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Ian McKellen: “The journey goes on”

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Ian McKellen
Short Profile

Name: Sir Ian Murray McKellen, CH, CBE
DOB: 25 May 1939
Place of birth: Burnley, Lancashire, UK
Occupation: Actor

Mr. McKellen, you’ve played practically every one of Shakepeare’s main characters on stage and embodied countless film roles, including the iconic characters Gandalf and Magneto. What is left for you to accomplish?

I’m hoping there will be another wonderful part in a film. Every time there’s an offer or a script comes, I get very excited, hoping it’s going to be something that would stimulate me. It’s not always the case, but you hope it’s going to be. Another nice meaty part would be very good in a film. I would also like to revisit King Lear. I’ve done it on stage a lot, and we did film it and I think a lot of it’s quite good, but I would enjoy that — that’s an old man part!

I guess you were never really in the running for the part of Frodo.

It is a shock when I look into the mirror or see a photograph and say, “Who’s that old man — oh my, God! That’s me!” Age does creep up on you. But I’ve noticed because I look in the mirror more than most people for my job that there are stages in your life when the face changes. You will notice this in other people but to notice this in yourself is shocking. “God, my eyes are never going to go back to what they were” or “That crease will never go. In fact, it’s getting deeper!” Well, there you are. You sort of come to terms with it. I don’t look forward to being decrepit though.

“Every time a script comes, I get very excited, hoping it’s going to be something that would stimulate me.”

It will come for all of us sooner or later.

It’ll happen. I don’t have fears about getting older though — I am old! If I’m with people of my own age, we talk about death all the time. We talk about decrepitude, we talk about our eyes, our ears, our stomachs, our knees, our illnesses, our friends who have died or are dying. It’s a constant. I went out to dinner last night and I was with two people of my age and I said, “Look, can we get death over with before we start the evening?” (Laughs)

Have you started thinking about taking things slower?

No, I don’t think that, but it happens. If the bus is going away, I won’t run now. What’s the point? I’ll wait for the next one. I don’t want to fall over and damage my knees! You do find yourself accommodating old age, but stopping working? No. I might do less work than I used to, I might be happy to play a smaller part than the responsibility of playing a large one, maybe I won’t take that job because it means living away from home for too long, but I don’t see the point in saying, “No more acting.” I enjoy it too much.

Sir Ian McKellan as King Lear, sharing the stage with Romola Garai as Cordelia and Frances Barber as Goneril.

I’d say you know what you’re doing by this point, too.

I do now feel I can confidently say I am an actor who can be relied on. You’re not taking many chances with me when you cast me, as long as you cast me well. But I don’t feel myself to be a supremely accomplished actor. Yes, I am accomplished, I’ve had a lot of experience, but there’s always something new to learn or an area that I might not have seen that needs to be explored. It’s co-operative. We’re all helping each other. We’re doing it together. It’s not a one-man show in any sense at all.

Do you still need help?

I relish help! For years I used to say to directors, “Please — will you please teach me how to act? Show me how to do it!” They never did! (Laughs) On the whole, they just let you get on with it. There might be a specific moment where they’ll say, “No, this is absolutely crucial, we’ve got to get this. What I need here is that.” But probably that will happen in discussing the film beforehand, making it clear as to what’s required. You arrive at the last minute and your job is to deliver their script. Their advice, their thoughts will be very useful to me and, when we’re actually doing it, I do like a bit of encouragement. But as long as I’m on the right lines, they leave me alone pretty well.

“We’re all helping each other. We’re doing it together. It’s not a one-man show in any sense at all.”

Why would an actor of such acclaim tell a director, “Please show me how to act?”

Well because I’ve been trying to get better as an actor. I’m talking about 20 years ago now when I said that. I used to ask for advice. But the thing I’ve gathered more of over the years is a self-confidence that’s to do with having done work that people have liked. But it’s also part of having come out as a gay man and the self-confidence that gives you is huge! It affects every aspect of your life, including, I guess, my work.

Has coming out helped you to become a better actor? Were you afraid your career might suffer because of that?

I didn’t really think about it because I was living a fairly easy life as an openly gay man in London. But I used to think, “Even though I’m gay, they won’t believe that as Romeo, I’m in love with Juliet rather than Mercutio.” You know? But politicians used to say, “I can’t come out because my constituents won’t like it.” Footballers say, “I can’t come out because they’ll shout rude things at me.” “I can’t come out as a teacher because my students won’t take me seriously.” People are always worried about somebody else. And in fact, what people like is honesty. They respect honesty. And my film career took off once I came out.

In terms of gay rights, society has also taken off since you came out in the late ’80s. Did you expect that back then?

When I came out, our aim was to get rid of that law, Section 28. What I hadn’t anticipated was that when we did get rid of that law, a lot of the other pre-existing anti-gay legislation also fell because we got the public actually to start thinking about this and engaging in it and understanding it. And now, in the UK, we don’t have any laws that discriminate against gay people. Everything is fine, legally.

Unfortunately reality is a bit different.

Now we have to get at people’s innate — not innate prejudice, there’s no such thing — but people’s learnt prejudices, from whatever source they come. And so that’s a bigger problem actually. The end will be when these labels don’t mean anything and they’re not used, when people are just people — good people or not good people, busy people or lazy people. Those are the sort of qualities by which you judge somebody rather than by sticking a label on the color of their hair or the nature of their sexuality or the color of their skin. I actually go around schools encouraging kids to be nice to each other and not discriminate against each other. So, the journey goes on.