‘The Dresser’: Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins on Sharing the Screen for the First Time
The first thing you need to know when gabbing with Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins is that neither wishes to be called “Sir.” They are certainly entitled to that grand honor—McKellen was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1991; Hopkins, two years later—but they are uneasy with the formality it engenders and they sure as hell don’t want anyone putting them on pedestals.
Both of these revered actors—who are sharing the screen for the first time in the wickedly juicy Starz movie The Dresser—come from simple beginnings. McKellen’s father was a lay preacher, Hopkins was the son of a baker. And they remain, in their minds anyway, just regular Joes.
“No actor who is to be taken seriously goes into this profession to become rich and famous,” says McKellen. “Tony and I remain workhorses to this day, and proudly so. We’re in it for the craft, and now that we’re silly old men, we’re especially in it for the joy. Of course, the money is nice. But fame, for the most part, is a bit of an inconvenience.”
And self-congratulation is a no-no. “We are not here saving lives,” Hopkins notes. “I will watch Turner Classic Movies and hear the hosts going on and on about a film and its stars—pondering, analyzing, dissecting, finding hidden depths and meanings. But it’s just a f—ing movie! One must keep that in perspective. An actor’s ego is a very dangerous and painful thing. It is the devil.”
It’s wonderfully perfect, therefore, that these lions in winter (McKellen is 77; Hopkins, 78) have been brought together by The Dresser. Based on the acclaimed 1980 play by Ronald Harwood, it’s an endearing yet vicious salute to the theater at a time when art trumped commerce and popularity was earned the old-fashioned way—through talent and skill.
Hopkins plays a stark raving mad actor-manager known merely as Sir, who is bringing his ragtag productions of Shakespeare to the English provinces during World War II (Rare is the performance not interrupted by blaring sirens and Hitler’s bombs). McKellen is Sir’s longtime dresser, Norman, an incorrigible boozer and closet gay who appears to love his boss but, when feeling unappreciated, can turn spiteful and manipulative.
On the night The Dresser takes place, Sir is due to perform the title role in King Lear but has failed to show up at the theater, which leaves Norman, Sir’s wife, Pussy (Emily Watson), and the stage manager, Madge (Sarah Lancashire), in a collective tizzy.
“For years, I have watched people try to depict life in the theater—whether it be on film, stage or TV—and only The Dresser gets it right,” McKellen says. “This is the theater I recognize—the dogged professionalism, the jealousies, the misunderstandings, the unrequited love. In fact, it’s all so true and real it was not at all difficult to act. I have lived it!”
So did his costar. For a while anyway. “I always suffered from a very uncomfortable relationship with the theater and especially with Shakespeare,” admits Hopkins, who was mentored into the Royal National Theatre in 1965 by the great Laurence Olivier. “I had trained like crazy but the stage never felt right to me. So I skedaddled.”
Hopkins, who would go on to win an Academy Award for The Silence of the Lambs, did venture back onto the London boards to play Lear in 1987, earning raves from even the most hard-assed critics. But he was dreadfully unimpressed with himself.
“I just wasn’t ready,” Hopkins says. “And, had common sense prevailed, I should have turned down The Dresser because my character must perform some very famous passages from Lear.” And do them brilliantly. As the story unfolds, Sir does find his way to the theater but is so confused he starts putting on blackface, thinking he’s about to star in Othello. Reminded he’s to play Lear, Sir fears he won’t remember his lines and senses on some psychic level that his life is very nearly over. It’s the ultimate actor’s nightmare, but he goes on to give an extraordinary performance as the mad king.
“When I sat down to read the script, with Ian and our director, Richard Eyre, something very odd came over me,” Hopkins says. “My fear of Lear was gone and I suddenly realized, ‘I can do this now! Finally, I am old enough to understand him!’”
McKellen tackled Lear on stage in 2007—stirring up controversy with his full-frontal nude scene—so he knows how daunting the part can be. “It is the Everest of roles and can never truly be conquered,” McKellen says. “But, even if you only get halfway up the mountain, the view is still incredible.”
There is much poignant talk in The Dresser about legacy and how actors like Sir—who were rejected by the movies—live on only in the memories of those who catch them on stage. And when those theatergoers are dead, there is nothing left at all. Of course, that won’t happen to McKellen and Hopkins, though they swear they’d be OK if it did.
“I was in shock when I did Gandalf in the Middle Earth films [the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies] and realized I was involved in something that would survive my life,” McKellen says. “I’ve always thought of acting as a temporary thing, and when I see some of my old TV and film performances, I really wish that were true! I have definitely gotten better as the years go by.”
Hopkins recalls coming to Hollywood in 1973, just as his breakout performance as Count Pierre in the BBC-PBS series War and Peace was dazzling the industry. “I opened up the Los Angeles Times and realized I was the talk of the town,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘By God, I’ve made it!’ The next day, I went to Universal, where I was doing a movie with Goldie Hawn. A carpenter came up to me and said, ‘Didn’t I see you on TV last night wearing a stovepipe hat? I switched over to football.’”
Hopkins lets out a raucous laugh, still thrilled 43 years later with the divine humiliation of it all. “And that,” he says, “is what this acting stuff is really all about. Nothing! Nada! Like the great old poem says, ‘The paths of glory lead but to the grave.’”
The Dresser, Monday, May 30, 9/8c, Starz.