Starz’s presentation of The Dresser, presenting Ronald Harwood’s original text as it was written for the stage, “harkens back to GE Theater and Playhouse 90,” exec producer Colin Callender said this morning at TCA.

A world in which actors have a chance to do scenes that last more than a page and a quarter “is a very rare thing…these days,” he said. “It’s a way to bring extraordinary writing to the screen” and to provide actors of the stature of Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins “roles aren’t available in the movies any more.”

The two-hour TV movie teams McKellen and Hopkins for the first time. Richard Eyre is directing the presentation of Harwood’s classic portrait of theater life backstage: the story of one 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 bombs are falling, the curtain is set to go up in an hour, but the actor/patriarch “Sir,” who is playing Lear, can’t be found, and his dresser “Norman” scrambles to keep the production afloat.

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So Hopkins is playing Sir and McKellen is Norman? Wow. I would've assumed it'd be the other...

Eyre likened the production to movies of the ’30s and ’40s “where audiences were perfectly happy to tolerate scenes of two people talking for 10-12 minutes.”

“Look at All About Eve – it had very long speeches,” Eyre said of the Joseph L. Mankiewicz back-stage comedy. Ditto Quentin Tarantino’s work, Eyre added – a segue we’re guessing few saw coming. “Dialogue from beginning to end – probably more words than in The Dresser.”

“I wish we had more of films for television…that trusted that people talking to each other is extremely potent television,” he concluded.

McKellen and Hopkins both were asked what drew them to the project. McKellen spent much of his professional life being involved with Shakespeare, as a “lad” the traveling bands of actors “were very precious to us regional audiences, though the London press might have been very unkind to someone like Sir.” Hopkins, however, had an “odd relationship” with Shakespeare and theater, never becoming immersed in either, and “skedaddled and came to America relatively early in his career.”

“I was intrigued with what peculiar nature makes actors want to act? Why do actors want to act, do Shakespeare?” Hopkins said. “Why, night after night, do they go on stage and repeat same performances over and over? This play more or less answers that. You have to go half mad to survive that kind of life. The man I play, Sir, is obsessed with Shakespeare, obsessed with success and…obsessed with Lear.”