The Hackney Empire, a fixture in East London since 1901, is a grand old dame of a theater that in its time hosted Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and the queen of the music halls, Marie Lloyd.
Yet, in spite of the august history (and some less august — for a time it was a bingo hall), it had never boasted three knights of the realm on its stage at the same time.
Until, that is, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Ian McKellen and director Sir Richard Eyre united for The Dresser, premiering May 30 on Starz. It's a BBC-Starz television adaptation of Ronald Harwood's 1980 stage play about life in the theater, set during World War II.
Hopkins, 77, plays Sir, a touring actor-manager enduring an existential crisis as his troupe wonders if he'll be able to perform King Lear that night. McKellen, 76, is Norman, Sir's dresser and confidant. Their scenes together are, as one extra puts it, "an acting master class."
On this day, Hopkins, McKellen and Eyre are all up on the stage, with Hopkins in full King Lear regalia: wild eyebrows, heavy stage makeup and crown. On "Action!" sound effects reproduce the eerie rumble of an air raid as the curtain comes down. Then McKellen, as Norman, walks through the curtain and stands on the apron, thrust into the role of stage manager.
"The warning has been sounded and an air raid is in progress," he says, "But we shall continue the performance. Would anyone who wants to live — I mean leave — please do so."
The assembled extras in the front three rows, all decked out in 40s garb and Brylcreemed hair, fall about laughing on cue. McKellen does a couple more takes, but it's obvious the director already has all he needs. McKellen hit the right notes of skittishness combined with show-must-go-on pluck the first time,
"Brilliant," mutters Hopkins off stage, a smile cracking his layers of face paint. Later, he'll say of the scene, "I knew Ian was a remarkable actor, but I'd no idea how funny he is. I couldn't keep a straight face in rehearsal."
You might think that bringing together two grandees for the first time would spark some competition: They’re two of the iconic actors of our age, Bbu t they have never worked together. Hopkins says that the pairing has been a delight.
"Competition? You can't work like that," he says. "It's impossible if you're being competitive with another actor. That's a matter of ego, and that's where madness lies. If you respect the other actor and that respect is mutual, you just get on with it and enjoy each other's work. It's not gladiatorial. That's nonsense. It's about doing the text and listening to the other actor."
Though McKellen won't admit it, Hopkins says that his fellow Sir did have misgivings about what Hopkins, who has lived in Malibu, California, for many years, might be like to work with.
"Ian did say to me — we met when he came out to my house — that he wasn't quite sure how I was going to be because I'd lived all these years in California. He wasn't sure if I was going to be demanding," Hopkins says.
"But I thought, 'No, not at all.' When you have a terrific director like Richard [Eyre] or Ian as an actor, or Sarah Lancashire, Emily Watson, Edward Fox — you don't have to fight it. You go for it, do it and play the scenes. It's dead easy."
And from the very first frame, The Dresser feels as if it were meant to be. Even so, getting the two maestros in front of the same camera at the same time was not easy. Hopkins was filming HBO's Westworld, alongside two other movies; meanwhile, McKellen has an ongoing British sitcom, Vicious, with Derek Jacobi, and was making Bill Condon's live-action remake of Disney's Beauty and the Beast.
Colin Callender, an executive producer of The Dresser with Sonia Friedman, Polly Hill, Tim Smith and Paul Brett, explains:"What happened was that Sonia and I had been producing a lot of things together," says Callender, a former HBO executive who is now the principal of Playground Entertainment.
"She had the rights to do The Dresser as a stage play. We talked about who would we want to cast in it, and Anthony Hopkins seemed like a really wonderful idea. I spoke to his agent. I'd worked with Tony in my previous life at HBO [on 199Ts One Man's War], His agent said he loved the play and that we should come and talk."
Callender flew to L.A. for a breakfast meeting. What he didn't know was that Hopkins had no intention of doing the play as a play. Ronald Harwood, who wrote the play, had already asked him.
"It's a good play," Hopkins says. "I'd seen Tom Courtenay and Fred Jones play it in London well over 30 years ago. Then I saw the film, with Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney. Ronald Harwood asked me one day 15 years ago if I would like to do it on the stage. I said no. I didn't want to go back to the theater. But when Colin came, I said I would do it on television."
McKellen had also been asked to do The Dresser a number of times, but always for the role of Sir
"Having seen the original stage production with Freddie Jones and Tom Courtenay, and then the 1983 film version with Courtenay and Finney, I thought the world didn't really need another production of this play," McKellen says.
"But when the invitation came to play Norman, I thought it might be interesting, and when I heard it was Anthony Hopkins playing Sir, I immediately said yes. We got on right away. He's so charming, so clearly happy to be back, working with his contemporaries and reminiscing about old times."
Indeed, at times the reminiscences got in the way of the work. "We rehearsed around a table for about 10 days," Hopkins says, laughing, "and Ian and I spent most of the time talking about the old days at the Old Vic and the National and Laurence Olivier and all those people.
"The rest of the cast didn't want us to go on rehearsing — they just wanted us to keep telling stories. Because we knew all the great ones like Olivier and Gielgud. We knew them. They were extraordinary and eccentric, quirky strange legends in their own time. That's what held it all together — we just had a lot of fun. Ian would laugh at me, I'd laugh at him. And he was a gracious actor to work with. Making The Dresser was one of the best times of my life, actually."
In many ways, The Dresser is itself a reminiscence — for a way of life in the theater that no longer exists,
"There are very few plays which are accurate about what it's like to be an actor, but this is truthful — it's not romanticized," McKellen says. He used his own years of experience to offer the production team some tips.
"Of course, we've been there. We know it backwards, so no acting required, really. I remembered a theater in Bolton where the star dressing room had a lavatory behind a little curtain, and I suggested this to the designers. So you do occasionally glimpse a dirty loo. That was my little contribution."
If it all sounds a little high thespian — what the Brits call luvvie — that's no surprise. The Dresser is a play set in a theater (that you never leave), and it's about the life of actors.
But if that doesn't sound relatable, Callender begs to differ: "Obviously it's set backstage; it's about an actor. It's about a Shakespearean troupe of players during World War II, but it really is a story about a man at the end of his life. He's coming to terms with all his relationships, and what his legacy is. People around him are examining how they feel about him. In that sense, it's something that every one of us at some point in our lives will experience.
"I think what Richard Eyre was very keen to do was get behind the makeup and the costume and really be inside those characters and tell it as a very human story. It's very, very funny, but equally it's very poignant."
Besides, Callender says, the theatricality of the whole piece was precisely what drew him to it.
"When Hopkins said he wanted to do it this way, Sonia Friedman and I went to see Ronnie Harwood. We said that we loved the movie that Finney did, but we don't want to do a movie version. We want to do the text of the play as you wrote it. And so what's been filmed is the play. It's all set within the theater, and one of the things that Richard Eyre wanted to fully embrace was the sense of this self-contained, slightly claustrophobic world that these actors live in."
In Callender's eyes, The Dresser recalls a golden age of British television, one now lost.
"There is a long, rich tradition of British television honoring the texts of the great British plays and presenting audiences with virtuoso renditions of them on the screen — as the playwrights originally wrote them. The single drama is an endangered species in both film and television, and this production is a harking back to the great days of Play for Today on the BBC."
Part of what makes The Dresser feel vital, rather than a fusty period piece, is Hopkins himself. He has an enduring ambivalence toward the theater that mimics Sir’s own. Hopkins began his career as Sir Laurence Olivier’s understudy, and he achieved fame in the U.K. touring with the National Theatre. But he hasn’t performed onstage for many years, and he still has mixed feelings.
"I can remember it all very clearly: those desperate tours around London and England with the National Theatre. This is 1967. We did six months touring in the most God-awful places in the world. I remember those rainy days heading out on the train to Glasgow and Dublin... but I don't remember them with a great deal of affection. It's a very stale nostalgia.
"But it's a world that I was part of and it's something I did, and I was too young to know any better." It was, ironically, playing King Lear at the National that led Hopkins to leave the stage altogether and relocate to Hollywood.
"I remember on the first night [in 1986], as I walked on the stage there was a voice outside my head saying, 'Who do you think you are? You can't do this.' And then I began to realize that I didn't have the nerve to do it. I thought, 'Who is this voice? It's my father or somebody inside me.' I had that prevailing feeling for the rest of the run.
"I did Antony and Cleopatra the next year [with Judi Dench] and I thought, 'I'm not up to this, and I better get out as fast as I can.' And I did. At the end I skedaddled and came to America."
Doing The Dresser, he says, has given him cause to reassess. "Now I begin to get it. It's the pain; it's the grind of the theater that is attractive in a strange way. Now I look back and think that was quite an experience. You play Lear on stage and you discover that his colossal tragedy is his impatience. And it was my impatience that made me leave the theater in Britain.
"I've cultivated a little more patience as I've gotten older. But in those days I was intolerant."