Recently I was in London to cover Sir Ian McKellen’s solo show, Ian McKellen on Stage. In the West End run, the 80-year-old actor recounts stories from his life and performs quite a selection of Tolkien, Shakespeare, and other great works. The highly acclaimed show reminded me of a documentary, McKellen: Playing the Part, which was released in the U.S. in May 2018. It’s worth taking a look at this documentary directed by Joe Stephenson, whether or not you’ve seen the live show that Sean Mathias directed.
Playing the Part is a 96-minute selection of interview footage that Stephenson and his crew conducted with McKellen in 2017. They spent about 14 hours interviewing the actor, according to a press synopsis. It would be interesting to find out what’s in the 12 and a half hours that did not make it to the final cut. The outtakes at the final credits are simply not enough to answer my curiosity.
The documentary examines McKellen’s early childhood, the development of his theater and film career, and his activism in LGBTQ rights. He discusses these topics from what appears to be a sitting room in his residence, with Stephenson alternating between far shots and close-ups. The documentary also switches to reenacted sequences, featuring engaging performances by Milo Parker (Mr. Holmes, The Durrells in Corfu) as a very young McKellen and Scott Chambers (Malevolent) as McKellen at University and in early plays. Though Chambers has worked with Stephenson previously on a film short, Parker’s performance is much the stronger.
Luke Evans (Beauty and the Beast) appears briefly as a variety actor in a troupe that captures the aspiring actor’s attention backstage. These sequences are helpful in depicting the curiosity that a younger McKellen felt even then. Never-before-seen archive materials such as photos are introduced periodically between the reenactments. “I’m always looking for that dividing line in the theater. When are you onstage? When are you backstage?” McKellen says at one point.
The reflections also serve as a lesson in acting. Early on, as Chambers demonstrates movements on stage, McKellen narrates that acting “is not predominantly facial. What becomes important is the silhouette, the whole body.”
If you have seen the documentary and the live show, there is overlapping material to a certain extent with respect to the stories that are shared. However, the live show diverges with the audience participation component and the monologues that McKellen performs. In the documentary, he goes into greater detail about the social causes he advocated. Stephenson cuts to archival footage of the actor leading protests and debating with policy commentators on television. It establishes more historical context for the viewer to understand how McKellen saw and reacted to the issues in those decades.
The documentary devotes more attention to the big transition to film, which began with Richard III. The success of that venture led to McKellen’s most famous roles: Gandalf in Lord of the Rings and Magneto in X-Men. That section feels a bit rushed, but fans can probably search on their own time for more behind-the-scenes footage pertaining to the recent films.
Near the end of the program, the documentary switches to the topic of death. It’s a very sad part to watch, as McKellen admits that he thinks of death every day. Stephenson inserts footage of the actor at the end of a run of Waiting for Godot, where he becomes emotional about its conclusion. Again, here I would have liked to have seen much more in the way of behind-the-scenes footage around the plays McKellen performed in recent years.
As of December 2019, Ian McKellen has not published a memoir. The documentary from Joe Stephenson can help fill that void and serve as a memoir. Overall, it is a success in its attempt to summarize the major points of the actor’s life, career, and legacy. It demonstrates the McKellen’s development into a highly esteemed actor and a dedicated advocate in social issues, areas where his voice still resonates powerfully today. We only have to look at the sold-out box office receipts to attest to the impact that McKellen has on audience’s hearts and imagination.