Sir Ian plays Sherlock in new DVD release

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There’s a treat in store for all Sherlock fans on Monday with the DVD and Blu-ray release of Mr Holmes (PG) on the E1 Entertainment label, in which Academy Award-winning nominee Ian McKellen takes on the role of the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, one of British literature’s most iconic and enduring characters.

The movie opens in 1947 as the world-famous sleuth, now 93, has retired to a remote Sussex farmhouse, living in relative anonymity with only his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son, Roger, for company.

Cantankerous, demanding and frustrated with the mis-representation of him in Watson’s best-selling novels, Holmes diverts his attention to an unsolved case as he desperately tries to recall the events of 30 years ago that ultimately led to his retirement.

Mr Holmes is adapted from Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel, A Slight of Hand, and directed by Academy Award-winning film maker Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters).

When Ian McKellen was offered the iconic role of Sherlock Holmes, he did a little research into how many times the brilliant sleuth has appeared on screen.

“There have been 150 films, apparently,” he says. “That’s a lot but it shows that this is a character that people are endlessly fascinated by.”

Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes first appeared in print in 1886 and has indeed become one of the most enduring characters in popular fiction and on television and in film.

“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,” says McKellen.

“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.”

Condon’s film is based on Mitch Cullin’s acclaimed novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, and, says Ian, offers a very different perspective on the legendary detective. In the story Holmes is a real – rather than fictional – man and his legendary exploits have been chronicled by Dr. Watson, who has now passed away, rather than Conan Doyle.

It’s 1947 and Holmes is now 93 and struggling to come to terms with early dementia as he tries to recall his last case some thirty years earlier. Living in rural Sussex with his housekeeper, Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her bright young son, Roger (Milo Parker), Holmes spends his retirement tending his beloved bees and trying to piece together what happened to a missing woman, Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan).

“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,” says McKellen.

“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, I think. 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.’”

Ian had worked with Bill Condon before, on Gods and Monsters (1998) when they became close friends and in the following years often discussed the possibility of collaborating again.

Now 75, Sir Ian says the themes of ageing and a failing memory spoke to him. “Yes, well, old age, if you’re 75, is of interest to you,” he says.

“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.”

McKellen spent a long time in the make up chair to play both versions of Holmes, one, of course, younger than the actor himself and the other older.

“Although when they put the young make-up on – because I needed more make-up to look 60 than I do to look 93 – the process is different,” he explains. “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.

“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,” he laughs.

Ian was born and raised in Lancashire, England and studied English literature at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. After college he worked extensively in repertory theatre in the UK and later with the Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre.

His films include Plenty, Scandal, The Ballad of Little Jo, Six Degrees of Separation, Richard III, Restoration, Bent, Gods and Monsters, Apt Pupil and Emile. He played Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy and reprised the role in the three Hobbit films. He also stars as Magneto in the hugely successful X-Men franchise.

Q&A

Q: You said Sherlock Holmes has been played by something like 140 actors. Did you do a count?

A: 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.

Q: Why is there this constant interest in Sherlock Holmes?

A: 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).

Q: But that must be great fun to play?

A: 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, I think. 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.’

Q: Was it the theme of a great mind drawing to its end that attracted you?

A: 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.

Q: In the story Sherlock’s memory is fading fast. Do you ever worry about remembering lines, and how it could make theatre work difficult?

A: 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 six o’clock 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?’

Q: Are there some parallels between what Holmes does – the way he dissects a character and looks for clues as to who they are - and what actors do?

A: Well, he has elements of an actor, and he does act. In the novels, the stories, he’s always going into disguise, literally, with false moustaches and wigs, and limps, and accents. But I don’t know whether the style of observation is the same. The difference between him and an actor is that an actor might well observe, and if you were a mimic, you would then be able to copy, but it’s not going to work unless you actually imagine what it’s like to be there. I don’t know whether that’s quite what Sherlock Holmes does.

Q: He’s not empathetic?

A: No, and that’s really what an actor has to be. It’s a funny thing; if DNA was a phrase that we all understood… it almost seems to be the most important thing about human beings these days – that we’ve got DNA. I discovered it through my work, that if you walk like somebody, if you copy someone’s walk, you being to feel what it’s like to be them, and you begin to think like them, and find yourself talking like them, because you’re the same all the way through. It’s just getting the DNA – you might get some little clue, and it might be as little as that, and then you’ll be in there. One day in rehearsal you’ll do something and the director will say, ‘That was right, just when you landed on that word, Ian,’ or ‘When you stood up! Do you remember that? That’s the character.’ And then you’re away.

Q: What was it that helped you find Holmes?

A: The make-up I think. 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).

Q: Did you enjoy playing him?

A: 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’?

Q: Do you tend towards fantasy or logic in your own life?

A: My friends say that I’m too logical, but I know better (laughs). I could arrange these microphones beautifully if you’d just give me a couple of seconds. But actors have to be onto the fun of fantasy. Fantasy is a huge part of all humans’ lives, isn’t it? It’s what keeps us all going, imagination.

Q: Are you glad that the Gandalf days are over now?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.