‘I’m not an expert on anything except this acting business.’
Ian McKellen has had an extraordinary life. From his unparalleled stage career, to his gay rights activism, to having leading roles in two of the biggest film franchises of all time, he’s accomplished an awful lot in his half-century in the spotlight. And in McKellen: Playing The Part, released on the weekend of his seventy-ninth birthday, he discusses it all.
Compiled from over fourteen hours of interview footage, Playing The Part is a no-frills documentary. It doesn’t try to do anything different with the form. Anyone hoping for input from best bud Patrick Stewart will be disappointed; with the exception of a few interjections by filmmaker Joe Stephenson and old interview clips, McKellen’s is the only voice we hear. He gets to tell his own story.
That turns out to be Stephenson’s best decision. McKellen is such a raconteur, so erudite and interesting, that to have anyone else feature as a talking head would have just been a waste of time we could have been spending with the great actor. As it is, the documentary feels intimate, like we are in the room with McKellen, listening rapt as he tells great story after great story.
He starts at the beginning. When he was younger he would see the theatricality in everything. Watching the traders at the local market, he would admire their ability to draw a crowd. During a royal visit, he admired the staging of the parade as he would later the staging of a play. It seems as though it was ingrained, from a very young age, that he was to be an actor.
The most moving parts of the documentary are when McKellen is speaking about his journey with his sexuality. There’s a clip of McKellen being interviewed for the play Bent, about gay men in concentration camps. At the time, he was still closeted, and to watch him step around intrusive questions from a journalist is painful. Section 28, an amendment forbidding local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’, caused McKellen to out himself. Describing his relief in the wake of that decision, he says he felt ‘physically healthier’ afterwards. From that moment on, he has worked tirelessly as an ambassador for gay rights.
As the film nears its conclusion, the interview takes on an elegiac tone. Asked what he thinks about the most, McKellen answers, unwaveringly: ‘Death’. He talks about his fears of imminent decline; if he will have to use the elevator he’s installed in his house, if he’ll end up in a hospice or an old people’s home. Having no family or dependents, he wonders who will look after him. At the beginning of the documentary he speaks of his desire to not ‘edit himself’ throughout the interview, and it’s in these latter stages that you realise just how much he succeeded. His honesty is remarkable.
Simple, truthful and fascinating, Playing The Part is an enthralling look at one of Britain’s best actors. Even those with only a passing fondness for McKellen will find plenty to enjoy here.
Oh, and make sure you stay for the credits. They are a treat.
McKellen: Playing The Part is broadcast live from BFI Southbank, London into cinemas nationwide on Sunday 27 May at 3pm
Find your local cinema at mckellenfilm.com