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Meet the guy who went to Ian McKellen’s for brunch, then made a film on his life

Meet the guy who went to Ian McKellen’s for brunch, then made a film on his life

Joe Stephenson and Sir Ian McKellen

‘My first introduction was him asking me what I wanted for breakfast, as I don’t eat meat. He started making me scrambled eggs!’

Director Joe Stephenson is recalling the first time he met iconic actor Sir Ian McKellen, after a famous mutual friend (more on which later) suggested Ian have him over for brunch. And oh, how I can picture the scene.

He might be a star of stage (King Lear, Amadeus) and screen (Lord of the Rings, X-Men). But it’s Ian’s small screen role as Freddie from Vicious that springs to mind as Joe tells his story. Stood over the cooker, in a satin dressing gown, in his fabulous London townhouse, naturally. Am I right?

‘He has a very kind and gentle heart’

So, what’s Ian really like? ‘He’s an extremely generous person,’ gushes Joe. ‘You have this vision of this individual who gives off warmth. It’s not at all artificial, it’s entirely real. He has a very kind and gentle heart.’

Little did Joe know they’d fast become firm friends, or that Ian would go on to throw his support behind Joe’s 2015 movie Chicken.

‘I suggested he introduce me at a screening, and that might help get some buzz,’ says Joe. ‘He said: “Absolutely, Let’s do four.”‘

Now, Ian serves both as supporter and inspirer behind Joe’s latest project: the critically-acclaimed documentary McKellen: Playing the Part.

The result of 14 hours of interviews, this stirring film explores the movingly eloquent 79-year-old’s life, career and activism, while also touching on themes of love, sex and death. Here, Joe tells us more…

Where did the idea for the film come from?

Ian was a fan of my first film and we became friends. Over dinner one time he said he was going to write an autobiography, he’d got a big advance. So he was telling me about his life, growing up. I was like ‘This is great, I’m really looking forward to it!’

A week later I saw him. He said he’d given it back and wasn’t going to do it. So I then thought – well, I feel privileged knowing Ian, about his life in the way I do, from having direct conversations with him. He’s inspiring. I felt, ‘There’s a way of telling his story without him writing it, if he doesn’t want to write.’ I proposed to him – well, I didn’t really know what I was going to do, as I’m not a documentary film maker, fiction has always been my passion. But I figured the best way to do it would be to sit down as friends and talk on camera.

He was like: ‘I don’t think anyone’s going to be interested in this!’ and I was like: ‘Sure…’ This was a problem throughout the entire thing. He was like: ‘Why are we talking about this?’ It took us five days of interviews.

Was it a conscious decision to cap it at 90 minutes?

The first cut of the film was a good three hours and 45 minutes! I’ve always taken the Hitchcock rule quite seriously, that films shouldn’t be longer than your bladder can hold a drink. I also didn’t want talking heads. I wanted it to be from him.

Were there any stories you were sad to cut?

Lots. There was a story he told about being on stage in Amadeus. The opening of the show was him on stage waiting for the lights to go down. Every night he was interrupted by someone moving about in the back. At the same time, in New York City, David Bowie was doing a show next door, I can’t remember what. Because he had so many fans outside around the stage door, he would go through the Amadeus stage to get to his theater! Every night, it was Bowie putting Ian off! It’s a great story, but it didn’t really benefit the narrative of the film or drive the momentum forward.

What was your favourite discovery about Ian that you made?

Hopefully, what you get from the film is someone who is constantly questioning himself, questioning his decisions and how he should live, and what acting is. And how that’s affecting his daily life, and the nature of acting. It’s not uncertainty…but I always thought of him as someone who very clearly knew who he was and how to live his life, which is true. But I was fascinated that, alongside that, he still has the doubts that everyone has about life and how they’re living it and how they’ve lived it, what their focuses are.

I always assumed, as you get older, it all becomes clearer. From talking to Ian, and doing this, I’ve realized it doesn’t. It’s always a constant question – or at least for the quizzical-natured person.

That was a discovery, not necessarily about Ian, but the process of ageing was a discovery to me. I had an idea of what ageing is like and is. But you don’t ever really sit down for that amount of time and talk to somebody about their life in that way. What comes out of that is quite fascinating. That’s a very strange answer to your question!

No, that’s cool! I was going to ask what the most emotional part of making the film was, but I guess it was the talk of ageing, death, funerals. I found that so sad, but also inspiring, to see someone talk about it so honestly….

That was definitely the most moving. Knowing Ian on a personal level, I knew I wanted him to talk about that, because we’ve talked about it privately. Most people of his age do [think about it], but I didn’t know it would be in your mind so much. That was a surprise, and a very unusual conversation to have with somebody. It’s very weird to think you’re considering the end of your life.

His plans for his funeral are fascinating. So Sir Ian McKellen-ish…

Yes. The thing is, the ‘Sir’ – he never wanted to be referred to as Sir. That’s why he’s not credited as Sir Ian. So the funeral stuff, he wants it to be in a theater, which he classes as his real home. That’s lovely, and it’s lovely to be able to have the opportunity to plan that. It’s tragic if you don’t have the opportunity to think about that, and nobody wants to think about that! But I like that he has.

It’s inspiring. I might plan mine! There’s a screening coming up that includes a Q&A with Graham Norton. I saw your tweet that you won’t be asking questions this time, but is there one question you want to ask him that you haven’t?

There are always things in daily life where you go ‘Oh, I wonder what he thinks on this subject.’ Whether it’s what’s happening currently, politically. The film was never going to be about politics, but I always find it interesting, as he’s very good at speaking about that stuff.

Do you want to know what I would ask?

Go on…

I’m not looking for you to answer for him, but I want to know if he has love in his life currently, and if he has a partner, or partners. I can’t imagine being a better catch at his age than him…

[Laughs] I can’t answer that for him, but the thing is, there’s a reason… If anyone’s had a criticism of the film so far, I suppose, it’s that they want to know more about his current private life. And he does address it in the film, and I felt like it was full enough. He’s created a family of friends, and that’s what his priority is. I think he said, and we don’t include it in the film, his life isn’t about finding that anymore.

He’s got wonderful friendships with people he’s had relationships with in the past. Particularly Shawn obviously. Friendships are fulfilling enough. It never felt like a subject that I wanted to go into. We brought up Sean [Mathias], because he’s so important. We brought up the key people in his life. That felt enough for me.

How has Ian as a person, and his work, impacted your life?

I’m of a generation that knew him as Magento! With maturity [I’ve] discovered films like Gods and Monsters and Walter. And I only got to see him live on stage after I knew him. From a director’s point of view, he’s someone who it would always be an honor to work with. But it’s knowing him personally that’s affected my life the most. Him as a friend, an inspiring individual and a supportive person in my life. That’s his influence.

How did you meet him the first time?

Through a mutual friend, [the author and screenwriter] Martin Sherman, who wrote the play Bent.

Finally, I noticed that you’ve always worked with Stephen Fry on The Happy Prince – are [LGBTI] people and themes something you see yourself touching on again and again in your career and is there a particular reason for that?

Yes, I suppose so. I touched on the issue of gay characters in a recent article because of the Love, Simon thing. My feeling is very much that gay characters and gay lives, the story is always motivated by their sexuality. One of things I want to do is ‘Why does that have to be the case?’ There are plenty of examples of when the character is straight, their sexuality has very little bearing on the story.

I would like to start to see us move on a little bit, from selling gay stories that are just related to their struggle with being gay, or the people around them’s struggle with their sexuality. And if you’re asking if I’m gay, yes I am! So obviously this is a personal thing. There isn’t a film where I’ve gone: ‘That’s my attitude to my sexuality and my life.’ And I very much enjoy gay cinema, and like seeing films like Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon. But it still doesn’t quite represent me and my life, my private life. I think there’s still progression to be made and I’m interested in doing that.

McKellen: Playing the Part was released on 27 May in the UK, followed by selected encores. Its US release date is June 19. Please check mckellenfilm.com for your nearest screening

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