'The Good Liar': Bill Condon on pairing Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren for history-making conman drama

Ben Falk

“The Talented Mr Ripley with OAPs” - That’s quite some pitch for a movie, but it’s basically the premise at the heart of The Good Liar, Warner Bros.’ upcoming adaptation of the best-selling thriller by Nicholas Searle.

As you can see in the newly-launched first trailer (watch it below), it stars Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren, the former an octogenarian conman called Roy who meets wealthy widow Betty (Mirren) on a dating website and sets about stealing her nest egg.

And as director Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast) explains, it includes a cinema first. “They’d never worked together in the movies before,” he says of the two legends.

“I’d seen them on stage together about 15 years or longer ago [it was actually 2002 in Strindberg’s Dance of Death]. And [this movie] felt like an opportunity to bring an ideal pairing to the screen.”

Ian McKellen as Roy Courtnay and Helen Mirren as Betty McLeish in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and New Line Cinema’s drama The Good Liar a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

“[The film] definitely plays off the lifetime iconography we have for these two great actors.”

Of course Condon, who worked with McKellen on his breakthrough as director Gods and Monsters (1998) and again in 2015’s Mr. Holmes, knows the actor’s process well, but notes Mirren’s is completely different.

“Ian is all rehearsal and talk and talk and talk,” he explains. “Helen likes a little bit of that and then for her it’s about the magic of what happens in the moment. She really likes to keep it spontaneous.”

Bill Condon gives direction to Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen while on location for The Good Liar. (Warner Bros.)

Luckily, that’s an easier thing to navigate on a film shoot rather than when you have to live together on stage for several months.

“Having had that one experience, they came into this with great affection and respect and they left it with something close to love,” reveals Condon. “It really was wonderful to watch.”

As for the film itself, it’s difficult to talk plot too much because it would spoil the surprise, but suffice to say there are plenty of twists as we get a glimpse into Roy’s secretive past, he tries to convince Betty’s protective grandson (Russell Tovey) that he has good intentions and we have to decide whether Betty really is the unwitting mark that Roy thinks she is.

Helen Mirren as Betty McLeish in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and New Line Cinema’s drama The Good Liar a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

The result is a Hitchcockian mystery that - alongside shooting in London’s Soho and Belsize Park - mainly takes place in, er, Leatherhead.

“It’s interesting to watch it [in America] because people get confused and think we shot it in Los Angeles,” laughs the director.

In fact, it’s that innate Britishness which helped convince the Oscar-nominated writer/director to make the film in the first place.

Read more: Beauty and the Beast controversy

“That was the essential appeal of it for me,” admits Condon. “My producer read the book and gave it to me and I immediately agreed that I thought it would be a good movie. It’s one of those books when you read it and you come upon a scene and you can’t help but imagine what it would be like in a movie. There’s this one scene that convinced me to do it and the first time we previewed it, we had this visceral reaction from the audience and it made me so thrilled they had the same feeling that I had when I was first reading the book.”

Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen in The Good Liar (Warner Bros.)

Being a cat-and-mouse mystery though, the film required a lot of work. How much do you let the audience know and when, what kind of Easter eggs do you put in and more importantly, how do you make sure there are no obvious plotholes?

“First of all, it’s endless reworking of the script,” says Condon. “There were a few scenes where we tipped our hand earlier [than in the finished movie]. All of that we shot, I put it in and it all came out. It felt like less was definitely going to be more.”

Still, he won’t be surprised if today’s eagle-eyed audiences spot a mistake. “I feel as though it’s pretty airtight, but there’s always some clever person out there who’s going to catch you in something,” he says, adding that he thinks those people should work for the studios fixing continuity blunders. “I’m stealing myself for the IMDb comments…”

Ian McKellen as Roy Courtnay in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and New Line Cinema’s drama The Good Liar, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Ultimately though, the director hopes this is something that will cleanse the palate for those feeling inundated by franchises.

Read more: X-Men cast: Then and now

“To me, it’s a kind of grown-up entertainment where you get the whole meal,” he says. “So many movies these days give you a great heaping of one portion, you know? [The Good Liar is] quite satisfying and emotional and at the same time it does have a lot of suspense and action and it’s a mystery. The way a very good Hitchcock movie would be.”

The Good Liar is in cinemas from 8 November, 2019.