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The first thing you notice about Ian McKellen is that he has noticed you first. Aware of his surroundings, making sure he knows what’s going on and who is saying what, he is both charismatic and intimidating. The usual attempts at charm don’t work on this man. “Hmmm” is a favourite word, and yet he exudes warmth, and, characteristic of many great actors, lights up the room when he smiles. Here, he talks with Another Man and our cover star Ben Whishaw about acting, American accents and pleasing Daddy.
Ben Whishaw: My earliest memory of being aware of acting was watching Oliver the musical when I was about five. I started to act out little scenes from it. I always loved dressing up and stealing people’s clothes, from about the age of five or six... Ian McKellen: And can you analyse why? Didn’t you like the clothes you were given or did you like disguising yourself perhaps? Or did you want to feel independent? BW: No, it was just about living in a little imaginary world of my own. IM: Escaping into a private world. Is it perhaps still what keeps you at it? BW: I think it probably is. IM: In my case, my very earliest attitude to acting is the same as it is today. How is it done? I want to go backstage, I want to see how it’s done. How did they get it together? I’d sooner be in a rehearsal room than in a theatre as the audience. I’d much rather be in the wings. I’ve just been trying to work out why I became an actor. It seems to me that there was a series of moments in my life which just, clinched it. The odd remark from a teacher. ‘That was really good Ian,’ fatal, you know? Because she couldn’t have known. But that was it! Whose approval did you seek when you were acting, performing, as a kid? BW: I think the people I was performing for. The audience. I remember doing impressions, I’m hopeless at them now, but for some reason I enjoyed it when I was eight or so. I used to impersonate Michael Jackson and people off the telly. I remember wanting to make people laugh, that was really important to me. IM: And that felt good. BW: I guess I didn’t completely fit in at school and that was my way of being accepted. IM: Exactly the same for me. Was it also about wanting your parents to like you? BW: Yeah, but I don’t think that’s why I do it. I’ve always felt that they would love whatever I did. IM: Ah. My parents, they just liked the theatre, so they didn’t find it odd that I did too. When I said I was going to do it professionally they said, ‘Give it two years, we’ll give it two years.’ BW: You went to university, rather than a drama school, is that correct? IM: Yes, I was very, very lucky, and I got into Cambridge. Very, very lucky because it was a hotbed of amateur, undergraduate acting – well it was semi-professional, because Peter Cook and David Frost were already working in the West End. And Trevor Nunn was there too, he was going into the theatre, and Corin Redgrave, whose father was a famous actor. The critics used to come down and review us. So we were almost, it was almost like drama school. And it was when I was given a fantastic review in a paper that I suddenly thought, ‘Oh, perhaps I am good enough to be an actor.’ But I think if I hadn’t been successful, I think I would have been quite happy going through life as an amateur.
Because amateurs get to play – if they’re any good – all of the parts. Another Man: When Trevor Nunn told his parents he wanted to act, his parents laughed at him. IM: Well, they were right to. (Laughter from all.) AM: We’ll edit that bit out. IM: No, I don’t mind. Trevor arrived at Cambridge with his little mop of Beatles hair, before the Beatles actually. He was quite avant-garde. And he’d done two things since he’d arrived there. He directed Hamlet, and he had a skiffle group. Do you know what skiffle is? You play on improvised instruments. BW: Right. IM: A band, a boy band – well he’s been doing that ever since. Directing and music, that’s what his life is. Performing is nothing, is not part of his life. He was always the organiser. BW: What is it with you and Trevor? I mean obviously you have a friendship that goes back a long way. IM: Well, we’ve got an odd relationship, we’re sort of like brothers. He can analyse Shakespeare’s text and he doesn’t really tell you what you should do. BW: Yeah, I found that as well. IM: He opens it up. BW: Yes that’s true. When I started out, I was juggling acting with my school work. And then I finished my A-levels and I kind of thought I would just carry on acting, that roles would keep on coming in. And of course, the minute I finished school and sat waiting for the phone to ring, it never did. And I really thought that I wouldn’t have to train. I thought if I did I’d lose something. IM: So, you went to the right drama school from that point of view. Other ones would’ve stripped you down and built you up again. But RADA doesn’t do that. BW: But RADA does it too, just in quite a gentle way. I think what’s good about it is that you’re able to form your own approach. Nothing’s forced down your throat. No methods are forced on you. I had an amazing teacher there. I have a notebook I kept at the time which is just pages and pages – I scribbled down everything he said. I felt sometimes slightly burdened by the place’s past. And we seemed to spend a lot of time doing sword fighting, to the exclusion of all else sometimes. IM: Well, it’s useful for a Hamlet-to-be. BW: Well, yeah. IM: Do you think they should teach more about acting for the camera? BW: Yes, I really do. Definitely. I think it’s looked down upon as if it’s something inferior. IM: Well that’s ridiculous, isn’t it? I have a dreadful theory that if drama schools didn’t concentrate so much on theatre, there wouldn’t be a constant supply of actors who wanted to work on the stage. Because they would all want to work in television and film, the theatre would just die overnight. BW: I don’t think I, or very rarely now – you must find this as well – but I don’t get lost in a play, in quite the way I used to. IM: No, but when you do... BW: When you do it’s magnificent and life-changing, but, I find too often I’m slightly at arms-length because I see at as work. IM: I think I pick things apart, I try and analyse what people are up to.
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