The first ever Starz original movie project, The Dresser, premieres on May 30th 2016. Based on the classic play by Ronald Harwood, this version was adapted and directed by Richard Eyre, and stars Sir Anthony Hopkins and Sir Ian McKellen.
Set in World War II, a small English regional theatre company is touring a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Bombs are falling, sirens are wailing, the curtain is to go up in an hour and the lead actor, Sir (Anthony Hopkins) is missing. His dresser Norman (McKellen) must scramble to keep the production alive – will he manage to get the curtain up on time, will Sir turn up to play Lear and, if he does, will he be able to perform that night?
The two ‘Sirs’ came to the TV Critics tour to talk about their venture together.
What is your personal relationship with doing Shakespeare in the theatre?
Ian McKellen: I’ve spent an awful lot of my professional life being involved in Shakespeare, for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. But I’ve also spent a lot of my life seeing Shakespeare as an audience.
The sort of company that Sir was taking around, at a time when I was a young lad, were very precious to us regional audiences.
Although the London press might have been rather unkind to someone like Sir, (as) he was a bit of a throwback to older times, his audiences didn’t think that.
They shared his view, that Shakespeare, once you discover him, can be right at the center of your imagination, and long may he continue to be just that.
Anthony Hopkins: I have an odd relationship to Shakespeare in the theatre. I came into this profession by accident, really. I wanted to be a musician.
So I came into this as an outsider, so I never really became immersed, although I saw a number of Shakespeare in tours. I did play Othello and Lear, but I had an uneasy relationship with Shakespeare. So I skedaddled and came to America.
On The Dresser, I was intrigued by what particular nature it is that makes actors want to act. I’ve always been fascinated by that.
Why do they want to do Shakespeare? Why do they night after night go on stage and repeat the same performances over and over? And this play, more or less answers that.
Ian, you’ve played Lear yourself to great acclaim, what was it like to be there playing the dresser, watching someone else play Lear?
Ian: I’m very glad that Lear as a concept and as a player was very familiar to me because Norman, the dresser, knows the play backwards, perhaps even better than Sir does on this night of all nights.
So just to feel that Lear had seeped into me and controlled me for a year of my life was a good preparation.
Anthony, there is a line in the film where you say, ‘I hate the cinema. I believe in living things,’ which is ironic, given your career. Did you want to be loved by many more people through film than you could be by an audience?
Anthony: I couldn’t do (the stage), I lost my nerve. And I should have gone back, I suppose, but I thought, enough, I can’t do this.
There was something in my nature, something made me restless, so I thought I’d come out here to do something, I didn’t know what.
Ian, had you seen Tom Courtenay in the role of Norman?
Ian: I’ve been aware of Tom Courtenay all my working life.
I did send him an email to explain that I was going to play one of his parts, and he was very gracious about it, because he knows well, we all do, that he will always be the first.
He was the first dresser.
Have either of you ever considered giving up acting?
Anthony: Well, it’s not a difficult life. Thank God for it, because it’s given me a tremendous life, the acting profession.
Did I ever want to quit? Yes, several times. Every day I think about quitting, but they come up and offer me a job, and I say, ‘Okay,’ because I’m an actor.
Ian: No. What would I do? One of the thrilling things about acting is that you don’t necessarily have to stop. There will always be some little parts for an old geezer in the corner of the script.
Anthony and I are very lucky in this that our two characters are center stage, as it were.