The actor, twice nominated for Gods and Monsters and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, has yet to win a golden statuette, despite amassing countless other accolades over the course of his 50-year career.
The 76-year-old is currently on the campaign trail for Mr Holmes, a film that reunites the actor with his Gods and Monsters writer/director, Bill Condon. McKellen stars as an ageing incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, reflecting on his career and mortality. For McKellen, it marks his first major on-screen lead role since The Lord of the Rings made the actor a household name.
McKellen has taken to the awards game with evident gusto. On Saturday, he worked the room of Academy voters at the annual Governors Ball, where he sat with Condon, and his co-star in the film, Laura Linney. The morning after the awards, he was feted at a brunch hosted by the British consul general, attended by Kathy Bates and McKellen’s friend Patrick Stewart. Tuesday saw him take part in a moderated discussion with director Guillermo del Toro, who was initially supposed to direct The Hobbit films, before Peter Jackson came back on board. And lastly, on Thursday, McKellen performed a monologue about his favourite female co-stars, for a room full of Academy members.
The hour-long presentation was first performed at the Mill Valley Film Festival last month, where McKellen was awarded with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He said on Thursday night at the Beverly Hills Fine Arts Theatre to the sold out audience, that the monologue was born out of the festival’s theme of honouring women in film. Over the course of his prolific career, the actor has worked alongside some of cinema’s greatest women, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Ava Gardner and Meryl Streep. Here are the top takeaways from the evening:
Meryl Streep is good at gossip
McKellen fondly recalled working with Streep on the 1985 film Plenty, written by and based on the play by acclaimed playwright, David Hare. “We swapped clothes, Meryl and I,” McKellen joked, showing the audience a photo of him donning a hat Streep wore in one of their scenes together.
Of Streep, McKellen said she’s “capable of gossiping right up until action - then Meryl vanishes, and the character arrives”.
“I asked her if she would come do a play, and I could be in it,” he said. “‘Yes, of course, I’d love to do a play,’ she said. ‘But at the moment, I’m getting a lot of film work. Of course it’s going to dry up, then I’ll come do a play.’ That was 1985 - I’m still waiting.”
McKellen is a pro at the missionary position
A few years following Plenty, McKellen disclosed his sexuality publicly.
“When I came out as a gay man, it was expected by some gay activists that my whole attitude to life would change, and I’d become a queer artists and only do things with gay themes,” McKellen recalled. “I said: ‘No, no.’ Heterosexuality is far too interesting a phenomenon to be ignored - and it would cut me off plays like Macbeth, Richard III and King Lear.”
His first job after coming out was a role in the film Scandal, a 1989 thriller. The film opens with McKellen bedding actor Joanne Whalley.
“Not having enough experience, or indeed any experience in the sort of sex that was required in this film, I consulted my friend who actually drew some little matchstick figures of what goes on,” McKellen said laughing. “I very quickly became an expert in the missionary position.”
McKellen defied Donald Sutherland’s smoking ban on the set of Six Degrees of Separation
Of actor Stockard Channing, whom he worked with on the film adaptation of the acclaimed play, Six Degrees of Separation, McKellen said: “Stockard is what Tallulah Bankhead must have been like: wonderful, idiosyncratic voice and a wry sense of humour, with inner strength and swagger. I adore her.”
“The big guy in the movie was not me or Will Smith, but Donald Sutherland, for whom I have a huge admiration for,” he continued. “He has in his contract - when in the day it would have been thought rather outrageous - that no actor or anybody working on a film that he was in, was allowed to smoke. Well, Stockard and I both liked the odd cigarette, so we used to go into the bathroom of her dressing room and have a little elusive cigarette which we shared.”
McKellen doesn’t know how Judi Dench does it
“The work I’m most proud of was with Judi - on stage, not on film,” said McKellen, fondly recalling their work together on a stage production of Macbeth in “a small theater on Stratford Upon Avon.” “If you want to know what Lady Macbeth is all about, just find that,” he said of her performance. “She gave an absolutely startling performance.”
“There’s nothing scary about acting with her,” he continued. “She likes a joke as much as anything else. It’s a little unnerving to work with because she doesn’t read the script until the read through with the other actors. She just accepts from the director’s promise that it’s something she might want to do. You start working with Judi at a disadvatage cause she doesn’t quite know whats going on. But three days later, Judi leaves and the character arrives.
“I don’t know how she does it - and I don’t think she does. It’s magic, and she is magic.”
Ditto Maggie Smith
“She repels praise and attention with the odd cutting remark,” McKellen said of Smith.
To prove his point, McKellen recalled the time he attended the Oscars with his Lord of the Rings crew. “I was wearing what I’m wearing now: this green pounamu stone from New Zealand, which brings good luck. That’s why I wear it. Maggie asked: ‘What’s that around your neck?’ I told her it was a pounamu stone. She said: ‘Very good luck with your pounamu.’ At the end, everyone apart from me had won an Oscar. I bumped into Maggie, and she said: ‘Didn’t work, did it?’”
Smith played McKellen’s onscreen mother in Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film adaptation of Richard III.
“Maggie delivered a speech so brilliantly done we almost applauded on the first take,” McKellen recalled of shooting with her. “Richard asked to do it one more time. ‘Why?,’ she said. On the second take, she pretended to slip. On the third take, she pretended to forget her lines. She did this about six times and Richard eventually gave up and said: ‘Alright Maggie, we’ll use the first take!’”
He and Halle Berry are like brother and sister
“X-Men was a gay man’s delight, because it was full of the most amazing divas,” McKellen said of the franchise, in which he played the villainous mutant Magneto, before Michael Fassbender went on to assume the role.
Of the large cast whom he worked with on the films, McKellen said he bonded closest with Halle Berry, who played Storm. “I never saw Halle in between movies, but we caught up each time as if we were brother and sister,” McKellen said. “All sorts of confessions were made on either side. We became chums.”
McKellen feels coming out has helped Ellen Page find her voice – on screen as well as off
Page appeared in McKellen’s third X-Men film, X-Men: The Last Stand, as a fellow mutant. “The thing about Ellen was that she spoke very quietly,” McKellen recalled. “Now I know that’s the fashion in movies today - there’s far too much whispering going on in films. Ellen was speaking very quietly for the benefit of the camera. I thought: ‘This girl’s nervous! If she was a bit more confident, she’d be speaking a bit louder maybe.’
“Lo and behold she comes out as gay woman, and my God has she found her voice. Good on you, Ellen. From afar now, I admire her. Wherever she is, she’s got my congratulations and love.”
McKellen was as baffled by The Da Vinci Code as the rest of us
“We clung to each other,” McKellen said of working with French actor Audrey Tautou on Ron Howard’s blockbuster film adaptation of the bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code. “Not because we were avoiding anybody on that set - Tom Hanks was terribly friendly and very helpful to us all - but we did get together and confided to each other that we couldn’t understand a word of the plot. That was our little secret.”
This article was written by Nigel M Smith in Los Angeles, for theguardian.com on Saturday 21st November 2015 11.05 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010