Sunday, March 22, 2015

Anthony Hopkins & Ian McKellen Talk Tyrannical Directors, State Of TV & Finally Working Together On ‘The Dresser’

by Nancy Tartaglione
March 19, 2015 5:00pm


On the Ealing Studios lot, which once played host to Alec Guinness and the Ealing Comedies — and is now the residence of Downton Abbey — Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen have been shooting BBC/Starz’s upcoming The Dresser. This is the adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s classic play that’s produced by Colin Callender’s Playground Entertainment. It’s the first time in many years that a play has been adapted in such a way for television. And it joins the two veteran stars together for the first time. It will air on BBC Two this year and on Starz in 2016.

Callender tells me it is likely the first project of a six-part series of single dramas that Playground is developing for television that he will produce with Sonia Friedman. I was on The Dresser set last week, speaking with the principals on such diverse topics as Hopkins’ distaste for theater acting thanks to “tyrannical directors” and McKellen’s belief that some television is currently “in the doldrums.”

In The Dresser, Hopkins plays an ailing actor known as Sir, and McKellen is his devoted backstage hand and dresser, Norman. It takes place on a fateful night in a small regional theater during World War II as a troupe of touring actors stage a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. As the backstage situation reaches a crisis, it parallels the onstage struggle of Lear and his Fool. The play was inspired by Harwood’s experiences as a dresser for the distinguished British actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit. Richard Eyre is directing. Emily Watson, Happy Valley‘s Sarah Lancashire, Everest’s Vanessa Kirby and Edward Fox, who also had a role in Peter Yates’ Oscar-nominated 1983 film version, are part of the supporting cast.

The small set of Sir’s dressing room and other parts of the backstage are closed off with a video village a few feet away. There are about 30 people milling about. Watson tells me, “There is so much history here, somewhere if you dig deep enough, the walls have got bales of hay in them.”

The craft services table is emblematic of British shoots. There are some sandwiches, mounds of teabags and three jars of Marmite. McKellen, I’m told, drinks Marmite with hot water in the mornings.

When I arrive, he, Hopkins, and Watson are shooting a scene where Norman, growing increasingly drunk over the course of the night, is regaling Sir on the reactions out front. The three actors clearly are reverent of the material, but there’s friendly banter in between takes when Hopkins says he had the recurring “actors’ dream” the night before of being onstage and forgetting one’s lines. He later tells me: “The dream is very real. I suppose what it is is that the subconscious mind regurgitates the mirror image. I’m meticulous about learning lines — I always have a dread about not knowing them, so I do know them.”

While learning his lines in California beginning last fall, Hopkins said he was “counting the days” until production started. “I had my face buried in the book all the time, much to the alarm of my wife (who said), ‘You’ve got to get out.’ But I loved it.”

Now, he says, “To do such a well-structured play and something I know — the insecurities the fears jealousy, paranoia, all of that. I had a dresser at the National Theatre who was one of the loneliest men I’ve ever met. He lived in East London and had nothing. Poor old guy. I remember everything. He’s dead and gone now, but I remember the loneliness of that guy. This is Norman.”

Hopkins didn’t last long on the boards when he was younger, saying he “skedaddled from the theater years ago.” What made him leave? “I couldn’t fit in, I just feel alien in companies. … I get bored after the second night. I’d think ‘Oh, God.’ So I escaped and went back to California.” The Dresser is particularly poignant because it brings back the “bleakness of life in those touring companies.” He toured with the National Theatre for four months in 1957, and it was a killer. “Some people thrive on (tours), but I couldn’t. You get the thing where you have the tyrannical directors screaming and shouting, and costume calls at 1 AM and being ridiculed. And, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’m getting out of this; I’d rather do something else’.”

I asked him if he had come across tyrannical directors in film. “I don’t put up with them,” Hopkins said. “They keep out of my way. They don’t mess with me.” The Dresser, he said, is “a return, in a way, to a kind of pain-free visit to the theater.” And working with McKellen has been “extraordinary. … He’s a great actor to be with. He’s a great friend and very, very funny. We laugh all the time.”

The pair were both in Laurence Olivier’s company at the National Theatre many years ago, and each reminisces about the actors of the day — “All the old guys like Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud because we knew all of them, that’s a world I remember,” says Hopkins.

McKellen tells me, “We’ve worked out that I was (at the National) for nine months and I think about the day I left, he joined.” McKellen still regularly does plays, having stuck it out with such artists as Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Michael York, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright, he reels off to me in his dressing room, which is peppered with The Dresser paraphernalia.

Working now with Hopkins, McKellen says: “If you had to pick one of the top actors of our time, you know Anthony Hopkins would have to be up there in any country. So to be close to him while he’s working has been a thrill.”

Watson echoes that there are days “when I really pinch myself; I can’t believe I’m here doing this with these guys.” Watson’s character, Her Ladyship, is Sir’s long-suffering wife and leading lady.


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