I took myself out yesterday, on an Artist Date. These solo excursions are for the purpose of engaging my artistic side by doing something I really enjoy. The ultimate outcome, no matter what I choose to do, is that I return home inspired.
The choice for my outing was an easy decision. I caught a matinee showing at the indie theater, Bookhouse Cinema, of a documentary featuring one of England’s greatest actors.
McKellen Playing the Part is a biographical documentary presented by director Joe A. Stephenson. Featuring footage of Sir Ian McKellen during a 14 hour interview, the documentary includes candid photos, film and stage clips, and dramatizations, weaving together an intimate look at the iconic actor’s life from childhood until the present day. Young Ian is portrayed by Milo Parker, while Scott Chambers plays the part of the actor as a young adult.
The film is unrated, and has a run time of 1 hour and 32 minutes.
Beginning with his childhood, we see Ian as the younger child in his family, with an older sister, a mother who was a teacher and a father who was a lay minister. As a boy Ian had no interest in sports. His imagination was fired up by attending plays with his mother. In school he began by performing bit parts in productions and on the weekends he attended the theater, where he was allowed to interact with the performers backstage.
He recognized at an early age that all humans are playing parts that shift and change, depending on the role they must present to the world. He understood too the complex relationship between the actor on the stage and the people in the audience. After a long work day, the audience arrived with low energy, ready to be entertained but also re-energized. Ian saw that the actors conserved their energy all day so that during the evening performance they had the ability to project powerfully into the audience.
Moving on from dressing up as characters at home to entertain his family, young Ian began his rise to stardom, gaining admittance to Cambridge by delivering a stirring speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V. He quickly moved through part after part, in performance after performance, working through repertory and West End theatre and becoming a pioneering stage star. His first glowing review in a national publication confirmed the absolute rightness of the journey he had set out upon…acting was his passion and his gift to the world.
Taking on Shakespearean roles primarily, Ian made a name for himself. A young Maggie Smith recommended him for the prestigious Vic Theater, however Ian chose an independent theater to invest himself in, working with other upcoming actors such as Judy Dench. By the 1970s he was performing in two productions simultaneously, Edward II and Richard II. Broadway in NYC called to him.
During the 1980s McKellen came out as gay and worked as a leader in campaigns for equality. He speaks candidly and openly, during the film, about his sexuality, which was something he hid until he was nearly 50 years old. Suppressing who he was affected his relationship with his father to a certain extent, but it seemed to fuel his acting career. Playing a part, he could step completely into that role and pour his heart into it.
In mid life he moved into films, with a variety of parts and mainstream breakouts as Magneto in the X-Men series and the wizard Gandalf in six Middle Earth movies. However, theater always was, and always will be, his passion. Even at the respectable age of 79, McKellen is still delivering amazing stage performances, playing King Lear this summer at the Duke of York’s Theater in London’s West End.
I very much enjoyed this charming documentary. Close up camera work during the interview portions, capturing Ian’s rugged and still handsome face as he laughed, or grew thoughtful, or chewed on his lip, made me feel like I was right there beside him, listening to his stories.
I respect and admire this actor. My heart ached for him, and tears stung my eyes more than once, as I realized that he has lived a fairly solitary life, devoted to his craft. For sure, his has been a life well lived…and he has poured it into acting, into playing parts. When he’s not on the stage or in front of a camera, Ian visits school classrooms and talks to children about acting, about being their authentic selves, and about pursuing whatever fires up their imaginations. He loves to share a quote with them, from Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, in the form of a joke.
Ian to the kids: Do you know what will happen if you do not study? Dramatic pause and then, in Gandalf’s powerful voice…You shall not pass!!
During the credits, outtakes from the film were played. In one Ian McKellen, winner of many awards over a lifetime of playing parts, was asked what he would say to his younger self. He crinkled up his bright blue-green eyes and thought for a moment.
“Id say to myself as a young man, You were attractive…you were an attractive man.”
He laughs a bit self consciously over his answer and then adds wistfully, “I didn’t know that I was. I never saw that I was attractive.”
He was. He still is. I cried over his answer.