On the Ealing Studios lot, which once played host to Alec Guinness and the Ealing Comedies — and is now the residence of Downton Abbey — Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen have been shooting BBC/Starz’s upcoming The Dresser. This is the adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s classic play that’s produced by Colin Callender’s Playground Entertainment. It’s the first time in many years that a play has been adapted in such a way for television. And it joins the two veteran stars together for the first time. It will air on BBC Two this year and on Starz in 2016.
Callender tells me it is likely the first project of a six-part series of single dramas that Playground is developing for television that he will produce with Sonia Friedman. I was on The Dresser set last week, speaking with the principals on such diverse topics as Hopkins’ distaste for theater acting thanks to “tyrannical directors” and McKellen’s belief that some television is currently “in the doldrums.”
In The Dresser, Hopkins plays an ailing actor known as Sir, and McKellen is his devoted backstage hand and dresser, Norman. It takes place on a fateful 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 the backstage situation reaches a crisis, it parallels the onstage struggle of Lear and his Fool. The play was inspired by Harwood’s experiences as a dresser for the distinguished British actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit. Richard Eyre is directing. Emily Watson, Happy Valley‘s Sarah Lancashire, Everest’s Vanessa Kirby and Edward Fox, who also had a role in Peter Yates’ Oscar-nominated 1983 film version, are part of the supporting cast.
The small set of Sir’s dressing room and other parts of the backstage are closed off with a video village a few feet away. There are about 30 people milling about. Watson tells me, “There is so much history here, somewhere if you dig deep enough, the walls have got bales of hay in them.”
The craft services table is emblematic of British shoots. There are some sandwiches, mounds of teabags and three jars of Marmite. McKellen, I’m told, drinks Marmite with hot water in the mornings.
When I arrive, he, Hopkins, and Watson are shooting a scene where Norman, growing increasingly drunk over the course of the night, is regaling Sir on the reactions out front. The three actors clearly are reverent of the material, but there’s friendly banter in between takes when Hopkins says he had the recurring “actors’ dream” the night before of being onstage and forgetting one’s lines. He later tells me: “The dream is very real. I suppose what it is is that the subconscious mind regurgitates the mirror image. I’m meticulous about learning lines — I always have a dread about not knowing them, so I do know them.”
While learning his lines in California beginning last fall, Hopkins said he was “counting the days” until production started. “I had my face buried in the book all the time, much to the alarm of my wife (who said), ‘You’ve got to get out.’ But I loved it.”
Now, he says, “To do such a well-structured play and something I know — the insecurities the fears jealousy, paranoia, all of that. I had a dresser at the National Theatre who was one of the loneliest men I’ve ever met. He lived in East London and had nothing. Poor old guy. I remember everything. He’s dead and gone now, but I remember the loneliness of that guy. This is Norman.”
Hopkins didn’t last long on the boards when he was younger, saying he “skedaddled from the theater years ago.” What made him leave? “I couldn’t fit in, I just feel alien in companies. … I get bored after the second night. I’d think ‘Oh, God.’ So I escaped and went back to California.” The Dresser is particularly poignant because it brings back the “bleakness of life in those touring companies.” He toured with the National Theatre for four months in 1957, and it was a killer. “Some people thrive on (tours), but I couldn’t. You get the thing where you have the tyrannical directors screaming and shouting, and costume calls at 1 AM and being ridiculed. And, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’m getting out of this; I’d rather do something else’.”
I asked him if he had come across tyrannical directors in film. “I don’t put up with them,” Hopkins said. “They keep out of my way. They don’t mess with me.” The Dresser, he said, is “a return, in a way, to a kind of pain-free visit to the theater.” And working with McKellen has been “extraordinary. … He’s a great actor to be with. He’s a great friend and very, very funny. We laugh all the time.”
The pair were both in Laurence Olivier’s company at the National Theatre many years ago, and each reminisces about the actors of the day — “All the old guys like Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud because we knew all of them, that’s a world I remember,” says Hopkins.
McKellen tells me, “We’ve worked out that I was (at the National) for nine months and I think about the day I left, he joined.” McKellen still regularly does plays, having stuck it out with such artists as Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Michael York, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright, he reels off to me in his dressing room, which is peppered with The Dresser paraphernalia.
Working now with Hopkins, McKellen says: “If you had to pick one of the top actors of our time, you know Anthony Hopkins would have to be up there in any country. So to be close to him while he’s working has been a thrill.”
Watson echoes that there are days “when I really pinch myself; I can’t believe I’m here doing this with these guys.” Watson’s character, Her Ladyship, is Sir’s long-suffering wife and leading lady.
I chatted with each of the three about the fact that this play is going to be on television and what they think of the current medium. Hopkins is doing HBO’s sci-fi Western Westworld, McKellen recently starred in the bsitcom Vicious with Jacobi, and Watson has Lifetime’s mini Marilyn coming up.
She tells me, “It feels like there’s a lot more fluidity between film and TV and feels like there’s becoming a much broader church — much more room for interesting and diverse work.” Watson loves “the speed of it; it’s very hard to go back to film when you’re doing two or three pages a day. This is more muscular, and it’s really alive.”
Hopkins says he was “a great fan” of Breaking Bad. Television is “really demanding because you have to have a clarity, but in the end the story is told efficiently but without all this crappy greenscreen and cutting and editing and car chases and you don’t know who the hell is chasing who.”
McKellen has other ideas about the current state of television, but mostly with regard to the old days of putting plays on the screen. He has no snobbery and indeed is a fan of House Of Cards. He found the Netflix version “riveting,” but had to give it up after an attempt at binge-watching. “If you’re watching three on the trot, you begin to anticipate what’s going to happen. So I think I really spoiled the series for myself.”
He would gladly do a miniseries nowadays but feels that “television is in the doldrums” with regard to screening plays. When television “started out in this country there would be a play like this on every night of the week. … Watching those plays, you just saw so many stories told in so many different ways. We’re denied that now on television so the idea that (The Dresser) might be seen and enjoyed and there might be another to follow is a very hopeful sign.”
In the late afternoon, I watch a particularly intense scene between Kirby’s Irene — the aspiring actress who plays the Map-Bearer in King Lear but desperately wants to play Cordelia. Hopkins’ Sir has to manhandle and ultimately lift her, cradle style, in a sweeping and unexpected movement. A crewmember who won’t be seen on camera helps lift Kirby into Hopkins’ arms. They repeat this several times and Hopkins finally tells the helper to let him hold onto her on his own. He then keeps her aloft for quite a while and after setting her down, clenches his fists and starts impersonating Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, hamming it up with a “Yo, Adrian!” to the enjoyment of everyone watching.
He then hustles out to the monitors to watch the scene again and says in that Welsh lilt, “Oh, yes, I did do it.” It’s a fantastic moment shared by all.
Hopkins and Kirby then shoot the part of the scene that leads up to the lift. In it, Irene is interrogated by Sir about her theatrical ambitions and is forced to approach him and lift her skirt. They perform it several times, and by the last take, Kirby is crying because she’s so moved by the intensity of the scene.
I asked her later what it was like to perform such a scene with Hopkins. The affable up-and-comer who is simultaneously doing ITV’s Frankenstein Chronicles and has features Genius and Everest in the can, shrieks: “I know! When I read that scene, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be felt up by Anthony Hopkins.’ It’s kind of like a semi-dream of mine I think.”
Regarding more of this kind of work, Hopkins says he’d be on board. “To come back here and do this is such a great luxury, such a great bonus. I’d go back and do a film, make a bit of cash and come back and do another one for sandwich money.” The last part is a joke, he says, adding, “This is the happiest thing I’ve been on in many, many years.”
Speaking of money, I mention to McKellen that he was the highest-grossing actor internationally in 2014. He is indeed aware but says with a laugh, “It doesn’t mean very much except that I was. … It’s meat for a conversation I suppose, but it doesn’t mean that I’m the richest actor in the world, and it’s no insurance for the future.”
When we leave his dressing room to walk back to set together, he asks me: “Nancy, what did you say I am again? The highest what?” I reiterate his record, and he says, “Did you tell Tony that?”