Back in 1993 Laura Linney and Ian McKellen both appeared in the first edition of “Tales of the City,” the miniseries written by their mutual friend Armistead Maupin. But they didn’t share any scenes together. That only happened recently, with Bill Condon’s new drama “Mr. Holmes.” McKellen plays the elderly Sherlock Holmes, grumpily bouncing about a country home, reflecting on an old case. Linney plays his unhappy housekeeper, whose son strikes up a friendship with her boss. Linney talks to us about instilling a supporting character with great depth…and the fun the three-time Oscar-nominee had making no less than the second “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
I read you’ve been a Holmes nerd since you were a kid. What first got you into him?
I think I was so attracted to the character as a young pre-adolescent, just because he was so sexy. Honestly. He was this brilliant loner-musician-drug addict — heartthrob, basically. He’s a brilliant, brilliant man who’s mysterious and very detached and not connected to anyone. Any woman would find that very attractive. [Laughs]
Your character doesn’t have a ton of screentime, but she still has a lot going on.
I would have done the movie even if the character didn’t intrigue me. Quite honestly, that was secondary to being able to work with Bill [Condon], being able to work with Ian, being able to go to England, being in a Sherlock Holmes movie. I could have cared less what the character was. However, much to my delight, the character’s really interesting. She’s a war widow. She’s struggling to normalize her life and maintain a relationship with her young child. There was a lot to play there. She’s a housekeeper who was probably never a housekeeper before. There’s her loneliness, her hard work, her disorientation of being widowed. It’s what happened after the war, how it tore families apart, how it relocated people.
Both this and “Hyde Park on Hudson” are about civilians meeting famous people or characters. How have you felt, especially when you were younger, about doing the same?
There’s who you meet and who you think they’re going to be. That happened a lot when I was first working in film. I would meet these very famous people and it would take me awhile for the ghost of who I thought they were to die. Then the nerves would go away and you’re really with the person. It’s always a relief when the ghost dies.
I still feel stupid when I talk to famous people.
So do I.
Did you actually get a chance to meet McKellen back when you two did “Tales of the City”?
We both have Armistead Maupin in common. Armistead has always been a great friend of Ian’s, and I became very close to Armistead though making those series. My son’s middle name is Armistead; I named him after him. I would spend 10 minutes with [Ian] here, 15 minutes with him there, over a long period of time. But I never knew him very well. So now I was able to spend time with him and claim him as my own. We developed our own friendship and he’s as spectacular as I thought he would be.
You recently wrapped the second “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie. It’s amazing you haven’t done a ton of big budget blockbuster-type films.
But “Congo.” You can put “Congo” on there.
How was making “Congo”?
“Congo” was great because it was one of my first movies. I knew nothing about film. It allowed me to get to know how movies were made. I was on that movie for six months, so I used it as an opportunity to go from department to department and learn what everyone does. I would spend three weeks with the camera department, three weeks with the special effects department. I’m sure I drove them all crazy. But I had no idea what I was going and I learned a lot. A lot. You know, the movie is what it is. But I got to go to Costa Rica and I made some good friends. It was fun. It was just fun. Now, doing “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” to see how advanced all the special effects were is so amazing. And I had a great time! I loved it! I had a wonderful time! It was really fun!
It seems like it would be an interesting acting challenge too. Blockbuster acting is different from serious drama acting.
Well, kind of. Yes and no. We’ll see when I see how it all comes together. But I just had fun! I didn’t have to cry, there was no nudity, there was no deep, deep psychological pain going on for my character. It was filmed at home. I just had a ball. It was nice to skip to work and skip home. And I loved those guys who played turtles. They’re really unsung heroes, those guys.
Had you actively stayed away from those types of movies before?
No. I was never asked! It was nice to be asked. New experience, different way to work — you bet.
You say it was a nice break from the heavier stuff. Was “Mr. Holmes” particularly taxing?
There was a lot going on. There was an accent. It was wonderful. I loved it and whenever I’m working with Bill, I skip to work and skip home. But there was sadness there, and fear. When you inhabit that all day long you learn how to slip in and out of it so it doesn’t contaminate your life. But it does cost a little bit. You’re tired when you go home. You have to access things that aren’t always comfortable. So to be able to do a cartoon film, it was fun!
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge