Ian McKellen 'not prepared to die' to make films during Covid era

The Olivier Awards, UK theatre’s big night were supposed to have been held in April this year, but in common with other ceremonies and red carpet events surrounding the creative industries, it was postponed.

Instead it will take the shape of a pre-recorded show, filmed by ITV already, to be screened on Sunday night.

Only then will the winners be revealed to the public. That’s not the case with Sir Ian McKellen. It’s already been revealed that he is getting a special Olivier, his seventh, in honour off the extraordinary tour he undertook last year to mark its 80th birthday.

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He visited more than 80 small venues within one man show, where he reprised his greatest hits - from Gandalf to Shakespeare. The aim of this, and the bucket collection he helped with after the shows, was to raise money for the theatres to use however they needed.

We built a lot of women’s loos he told me, and fire curtains and set up scholarships. It’s not lost on him that within months of the tour ending, fundraising and money would become existential issues for theatres around the UK, as lockdown began.

He has no doubts the buildings will survive, but wonders how many organisations will be able to resume business after the pandemic. However, Sir Ian is optimistic.

  • McKellen says he's not willing to die to record a film during Covid era

He thinks it would be a good idea to stage an Arts Festival to remind Britain of the power of the creative industries, perhaps the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe can go on tour, he suggests.

He looks towards Shakespeare’s era when the Bubonic Plague closed theatres for a year. He wrote some of his greatest works he says, in that period, perhaps some writers are creating masterpieces right now.

Sir Ian is now 81 and says as he is quite lazy (his words) lockdown has been bearable for him, as he enjoys passing the time reading and cooking and keeping fit. But he is looking forward to life as usual, in particular, the resurrection of his plans to perform Hamlet, aged 81, five decades after he played the character.

The production for the Theatre Royal Windsor, began rehearsals but due to impracticalities, not least financial, he says caused by Covid restrictions, they were paused, but he says the minute they can, he will do the production, shrugging off his age - an 81 year old Hamlet - the character is assumed to be in his 30s.

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In the olden days he says, you would get a 60 or 70-year-old Hamlet he says, it’s all acting after all, but age blind casting means the audience can look at a production with new eyes.

Sir Ian, of course is a star of screen as well as stage. But the Lord of the Rings actor says the film roles he has been offered at the moment are too risky for an 81-year-old to accept. I’m in the vulnerable group he says, am I prepared to die for a film role? So he will stay safe in the pandemic and wait to return to Hamlet.

He is happy the Oliviers are going ahead in some form he says, to celebrate theatre. There will of course be reference to the devastation lockdown has caused in the theatre industry - the Duchess of Cornwall, a great supporter of the Oliviers has recorded a speech urging theatre workers to be resilient, we miss you she says.