Ian McKellen on Modeling His Career After Laurence Olivier’s

Ian McKellen First Time in Variety
Spiros Halaris for Variety

Ian McKellen stars in “Mr. Holmes,” which bowed Nov. 9 on DVD and Blu-ray. He reunites with writer-director Bill Condon after “Gods and Monsters,” where the actor earned the first of his two Oscar nominations. McKellen was first mentioned in Variety on Nov. 4, 1964, in a review of James Saunders’ play “A Scent of Flowers.”

That was your West End debut?
Yes. I had left university in 1961. In those days, every sizable town in the country had a permanent repertory company, which would do a new play every two to four weeks. I was in a series of those companies. One had to do that in those days: You couldn’t join Equity until you’d done 44 weeks’ work. And until you had your full card, you couldn’t work in the West End, or do film or TV. Finally, I got my full Equity card, No. 42015. It was the proudest day of my life. You knew you were a real actor.

Was “Scent” a good experience?
It was a new play, with a wonderful woman director, Shirley Butler. I had a very nice part. Maggie Smith saw “Scent” and they were looking for someone to play Claudio in “Much Ado About Nothing” at the National Theatre, where she worked. She told Laurence Olivier. And that’s how I got into the National Theatre, along with Maggie, Albert Finney, Mike Gambon, Anthony Hopkins, Lynn Redgrave, Joan Plowright, Derek Jacobi; everybody of my generation went through “Olivier’s repertory company.” That was a real pat on the back, the sense that “You’re one of us.” And Maggie, an actor recognizing and helping another actor — that was so nice.

What was the West End like?
If an actor got paid more than £40 a week, there was no pay for rehearsals. So the cunning management paid me £45, so they wouldn’t have to pay for those weeks of rehearsals. In those days, you had to provide your own clothes if you were in a modern play. For “Scent,” I had to buy a gray suit, but I couldn’t afford it. So they said, “We’ll lend you the money, and we will deduct £5 a week from your salary.” Then I was earning £40 pounds a week — so I should have been paid for rehearsal!

Your role model?
If you looked at Laurence Olivier, you were aware that he had a career. He did his apprenticeship, worked hard, tried to find what he was good at, made mistakes. He clearly was in it for the long haul. I thought that would suit me best, to not worry over little things. That’s what I’m proudest of, looking back: There is a career there.

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