McKellen: Playing The Part

You're Never Really Yourself

Sir Ian McKellen is a legend of stage and screen, he is also someone who is from the same town as me (Wigan) and has the same birthday as me (25th May), he also has a head and arms and other such similarities which mean not a jot.

In, McKellen: Playing The Part, director Joe Stephenson, who previously directed McKellen in a short film about growing up gay and coming out, edits a wide-ranging 14 hour interview with the great actor down to just over an hour and a half.

McKellen, lounging in a deep red chair, subtly lit, talks about his life; beginning with his humble start growing up in Wigan, in the North West of England, how he would spend hours down at the local market stalls, watching the stall-holders ‘perform’ to the crowds.

He talks about how he got into Cambridge, despite failing all the entrance exams, his time there and his extensive career on the stage, including shunning the bright lights of London to tour the cities of the UK instead, very much against the norm.

It’s whilst performing that he meets his first partner, now sadly passed, and McKellen talks a lot about what it means to him to be a gay man, as well as his time starting Stonewall and how he now visits schools around the world to give talks and learns from them just as they learn from him.

The subject of film and television comes around with McKellen believing it was never something he wanted to do, though his friends tell him otherwise. He discusses roles he enjoyed, roles he didn’t and why he takes the roles he does.

In the final moments, Stephenson asks what McKellen thinks about the most and the answer is a surprising one, death. McKellen goes on to say it’s something he thinks about daily, mainly how it will come about, he’s even gone as far as planning his own funeral.

Throughout it all, Stephenson keeps McKellen front and centre. Even when re-creating certain moments using Milo Parker (Robot Overlords, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children) as a young McKellen or featuring Luke Evans (Beauty And The Beast, High-Rise) and Frances Barber (Mr. Holmes, Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool), Stephenson has the actors mime to McKellen’s words.

The documentary is a fascinating insight into one of the world’s leading actors. It never feels overindulgent despite the reality of it being just that, a documentary about one man, sitting in a chair, talking about himself.

McKellen is such a pro, he talks about himself in a belittling way, but not such that you get weary of listening to him. You never feel like ‘here’s some overpaid actor going on about how hard his life has been’, he’s quite matter of fact about it all.

Overall you come away feeling like you’ve had a fascinating insight but perhaps there was more to say. McKellen sets this up at the start by saying he treats interviews as acting and, though he says he’s trying not to in this, you get the impression at certain times he is.

As the final credits roll there are some ‘outtakes’ including him saying people often think he played Dumbledore in Harry Potter (“maybe I did”) and that he’d forgotten he’d won a SAG award, only remembering when he was disappointed he didn’t win one for Mr. Holmes.

As Sir Ian McKellen heads towards his 79th birthday (on the same day as mine, did I mention that?), McKellen: Playing The Part will be broadcast live to cinemas across the UK and Scandinavia (I…why? I don’t know) from London’s BFI Southbank and will be followed by a Q&A hosted by Graham Norton.

Find your local showing at:

Sir Ian McKellen talks about his long career and his life beyond the stage and screen.

1st June 2018

Joe Stephenson

Running Time:
1h 36min

Have your say