped acting and thought I’d get on with life. (Laughs) But I found out that life wasn’t as interesting as acting. I don’t take every job that I’m offered, of course, but if it’s a really fantastic script like this one was, then I might.
If your Sherlock Holmes character and the versions played by Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch went out together to investigate the same case, who do you think would solve it first? I have to say, I’d put my money on you.
Absolutely, absolutely. They’re dear boys, but they don’t know the half of it. (Laughs) The conceit of this film is that Sherlock Holmes is a real person. There is no fantasy about it. I’m playing what it would be like to be that man with the overdeveloped ego and overdeveloped brain. He discovers over the course of this movie as he looks back to solve the last case that he actually has a heart. There was love there and he missed it. It really is about regret. But something considerable that he learns is that it’s never too late. You can always learn something new about yourself.
Along with solving a case before Downey Jr. and Cumberbatch, could I also count on you to be victorious in a fistfight?
Oh, I think so, absolutely! But I am the most peaceable man possible. I used to get out of boxing when I was a kid in school. I had a bad ear is what I used to say. I can’t bear seeing people getting hit. But, in metaphorical sense, I think I would [win]. (Laughs)
Was everything you needed to portray Sherlock Holmes in the pages of the book “A Slight Trick of the Mind” or did you have room to add some of your own personality and characteristics?
Well, when the script is as good as this one and is based on a novel that is as good as [“A Slight Trick of the Mind”], it doesn’t really need an actor to come along and say, “Oh, I can give this something different.” They probably already thought about it and decided not to include certain nuggets of information the actor might come up with. It was the same with “The Lord of the Rings.” What the actor brings is an embodiment of the character. He gives him a face, a voice, a walk, a look, a mind. The basis for all that is the script. You can’t make a good movie unless you have a good script.