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Ian McKellen’s Performance as ‘Mr. Holmes’ Delivers Sleeper Indie Hit

Ian McKellen's Performance as 'Mr. Holmes' Delivers Sleeper Indie Hit

Sir Ian McKellen just accepted the Mill Valley Film Festival’s Life Achievement Award, among others coming his way these days. He’s been getting kudos for his role as “Mr. Holmes,” which Miramax/Roadside Attractions has turned into a sleeper specialty summer hit ($17.7-million). This could mark his third Oscar nomination after James Whale in “Gods and Monsters” and Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”

Reuniting with his “Gods and Monsters” director Bill Condon, McKellen plays a geriatric Holmes who is trying to hang on to shards of his memory of a pivotal case. The movie cuts back and forth between his writing down that earlier mystery and his daily life in the bucolic English countryside with a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her engaging young son (Milo Parker). The movie is produced by Anne Carey, Iain Canning, and Emile Sherman from a screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher based on the Novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin. We spoke on the phone. 

READ MORE: Ian McKellan Will Please Sherlock Holmes Fans as ‘Mr. Holmes’

When Bill Condon came to McKellen with the project, did you give input? “I didn’t need to read it. I could trust hm entirely. I did read it and saw why he was excited. My job is to act, Bill’s is to direct, Thatcher’s is to write the script. I’m frankly not confident enough, I’m not telling people what to do. 

I like that we opened in the summer against the razzmatazz blockbusters and our little canoe seems to have cleared its way around the battleships and sailed into the open sea. There’s a market for this sort of thing, it’s an astonishing success for an indie movie. I enjoy being part of big films and big effects, and then telling a story about someone who reminds you of your granddad, just like my father when he was dying, without being depressing.

How long the character Sherlock Holmes been in McKellen’s life. “He’s rather like Father Christmas. I must have read short stories, seen him represented on TV and on stage and a bit on film. What’s intriguing about this conceit is that he was a real man, with a statue on Baker Street along with other real people who have statues. This allowed them to veer away from the familiar Sherlock and examine him as a real person. That surprised people—maybe they went to see Sherlock, but it’s about their father or their granddad or someone they knew, and the humanity of the story pulls people in.”
How the Holmes story in the movie come from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. “It’s not a real one, it’s a made up one. It does feel like a real Sherlock Holmes story. For a lot of people part of the fun of the films are the twists and turns and complications. It feels like Conan Doyle’s hand in there but it was all invented.”

How Holmes has always relied on his brilliant mind, and now he’s losing it. “That’s the emotional heart: a man who prides himself on his mind lives almost entirely through feeling superior to others because of it. When he comes up against a woman he’s frankly attracted to after he meets her for only a few minutes, in her emotional stress she seems to make him the offer: ‘Will you love me?’ It is a possibility and he rejects it. He’s not up to it. He can’t have relationships of that depth. There’s something inside him which he regrets that he can’t understand.

He feels guilty. Sherlock Holmes is an extreme and impolite person. He goes off and loves in the country for 30 years it, and it still bothers him. It’s a regret. I’ve a few, we all have got things in our heads we’d like to put right. So he goes off and tries to settle his own mind. He needs a spurt; a young friend gives him that amount of energy to pursue this. And he becomes rather lovable because he’s capable of love. In the end, when you feel the relationships he’s living with can be better because he’s sorted out his relationship with the past, it is quite profound. When I was with my stepmother dying —she lived to 100, approaching death she wanted her life to be over. She wasn’t Sherlock Holmes, she wasn’t capable of doing anything but exist and wait. But it convinced me that it was possible late in life with the ultimate approaching to puzzle about yourself and if you are lucky, to reconcile yourself to the past so a calm can take over. I’m part of nature: take me if you want me. That’s a very satisfactory conclusion.”

On crafting a more accessible Sherlock Holmes.“The one we all know is no guy we’d want to spend the evening with. Here he’s discovered his humanity and an optimistic view of the world that is never too late to discover in yourself and start being nice to other people. In the end, he was someone who could put his intelligence in perspective and realize that the heart is probably more important than the mind.”
On finding it easy to relate to an aging Sherlock. “I do live day by day, and I’m grateful for every day. I do look forward to jobs to be done and friends to see, but there’s a lot of looking back as friends decline and die. I can’t help living in the past and remembering the good times. This movie is about all that, isn’t it? It’s very humane.”
On falling for social media while he and “X-Men” co-star Patrick Stewart worked on Broadway in “No Man’s Land” and “Waiting for Godot.” “All those pictures when we were in NY—that was the idea of Patrick’s wife. I officiated at their wedding. She said, ‘You’re such good pals, you’re doing two plays, you’re in them both. Celebrate being in New York!’  Some of our colleagues and peers asked ‘What are those guys doing?’ We were just having a good time.”
On making his third movie with Bill Condon’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast.” “I play Cogsworth who is a clock, I’m animated, but I did get to be in the climactic scene when everyone come back to life. I also will be seen early next year on the BBC in “The Dresser” —we’re doing the original play. Anthony Hopkins is playing the old actor, I got finally to work with Anthony, we were at the National with Laurence Olivier but we never got to work together. We had a lovely time.”
On trying to get financing for a Noel Coward biopic. “A young man plays Noel Coward in the biopic, I’m playing the older actor he meets. Setting up indie movies is very hard, even if the sums needed are relatively small. Whilst we had a nice outcome on ‘Mr. Holmes’—you can make small indie movie and yes it will make money and find an audience—but persuading the money people is always difficult. I did a screen test playing the young Noel Coward in “Star!” with Julie Andrews. I spent a whole day pretending to sing a song, but the role went to Daniel Massey, Noel Coward’s godson, who was nominated for an Oscar for his great performance!

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