Not exactly a stranger to the big screen, there have been countless adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes – but none like the portrayal by Sir Ian McKellen. Here he tells us about getting into character for Mr Holmes
You said Sherlock Holmes has been played by something like 140 actors. Did you do a count?
I think I may have been exaggerating, but there’s a lot. There have been 150 films, apparently. That’s a lot but it shows that this is a character that people are endlessly fascinated by.
Why is there this constant interest in Sherlock Holmes?
I have no idea. I suppose that it is an invention that struck some sort of chord with people. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Sherlock Holmes was. I don’t remember being introduced to him; he’s always been there. That seems to have been true for a lot of people, and not just people who can read English books, which is where it all began. What’s interesting is that he was so clearly a man of his time, but you can remove him from his time and he remains himself. I really don’t know why he endures so well. I mean, he’s not an attractive person – you wouldn’t want to spend any time with him, would you? I wouldn’t. He’d have nothing to say to you, and he wouldn’t be interested in you, unless you were interesting to him. He’s not friendly, he’s not sociable, but there is something about him that we are intrigued by (laughs).
But that must be great fun to play?
Yes, I think it’s like that little boy Roger (played by Milo Parker) says to him in the film: ‘Do your thing.’ We like that thing that he does. It may be something we could all learn to do. I’m lucky because I get to play two Sherlock Holmes. I get to play the standard, the expected, the Conan Doyle, John Watson version, and then this other imagined version, which actually turns out to be more real than the traditional. The way the film plays with all that, and does it in the style of a Conan Doyle story is what’s clever about it. You could, if you didn’t know anything about it, think, ‘Oh, this is just another Sherlock Holmes story – about a man investigating himself, for the first time.’
Was it the theme of a great mind drawing to its end that attracted you?
Yes, well, old age, if you’re 75, is of interest to you. Some people never reach it, of course, and I had contemporaries who are dead. Some are struggling towards it with dreadful illnesses, and some people seem to be immortal, and each day is a new blessing. So I just think of Sherlock Holmes as an old man, really – coping, and coping better than most. I do like the last image, where you feel that he’s ready for whatever comes, and he’s earned the right to just sit, finally.
In the story Sherlock’s memory is fading fast. Do you ever worry about remembering lines, and how it could make theatre work difficult?
Yes, and I have good friends who have had to stop, because they can’t remember them, but I’m not one of them (knocks on wood). But of course it’s not just that – it’s not just mental energy; it’s energy of all sorts. Can you get up in the morning at 6am and drive to location? Keep your attention? Not keep falling asleep? (Laughs). What keeps you going is your genes, and the company you’re keeping, really. Going to work with Bill Condon and Laura Linney, you think, ‘Well, that’s worth getting up for, isn’t it?’
What was it that helped you find Holmes?
The make-up. Both make-ups, the young and the old. Although when they put the young make-up on – because I needed more make-up to look 60 than I do to look 93 (laughs) – the process is different. They put some false cheeks on me, and I don’t know whether you could, but all I could see was the actor, John Gielgud. I looked exactly like John Gielgud. Someone should write a movie about John Gielgud, and I would play him. I would do the voice. Astonishing! It was a bit like Rory Bremner, or one of those impressionists that puts on make-up and looks like people (laughs).
Did you enjoy playing him?
Yes. I would have quite liked to just play him straight, and to have done a Conan Doyle story, but there’s absolutely no need for that, because there’s been so many of them. Who needs any more Sherlock Holmes? Well, you do, because you want to find out what the real Sherlock Holmes is like. I enjoyed working with Bill again, and working with Laura, and a lot of my friends came to be in the film, which was lovely – Roger Allam (who plays Dr. Barrie), for example. I could live at home for most of it, which is very unusual when you’re making a film. Not many films are made in London, and not in a studio. So there was all that side of it, which was fun. I couldn’t anticipate until I saw the film, actually, how clever it was, dipping in and out of reality, and these things that sound rather boring, but you get involved and it’s actually rather intriguing. It’s all based on the premise that Sherlock Holmes was a real person, which of course he wasn’t (laughs). But don’t you, when you’re seeing this film, think, ‘Well, of course we’re not seeing the real one – McKellen is acting the part – but he is a real person’?
Do you find people make assumptions about you as a person based on the characters you have played?
Well, people often say, ‘Does it bother you that people come up to you and recognise you?’ And I say, ‘No, on the whole not,’ because they’re rather respectful, because they think I’m connected with Gandalf and Magneto, and you don’t tangle with either of those two. You don’t make any assumptions of intimacy (laughs). I on the other hand am a very amiable person. Sometimes people thank you for doing something and it was nothing, so it’s embarrassing to be thanked. You think, ‘I’d do that for anybody, it was nothing special.’ This is what life’s about – you never find out who you are, do you? You live with yourself all day long, but you need help to discover who you are, if you ever want to bother discovering who you are. I often don’t recognise myself in other people’s things.
Are you glad that the Gandalf days are over now?
Yes, because there are other parts I’d like to be getting on with. I had doubts about going back to do The Hobbit. It’s a long period of time, and something I’ve done before. And as much as I enjoyed it when I got there, I wondered whether it was the right thing. But it wasn’t as simple as, ‘Would you come and do this?’ There was another director involved, and it was off, then it was on, then it was off again. You began to adjust to the idea of not doing it, but in the end I’m very glad I did. But yes, I think there are other things to do now.
In Mr. Holmes Sherlock spends a lot of time tending to his beehives. What was it like to work with the bees in this film?
I’m a big fan of bees. The man who was brought in to help, Steve (Benbow), told me that honey collected in London, in the city, is purer than honey collected in the countryside, because in the countryside, everything is sprayed with insecticide, but people on the whole don’t use that in their own gardens, or on the trees of London which are in bloom. On top of Fortnum & Mason’s, a very posh grocers in the middle of London, the bees seem to feed exclusively of the flowers in Buckingham Palace gardens (laughs), so that’s where I met the bees. Bees have no interest in human beings, as long as they’re not in their way. And they are domesticated. Wild bees would go and hang out anywhere, but these are all tamed, and they’re very obliging creatures. They go and live in these hives. Simon said, ‘See that one dancing? It’s telling the other bees where the best stock of nectar is. The angle of the body is the direction they should go, and the flap of the wings is what the distance is.’ And then he said, ‘They do that normally when we’re not looking, in the pitch black, so the bees are getting all this information not by looking at it, but by feeling it.’ They’re working collectively, for the greater good. And they’re dead within a year. They’re so efficient, and they’re absolutely amazing. I didn’t get stung, and that is me lifting them up and having a look. I wasn’t wearing gloves. I was expecting to be stung. I can see why people get really keen on bees. Simon went and planted those hives on our location, had them there for two or three months, checked there were enough flowers nearby, and basically we just had to keep out of their way. Don’t stand in front of the hive as they’re bombing in.
Mr Holmes is out on DVD and Blu-Ray now