Legendary actor Ian McKellen has been acting since 1959—that makes his career a whopping six decades long. In the clip above, the English thespian speaks with the talk-show host Dick Cavett in an episode of The Dick Cavett Show that aired in 1981 before McKellen’s film career really took off. Known for his conversational interviewing style, Cavett allows McKellen to elaborate on some of the differences between acting on stage and before a camera. In particular, he discusses actors’ use of their hands while in character. While it might not occur to some actors to pay such close attention to their hand gestures, for others it can be a real challenge to figure out how to best use their hands during their performances.

McKellen is a classically trained actor whose deep roots are in Shakespearean and modern theater—and he performs on stage till this day. But he gained worldwide fame with an extensive line of pivotal film roles. In 1995, he portrayed the ruthless Duke of Gloucester in Richard III for which he received critical acclaim; he played James Whale in the period drama Gods and Monsters in 1998; entering the Marvel universe, he portrayed the powerful human mutant Magneto in the X-Men films starting in 2000; and of course, McKellen is synonymous with the white-bearded Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. With six Laurence Olivier Awards, a Tony, a Golden Globe, two Oscar nominations and five Emmy nods, it’s been said the 81-year-old thespian’s performances “have guaranteed him a place in the canon of English stage and film actors.”

McKellen discusses making the transition from the stage—where performers gesture large enough for the audience members sitting in the back row to see—to acting before the camera. As the camera picks up the most minute shifts in posture and subtle expressions, actors need to pull back the physicality of their performances, including the use of their hands. Similarly, screen actors with deeply expressive eyes and subtle hand movements are at risk of appearing like a mannequin when transitioning to the stage and must learn how to move their whole body more dramatically.

In either circumstance, different acting coaches might give conflicting advice about how actors should best handle their hands while in character. Some actors are surprised to hear that their hand gestures, which feel free and natural to them, are actually distracting from their performance. For example, they might believe the big hand motions translate to more passion, but a passionate person does not necessarily use their hands more. When told to minimize those motions, actors can feel stifled in their ability to communicate and even feel self-conscious. And suppressing hand movements can translate into an inauthentic performance just as much as overuse can appear distracting. So where is the balance?

When it comes to his own hand expressions, McKellen emphasizes the importance of starting out from a place of relaxation. He says: 

“I try and tie [my hands] up to my thoughts and my imagination and my face. But then after having achieved a certain relaxation, I might decide to signal something to the audience, which they should receive. Like they should understand, although I am very calm, the character is a little nervous. So I will throw out body language.”

He says he’s heard that actors shouldn’t put their hands in their pockets, but he disagrees. “I think it’s the very best place for them,” he asserts.

Most importantly, using appropriate mannerisms takes into account a character’s unique general physical tendencies and modifies them with their current emotional state in any given scene. And when actors become aware of their personal inclinations, they can gradually learn to self-regulate their hand motions, which can make all the difference in creating a compelling performance.

 

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