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John Doyle: What makes actors want to act?

We were discussing Shakespeare and acting the other day, here at the TV Critics Winter Press Tour. And with no less authorities than Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Richard Eyre.

Not that any of them insisted on being called "Sir." The Sir who matters is the main character in The Dresser, Ronald Harwood's classic play, which is getting a revival in a new version coming to the Starz channel this spring, and to Super Channel in Canada.

In the much-loved play, "Sir" is the elderly lead actor and leader of a travelling theatre troupe. Events unfold during one fateful day during the Second World War, when the troupe is set to stage a performance of King Lear. Of course, it is Sir (Hopkins) who plays Lear and it is just one crisis after another. It is the task of his dresser (McKellen) to hold everything together.

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Hopkins was here in person with Eyre and producer Colin Callender, who also accepted a Golden Globe for the miniseries Wolf Hall while in Los Angeles. McKellen was on a satellite link from London, where it was the middle of the night, but he was quite chipper.

Less chipper and more ruminative was Hopkins. At 78, he exudes a languid air, a man ready to consider his career and admit to mistakes. In fact, after discussing The Dresser and his early theatre career, he admitted to regret about playing Hannibal Lecter again after The Silence of The Lambs. "I did it once. Made the mistake of doing it twice, three times." Asked if he'd consider another go at Lecter, he was dismissive. "No. Done with that."

He seemed very proud of The Dresser (a 1983 film version had Albert Finney as Sir and Tom Courtenay as the dresser) and oozed affection about the world it inhabits. He described it as "a painless revisit to a world I knew 50 years ago. Now I can understand why so many great actors like Shakespeare."

The Dresser is about a man driven by a need to bring Shakespeare to small towns and villages. When asked what is it about Shakespeare that appeals to the masses, not just an urban sophisticated audience, Hopkins was honest: "I don't know if I can answer that question. 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 in Shakespeare, although I saw a number of Shakespeare in tours. But as an actor I never did much Shakespeare. I never did all those big parts. I did play Othello, and I played Lear, and Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, but I had an uneasy relationship with Shakespeare."

At this point, McKellen gently interjected. "You did Audrey in As You Like It. One of your great performances."

Charmed, Hopkins said: "Thank you for reminding me. But that's a long time ago. That was 50 years ago. But I had an uneasy relationship with myself in the theatre, so I skedaddled and came to America. That's an honest appraisement of my relationship with Shakespeare.

"But on this one, with The Dresser, I was intrigued by what particular nature it is that makes actors want to act. Why do actors want to act? Why do they want to do Shakespeare? Why do they night after night after night go on stage and repeat the same performances over and over? The Dresser more or less answers it, that you have to go half mad to survive that kind of life. Sir is a man who is obsessed with Shakespeare and obsessed with success, obsessed with the art and obsessed with Lear. I hate these awful words like 'resonated' – I can't stand that word – but The Dresser touched something in me."

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Since Hopkins seemed puzzled by what motivates actors, he was asked if, at his age, he was tempted to quit the business. This seemed to make him melancholy. "Did I ever want to quit? Yes, several times. Every day I think about quitting, but they come and offer me a job, and I say okay, because I'm an actor. We are mad. All actors want to be loved – I think that's something in all actors. We want more, more, more."

McKellen was amused: "I never wanted to quit," he said with a laugh from London. "What would I do? It's one of the thrilling things about acting – you don't necessarily have to stop. There will always be the part for some old geezer in the corner of the script. You've got me for as long as I'm mobile."

There followed a lovely bit of theatrical camaraderie between the two old gents. Hopkins explained that while filming The Dresser he was obliged to play Lear in front of an audience in a theatre. He remembers the day exactly – Feb. 9 of last year.

"I'd been hoping that I hadn't lost it, that I hadn't lost the technique or lost whatever it was. Ian very kindly asked, 'Are you okay, Sir?' And I said, 'I am really nervous. I haven't been on the stage for a long time.' And Ian went and addressed the audience and said: 'My friend, Anthony Hopkins, is a little nervous, so give him a nice round of applause.'"

McKellen, amused, concluded: "Will somebody please give him a big kiss for me? I'm distraught not to be with you there. And check that he's all right. He does sound fine. Sending all my love."

Eyre was anxious to promote The Dresser as unique. "I'd just like to say about The Dresser that it is a play. It was introduced here, I think, as a movie for television, but it's not a movie, really. It's the long script that was written for the play. It's not really been cut down very much. The experience is unique. You are sitting in front of your television, there will be no commercials, and the story will go through in 90 minutes, and you'll have the same sort of experience as you get concentrating on the play."

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That's great, but what we wanted was more of Hopkins and McKellen talking Shakespeare and telling yarns. When you see it, you'll know that is what The Dresser is about, thank heavens.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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