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Ian McKellen on Gandalf, panto and coming out in Hollywood

BY William Leith

26th Jan 2024 Celebrities

6 min read

Ian McKellen on Gandalf, panto and coming out in Hollywood
From Shakespeare to film star, Sir Ian McKellan today is a household name—but it hasn't always been this way. We chat Gandalf, gay activism and Widow Twankey
Thanks to his wonderful portrayal of a 7,000-year-old wizard in Lord of the Rings and a mutant called Magneto in the X-Men series, Sir Ian McKellen is now one of the world's most sought after film actors—as well as the leading British stage actor of his generation.
But the working class boy who grew up in Wigan and Bolton, where he was head boy at school and saw a different play every week at the local rep, never seriously thought he'd be a professional actor.
The first time he was in a play was aged six with his parents—an amateur production. "Theatre was an absorbing hobby and that's how I thought it would go on for the rest of my life."
It wasn't until he went to Cambridge and was president of the theatrical Marlowe Society that he gained the confidence to believe he might make a living on the stage.
"Theatre was an absorbing hobby and that's how I thought it would go on for the rest of my life"
What made the difference, says McKellen, was reading a review in a national newspaper that called his performance as Justice Shallow in Henry IV Part 2 "brilliant".
In person, he can be intense and a little formidable. When I asked him to describe himself, he sat for a long time, perfectly still. Then simply said, "Actor. Gay man. English."
He came out as gay in 1988 during a discussion about the controversial, and recently scrapped, Section 28 of the Local Government Act. He was 49. Since then, he's campaigned for gay causes and co-founded Stonewall, the equal rights group.
Now 64, he was knighted in 1991 for his services to the performing arts and has won some 40 international awards and two Oscar nominations, the latest for the wizard Gandalf.
This month he's back on cinema screens as Gandalf in the third of the Lord of the Rings trilogy—The Return of The King.
RD: You're suddenly a big film star. What's a 7,000-year-old wizard done for your career?
McKellen: It means that the actor who plays Gandalf gets offered a wider range of parts than before. And that there are a lot of people who know I'm the actor who plays Gandalf. But I feel I'm riding on his coat-tails. I didn't create Gandalf. In a sense, Gandalf created me.
RD: How did you get into the part?
McKellen: I think I was a good choice, because if you're playing Gandalf you have to be able to let your hair down and do some big acting. I know it's not quite Shakespeare, but my interest in physicality was useful for Gandalf—he's got a lot of walking to do, and fighting, and flying.
Jane Seymour (Constanze Mozart) and Ian McKellen (Antonio Salieri) in Amadeus on Broadway, 1980–1981
RD: Talking of physicality, you're looking quite trim.
McKellen: I don't get too obsessed. If I have to take my clothes off in public for a job, then I'll decide what my body should look like. If I'm playing a thin part then I'd better get thin.
RD: You starred in, scripted and produced a film of Richard III, cast in an imaginary pre-war Fascist Britain. Do you think Shakespeare is still relevant?
McKellen: The deeper you go into Shakespeare, the more jewels you find. Shakespeare's a force of nature and the language is still accessible. I don't see any sign that the plays are worn out.
RD: When was the first time you acted?
McKellen: Probably at the same time other people did—in the playground. Acting's only using your imagination. Playing cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians. You change your voice and do things you wouldn't normally do. That's playing. You're in a play.
"In a sense, Gandalf created me"
RD: You went to Cambridge. Was that important?
McKellen: Without all those opportunities there, I don't know if I'd have found my way into the theatre. By the time I left I'd got very good reviews from some famous theatre critics. So if they took me seriously, I thought, maybe I could become an actor like Corin Redgrave and Derek Jacobi. As with so many things in my life, it's been luck.
RD: Luck?
McKellen: I've always thought the way I got into Cambridge was a fluke. In the interview I stood up on a chair and did a bit of Henry V. That got me an exhibition and some money towards my studies, but my A levels were very poor.
In those days you had to pass Latin to get into Cambridge, and I only did that because two of the passages I'd translated from a book I'd bought turned up in the exam. Unbelievable. Without that chance, I think it's very unlikely I would have become an actor.
Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart at Comic Con
RD: You've done two X-Men films based on the Marvel comic books. What got you into that?
McKellen: The director Bryan Singer sold the concept of X-Men as a parable of people who are alienated from society. Marvel Comics says it appeals to young gays, young blacks and young Jews.
And the argument between Xavier and Magneto as to what you do if you're a mutant—do you reconcile yourself to society or do you take on society?—well, that's an interesting argument.
I think X-Men can be separated from all the other comic fantasies like Superman. They all have the same story, the wimp who turns into a superhero. X-Men is different.
RD: You once said you started out using acting as a form of disguise, but that later it became a form of revelation.
McKellen: If you were gay in 1961, when I started acting, and you were sexually active, you were breaking the law. So it was something you didn't advertise. You were a criminal.
And I think, like a lot of other gay actors, I did it because I could find an activity in which I could draw attention to myself under controlled conditions. I could present my emotions in a public forum without being chastised for it—on the contrary, I was praised for it.
"What you do if you're a mutant—do you reconcile yourself to society or do you take on society?"
RD: And how have things changed?
McKellen: I finally came out something like 30 years later. I began to feel that my acting was about being open, honest. Not about disguising, but using my own emotions. It became easier to be genuinely emotional within the part.
In the past, psychologically, I needed acting in a way that I don't need it now I go on doing it because I do it rather well, and there's a pride in that.
RD: What's the essence of anti-gay prejudice?
McKellen: Something pretty deep, because it's passionately held and felt. You can look to homophobia within yourself if you're a gay man, and discover it. It's probably so ingrained in me that I still share it.
RD: What do you mean by that?
McKellen: You're aware that you're not wanted and not accepted. It's uncomfortable. You have to be terribly well-adjusted to laugh at the situation and say, "They're wrong."
I don't stand up in every situation and go out of my way to stand up for my rights, and that's slightly homophobic.
Sir Ian McKellen wearing rainbow feather boa at Gay Pride
RD: You've played a lot of straight men.
McKellen: And people don't seem to have a problem with that. Nobody says I'm unconvincing or acting badly. But there is this feeling that young actors must be straight.
Tom Cruise once made the case that if it was thought by his fans that he was gay, his career as a convincing straight man would be endangered. He was absolutely wrong.
Because he's no longer married, I'm not going to find it impossible to imagine that he is married in his next film. It just doesn't make sense to me.
RD: Why are there so few gay people out in Hollywood?
McKellen: The Hollywood film industry has never prided itself on being in the vanguard of social change. I mean, the Academy only discovered there were black actors two seasons ago [in 2002, when it awarded Oscars to Denzel Washington and Halle Berry].
RD: What do you like to do when you're not working?
McKellen: I take a lively interest in the news as it's reported and the news as it's not reported. And I spend a lot of time on my website. Otherwise I do what everybody else does when they're not working—I see friends.
"The Hollywood film industry has never prided itself on being in the vanguard of social change"
RD: You once said you had hopes of becoming a chef or a journalist.
McKellen: I like hosting dinner parties and I'm quite intrigued as to the whole business of meals. I didn't get beyond looking up various catering schools.
But I got paid for journalism long before I got paid for acting. I used to write snippets for the Bolton Evening News, my chit-chat column. I went to see the editor about joining his staff, but he warned me that it was a very risky business.
That rather put me off. But I still enjoy writing.
RD: What projects do you have in the pipeline?
McKellen: I've recently made a film called Emile, directed by Carl Bessai. It's about old people whose lives are in crisis. I play a man who's just retiring. As the character is only 60 and I'm 64, the feeling that he's going to meet his maker round every corner is something I had to disabuse Carl about!
RD: Recently you said you wanted to play Widow Twankey.
McKellen: It's one of my few ambitions left. The assumption is one day I'm going to play a dame. Well, it ain't gonna happen unless I say it often enough.
This article is part of our archival collection and was originally published in December 2003. While we strive to present historical content accurately, please note that circumstances and information may have changed since the article's original publication. Some individuals mentioned in the article may no longer be alive, and events or details may have evolved. We encourage readers to consider the context of the original publication and to verify any current information independently.
Banner credit: Southbanksteve, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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