Face it, we Americans are convinced that any middle-aged actor or actress with a classy British accent is automatically Oscar-caliber. Though in all seriousness, it’s not just the accent — some of the most respected actors in the world have a long history of practicing their craft in British theatre. But in an interview with The Telegraph, one of those acting greats, Ian McKellen, expresses doubt that that breed of actor will ever be seen again.
McKellen points to the shrinking UK theatre scene as evidence. He explains, “The situation is desperate. There are no [resident] companies in this country – not even the National Theatre has one. There’s a desert. The danger’s going to be that the current generation of actors won’t develop into good middle-aged performers because they won’t have been able to live from their work. The strength of British theatre should be that these actors in their middle years know what they’re doing and are good at it. Not rich, not famous, but making a living.”
Using his own experience and contemporaries as evidence — McKellen reveals that he has “always been an actor for the long haul. And it all began for me with doing three years’ apprenticeship. I didn’t go to drama school” — he denies that the formula they have followed can be reproduced in today’s acting scene. When asked if there’s another actor like him waiting in the wings, he says, “No. Nor Derek Jacobi, Mike Gambon or Judi Dench. I got better as an actor, and still I’m getting better. That’s only been possible because there’s always been work.”
McKellen also doesn’t think film is an adequate replacement for theatre because a strictly film actor will never know what it’s like to have an immediate audience. He explains, “Why do you act? You act for an audience. In the theatre, you’re in their presence. Film stars don’t know what it is to have an audience. You see some at awards ceremonies who can hardly make it to the middle of the stage, they’re so nervous. There’s a microphone so they don’t have to project. And they read their words. You see a theatre actor come on and it’s, ‘Oh, hold on, there’s a show happening’. Hugh Jackman at the Oscars — that’s a theatre man, who happens to be a film star.”