As the BBC Two adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser draws closer, Gemma Dunn talks to Sir Ian McKellen about his dynamic pairing with Sir Anthony Hopkins and joy at discovering a new-found acceptance for the LGBT community
“Why can’t people speak into a microphone properly?” Sir Ian McKellen questions, as a tannoy announcement disrupts his train of thought.
He could “teach them how to”, he offers - and despite his jovial tone, he’s not joking.
“It’s my voice telling you to take your seats at the Royal Festival Hall. Maybe I can be the voice-over on the London transport system next,” he teases, taking another sip of tea.
In good spirits, McKellen is a perfectionist: a man who knows what he wants and how to get there. But with 54 showbiz years under his belt and a hoard of awards, he’s earned his stripes.
“The work I do now is worth doing and satisfying to me. I want to tell a story that I think an audience will enjoy, so I won’t do a script unless it’s something I want to see myself,” the actor explains. “As a McKellen brand, as it were, you can trust me!”
And he’s right. Far from falling short of his own ideals, his latest performance - opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal, Thor) - in Richard Eyre’s small screen adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, is phenomenal.
One of the great portraits of life in the theatre, the 1980 play was first adapted for the screen by Harwood himself 32 years ago - to much critical acclaim. So much so, McKellen initially rejected offers to be cast as Sir, with the view that, while it was “fabulous”, “it had been done, and they’d got it right”.
So what changed?
“The call came: ‘Hopkins is going to play Sir, would you come and play the dresser?’ And I didn’t have to think twice,” he explains.
Despite crossing paths at Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company in the Sixties, the BBC Two drama brings together veteran actors Sir Anthony Hopkins, 77, and McKellen, 76, on screen for the first time; although it’s said being a real-life ‘Sir’ wasn’t a prerequisite to securing the part.
Joining the dream pairing are Emily Watson (The Theory of Everything, War Horse), Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax), Edward Fox, who also appeared in the 1983 version of The Dresser, and Vanessa Kirby, among others.
A wickedly funny and deeply moving story of friendship and loyalty, it tells the tale of one fateful night in a small regional theatre during WWII, as a troupe of touring actors stage a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Bombs are falling outside, the curtain is up in an hour, but the actor/manager Sir (Hopkins) - who is playing Lear - is nowhere to be seen. His dresser Norman (McKellen), is relentless in his efforts to keep the production alive before the final curtain.
“I’d underestimated the power of the story. The idea that this is an old-fashioned piece of drama is not true. The characters are so rich, which isn’t always the case with backstage stories, and I guarantee that they’re like the ones who used to exist. And sometimes still do...” McKellen says with a wink.
Having worked on countless stage productions, including taking on Shakespeare’s tormented King Lear in Trevor Nunn’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2007, he stands in good stead to pass judgement.
“It’s a true depiction [of the theatre world], and there aren’t many plays or films that tell the truth.
“Actors are often asked to play versions of themselves that are so exaggerated we look like idiots, but we’re not; we’re hard-working folk. The Dresser takes these characters seriously.”
Playing an older version of Norman than his predecessor, Tom Courtenay, the international star brings a new dimension to the role, like only he can.
“Tom played him as he was - a young man in his 30s, who hadn’t been with Sir forever. I couldn’t do that, so I’m playing a character of a similar age to his boss. The benefit of that is it feels like a long-term double act. They hate each other, but love, admire and can’t do without each other,” describes McKellen, poignantly.
“When you look at Sir and you look at the dresser, who’s the boss? The truth is, they do it together, so when one of them dies, the other is likely to be distressed, and possibly relieved. It’s complicated when any relationship comes to an end.”
Whether or not Norman is in love with Sir is something viewers are left to puzzle over (“I’ve got my view, but I’m not going to tell you because he keeps it private”).
Since coming out as gay in 1988, the actor - who lives in London - is tenacious in the campaign for LGBT rights.
“In this country, there’s been a huge advance in the last quarter-century and long may it continue,” he says, beaming.
“The future will be in the hands of the young people and, talking to many in schools, I detect that there’s a new openness and an acceptance.
“If you get the laws right, it’s likely people’s behaviour will change, but it’ll be a long time before that process is complete.”
It’s been 14 years since McKellen made his debut as the bearded Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings films, a role that’s made the Burnley-born actor a hit with new, younger audiences.
From Oscar nominations and securing every major theatrical award in the UK and US, to starring in singer-songwriter George Ezra’s video for his 2014 hit Listen To The Man, McKellen smirks when asked if he’s keen to tick off any more roles, before retorting: “I’ve never had a list; I don’t wish for anything more than to carry on working, but being me... I don’t intend to retire any time soon.”
True to form, forthcoming projects include a mooted third series of his popular ITV sitcom, Vicious, and a revival of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land with Patrick Stewart (following its success on Broadway last year).
“It’s in theatre that you’re close to some of the greatest minds that have ever written, and they don’t let you down,” says McKellen.
“Once you get involved on stage and deliver, Dr Theatre looks after you and you can somehow forget all of your troubles.”
l The Dresser airs on BBC Two on Saturday, October 31.