This film feels like a dream: a chance to sit down with Sir Ian McKellen and talk about his life and career. McKellen: Playing the Part is a fascinating collection of interviews, snapshots, home movies and film clips, all narrated by the chatty McKellen, who fills every moment with intelligence, humour and emotion. It might be a little dry for non-fans, but it’s a superb exploration of acting as a vocation, requiring passion like that of a priest or teacher. And it’s also a telling look at gay activism from one of the first A-listers to publicly take a stand as an LGBTQ artist.
In a casual, candid interview, McKellen narrates his story in chronological order, infusing the film with his self-deprecating humour and a strong sense of loyalty to his lifelong friends. He speaks about growing up in Northwest England, realising at an early age that he had an unusual love of observing people, which he used to entertain his family. While his school mates were discovering girls, he knew he was different. But no one spoke about homosexuality in 1950s England, so he dove into the theatre as a way of expressing himself. He became a professional actor in the early 1960s, and as he played a variety of roles, he was surprised to discover that he was becoming famous on stage, and later on television and film as well. Celebrity has never been a goal.
Director Joe Stephenson fills this documentary with terrific footage and photos of McKellen’s early performances as well as archival interviews and backstage video clips. And in a bold touch, he also uses artfully shot black and white dramatisations featuring McKellen’s former costars Milo Parker (Mr Holmes) and Scott Chambers (Random Acts) playing him at younger stages in his life. This is assembled into a smoothly flowing narrative that allows McKellen’s larger-than-life personality to hold the interest.
There’s also plenty of material from recent years, including knowing comments about and witty behind-the-scenes glimpses into the X-Men and Lord of the Rings franchises. And he also explores his famous friendships with the likes of Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and Patrick Stewart. Through all of this, McKellen makes it clear that he thinks an actor talking about himself is plainly ridiculous, mainly because he has become so accustomed to playing a version of himself in public that it’s not easy to let the real person out.
Along the way, McKellen also discusses how he dealt with his sexuality, his relationships over the years and the factors that went into his decision to formally come out of the closet in 1988 while campaigning against the UK’s Section 28, which prohibited schools from teaching about homosexuality. As a cofounder of the charity Stonewall, he has remained vocal ever since, speaking up on a variety of political issues. But he also admits that he has never stopped being a boy who just loves to play, “Let’s pretend!” And this film is a lovely opportunity to just listen to that boy marvel over where his life has taken him.