‘McKellen: Playing the Part’ DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: A Heartwarming, Enlightening Sit-Down with a Living Legend


Unless you happen to be in the business of interviewing people or have the good fortune to be attending a Q&A, being part of a good old ‘one on one’ with an actor or director can be rare. And even if you are involved in the aforementioned scenarios, it’s likely the interviewee is either contractually obligated to only really talk about their latest feature, or is having their insight watered down by an audience member’s ‘not so much a question as an observation really’ inquiry.

In Joe Stephenson’s McKellen: Playing the Part, the audience is given a ringside seat to 90 minutes of unfiltered Ian McKellen, distilled from 14 hours of interviews. And straight off the bat, it needs to be mentioned what an absolute joy it is to be in his company.

Starting off with his days growing up in Wigan in the North of England, McKellen takes us through his days in Cambridge, hitting it big with Shakespeare and his politicking during the 80s in defiance of the rather heinous Section 28, a concerted effort to oppress the homosexual community. With each chapter of his life, the actor often comes across as genuine and warm. Other times, he appears reserved, choosing his words carefully in an effort not to be misconstrued.

In terms of the latter, his behaviour is perhaps not too surprising. McKellen admits upfront to having trouble with interviews and being thrown into a scenario he can’t prepare for. Each interview seeing him having to perform as a different version of himself. Does he need to be loud and raucous for late night television? Or does the topic of discussion require a more restrained Ian, who must add gravitas to what he is being asked to discuss. This swapping and changing of personality echoes throughout his life, with McKellen admitting to defining himself by a series of characters as he grew up: the boy who did theatre, the boy whose mother died of cancer and so on.

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Or course, it’s not just interviews that Ian has had to wrestle with. For a large part of his life, McKellen’s sexuality was downplayed. Openly gay to his friends in the theatre, it wouldn’t be until his late 40s that McKellen would publicly come out; the AIDS crisis and aforementioned Section 28 making the actor realise that he had to use his notoriety to get something done. Even here, Stephenson manages to pick up upon the dichotomy at play in McKellen’s world outside of the closet. McKellen discusses the usage of labels and how adolescents today embrace their identity and gender. To him it’s a foreign time; one just simply didn’t not talk about being gay in 1940s Wigan. It’s clear that in his later years, he’s still finding himself learning new things.

There’s the danger of painting Playing the Part as a sombre recounting of man’s life, but to reiterate, there is a lot of joy to be had. McKellen has a sharp talent for self-deprecation. Listen to him discuss playing Magneto in the X-Men films and requesting a body suit to give him some muscles, or the time he got wound up for not being nominated by a certain award body and looking up the list of ‘hacks’ who had won it before so he could vent spleen, only to find he’d won the award many moons earlier. Sure, being aware of his audience, it could be argued that McKellen knows he needs to adopt the role of the fun uncle occasionally for the film, but, honestly, who is going to begrudge him weaving in these tales.

Heartwarming and enlightening, Playing the Part is a tonic to the bloated blockbusters of the last few months.

‘McKellen: Playing the Part’ will be in Australian cinemas from September 27.