Sir Ian McKellen isn’t interested in telling you what King Lear is about.
The 79-year-old actor, who is currently portraying William Shakespeare’s titular aging tyrant at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London’s West End, says his favorite part of doing theater is feeding off a live audience. “What happens in the theater is you sit there, and you’re not sitting back, you’re leaning forward,” he tells EW. “You become part of it, and the part you’re playing is to make sense of it all as much as you want to.”
That’s partly why McKellen, best known for his work in blockbuster franchises like X-Men and Lord of the Rings, decided to return to the role nearly a decade after he first tackled the part in a world tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company. This time, the production isn’t traveling, but viewers everywhere will still get a chance to see it thanks to the National Theatre Live broadcast of the play.
Ahead of the Sept. 27 broadcast to U.S. cinemas, EW caught up with McKellen, reaching him in his dressing room at the Duke of York’s Theatre as he prepared for his evening performance. The celebrated actor discussed everything from how the live broadcast impacts his approach to his “offhand” remarks that Lear would be his last Shakespeare role.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You played Lear already around a decade ago. Why did you want to return to it?
IAN MCKELLEN: This production is a reaction to that. I had such a miserable time — shouting my way, trying to tell the story to people who seem so far away, that I hoped one day I might be able to do it in a smaller theater. That’s what happened on this occasion. We play it to an audience that’s all very close to the stage, and it transforms the experience for me. Probably for them really [as well]. We can hit a conversational tone which is very good for the story.
King Lear is about the slow decline of its central character, which requires the actor to grapple with realities of aging. Returning to the role 10 years on, how has that passage of time changed your approach or understanding of the character?
When you’re 79, which I am, and you’re with other people of my age, you find yourself talking about death quite a lot because your friends are dying and you have intimations of mortality. One of the first things that King Lear says is that unburdened, he’s going to crawl towards death — well, it’s a sort of joke, but I know what he means. King Lear is an old man. It’s very much the center of his situation and his problems are that he’s old. People never stop telling him he’s old. He tells them too. But it wasn’t for that reason I wanted to come back to it. I wanted to find a way of speaking the language, not as if it had been written more recently than the 17th century, but I wanted to be able to believe in the situation that the words were describing.
I can’t tell you what King Lear’s about. This production is not one of those that tells you. It’s not a running commentary on the play. It is the play. All we do is tell the story as clearly as possible, with as much appropriate passion and feeling. The audience will then tell us what it’s about. Some people say it’s all about Donald Trump — well, he was never even mentioned in rehearsal, but he’s on people’s minds and when they see a story about a very powerful man who goes a bit crazy, then, of course, it stirs them up. Other people tell me the play’s all about their grandfather. I think it’s about me. There we go. It’s not one of those productions which limit the play and says it is this. Cinema is a very literal medium, but theater is not. Theater is for the imagination, and playing to a small audience helps me approach the play in that way. So that was my reason for coming back to it, rather than I thought, “Oh I know more about life, and therefore I know more about how to play King Lear.”
Speaking of cinema, you’re about to do the National Theatre Live broadcast of the play. Do you feel you have to adjust your performance for the cameras in any way?
No, we try not to let it. You can’t see the cameras. They’re very small and discreet. The instruction is that we just do the performance for the audience who is there, and this will be replicated through the cameras to audiences elsewhere. The spirit of this production will be rather good for that because it’s very clear and the cameras will be able to express that and not get in the way. It’s not a piece of cinema. It’s on a cinema screen, but it’s a broadcast. It hopefully has an immediacy which film doesn’t have.
You told the BBC this would be your final Shakespeare play — why no more and why close with this?
That’s not a decision I’ve made, it’s just a guess. Who knows? It was an offhand remark that’s been made out that this is my farewell tour. I think it will be safe to say this will be the last time I play King Lear. But who knows? There are some nice old men in Shakespeare that it’d be fun to do in certain circumstances, but I’ll just keep going until I drop. Until I suppose the legs give way or the mind stops. And if I find myself doing Shakespeare again, I wouldn’t be at all surprised, but I don’t have a bucket list of things that I’ve wanted to do, so for me to say I’m not going to do it is silly really.
Rather fittingly, this live broadcast airs in the U.S. the day before another version of King Lear with Anthony Hopkins hits Amazon — have you seen it? Did the two of you ever discuss the role at all?
Oh, really?! Well, it’s too much of a good thing. I haven’t seen it deliberately because I didn’t want to get too distracted, but Tony and I did The Dresser together. [It’s a] play about an old actor whose preparing for a performance of King Lear. I played the dresser. We filmed a bit of Tony in a big theater in London doing King Lear. I got my friends to come along and see him. “You can come and see Anthony Hopkins on stage again!” He got so excited by that that he thought he’d have a go, but alas he didn’t do it onstage. But I’m sure he’s wonderful, and when mine’s over, I shall certainly go and have a look at it.
It feels to me that King Lear has received more notable staging in the 21st century than any other Shakespeare play. Do you think the play speaks to our times in a way others don’t?
I don’t know. I think probably you’re going to get an actor who knows what he’s doing if he’s old enough to play King Lear, and probably that’s the attraction for most people. “Let’s have a look at what he’s going to do with it,” as it were. There are so many elements to a story. It’s as much about young people as it is about old people. It’s about families, it’s about family break-ups, it’s about people being horrible to each other. That’s just sort of eternal, isn’t it? I don’t know that it’s got a particular resonance. But most of us who’ve been in King Lear find it hard to think of another play which is as powerful, and that’s why good actors like to get involved in it, and that appeals to audiences. I think that’s more the reason really, but I don’t know.
Lear is one of Shakespeare’s bleakest plays and fairly nihilistic in its themes. How do you shake that off at the end of the night? Is it something that seeps in and effects your day-to-day?
No, no. I’m aware of the performance I’ve just given, and I’m aware I’m going to have to give it again in 24 hours, but that’s just the effort that will be involved. No, I don’t find myself behaving like King Lear because I’m playing him. No, I can leave him in the dressing room.
What do you want to do next — any great stage roles you’re still dying to conquer?
No. No, as I said, I’ve never had a list of things that I want to do. I think if I got an ambition left, it’s one I’ve long had, which is to be on stage. A few years ago, I thought I might retire a bit. I do take time off, but whilst everything’s functioning I want to do more theater because there will come a time soon when I can’t. The next thing I’m going to do is be in the musical of Cats, so I’m open to all sorts of experiences, not just theater. So all I can promise is I will be carrying on until I can’t.
Can you tell me more about Cats and when you start filming/what you’ll be doing?
I’m playing Gus the theater cat, and he has a song, and I’m learning how to sing and move in a feline way. I shall be doing that in December and January. It’s all being filmed in London.