Ian McKellen stars as Roy Courtnay in The Good Liar, directed by Bill Condon.
Are suspense thrillers among your favorite kinds of film?
If I can make my television work, I might flick through the documentaries, and I’d probably flick through the news. And then talking about fiction, I would probably go for mystery thriller before any other category. The most satisfying thrillers, of course, are those that you can actually believe in, where the characters make sense, and the author hasn’t cheated. I don’t think there are any cheats in this movie. Although the plot twirls around in various directions, of course. That’s part of the excitement of it all.
Do you do you think it’s fair to say that everyone has secrets, no matter who they are?
I don’t know. If they’re successful at keeping secrets, how would I know? There are things that one does, one simply doesn’t talk about. I think that may be true of everybody. But having a secret is only part of what it is to be a human being, in that we select which part of ourselves we decide to have on display. In a one-to-one situation that’s relatively easy, but if you’re talking to a disparate group of people, who is Ian McKellen on that occasion? And am I holding on to a secret if I just present one side of myself?
It’s difficult being yourself, I think. The side of acting – of the job – I don’t really like is having to be on display as myself. But one’s forced to be. Here I am, talking about myself, but most of the time I spend my life talking about other people!
But human beings are very good at lying. When you’re quite young, you will have a different vocabulary when talking to your grandparents than you will when talking to your mates in the playground. You don’t even think about it. You might have a different accent altogether. When those worlds collide, of course, it gets complicated and unsettling. When your friends meet your parents for the first time, what are you playing? Are you playing the mate, or are you playing the son? All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. All the world’s a screen!
Roy is a pretty despicable person, but is there anything you liked about him?
Well, I think if you don’t like the character you’re playing, they probably won’t be very easy to play. But Roy isn’t anyone I would like to meet. Nor is he really anyone I would like to be. But he does have, I suppose, admirable qualities, in that he’s a survivor. I suppose you could say there is a moment or two in this film when you think redemption is possible, and that he might somehow by chance have met the one woman who can put him at ease with himself. But those moments go by rather quickly. He’s too old to change, I suppose. So, no… I don’t recommend him as a role model.
Chemistry is vital for a movie like this. How would you describe your rapport with your co-star Helen Mirren?
Well, much of it is meeting as professionals. Helen is an expert, and being close-up against someone who really knows what they’re doing is always a thrill. You have to be careful not to just sit back and admire, and get on with trying to present your character with the same clarity she’s presenting hers. So you feel safe. Helen’s got a wonderful range. It keeps you on your toes.
But in all the hours in between the moments when you film, she’s very congenial company. This is partly because, although we’re not close friends or working together a lot, our roots are in the same sort of earth, you know? I think we like to suddenly surprise people and do something a little bit different. It’s like working with your sister, really, or your cousin. I feel close to Helen. And she’s a goer. I think the Mirren brand, of the glamorous, plain-speaking friend, is very attractive.
It must be hard to play the role of a man who is himself playing a role. How did you capture the truth of who Roy really is?
You’re reliant on Bill Condon to say, “Ian, I could see what you were doing. I don’t want to see. Don’t underline, don’t make it obvious. You’re not being convincing. She would leave you if you did that.” That sort of advice. Very helpful. On the whole, you just have to think, “What is the lie I’m telling right now?” and believe it. The most successful liars, of course, are those with wonderful imaginations. And don’t forget, the script was based on a book written by a man who may have been acquainted with a spy or two – and if they’re not good liars, they’re out. They’re probably dead! The stakes are very high.