Ian McKellen is already besties with Patrick Stewart. Why not Anthony Hopkins, too? The two English legends of stage and screen appear together in “The Dresser,” a Starz TV movie take on Ronald Harwood’s beloved 1980 play. Hopkins plays a grouchy, aging, self-destructive stage favorite whose latest performance of “King Lear” may be his last. McKellen takes on his longtime “dresser,” who has spent decades helping him backstage. Incredibly it’s the first time the two Sirs have worked together, despite once being in the same National Theater company when they were younger.
McKellen, now 76, talks to us from London about his own stint as Lear in 2007, and being glad he didn’t become a movie star until his later in life.
It’s amazing you and Anthony Hopkins have never worked together before.
There aren’t many scripts for two stage actors where they have equally good parts. I can think of “Othello” or “Uncle Vanya.” And then there’s “The Dresser.” But there aren’t many opportunities. So if anyone wants to see us together they have to write a script.
Your characters have spent most of their lives working together. How do you convey that deep history together?
[Long pause] It’s called acting, isn’t it, really? [Chuckles] You basically learn the lines and use your imagination. Not as difficult as it seems.
“The Dresser” takes place during a performance of “King Lear,” which you did in 2007. How were your experiences doing it back then?
It’s very rewarding, of course, but it’s not easy. You can’t play King Lear unless you get a cast of remarkable actors in all the other parts. It’s not a one-man show. But Lear is the highest pinnacle in the range of Shakespeare’s mountains. Still, I don’t think there’s ever been a Lear who was ever satisfied with his performance. A number of actors returned to it.[Laurence] Olivier played it twice, John Gielgud played it three times. Maybe I’ll go back to it sometime.
You actually used to play old men on stage when you were just starting out, correct?
Yes. I was sort of this young actor who liked to put on disguises and do funny walks and funny voices. I played a number of old men. Once I decided to be a professional actor I realized I’d like to play my own age without benefit of disguise. But that’s actually, for me, a difficult prospect. But now I am old. [Chuckles] So I’m still playing my own age, even though it’s an old one.
Lear is typically seen as a role for the older guard. Could you have done Lear when you were younger? Can Lear be played by a young man?
One of the great Lears of my time was Paul Scofield, in Peter Brooks’ production. He was 44, I think. He had a lot of energy for Lear. He was physical and emotional. It isn’t wise to wait until 80 to play Lear, which is his actual age. It’s better to still have all your faculties intact.
You’re a movie star now, but you weren’t doing a ton of film until the 1990s, when you were in your 50s. Were you averse to movies?
I think I’ve made a film a year for the last 60 years. But you might not have seen them because they’re not very good. [Laughs] The best parts in English movies for English actors were going to Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney and Alan Bates and Michael Caine. They were much quicker off the mark than I was. It didn’t worry me. I was enjoying being in the theater. I wasn’t a frustrated film actor at all. But by the time films came my way I was competent enough to discover film acting, which is not the same as theater acting. I just had to do a number of smallish parts to prepare myself.
Do you think it was best to find fame later in life?
By that point the fame that comes with big movies was something I could handle. I’m very lucky — very, very lucky. I don’t know how young actors who become very famous or celebrated do it. It would have been very difficult for me.
Speaking your earlier film work, I recently saw Michael Mann’s 1983 horror film “The Keep.” That wasn’t very well-liked at the time but I think it ages really well. It’s almost more of an art film.
I remember that’s very good, isn’t it? The opening scene is stunning. It’s when the monster comes on that it gets dodgy.