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Ian McKellen Tells Cate Blanchett How He Brought Gandalf and Sherlock Holmes to Life

After journeying to Middle-earth together for the “Lord of the Rings” movies, Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen are playing more grounded roles in this year’s films. In “Mr. Holmes,” McKellen stars as the famous detective in old age. Blanchett pulls double duty in “Carol,” as a 1950s housewife who falls for a younger woman; and in “Truth,” in which she plays embattled “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes.

Ian McKellen:Carol” is a love story, isn’t it?

Cate Blanchett: I don’t know if you’ve read “The Price of Salt.” It was Patricia Highsmith’s first novel. She writes about the really dark recesses of the human mind, which is what I love about her. And all these unpalatable thoughts and obsessions that we all have, but we never give voice to, or admit to anybody. And Phyllis Nagy wrote the most beautiful screenplay.

McKellen: And you can tell it’s a Todd Haynes movie right from the beginning.

Blanchett: I did another film called “Truth.” It’s about this producer, Mary Mapes, and Dan Rather, who was the anchorman for CBS. Mary produced this story about (George W.) Bush’s service in the Air National Guard. Subsequently, the story was picked apart, Dan stepped down as anchor, and Mary lost her job.

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McKellen: Did you meet her?

Blanchett:
I did.

McKellen:
Are you anything like her? Is she anything like you?

Blanchett:
I wish I had the same level of tenacity. She’s probably the only person who went into a war zone with a curling iron. She’s covered so many wars. But she’s sort of an amazing series of contradictions, incredibly passionate, and has a very strong moral core.

McKellen: I think it’s sometimes fun to be in a movie that’s got a message that you know is going to upset people.

Blanchett: How did the project of “Mr. Holmes” actually come to you? Had you been long-obsessed with him?

McKellen: No. I’ve always known about Sherlock Holmes. I mean, everybody has. And then Bill Condon, who I’d worked with on “Gods and Monsters,” he called up and said, “I’ve got a film.” And I said, “Oh, well when do we start?” And then when it turned out to be Sherlock Holmes — that was an added thrill.

Blanchett: You have such an incredible range. I hadn’t seen you for a while, and I was watching “Mr. Holmes,” and I thought, “Oh, Ian’s really aged. Is he all right? Maybe he’s been very ill.” And then, of course, the film goes back into flashbacks. But what you were doing with your voice, it was really subtle.

McKellen: I loved doing that. Don’t you love doing that?

Blanchett: Playing old?

McKellen: Oh, yes.

Blanchett: I’m playing old today.

McKellen: I was at one of these (award shows) and they showed a clip of me when I was about 25. I was pretty gorgeous, I must say. But the acting was appalling. I mean, dreadful.

Blanchett: But your version of appalling, I think, would do for the rest of us.

McKellen: No, no, no. Dreadful. Until quite recently.

Blanchett: Oh, have you just given up caring?

McKellen: Oh no, I care more. Because if I’m not good at acting, I’m not good at anything else.

Blanchett: You’ve played in so many different genres. I think probably the first time I saw you on film is “Bent.” And then you had originally made that with Sean Mathias on stage. Did you find it much easier, having originated the role?

McKellen: Actually, the part I was playing in the film was not what I played originally. I was playing my character’s uncle. But a good example is when I did “Richard III,” which I had done a lot. When we got to do it (as a film), it was bliss, because I knew the character backwards. And all I had to think about was, “How can I do it for the camera?” I just wish we could rehearse films, don’t you?

Blanchett: I know. I did a film with Steven Soderbergh called “The Good German,” which about two and a half people saw. But they had been filming for two weeks, and I literally arrived the day before, and walked onto set and sort of had to play this German woman. And we just did one take. And I said, “Don’t you ever rehearse?” And he said, “No, I just have dinner parties so that people can get to know one another.” Because oftentimes you walk on set and then suddenly you’re in bed with someone who you’ve never met before.

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