Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins on Shakespeare, acting and the lure of British theatre

The acting titans on working together for the first time in BBC2 drama The Dresser and why one of them can't keep a straight face in rehearsal...

Hopkins’s memories of touring are less rose-tinted. “It was fun in a way – theatrical digs and all that – but I’m glad I didn’t have to do it for long. I was never at ease in the theatre. For me it’s a grind. I’ve known a few dressers – there was one old guy at the Old Vic, he was one of the loneliest men I have ever met.

“And I remember watching a couple of great actors – I won’t mention names – quail with nerves before a first night, really frightened to go on stage. I think that at some deep level I must have asked myself all those years ago, ‘Do I really want to go through this stress night after night, after night?’ And the answer was ‘No.’ I guess I’m just bone idle. But I love filming, and this production was like a free visit to the old past, a painless journey back in time and space to life as it was – without having to stay there!” 

For the baker’s son from Margam, Port Talbot, who taught himself to play Beethoven sonatas in his bedroom, self- education is key. “Living in the land of Mickey Mouse, I’m asked to do a bit of teaching in acting schools, and some of them want to do Shakespeare, and the first thing I say to them is, ‘You must read’.” But the Cambridge-educated McKellen is aghast at the idea. “I don’t think people should bother to read Shakespeare. They should see him in the theatre! Reading just reduces him to an examination subject.”

But Hopkins insists, “Read Shakespeare. Read Chekhov, read Homer or philosophy or anything you can get your hands on, because acting isn’t all about red carpets and the Kardashians. It’s about getting a knowledge of civilisation, a knowledge of how humans think, feel and behave.” And when you’re doing it right, it’s about self-knowledge. “Richard Eyre told me Freud said that all old men identify with Lear. And I do get the guy now. Thirty years ago I was nowhere near, but now I really do understand the man. There’s a harshness in him – and there’s a lot of that in me. Something in me that was part of my father and my grandfather. They were tough, rough-around-the-edges men, and there’s something thuggish about Lear.

“He was a great man, but his one flaw was a lack of patience, which destroyed everything. And that’s in my nature, too. I can’t move it. So I’d passionately like to do the play again, here and this time I’d play him like Mike Tyson.”

McKellen crows at the thought of luring his new chum back to the theatre. “He did say he’d do it, and he has said in the past that he wouldn’t, so wouldn’t that be a marvellous thing to come out of all this? 

“The older you get, the more likely you are to be thinking of the end of your life, and mortality is a daily consideration. But I think the pathos for me in The Dresser is that Sir and Norman had dedicated their life to something full of difficulty, and they were doing it not because they couldn’t help it, not just because they had been doing it so long they couldn’t do anything else, but because they felt it mattered.

“I think that if anybody doesn’t understand why old actors go on doing it, then this play is as good a witness as any.” 

The Dresser is on Saturday 31st October at 9.00pm on BBC2