Sir Ian McKellen Interview

Jessica Lone Summers

National treasure, and the foremost actor of his generation, Sir Ian McKellen reflects on pride, humour and the power of ageing

Being in a room with Sir Ian McKellen is as captivating as one would imagine. He takes a seat, elegantly crosses his legs and waits, his piercing blue eyes conjuring an amused expression that lights up his whole face. It’s a look his many fans will be familiar with through watching his extensive film work, (Lord Of The Rings, X-Men, Gods and Monsters) and select few will have seen up close on the stage. In his most recent film, The Good Liar, his character is both an amalgamation of previous parts he’s played and simultaneously unlike any role he’s taken before. The protagonist, Roy Courtenay, an aged con artist willing to exploit anyone housing a hefty pile of cash, exudes a cheery exterior while harbouring an odious temperament that bolts from his body unto those unfortunate enough to get in his way. The untrained fan might assume that such a hideous personality would be a challenge for such an illustrious and well-mannered actor to play, but quite the opposite is true. The reason McKellen can switch into a snarling menace on screen is that he finds it all rather fun.

“I suppose the trick of acting is to meld the character that you’re playing with the character that you’re playing in real life, ‘All the world being a stage’ as Shakespeare said. So it’s a question of using your imagination, which children have in abundance, but most adults seem to lose, although many actors are kids at heart. As for playing someone who does dreadful things, well in one’s imagination…” he chuckles in spite of himself. “You don’t—of course—have to actually kill someone yourself to be convincing as a murderer, it’s all imagination and a mixture of oneself and the character.”

"The work I've done for gay rights in this country is no more than anybody who cared did"

This indelible focus on imagination is undoubtedly the very thing that makes McKellen’s work so delicious. The thrill he clearly gains from immersing himself in curious worlds, journeys into our brains like a fish caught in a current and swims there long after the story is done. Indeed, the experience as one of his audience members is such that you don’t feel as if you’re watching a performance at all. It’s rather more similar to reading a book—with each participant taking a different focus and letting their own imaginations escape them.

Gandalf Ian McKellen

Despite having such a profound effect on the cinephiles and theatregoers of the world, McKellen is unblinkingly humble. A—nowadays rare—quality that seeps into much of our conversation while discussing his amazing life achievements thus far. A founding member of Stonewall, a UK gay rights charity, which fought to repeal Section 28 (a homophobic clause that prohibited the teaching or promotion of homosexuality) in the Eighties, McKellen sees himself as merely a vessel of hope rather than a front-runner of change.

“I don’t feel a need to be a leader in any sense, in any situation. I’m more of a follower really. The work I’ve done for gay rights in this country is no more than what anybody who cared did, or is doing now. I joined the team, joined the club, joined the crowd and because I work in the public eye it seems perhaps that I do more than I actually have done, but I’ve met some wonderful people whose contribution to changing the world was much bigger than mine. People who understand the law and how politics works and how to manoeuvre things, people like Angela Mason and Peter Tatchell. They’ve been inspiring.”

"The idea that you suddenly fall short of being artistic when you're elderly is so silly"

However modestly McKellen would see himself, since boldly coming out during a BBC Radio 3 broadcast in 1988 the majority of us see it differently. Including his long-time chum Simon Callow, who touched on his own coming out experience during an interview in our December issue: “As I always say to Ian, I was the John the Baptist to his Jesus. I paved the way and when he came out, he was a natural leader.”

Amid all the drama and violence of The Good Liar, one particularly edifying aspect is the strength and boldness portrayed by a predominantly senior cast. Often overlooked in Hollywood, dismissed as secondary characters or cast in stereotypically frail roles, it’s quite something to watch mature performers manipulating each other, fighting each other and out-witting each other in a way that’s seldom depicted. No broken bones or vulnerability in sight.

“Older actors have always had power,” McKellen says with gusto, “there’s a wisdom you can bring to a role that you don’t automatically have during your younger years. But also, just because you’re older doesn’t make you a shell of what you once were, it doesn’t hinder you and senior actors are adept just as senior people are in all walks of life. The idea that you suddenly fall short of being artistic or become less human when you’re elderly is so silly. You just can’t run as fast!”

And, for anyone who still doubts that sentiment, just wait for the truly shocking-yet-brilliant scene in which Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren go hell-for-leather in a good old-fashioned bust-up, which, no doubt, their youthful sensibilities helped with.

“[Our chemistry] is not something we’ve worked at,” says McKellen, “this is the first film we’ve done together but we’re friends and she’s such a professional. You don’t have to get on with the actors you’re working with but my goodness does it help. She’s got a great sense of humour and works very hard and that fits in with my discipline too.”

"I still harbour the dream that I might one day be in an on-stage musical. It would be lovely, wouldn't it, to step out and sing a song?""

For an actor who has had varying career-defining roles it’s almost a wonder that McKellen isn’t repeatedly held to account for specific parts he’s taken in the past. So often performers who play magnificent characters are forever defined by—and bound to—that role. So much so that any future endeavours are tainted with their past, making suspending your disbelief quite a challenge. McKellen though, has a magical sincerity while on-stage or on-screen, a way of never letting you forget the current character and always making the audience lose themselves in the story. “I’ve been offered similar jobs before, but it doesn’t always benefit me or an audience if I take them—that way you could turn into a caricature.” McKellen imparts, “I’ve played some marvellous roles, like Magneto and Gandalf. I’ve loved and related to the characters I’ve played, otherwise I wouldn’t have played them, but trying new adventures is such fun.”

In a related stream of thought McKellen offers the opinion that comedy roles are not to be sniffed at and form an incredibly significant part of the acting domain. Ever one for the arts, snobbery, evidentially, isn’t a trait he bothers with in the world of theatre.

“Oh how boring life would be without any laughter!” McKellen exclaims with a grin. He played Widow Twankey in the Old Vic’s Panto and acted in Coronation Street as the playwright, Mel Hutchwright. “They were special parts of my career that I was thrilled to be involved in.”

mel hutchwright

But, after such a long list of accolades, where does a mogul such as McKellen go next?

“I still harbour the dream that I might one day be in an on-stage musical. It would be lovely wouldn’t it? To step out and sing a song, but I can’t sing so that’s just a dream…” Here McKellen bursts into song, bellowing the line, “I had a dream”, with unspoiled pitch and a giggle.

As much as fans may want to pinpoint the peculiar, lovable quality that makes McKellen so mesmeric, he’s faintly untouchable to those who don’t know him. But, watch him in his element and you’ll understand. This grandiose man, so eloquently spoken and impeccably dressed is a servant to his craft, and that’s where you’ll find the glimmer of his soul. So dedicated is he to his art that he morphs seamlessly between one character and the next, never over-exerted, always under control. And, as he whips his scarf over his shoulder, hops on the back of a motorbike, and whizzes off past Embankment, it’s clear he’s wonderfully unstoppable.

The Good Liar is in cinemas across the UK from 8 November


Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter