Ian McKellen on Working with Child Actors and How He Transitioned from a Stage Actor to a Screen Actor

Ian McKellen in Mr Holmes

“And I think when I decided to become professional, my only aim, really, was to get better as an actor.” – Ian McKellen

Few actors are as respected as Ian McKellen, though McKellen’s fame as an actor didn’t peak with general audiences until he was well into his fifties. Speaking with Vulture, McKellen talked about how he went from being primarily a stage actor to finding success in film in his mid-fifties and why he doesn’t care to work with child actors.

Though McKellen shared the screen in Mr. Holmes opposite a young actor, Milo Parker, he admits he much prefers working with adults. He explains, “I’d rather work with grown-ups…  with another actor, you can talk about what you’re doing — there’s a shared language. But you couldn’t talk to Milo about that. It’s only the second time he’d been on a film set! Are there any bonuses? Well, he’s a very particular little boy, and he was very good at being particular. He never got in the way. He wasn’t a brat. I think all child actors are taught to be nice to the grown-ups, and he certainly was. But it was artless, what he was doing. There was no cunning to it. There didn’t have to be, and it would have been awful if he had known what he was doing, but he had enough native wit. No complaints at all, but on the whole, it’s easier working with adults.”

McKellen adds that he became an actor because of the mystery behind acting, but once he was a professional he wanted to improve. He says, “I began to be interested in acting as an audience. I wanted to find out how they did it, I wanted to be backstage, I wanted to be behind the camera. How’s it done? Where’s the best place to stand on the stage? How do you rehearse? Things like that. And the only way to find out was to do it myself, so I started acting! And I think when I decided to become professional, my only aim, really, was to get better as an actor.”

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Humorously, McKellen points out that he recalls himself being happy being mainly a stage actor up until the last decade and a half, but his friends tell him that he acted otherwise. He reveals, “My impression of the first 20 years of acting was that I was very happy being a theater actor, although I did do films, none of which were successful. And watching contemporaries like Albert Finney and Tom Courtney and Alan Bates and Anthony Hopkins, who were all thriving in the film industry, I thought, ‘Good on them, but they’re not playing Macbeth with Judi Dench. They’re not playing King Lear at the National Theater of Great Britain and going on a world tour.’ I thought I was very happy doing that, but now my friends say I was always going on about, ‘Why aren’t I in movies?’ You’re not always a good witness to your own life.”

McKellen holds up his 1995 film Richard III as where the tide had turned between theater and movie acting. He recalls, “I know exactly how it happened. We had been touring Richard III from the National Theater, and when we landed in this town, I finished the screenplay and spent two years raising funds to try and get that made into a film. In between time, I visited other people’s movies. I was with Arnold Schwarzenegger and his only flop, Last Action Hero. I worked for James Earl Brooks, a tiny little part. I was in Cold Comfort Farm, one of John Schlesinger’s last films. All the while, I was trying to figure out, “How do I act in film?’ I asked all those directors, ‘Show me how to do it.” They never did. You’re on your own, really. And then Richard III came, and it worked, and that was like a huge calling card. It was like taking out a full-page ad in Variety.”

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